January 17, 2010

Why Catholics Shouldn't Be Allowed to Write Hymns

Gentle Reader: Today, I have a special treat! No, I'm not announcing that I'm never blogging again! Sorry, my haters! Today, is a "Recovering Dissident Catholic" first! A guest blogger! My friend, and commenter, Bede! Read on!

"Why Catholics Shouldn't Be Allowed to Write Hymns"
By Bede

Before I begin this short essay, please let me make it perfectly clear that I am almost inexpressibly thankful to have been received into the Catholic Church. There is not a mass that goes by where I don't thrill to the congregational response "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

But honestly, sometimes I think that Catholics shouldn't be allowed to write hymns.

Cathy was kind enough to come to lunch at my house today and later we attended vigil mass at my parish, St. Ambrose of Woodbury. Picking up the worship bulletin, I was compelled to apologize to her. The opening hymn was "Sing a New Church". There are two reasons why Catholics shouldn't be allowed to write hymns and this song demonstrates the first: the lyrics are appalling. Let's take a look at the first verse:

Summoned by the God who made us
Rich in our diversity
Gathered in the name of Jesus
Richer still in unity

What is the purpose of a hymn? To praise God. The first verse of this song isn't even really about God, it's about us. Not a good beginning. Let's examine the refrain:

Let us bring the gifts that differ
And in splendid varied ways
Sing a new church into being
One in faith and love and praise

This starts out fairly innocuously. 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that we are given various gifts by the Holy Spirit. But how is this hymn using them? To 'bring a new church into being'. This implies that there's something wrong with the old church, the one founded by Our Lord. Perhaps the second verse is better:

Radiant risen from the water
Robed in holiness and light
Male and female in God's image
Male and female, God's delight

Again, this verse is about us, not God, and it puts we poor sinners in rather glowing terms. Quite a contrast to:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see

I'm not going to subject you to any more of this hymn. I will tell you that, showing great Christian charity, Cathy deigned to sing it. And it's not a bad tune from a singing standpoint. But the Communion hymns illustrated the second reason why Catholics shouldn't be allowed to write hymns: the music isn't right for most people to sing . "Abide, O Spirit of Life" has some nasty octave jumps and "Take and Eat" changes time signatures and is full of unexpected flats. If you can't read music and you didn't know the song well, you were out of luck during communion today. I have a fair voice and can sight-read a bit, but there are plenty of Catholic hymns that even I struggle to sing.

Were there any good hymns at today's service. Yes, sort of. The offering hymn was "Give Me Jesus", an old spiritual. It's an odd choice for a church (mostly) full of white suburbanites, but it's a good song. It just wasn't written by a Catholic.

Now is the time to acknowledge that there are many fine hymns by Catholic composers and that the Church has a long history of excellent music. I just wish we'd hear more of it at mass. Of course, now that I've complained I'm going to have to do something. Since I'm not a composer, that leaves me talking to our music director at St. Ambrose. The worst she can do is sign me up for the choir.

With many thanks for your kind attention,


Blogger swissmiss said...

Start a schola, Bede!!!
Great article.

January 17, 2010 8:01 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Swissy: Yes! I recommended to Bede that she could assist with MANY Catholic music reclamation efforts!

January 17, 2010 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Austringer said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your points -- the question is, what do we do about it? It appears that much (all?) of the selection of music is made by music directors and liturgists. The selection of hymnals, I suppose, is also under their direction.
Our parish uses the Collegeville Hymnal. It's not bad, and though it has "updated" some hymns(for example, the dreary hymn that begins with "Whatsoever you do, to the least of my brothers" has been changed to "the least of my people"), it has the old standards as well. It might be a good step in the right direction away from the truly awful bilge that is served up from other hymnals. I have heard good things about the St. Michael's Hymnal....
Maybe one course of action is to offer to cough up the money for new hymnals as the current ones get old, the donation being contingent upon having a say in what hymnals are purchased.....another might be to kidnap the liturgists and hold them for ransom (using the money for better hymnals)...hmmm...but this might be a "Ruthless People" scenario -- no one would cough up the money and we'd be stuck with these awful people.
Seriously, though, I can't think of what we in the pews can do, other than talk to the liturgists and music directors, and their priests (who ought to care about these matters).

January 17, 2010 12:10 PM  
Blogger nazareth priest said...

St. Ambrose would not approve of what is going on at "St Ambrose Parish":<)! He, of course, being a saint, wrote some beautiful hymns (still used today), and is the inspiration for the "Ambrosian Rite" celebrated in Milan, which I had the wonderful privilege to concelebrate on the feast of St. Charles Borromeo at the Milan Cathedral.
Could I "tweek" the line that Catholics should not write hymns?
Dissident Catholic religious should not write hymns...sound okay?

