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Hymns Catholics Like and Dislike

If, in St. Augustine's words, "To sing is to pray twice," no wonder American Catholics care so much about Church music today.

By Jennifer Reed


Some Want Latin
In the Doldrums
Church Music Trends
Sing God's Goodness
Sidebar: Music's Purposes
Contemporary Is Good
Music Unites Us
Music Education
Sidebar: Survey Results


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 songs.

"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 and dancing!"

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 given you."

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," Dwyer notes.

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 hymns.
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 hymn publishers.

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 heart.

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 that sing.

"The churches that have good music are full!" remarks Dankler. "That
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 Dufford)
  • "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 Jackson)
  • "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:
    Bunessan-Gaelic melody)

    Marian Hymns:

  • "Immaculate Mary" (Jeremiah Cummings and Brian Foley)
  • "Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above" (ascribed to Hermanus Contractus)
  • "Ave Maria" (additional text: Dan Kantor, arranged by Rob Glover)

    Christmas Hymns:

  • "Silent Night" (Josef Mohr and Franz Gruber)
  • "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (Adeste Fideles)
  • "O Holy Night" (Adolphe Adam)

    Lenten Hymns:

  • "At the Cross Her Station Keeping" (Stabat Mater)
    (translated by Anthony G. Petti)
  • "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"
    (African-American spiritual)

    Easter Hymns:

  • "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" (Surrexit Christus Hodie)
    (Latin, 14th c.)
  • "Alleluia! Alleluia! Let the Holy Anthem Rise"
    (Edward Caswall)

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 pause."

  • Singing hymns "opens us up, makes us vulnerable, allows God to speak to us."

  • 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 cannot.


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.

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