In May 1995, Editor Norman Perry, O.F.M., asked St. Anthony
Messenger readers to write and tell us about their favorite
Church hymns. In reply, women and men from 17 states sent letters
listing their favorite hymns and commenting on the music used
in their parishes. This informal survey revealed mixed feelings
among our readers about Church music.
People's favorite hymn, so they write, is Bob Dufford's "Be
Not Afraid," a contemporary song. The American traditional
hymn "Amazing Grace" comes in second.
But many people complain that Church music lacks good congregational
participation and is presented poorly. They also mention unsingable
"I want songs that are singable by the congregation,"
writes Clare Lee of Carmichael, California. "So many leaders
seem to want songs that very few can sing."
Hymns are a way to express our experiences of God through sung
prayer. They help us form words of praise, joy, faith, hope, mercy,
justice and love as one body. Singing a hymn in church may be
the closest some of us get to publicly verbalizing our experiences
of God. But even when we come to Mass ready and willing, the hymns
we are asked to sing are sometimes difficult.
"Too many of the songs sung require a music background,"
says Sal Ferara of West Melbourne, Florida. "I, like most
parishioners, am not a musician. Wouldn't it be nice if we, the
parishioners, were polled as to what we wished to sing?"
Some Want the Old Latin Hymns
Many of the readers who responded named Latin hymns as their favorites
with specific requests that these be used regularly today. Several
stated that, although they enjoy many of the new hymns, some older
hymns should also be given a place in modern liturgies.
"We know we have to keep up with modern times...but maybe
every Sunday one old hymn could be sung!" writes Ruth Johnson
of Madelia, Minnesota.
"They should play a variety of old and new--something for
everyone. Is that asking too much?" asks Casimir M. Muroski,
Jr., of Roselle Park, New Jersey.
Joanne Dawson of Ellicott City, Maryland, says, "It is sometimes
sad to see how the Latin is becoming so foreign in the Mass. I
am not yet 40 years old, but I can remember quite a bit of the
Latin from the Masses of my childhood....I don't understand why
our young people today are always exposed to the 'folk' music,
as if they wouldn't enjoy or appreciate the older hymns."
Praise for Contemporary Music
Some readers reported satisfaction with the music at their parishes.
"When the contemporary choir performs, we love it. Joyful
praise inspires a friendlier congregation," say Lois and
John Walding of Titusville, Florida.
"A hymn which seems to lift me out of the routine of daily
life and fill me with hope is 'Hosea,'" writes Eileen George
of Orange Beach, Alabama. Written by Gregory Norbet, "Hosea"
was published by the Vermont Benedictines (Weston Priory).
Referring to a line in "City of God," by Dan Schutte,
"May our tears be turned into dancing," Janet Soricelli
in Bronx, New York, says, "This line adequately expresses
how I feel when I hear the song. I really feel like getting up
Jim Lale of San Antonio writes, "I would nominate highly
for sheer emotive power in the eucharistic moment: 'Gift of Finest
Wheat' and 'In the Breaking of the Bread.' In these the Spirit
moves most readily for me....These turn ordinary Sundays into
eucharistic feasts." Lale also offers this advice: "The
best liturgical music must set a mood with a degree of depth."
Bernard J. Schuck of Elwood, Indiana, shares these comments: "Name
your favorite hymn! It would be easier to name my favorite 25
or maybe even favorite 100 hymns....At age 85 our musical memory
spans several generations of hymns....We attended a Catholic school
and learned all the proper songs in the hymnal....We loved and
still love those beautiful hymns to the Blessed Mother that we
sang during May."
Writing from Cincinnati, Ohio, William J. Obert says, "I'm
sure that too many members of the congregation are, at best, 'Pew
Holder-Downers.' I'm sure that if all lifted their voices to God
the earth would be filled with joy....A hymn is lifting your heart,
mind and voice in a special type of prayer to our living, loving
God....So all sing out. Do not worry about the key signature,
notes, words, rhythm,...but sing out with the best that God has
Church Music 'in the Doldrums'
Although some readers were pleased with the music at their parishes,
others expressed disappointment. Instead of listing favorite hymns,
many wrote to say what's wrong with Church music today.
