Someone Finally Did It: The 10 Worst Hymns

Most people in the Catholic music world are too polite to do such things, but First Things doesn’t know the rules, and one of its editors, speaking as a layperson to music, has assembled what he considers to be the 10 worst hymns in current use. Before you condemn this editorial and practice, consider that this point of view is real and widely held across the demographic spectrum, and the costs are quite high. If you have never understood why people (mostly in private) express disgust about the music they hear at Mass, you owe it to yourself to read this post blog, as well as the comments, and try to understand.

Feel free to vent here or there.

40 Replies to “Someone Finally Did It: The 10 Worst Hymns”

  1. Cross posted at CMAA Forum:
    I make no apology for this opinion.
    The writer of this article freely, albeit tongue planted in cheek, offered that maybe "First Things" had too much time on its hands. So, this article is a muckraking device. Has anyone, including those faceless masses who share the author's sentiments, not decryed these items personally or publicly already? Did anyone receive further enlightenment or a deeper appreciation of the distinctions between its premise built upon an axis of "worst" v. "best?" In other words, what benefit was gained among all believers by its publication?
    CMAA is a boots on the ground enterprise. This ground has been trod upon time after time for decades. We should move forward onto positive pathways towards reformation and reclamation. As JT noticed with the publication of the archives of "Caecilia," we've always engaged the same bogeymen in previous eras.
    This was a classic example of "Keep moving, nothing to see here."

  2. im missing gomething here.
    these songs are pretty standared. Playing them over and over and over again week end week out nonstop until your great reward is enough to pray fervently for the second comming.
    I dont see anything there i dont agree with, just an acknowlegement that what we allowed to become standared really is pretty much crap.
    don roy

  3. A good and holy priest once told me that if, when he died, he heard a children's choir singing "Here I Am Lord", he would know he was in the wrong place.

  4. The above hymns are all good music. They are very popular. They are mostly the Word of God.

    The NLM, and other blogs inclucing this one, have made no contribution to the Liturgy.

  5. John, Burgers and fries are very popular, and many people say that they are good food. The mistake is to equate popularity with goodness.

    I should say that I have never heard any of these during Mass, quite rightly as they are not Hymns, comparing them to the the great wealth of religious music written over the last 2000 years, shows them to be very poor.

    The music is awful and the words bring nothing of any real worth. The Burger may make you feel good, but is it really good?

    As for the Word of God, we can find that in the Vulgate Bible, and selected other books, These songs can only be the Word of God when they quote from those books.

    The NLM and the the other blogs are doing a great deal of good liturgically, they are giving back to us the 2000 years of Tradition that was gradually taken away from us over the last 100 years.

  6. Thomas

    'Eagles wings', for example, is taken from Psalm 90(91) – with some excerpts from Isaiah. The Psalms are the hymns of the Church.

    The Word of God does not, as you state have nothing 'of any worth'.

    The current translation policy is to translate from the original, while respectiong the Vulgate.

    The NLM and other blogs of this type have given nothing to anybody.

  7. John is right: five are directly based on Scripture, in whole or inlarge part, and others allude to Scripture or even the liturgy. Some are not even hymns; they are in the format of propers and clearly designed along those lines. Sacred music becomes objectionable when it is poorly presented, either by musicians who lack skills or the motivation to do well.

  8. I have little doubt that all this material will evaporate in time, just as so much else evaporated after periods of popularity in the past. I'm not entirely sure I understand this genre — I've tried for years — but it does strike me as a special kind of transitional music. As Todd as repeatedly pointed out, it is all a great improvement over the contemporary music of the 1960s, which wasn't even based on scripture; it was hardly even religious. So there is probably a sense in which this music had a conservative impulse behind it. It is crucial to remember that context. The question that everyone asks right now is: what is the next step? There seem to be a number of competitive genres out there.

  9. "The NLM and other blogs of this type have given nothing to anybody."

    If John says it, it must be true!

    But seriously – maybe John should get to know the hundreds of people who attended the CMAA colloquia over the years – they would beg to differ.

    The old "if it's based on Scripture, it must be good" argument doesn't really hold up. I can set Psalm 90 to the theme from the "Gilligan's Island" – is this OK for mass?

  10. OK – point taken Sam!

    I think what I am saying is that if good music uses a scripture text as it's base, and it enables people to 'enter into' (and subsequently believe & pray the text) – then, yes, it must be good.

    Obviously, if, for example, you set the seven last words to the tune of 'Roll out the barrell' (they would certainly fit) – then, no, I don't think it would be OK for Mass.

  11. "The NLM and other blogs of this type have given nothing to anybody."

    OK – this is not true – I should not have said it – apologies.

    My concern is that the CMAA seems to exclude the guitar / piano / folk / contemporary idioms, and I think it could be problematic introducing an exclusive diet of chant and polyphony to parishes – not that these forms of music should ever be excluded of course!

