David Ancell's Virtual Home

So, What Makes a Suitable Hymn for Mass?

  /   Monday March 01, 2010  

Many of my friends, as well as my wife, know that I have a tendency to . . . well . . . not like a lot of the music that we sing at Mass.  Still,  it is important to me not to be arbitrarily critical, so I want to propose some criteria with which I would consider a song acceptable.  This is not based directly on any Church documents but rather is my own reflection.  I am not a liturgist but rather an easily-distractable lay person who goes to Mass often with a great desire to worship the Lord.

First and foremost,  the hymn should be doctrinally sound.  I have found that I often have to pay close attention to the words of some hyms I’ve seen used before I decide to sing.   One of the best known offenders is one that is often used during Lent.  It’s called “Ashes,” and the offending statement is that “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.”  If this isn’t heresy, it’s darn close. God is the only one who can create us anew.  Another offender that I have been recently introduced to is entitled “Sing a New Church.”  The title itself should be enough to convince anyone concerned about fidelity to the Catholic faith that it’s problematic.

Second, the hymn should be addressed to God or be about God (or possibly a saint).  Take a look at the great hymns like “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” or “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.”  They are addressed to God.  The songs “Where Charity and Love Prevail” and even the St. Louis Jesuits’ “Glory and Praise to Our God” are about God.  The song “Make Us True Servants” is a petition to God.  Soon, Lent will be over, and we’ll be singing one of my favorites, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”  It is, of course, a song about the Resurrection of Our Lord.  I could probably name many others, both old and new.

Contrast that with some other hymns of  today.  A commonly used hymn that I’ve blogged about before is “Gather Us In,” which doesn’t mention God in it.  I was recently introduced to a song called “Anthem” which begins “We are called; we are chosen; we are Christ to one another . . .”  It’s sung to a tune that sounds kind of  like “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes.”  It’s the congregation praising itself.  “One Bread One Body” is another one where we are singing about ourselves.  Finally, let’s not forget “All Our Welcome.”  The hymn is about the house that we build, not God.

Third, the song should not have the congregation singing the part of God.  Two known offenders are “Here I Am, Lord” (“I the Lord, of sea and sky . . .”) and “I Am the Bread of Life.”  I know that I am not comfortable singing as though I am God, and I’m sure there are others out there as well.  In the aforementioned article by George Weigel, he mentions that this is unprecedented in Christian history.  I would go further to say that this would also be offensive to the Jewish people.  The name for God, “I Am Who Am,” is a personal name.  For a Jewish person to say it out loud would be for him to say that he is God.  Therefore, they are forbidden to pronounce it.  Given that our faith is a fulfillment of Judiasm, it doesn’t seem right to be singing the part of God.

Fourth, the hymn should be musically simple enough that people who sing like I do can sing it.  Look, the only way I would sing a solo is to evacuate a building. I can’t sing very well, and the more complicated rhythms are difficult for me to follow.  The best way to ensure full participation in the Liturgy is not to innovate but to simplify.  When I was a teenager, the Danish Amen Mass was almost always used in my parish.  It was very nice and easy to follow.  Even some of the praise and worship songs are easier to sing than some obviously feminine high-pitched modern “hymns.”  Really, though, I can understand how singability (Is that a word?) can be overlooked as it is a judgment call made by people of much greater musical ability than I.  However, we must all keep in mind that the Mass is worship, not a performance intended for entertainment.

Of course, there are a lot of other elements that I like – some old Latin hymns, older hymns in general, and even some Gregorian chant (which Vatican II said should retain the pride of place at Mass).  However, what I have written above is something I believe to be a good standard to use.  I am always wanting to be at Mass when it is a genuine, prayerful experience dedicated to the greater glory of God.

Category: Liturgy




Please note that all comments are moderated, and they will be posted once approved.

[…] North Carolina, where they play some truly disgusting songs as Mass.  It was the inspiration for my post back in March on what makes a good hymn for Mass.  Anyway, I agree with some of the post, but not all of […]

David's Pages

David's Pages

RSS Feed
Atom Feed