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Catholic Hymns

Catholic hymns are usually unfavourably compared with those of the Anglican, Episcopalian and Lutheran communions, but is this entirely fair?

People love the old favourite Catholic hymns they grew up with, like Soul of my Saviour, I'll sing a Hymn to Mary, and Jesus, Thou art coming ... but they're now perceived by many as lacking in quality in both words and music, containing little reference to Scripture and having far too much Mariolatry in their content. That's to say they idolise the Virgin Mary at the expense of The Trinity. But there are sound historical reasons for this.

It all started around the Seventh Century when monastic communities began to adapt the hymn structure from the Ancient Greek songs of praise to their gods and heroes to fit Gregorian Chant and the Latin language. This marked the very beginnings of Catholic hymns.

The Catholic liturgy, unlike that of most other churches, is monastically based. The monks composed and made extensive use of Gregorian Chant and so it became the official music of the Church. The great Christian hymns were sung to the most beautiful chants but they were sung by monks in Latin - not by the laity. Gregorian Chant developed into polyphony, much of it firmly anchored in based upon the chant. But once again these catholic hymns were the music of choirs and not that of ordinary people.

The end result was that the liturgy and the Mass were undertaken by the clergy in a language which few understood. The priest said Mass as a remote figure up at the altar while the congregation knelt silently and did little except put money in the plate. It was known as “the blessed mutter of the Mass”! The distant priest created the sense of awe and mystery which were an essential ingredient of the old liturgy, and the general mystique was increased by the singing of Gregorian Chant and polyphony. These added beauty and the sense of mystery. The congregation was silent and Catholic hymns sung in the local language - vernacular hymns - were a rarity.

In the liturgical field it was the remoteness of language and ceremonial that the reformers of the Sixteenth Century rebelled against. They insisted upon vernacular worship and music which could be sung by the people. This approach was anathema to the Catholic Church which reacted strongly by launching its counter-attack through the Counter-Reformation.

Latin Catholic Hymns

The Church enshrined the monastic style of liturgy as the universal practice of the Church and encouraged composers to write music of great beauty which could only be sung by specialist choral groups. While the reformed churches produced fine hymns (and fine choral music) the Catholic Church carried on with its exclusive tradition of Latin, polyphony, and Gregorian Chant - the only Catholic hymns at this stage.

In the Nineteenth Century the only occasions when vernacular Catholic hymns had a place were at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament - and even here Latin Catholic hymns were regularly sung by the choir - processions of Our Lady and of the Blessed Sacrament, at evening services, the recitation of the Rosary and at special events. You can see from this why an over-emphasis on Marian hymns developed.

The tradition of vernacular Catholic hymns really began in England with the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in the early Nineteenth Century, but the Church didn’t have the musical or poetic expertise of the non-catholic communions. Another factor was that many Catholics were working immigrants (in the North of England the Church was known as the “Irish Mission”) and they needed Catholic hymns which reflected their own culture and educational attainments.

This historical background explains clearly why the development of Catholic hymns is so totally different to that of the Anglican, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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There were many fine Catholic hymns written in the Nineteenth Century – Praise to the Holiest and Firmly I believe, and truly were both written by Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) in his Dream of Gerontius.

Newman was an Oratorian and it was that same order which produced that most prolific of Catholic hymn-smiths Father Frederick Faber (1814-1863), whose work included Faith of our Fathers and Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All. He lived at the Brompton Oratory in London, and is buried there. Many of the Catholic hymns written at this time were Marian, some in dubious taste - like O Mother I could weep for mirth! There were hymn books published, most notably the Arundel Hymnal, but nothing to compare with Hymns Ancient and Modern.

In the very early 20th century, Richard Terry, (1865-1938) the first Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, began work on a new hymnal with the full backing of the Catholic hierarchy. He was a fine hymn composer who wrote tunes like Billing (Praise to the Holiest) and Corona DSM (Crown Him with many crowns).

His hymn book was called The Westminster Hymnal and although it was mainly in the vernacular, it still contained many Latin Catholic hymns. It was a huge success, included the best Catholic hymnody and also singable translations of the great Latin texts. Many Marian hymns were included but the worst were excluded and one or two good ones replaced them – Hail, thou Star of Ocean for example.

It's fascinating that in the early nineteen-twenties Terry worked on the compilation of a hymn book with David Lloyd-George - the British Prime Minister of the day. Though not a Catholic himself, he had an abiding love of hymns developed during his Welsh childhood. They used to meet over breakfast at No.10 Downing Street, for Lloyd-George had a great interest in hymnody. Now there's a political business breakfast with a difference!

Terry's Westminster Hymnal was followed by The New Westminster Hymnal and The Leeds Hymnal. This last was inspired by the then Bishop Heenan (1905-1975) who later became Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. He too had a great interest in Catholic hymns although mainly from an evangelical standpoint.

This was the situation which prevailed when The Second Vatican Council decreed that the liturgy could be in the vernacular and encouraged the use of vernacular Catholic hymns. The way was now open for the Catholic Church to adopt many of the finest Anglican and Lutheran hymns. Westminster Cathedral in London led the way by producing hymn-sheets, in conjunction with the Church Music Association, for use at Mass. These proved very popular and were used widely by other parishes.

Two fine hymn books were published: The Parish Hymn Book (published by L.J. Cary) and Praise the Lord (pub. Geoffrey Chapman). They both sold in the millions. Faber Music produced an up-market book of Catholic hymns - New Catholic Hymnal - which had a great influence but did not sell in large numbers.

The Gospel Music Angle

Another large influence on the development of Catholic hymnody has been Kevin Mayhew (b 1942) who was pivotal in the growth of Folk and Gospel music. He has published many superb hymnals - Hymns Old and New, Anglican version and The Source, Volumes 1 and 2 among others - all comprehensive and all bestsellers.

The charismatic wing of the Catholic Church has also added greatly to the repertoire, producing Catholic hymns which have a deep emotional appeal. The influence of the Taize chants with their meditative and evocative style can't be over-emphasised. These chants illustrate the fact that most of the best hymns are written in response to the needs of a particular community and from within that community. The wonderful atmosphere of Taize - the ecumenical monastery in France, famous for its retreats for young people - has produced some superb music.

There has been a great renaissance in Catholic hymnody since Vatican 2. The Catholic Church has cast aside its image as the purveyor of the second-rate and is evolving a tradition which will eventually be seen as the equal of the great non-Catholic traditions.

This trend can be seen in church architecture and decoration as well, where the change from sentimental, poor-quality images to proper arts patronage in modern churches reached a peak in England at Liverpool Catholic Cathedral - following the example of its neighbour, Coventry Cathedral. In fact, Catholic hymns are now fast taking their proper place all over the world as a great aid to liturgical development and evangelism.

For more on the subject of Catholic Hymns, have a look at our History of Hymns, Gospel Music and our Hymn Top Twenty!

Or you can go back to Home for more fascinating topics in Music-for-Church-Choirs.com.

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