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

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Ten years following the initial scramble for finding English text music for use in the Catholic churches, a music publisher, surveying the continuing fray, disingenuously announced:

The Roman Catholic Church has its own sacred music tradition, but that tradition does not include a long history of singing in the English language. Unlike their fellow Americans of the same “melting pot” culture, Catholic parishes for the most part have yet to experience the same vitality of song that echoes from their neighboring Christian churches. Musicians and liturgists have long expressed a need for a Roman Catholic hymnal that is theologically sound . . . and respects the hymnological traditions of those commonly referred to as “protestant” (sic) hymnals. (emp.: m.o.h.)1


The above insouciant lobbying for “melting pot” homogeneity aside, it is fair to ask if the goal of “vitality of song” has indeed been achieved in our parishes and places of worship, given the hybrid nature of much of the song. More to the point, whose criteria is being unquestioningly applied here? It certainly isn’t that of the Council Fathers as expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy!

To repeat, Music is made sacred by its association with the Roman Catholic tradition.

The word “sacred” is, at root, synonymous with “sacrament”; and only in the Catholic tradition is the existence and validity of all the Christ-given sacraments maintained, as well as the incomparable Eucharistic Presence of Christ Himself. That music which flows out of a separate, non-Catholic tradition is inimical to our own; hence, it is not Sacred music and its use in our liturgies is contrary to the expressed mind of the Church (sentire Ecclesiae).

Examples of non-Catholic music are:

1. Spirituals
2. Ethnic folk music
3. Protestant songs and chorales

1 Although spirituals are religious songs, they derive from a faith alien to that which the Catholic Church recognizes, and thus are inappropriate for use in our sacred liturgies.

The spiritual was developed from North American rural Negro and white folk melodies and themes. They were popularized at Protestant evangelical camp and revival meetings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Clearly, they are unsuitable for Catholic liturgical use.

2 Ethnic folk music

Folk music, whether of American vintage or that of other national or religious groups, are so heavily laden with their respective cultures that their Catholic use occasions multiple confusions to the faithful. The folk song will be used with both the melody and folk text; or a contemporary “Catholic” text is grafted onto the melody. Whatever the case, such is the power of a good melody that uppermost in the people’s minds is not the prayer of the text (which ought to be merely served by the music), but the heavy associations of that particular folk culture. The intended prayer is obfuscated. Also, an injury could be done to that tradition and its peoples: the integrity of their song, which is their exclusive possession and represents their own identity, is compromised. It is stolen, which to sensitive peoples might constitute an injury.

Borrowing from other national and ethnic cultures abounds, becoming almost a virtue in itself. Examples include the Quaker How Can I Keep from Singing?, the Shaker ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple, from the Israeli tradition, The King of Glory, American rural Amazing Grace, and the Shaker The Lord of the Dance. Incidentally, the texts are simplistic (a typical trait of “Gospel songs”) and on that account alone undeserving of our Sacred Liturgies.

3 Protestant songs and chorales

It is now common for songs from the Protestant tradition to be introduced and maintained in our Catholic churches. Forty years ago, this practice devolved from the sore, but manufactured need for English language, congregational hymns. Their use was sanctioned by a genial and euphoric “spirit” of ecumenism, wafting undisciplined throughout Catholicism.

Our current ignorance of history notwithstanding, Protestant hymnody emerged in the seventeenth century as a direct result of widespread rejection of the Mass, the Sacraments, and a thousand years of developed Christian doctrine. Thousands of courageous Catholics, among them the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. Margaret Clitherow, etc.) submitted themselves to barbarous tortures and death in their refusal to renounce the Church and the papacy. One of them, St. Philip Howard, lingered years in prison when:

Finally, feeling that death was near, he appealed to the queen to be allowed to meet his wife and his little son, whom he had never seen. The answer was that, if he would but once attend the Protestant church services, not only would his request be granted but all honors would be restored to him. He refused, and died soon afterwards on 19 October, 1595.2

Although it is a fact that distant sources for the melodies and texts of Protestant hymnody are found in plainsong and early Christian texts, such is the case with practically all song found in our Western culture: it could not be helped.

Much of Protestant hymnody, which represents the antithesis of our Catholic doctrine and tradition, is consequently alien to Catholicism. Many of these Protestant songs - - including those of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist sects - - are eminently singable, but they are not Roman Catholic for they retain strong non- (if not anti-) Catholic associations. They, thus, are not Sacred music. They confuse and oftentimes antagonize our Catholic faithful.

A serious argument can be made that those confused and doctrinally illiterate Catholics who have taken themselves, their families, and their support to non-Catholic churches are only acting out a premise first learned in their Catholic parish. For, participating in the frequent and unquestioned singing of Protestant songs in their Catholic liturgies, they often opine: What difference is there between one church and another, as long as you go to some church?

Among the many acute scandals afflicting American Catholicism in the last forty years, one of the most noticeable has been the emptying of our churches to the advantage of those of our Protestant brethren.

Interest in the use of Protestant hymnody reflects a telling symptom of, not only ignorance regarding our Catholic musical and historical background, but also a misunderstanding of the basic premise of Catholic evangelization.

Truly the use of Protestant hymnody contributes in large measure to the phenomenon that our people, especially young people, are not only unaware of their Catholic roots and identity, but see no compelling reason for being so. Singability? At what price!

Endnotes

1 Worship II, A Hymnal for Roman Catholic Parishes. (Chicago, Illinois: G.I.A. Publications, Inc. 1975): Preface, par. 2.

2 Walsh, James Father, SJ. Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. London, England: Catholic Truth Society. p. 12.