Stones Instead of Bread: Reflections on Contemporary Hymns: Part IV

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Music is made sacred by its association to other, related factors, each of which is indispensable:

By association with the occasion (or purpose)
By association with a sacred text
By association with that which is set apart, or separate from the worldly or profane
By association with what is truly art
By association with a particular tradition


The elements of music, such as its melody, are of an abstract medium and hence cannot be deemed sacred in themselves. Scripture, however, since it is the inspired Word of God, is indeed Sacred in itself; and, derivatively, is the verbal form of rites.
Music, therefore, which "fulfills" the worthy text is sacred. It renders the sacred text respectfully, and does justice to its dignity as the Word of God. It must be understood and accepted, however, that the text itself must be worthy, and itself "fitting" for the occasion.

In principio erat Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.

How serious our responsibility, since the Second Person Himself is Word1!
One of the greatest scandals of large amounts of church music in the last forty years has been the corruption of Scripture or (often through omission) theology presented through it. In his apostolic letter Vigesimus quintus annus, marking the 25th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II wrote:

Side by side with the benefits of the liturgical reform, one has to acknowledge with regret deviations of greater or lesser seriousness in its application. On occasion there have been noted ... songs which are not conducive to faith or to a sense of the sacred.2

The corruption of texts seems to fall into two categories, the first being a listless paraphrasing of scripture, necessarily adapting it to a Procrustean bed of popular, secular melody. Although this loose rendering of the scripture is often identified with terminology such as "text based on Psalm ...," a frequent actuality is that the text is only remotely similar. A fine example of this careless rendering of biblical text is Come unto Me3.

Such a practice, because it only approximates scriptural verses, does not in itself invalidate its claim to being appropriate for use in our churches; for many fine hymns of the past do the same, such as Holy God, We Praise Thy Name (a rendition of the ancient prayer, Te Deum). However, because of the extreme looseness of the paraphrasing, the integrity of the text is compromised, if not lost. It is an injustice to Scripture itself; and an injustice to the faithful, who have a right to the truth in Scripture to be presented to them4.

Another category in which texts are inappropriate and unworthy is in a type of song known musically as the "gospel song." This type of song is, prior to the ‘sixties, profoundly alien to our Catholic tradition. Whereas the hymn, because it is (supposed to be) focused on God, and thus is proper for worship (literally i.e. reverence, dignity, respect offered to God and to God alone), the gospel song is of a totally different genre. It does not focus on God, therefore on worship. Rather, it is subjective and sentimental, expressing feelings and personal testimony.

In the early nineteenth century, on the heels of the romanticism and naturalism which permeated the West, less formal and structured sects such as the Baptists, evangelicals and other Protestant fundamentalists developed the gospel song. Initially, the mainstream Protestant churches resisted this new kind of music, preferring the more dignified "hymns." Little by little, though, gospel songs were allowed not just in the less formal evening services, but since the 1950s in the more formal morning services as well. (It is worth noting that the music of the Catholic parishes has followed in the wake of Protestant churches, although about fifteen or twenty years behind.) Examples of gospel songs now abound in our Catholic liturgies and churches; all of them are products of the '60s, '70s, '80s, and to the present. Each of the aforementioned songs is more truly a “gospel song” than a hymn5.

In Chapter 6 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Article 121 states:

Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music ...

The Council Fathers further admonish that:

The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from Holy Scripture and from liturgical sources.6

The commentator's note to the above article states:

There is need for new music, both for Mass and for devotions; new hymns should be liturgically and scripturally inspired, and not in the sentimental "devotional" manner that has proved the bane of much Catholic hymnody.7

 

Gospel songs (generally but wrongfully called Catholic folk music, guitar songs, or contemporary hymns) have been attaining a greater measure of textual sophistication in the last thirty years. It is as though the form has been "growing up”; and as with a crooked twig which, unless destroyed or rooted up early on, will develop into a crooked tree, the sentimentality of the genre becomes the vehicle for a yet more serious abuse. As the twig grows, so grows the tree.

1 John I:I

2 Abbott, Walter M., S.J., Gen. Ed., The Documents of Vatican I I (The America Press/Association Press, 1966) Articles 121 and 120, p. 173.

3 Hurd, Bob. Today’s Missal (Music Issue 1990) Portland, Oregon: n. 422.

4 See Canon 217: The Christian faithful, since they are called by baptism to lead a life in conformity with the teaching of the gospel, have the right to a Christian education by which they will be properly instructed so as to develop the maturity of a human person and at the same time come to know and live the mystery of salvation. (tr. by Canon Law Society of America: Code of Canon Law; Washington, D.C., 1983, p. 73).

5 Peace is Flowing Like a River; All that We Have; Come Unto Me; Happy the Man.

6 Abbott, Ibid., p. 173, art. 121.

7 Ibid., p. 173, n. 60.