A couple from Kansas City, Missouri, write: "Thank
you for allowing us the opportunity to express our opinion
about the bland 'songs' that are sung (by very few indeed)
at the Roman Catholic Mass. It is a fact that the celebration
of Mass has turned into a fiasco (most of the time) due
to the irreverent 'songs' that are tried out on the congregation...."
Former Choir Director Amelia C. Roda of Cherry Hill, New Jersey,
has this opinion of the music used at Mass: "I have long
been disenchanted, disgusted and uninspired by the barrage of
frankly ugly, musically trashy hymns that we are subjected to
at Sunday Mass. In our church, the disgust is compounded by the
banging of a honky-tonk piano! They do a 'Gloria' that belongs
in a low-class nightclub, and if I were so inclined, it would
set me shimmying down the aisle!"
Sometimes the instrumental accompaniment or the use of unfamiliar
hymns is what readers find upsetting. "What annoys us most
is the organ being played too loud, and new hymns we aren't too
familiar with. I realize the music department is catering to all
people though....[My father] always said church isn't out until
they quit singing! Today the church is half empty by then,"
write the Waldings.
Concern over people's weakened faith was also expressed. "I
hope that your survey will come to grips with the possibility
that Catholic music is in the doldrums precisely because the faith
that fires human expression in music and song has been diminished,"
comments Ann P. Murphy of Quincy, Massachusetts.
Given the variety and scope of the responses we received, it is
easy to imagine that St. Anthony Messenger readers would
represent views held in other congregations in this country. (For
more of the responses from this poll, see the sidebar below.)
Music Binds Us Together
Now that we've heard from the pews, let us hear from another group
that feels just as strongly about the state of Church music today:
Church musicians. Pastoral musicians are committed to the development
of strong liturgical music programs in parishes throughout the
world. At the 1995 convention of the National Association of Pastoral
Musicians (NAPM), held in Cincinnati, Ohio, July 25-28, a wealth
of information on Church music was shared by composers, choir
directors, cantors and many others who serve in music ministry.
The association has 8,500 members worldwide and its national office
is in Washington, D.C. (225 Sheridan Street, N.W., Washington,
D.C. 20011, phone 202-723-5800).
Many pastoral musicians find themselves confronted with congregations
that have yet to be convinced that music really matters. After
attending Mass weekly for decades, parishioners may still have
the impression that Catholic Church music is just a few dull soft
tunes randomly inserted into the liturgy.
Peter Dwyer, marketing director for The Liturgical Press, discusses
the tendency of many people at worship to sing hymns by rote,
with little energy: "Merely singing is not a commitment to
worship any more than walking down the street is a commitment
to exercise." He says there are plenty of people who only
make a weak attempt by mumbling the words of hymns. "It's
as though they happen to be singing while they're breathing,"
Music is actually central to the role of the congregation, says
Michael Cymbala, executive producer and marketing director of
GIA Publications, Inc. (publishers of the Gather and Worship
hymnals). "Singing is the people doing the liturgy! What
they are asked the most to do is sing!" Cymbala asserts.
The ministry of pastoral musicians reveals that "the Church's
liturgy...is inherently musical" (Liturgical Music Today,
1982) and that, in fact, the Mass is wedded to music. Parish musicians,
more than anyone else, teach the congregation that our singing
is one of the greatest gifts we can bring to the Mass. It is through
our parishes that we first taste and then fully enter into prayer
in shared song. It is there that we become committed to singing
because we continually experience Mass in terms of community prayer
poured out in song.