January 17, 2010 1:17 PM  
Blogger Bobby said...

St. Peter's (of which a few of my singing buddies attend, and where I've been a few times for various events) uses the GIA hymnals.

Ruh-roh! G-I-A. Wasn't GIA and Oregon Catholic Press the big offenders? And wasn't a major Protestant denomination's new hymnal loaded with Oregon Catholic Press along with the more secularised materials?

January 17, 2010 1:52 PM  
Blogger nazareth priest said...

Bobby: It depends upon which hymnal by GIA to which you refer...
Their standard WORSHIP (whatever number there is now) wasn't bad..."Gather" is the culprit here, if there are not more of them. Been outta the loop for a long time.
We use the "Liber usualis" here...yeah, boring, dusty old Gregorian chant (but it won't die...he,he, he!)

January 17, 2010 1:57 PM  
Blogger Inky said...

I think if people do not understand God's grace how could they write a hymn that makes sense?

January 17, 2010 4:39 PM  
Blogger Lacey said...

LOL! Great post. But you are forgetting the Broadway-esque "Gather Us In" and equally strange "Break Not The Circle of Enabling Love".....cheesiest and hokiest lyrics ever. Strange melody too. Even musicians who are good at sight-reading music have trouble with one! hehehe

January 17, 2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger Lacey said...

I meant to say "have trouble with that one"...oops. hehe

January 17, 2010 4:55 PM  
Blogger nazareth priest said...

Lacey: But if you make the music impossible, it will mean that the words are SOOOOO meaningful...right?:<)!

January 17, 2010 4:59 PM  
Anonymous Austringer said...

Lacey, are you serious?? Is there really a song called "Break Not The Circle of Enabling Love"??!!

Say it ain't so.....

January 17, 2010 5:58 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Austringer: She's not kidding.

Father: You are correct. There IS good Catholic music around and Bede, I think, would not disagree. It's just so rare to actually hear it! Improvements have occured in recent years, but we still have a ways to go.

January 17, 2010 7:10 PM  
Blogger swissmiss said...

When I was at a nearby parish they sang, This Little Light of Mine. Even outside of MASS, what grown person wants to sing this?!! It was like singing, "On Top of Spaghetti" with my kids. There is plenty of good Catholic music so it is a head-stratcher why it isn't used.

January 17, 2010 8:02 PM  
Blogger Melody K said...

My issue with "Sing a New Church into Being" is that someone took the fine old hymn tune, Nettleton, and grafted the hokey words quoted here to it. Nettleton is familiar to some as "Come Thou Font of Every Blessing". Google it, I think you will like those words better, even though it is from the Protestant tradition. I like to collect old hymnals, both Catholic and Protestant; one finds some interesting things.

January 17, 2010 8:11 PM  
Blogger belinda said...

Some of the music that we're subjected too seems kinda girlie. You know ..touchy feely. Kinda like a chick flick only in songs.

Our church has become so feminized. Big hearted women like to take over everything. Thank God for our Knights of Columbus. I wonder if there are women knights? I love those guys. They're so dependable. We can always count on them.

January 17, 2010 9:00 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Can we please extend "hymns" to "music," or at least "music for Mass?" The Mass parts they decided to use today were a wonderful illustration of problem #2.

I'm pretty good with picking up music, but even by the end of Mass, I still could not sing reliable sing along with any of the Mass parts. I just could not pick up the rhythm for the life of me. And judging from the number of people singing (no one?), I wasn't the only one with this problem.

They are Mass parts, for goodness sakes, they are just slightly important. Why can't we just use something with a normal rhythm and reasonable notes, and stop messing around with trying to be "unique?"

January 17, 2010 9:32 PM  
Blogger Lacey said...

Nazareth Priest: Check out these gems:

"break not that circle, make it wider still,
till it includes, embraces all the living"


"Come, wonder at the love that comes to life,
where words of humour are with freedom spoken;
and people keep no score of wrong and guilt,
but will that human bonds remain unbroken"


"to teach the world the craft of hopeful craving......he calls his people to creative living"

and finally, my favorite:

"Join then the movement of the love that frees,
till people of whatever race or nation
will truly be themselves, stand on their feet,
see eye to eye with laughter and elation"

YIKES - the last verse sounds like something Obama should have had at his inauguration last year instead of "Simple Gifts"! LOL so bad!!

Yes, unfortunately this song is in the Catholic Book of Worship #3 hymnal, which many parishes use in Canada. *cringe*

January 17, 2010 10:25 PM  
Anonymous Austringer said...

Lacey, I'm sure you're a fine, upstanding Catholic gal and all, but you quote any more lyrics from that "song" and there's gonna be a rumble. Either that or I'll just stick a fork in my head, removing me from a world in which "words of humour are with freedom spoken" and the "craft of hopeful craving" is pursued by I-don't-wanna-know kind of craftsmen.
Just a warning, Lacey....

January 17, 2010 11:36 PM  
Blogger Lacey said...

Austringer - hahahaha just be glad that I didn't post ALL the lyrics! LOL

January 18, 2010 7:55 AM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Austringer: Calm youself. Go recite a couple decades of the Rosary to take the lyrics out of your head! LOL

January 18, 2010 10:36 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Thank you one and all for your fantastic comments! And thanks again to Cathy for letting me guest blog.

Father, you are absolutely right: dissident Catholics should not be allowed to write hymns.

Lacey, I thought about mentioning "Gather Us In" but I secretly love the melody on that song. Still, I think it's tough for a lot of people to sing, especially at the speed one of our pianists play it!

Belinda, having recently come from a big-box evangelical church, I know exactly what you mean by 'girlie hymns'. Sadly, it's much, much worse over in the evangelical camp. Evangelical music suffers from it's own set of problems. It's usually very sing-able, and the lyrics are usual straight out of scripture, but besides the 'girlie' issue, it's often very 'me and Jesus'. I don't think that occasional 'me and Jesus' is bad, but it can be taken to extreme.

Best regards,

January 18, 2010 10:38 AM  
Blogger belinda said...

Chris, maybe I'm the one who's screwed up.

Those protestant "Jesus 'n me" songs are very touchy feely. Maybe Jesus just doesn't like me because I keep getting the idea that this relationship between him and I takes hard work that may or may not "feel" very good. Jesus wants more than a warm fuzzy feeling from me. He actually wants me to throw my back into this faith.
Even at the risk of a bad sprain.

January 18, 2010 12:46 PM  
Blogger Bobby said...

The touchy-feely songs are criticised by Protestant leaders (re: John MacArthur, Albert Mohler) yet it's the Emergent Church (Warren, Hybels, et al) that endorses these crazy tunes that don't belong in a church -- ever. The secular music companies (EMI, Vivendi, Warner) make nine-figure money on the sale and licences of modern worship music and encourage the development of such that real sacred music is falling by the wayside everywhere. Who needs Serena Hill, Brittnee Siemon, Mark Husey, Michael LaRoche, and a huge choir of able singers singing Haydn's The Creation with an orchestra when a group of teens jamming to a rock tune with no doctrine or theology is able to perform, or in some cases, a karaoke machine, to these tunes with nothing but a beat that's hip?

January 19, 2010 7:00 AM  
Blogger Argent said...

The Church has just the right music for Mass. They're called the Propers. And you know what? Some crazy people over at Musica Sacra are actually offering their settings for free. Imagine that!

For example: Sacred Music Project written in English but in gasp! chant

Or something from the 1964, just after the Council but should now be part of every parish musician's resource: Complete English Propers. You wonder if parishes had used these instead of folk music drek how much better off we would be.

What are Propers? They're beautiful antiphons that are the glue that binds the liturgy together. Much better than silly songs masking as hymns. My, what treasure we have lost.

Now, on to convert other music directors...who are scared to death of Propers. Introit? What kind of animal is that? Gradual?.....eeeeek!!!!

January 19, 2010 4:31 PM  
Blogger nazareth priest said...

Lacey: I'm like so, uh, well, ya' know...eclipsed...those were so really rad and cool and uh, well, can't really grasp it all.
And well I (nor anyone else) should...I'll be good now or C of A will slap my knuckles:<)!!

January 19, 2010 5:57 PM  
Blogger Cathy_of_Alex said...

Father: Now, now, I wouldn't do that! I'm not a dinner theater nun!

Argent: You and I are blessed to be able to find parishes that offer the treasury of our sacred music on a regular basis. I thank God every day for that access. I'm well aware that not every Catholic has that.

January 19, 2010 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our Parish loves 'us' hymns, we don't like to mention God too much. The congregation at the Mass I attend has few people under 50 and our absolute favourite hymn is the one about running through the forest and dancing in the fields. It's a real challenge to sing it with a straight face!

January 23, 2010 12:36 AM  

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