Trends in Catholic Church Music
Recently American Catholics have become more sophisticated about the kinds of music we are willing
to try in our liturgies. Our interests in Church music have "expanded,"
says Cymbala. In response, hymnal publishers are providing music
resources with hymns drawn from several cultures. GIA's current
Gather Comprehensive hymnal, for instance, contains Hispanic
and African-American hymns, along with traditional and contemporary
Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) serves the music needs of many Hispanic
Catholics. Flor y Canto and Canticos are two popular
Spanish hymnals sold by OCP. "We were the first to address
the needs of Hispanic Catholics," says Editorial Director
Paulette McCoy. Today OCP is the U.S. agent for three Spanish
A controversial and highly debated trend in Catholic Church music
today is the decision of some parishes to use more hymns containing
inclusive language. Composers and publishers have made adaptations
in their work in accordance with this decision and have followed
the U.S. bishops' 1990 document on inclusive language. According
to GIA's Cymbala, for some Catholics, "the emphasis on inclusive
language is a bigger issue than musical style."
The language debate causes big trouble in many parishes and among
publishers, too. The experience of World Library Publications
(WLP) demonstrates one publisher's approach to the situation.
When WLP printed revised-language editions of their parish resources,
they "followed the bishops' document to a 'T,'" says
Laura Dankler, managing editor at WLP. They received a deluge
of calls, about half in favor of and half in an uproar over the
new versions. WLP's solution was to print both standard and revised
editions for their customers. "That way the parish makes
the decision [to use the revised or standard edition]," says
Dankler. "As a publisher, for us to make that decision for
them would be wrong."
Music Education: A Key Element in Participation
More than we might realize, what musicians do at Mass touches
us all. Liturgical music has the power to shape the prayer we
offer to God, assembled as the body of Christ. If what we do at
Mass is primarily heartfelt community prayer which is "inherently
musical," then those planning the liturgy must take great
care in selecting hymns and music. Pastoral musicians are entrusted
with an "awesome responsibility," says Dankler. How
they present music to the assembly "affects the entire scope
of the Mass," she says.
The Rev. Lucien Deiss, C.S.Sp., a member of the Vatican II Consilium
for the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy and composer of such hymns as "All the Earth"
and "Into Your Hands," told those attending the NAPM
Convention, "Our congregations want first not to hear music
but to see Jesus. The song is a prayer.... Happy the community that knows
how to discover in each song the face of the risen Christ."
Learning music takes time, and patience is required for people
to grow confident in their ability to sing at different tempos
and pitches. There is a difference in the way musicians and the
rest of the congregation interact with the music. Usually after
using a new hymn for about six weeks, the congregation becomes
confident and comfortable singing it. Church musicians, however,
work with the same pieces of music repeatedly in rehearsals. Because
of this, they may be eager to go on to different music long before
the rest of the parish is.
Paul Inwood, the director of music for the Diocese of Portsmouth,
England, and a composer published by OCP, explains, "Often
we tend to pull the rug out from under the parish because we get
bored [with a hymn]."
Dr. Gordon Truitt, editor of Pastoral Music magazine, agrees
with Inwood. "The point at which music ministers think a
hymn is overused is way short of the point the congregation
thinks a hymn is overused," he says.
A great source of hope in the campaign to encourage congregational
singing is the base of traditional hymns from which we draw year
after year. Sister Lorna Zemke, O.S.F., D.M.A., who teaches at
Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, discussed music education
at the NAPM Convention. She says traditional music is an important
part of music education for the parish: "Yes, there is quality
contemporary music, but why can't we also use music that has endured
throughout the centuries?"
She also suggests pastoral musicians should become more active
in their role as teachers of music at their parishes. Zemke encourages
pastoral musicians to offer parish workshops on hymn singing and
reading music. "I think you'll be surprised how many adults
will come forward," she predicts.
Some basic music education is fundamental to congregational singing.
When an assembly is asked to sing a hymn, all members should have the pages of music in front of
them. Until hymns are learned by heart, it is helpful if most can follow the notes and respond to the guidance
of the song leader or instrumental accompaniment.
It often takes years for a congregation to sing its own selection
of music with confidence and proficiency. But the result of this
lengthy process is like the birth of a new people. The great fruit
of the dedicated labor of parishioners and musicians is an assembly
resounding in song with confidence, singing music they know by
Sing of God's Goodness
Mary Beth Knude-Anderson, diocesan director of worship for Chicago,
received loud applause at the convention when she declared, "I
think it is time to bid farewell to the stigma that the Catholic
Church in town is the one where nobody sings!" She stressed
the importance of music in liturgy saying, "We don't merely
sing at the liturgy, but we actually sing the liturgy....
Singing the liturgy is what people need to be doing...."
Words are not enough to express the joy and gratitude we share
for the gift God has given in his Son. Dr. Truitt points out that
there isn't much time in the ritual of the Mass to stop for deep
emotion. Liturgical music and song allow us to share with others
the joy we feel in God's presence.
Liturgist and composer Warren Grayson Brown calls for choirs to
show their enthusiasm for God's word by the way they sing. A choir
singing with feeling gives the congregation an invitation to do
the same. "People need permission to act upon what is in
their hearts," says Brown.
Many Catholic parishes presently have very strong music programs
and their congregations are committed to making their liturgies
full and prayerful through ritual music and singing. In each of
their communities, these churches are already known as churches
"The churches that have good music are full!" remarks
doesn't mean you need all of the equipment of a rock band or a
50-voice choir. It means having an organist or pianist with musical
training and music education, and cantors who know how to lead."
If we are living the gospel, we will look forward to coming together
to share with God and one another faith so alive and joy so full
they can only be expressed by our singing.
Sidebar: St. Anthony Messenger Readers' Favorite Hymns
Two hundred hymns were listed by readers who responded.
These were named most often:
- "Be Not Afraid" (most frequently listed hymn) (Bob
- "Amazing Grace" (John Newton)
- "How Great Thou Art" (Stuart W.K. Hine)
- "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" (Ignaz Franz)
- "On Eagle's Wings" (Rev. Michael Joncas)
- "Prayer of St. Francis" (adapted by Sebastian Temple)
- "O Lord, I Am Not Worthy" (traditional)
- "Come, Holy Ghost" (attributed to Rabanus Maurus)
- "Let There Be Peace on Earth" (Sy Miller and Jill
- "Panis Angelicus" (traditional)
- "Here I Am, Lord" (Daniel L. Schutte)
- "Now Thank We All Our God" (Martin Rinkart)
- "Morning Has Broken" (poem: Eleanor Farjeon, music:
- "Immaculate Mary" (Jeremiah Cummings and Brian Foley)
- "Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above" (ascribed to Hermanus
- "Ave Maria" (additional text: Dan Kantor, arranged
by Rob Glover)
- "Silent Night" (Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber)
- "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Adeste Fideles)
- "O Holy Night" (Adolphe Adam)
- "At the Cross Her Station Keeping" (Stabat Mater)
(translated by Anthony G. Petti)
- "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"
- "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" (Surrexit Christus
(Latin, 14th c.)
- "Alleluia! Alleluia! Let the Holy Anthem Rise"
Sidebar: The Many Purposes of Music
At the 1995 NAPM Convention, an insightful workshop
was offered by Paul Inwood, director of music for the Diocese
of Portsmouth, England, and a composer published through Oregon
Catholic Press (OCP). Entitled "More Than Just Words,"
the workshop outlined several purposes of music in liturgy:
- Singing "heightens
the meaning of the text."
- Singing uplifts
"special moments" of the liturgy, like the Triduum blessings
of fire and water.
- Singing and music
slow us down and make us take our time at Mass. Slower music "can
give the assembly space to pray, especially if there is an instrumental
- Singing hymns
"opens us up, makes us vulnerable, allows God to speak to
- Singing hymns
also provides a means of identity for the local church, the parish.
It bonds the community together. (A parish can be greatly strengthened,
Inwood has found, by having a hymn that is like a "theme
song" for that community.)
- Singing "creates
a mood," and designs an environment that encourages our
communal and personal response to God's Word.
- Even more important,
singing instructs the assembly in a way of prayer. Singing hymns moves us and
leads us to places of spiritual
attentiveness and sensitivity that the spoken word
Jennifer Reed is a graduate student in religious communication
at Marquette University and holds a B.A. in psychology from Loyola
College in Maryland. She was St. Anthony Messenger's intern
for the summer of 1995.