  12. john
    your comment concerning blogs that you dont agree with having contributed nothing certainly doesnt help in making your point. in fact its a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
    how about all the avenues that have for 40 years margenalized and trivialized the churches patrimony of great music to the point of near extinction?
    your comment is a throwback to a nastier time in the liturgy wars that hopefully we are getting past.
    yes, there is a place for guitars but it should not be "pride of place" That is for gregorian chant and polyphony like it or not.
    perhaps that is what your upset about, that finally the church is putting your beloved (if banal) songs their proper place behind the that music that sacrosanctum concillium made very clear is most suited top the liturgy we both serve.
    (by the way, i have guitars that play regularly some of the better contemporary music in my choir so dont accuse me of closed mindedness)

  13. It always seemed like Eagles Wings, more commonly known as the Introit for the Rite of Christian Burial, was set roughly to the hymn tune Hasenpfeffer Inc., particularly the refrain, "and he will raise you up" — "we're gonna do it, our way, yea our way." I don't particularly care for it, but to each his own.

  14. Having read through all the comments on the FT thread, one notes that there are about four recurring arguments in defense of the contemporary songs, all of which seem to be various applications of the principle of subjectivity:

    1. "I really like these songs."

    2. "Lots of people really like these songs."

    3. "Some of these songs are based upon Scripture, so to deride them is to deride the Word."

    4. "These songs get people to sing and that is all that matters."

    5. "Music is just a matter of personal preference, not objective form."

    My experience is that people for whom the subjective principle is supreme cannot really be reached by counter-argument…as the wounded and indignant tone of many of the protesting comments on the FT thread indicates, when you criticize the music they like (or that people they like like) you are attacking them PERSONALLY.

    A mass-consumption culture which has trained people to approach music as just a smorgasbord of things that they can buy if they like has made this kind of subjectivity deeply entrenched in the souls of many. Most people have the habits of the marketplace rather than the habits of the saints; I certainly recognize plenty of the former in myself.

    If we (interested lay people of good will, parish musicians, clergy) want to reach our brothers and sisters, it seems to me it will have to be through the polished and beautiful execution of appropriate sacred music, not through arguments.

  15. "I think it could be problematic introducing an exclusive diet of chant and polyphony to parishes"

    I'm not sure whether by "problematic" you mean some or even a lot of people wouldn't like it (and maybe not come back), or whether you think only chant and polyphony is detrimental to the liturgy.

    As for the first, I know of a number of parishes which have introduced a diet of C + P – and are thriving, with people expressing delight and gratitude that such a beautiful liturgy is finally available to them. So I don't think it has to be problematic in all cases.

    The second question comes closer to the real heart of the issue: "What is most fitting for the liturgy of the Church?" In other words, change the assumption from what people want to what best serves the liturgy – and in the long run will best serve the spiritual needs of people. Put crudely, do we see the liturgy as primarily serving our needs, or is it first of all the worship of God which we enter into and so are enriched?

    Like most people, I tend to like music that's easy to listen to, is immediately catchy and accessible, isn't too demanding and makes me feel good, etc. But you have to wonder, is this the ethos we want to promote in the liturgy? If you look at the music in this way, putting sacred words to it only makes the problem worse.

    Chant, by contrast, is the kind of music that may not be easy to listen to at first, but reaps rich rewards to the one who gives himself over to it instead of demanding that music always please him immediately.

    It strikes me that the kind of "arguments" Andrew outlined come out of this same way of looking at the liturgy – a "therapeutic" way, if you will: it's there to serve me. This is not the way the popes and Vatican II have thought about it.

    And Andrew, I couldn’t agree more, especially with your last point. As another post here put it, “The solution seems to be: less talk and more honestly patient work.”

  16. Sam–thanks for pointing to that other post. It is sobering indeed that "too much talk" was a temptation serious enough for such warnings in 1930!

    I think many people, starting with myself, take excessive pleasure in all the venting and the criticising because it gives us a temporary relief from the feeling of powerlessness we get when poor worship is inflicted upon us. As the founder of First Things, the late Fr. Neuhaus, once wrote: "Many will say that it is better to light a candle, but cursing the darkness from time to time has at least one benefit: it keeps us from getting used to it."

    The FT comment thread seems for the most part to come from people in the pews–I can understand their feeling of powerlessness. They aren't involved in the music of their parishes–they just have to suffer through it, they have their whole lives, and they don't see any prospect of change that will affect them any time soon. (I think it was Flannery O'Connor who wrote in one of her letters: "The unfortunate truth in our day in age is that we have to suffer much more because of the Church than we will ever get to suffer for her.")

    Some parish musicians get caught in a frustrating bind as well–they want to do what is right, but their pastor won't let them.

    Those of us who are fortunate enough to be actively working to shape the practice of liturgical music in our parishes according to the perennial wisdom of the Church have a real obligation in forums like this one to share ideas, post our own recordings, and inspire and encourage others. If we are going to talk–and some talk is necessary–let's make it serve the work.

  17. if good music uses a scripture text as it's base, and it enables people to 'enter into' (and subsequently believe & pray the text) – then, yes, it must be good

    Not quite.

    The standard for "good" music for worship is this: that the music illuminates the text.

    IOW, text is primary. It is, after all, the Word. Consequently, the music must make the text more apprehensible; it is an essay, so to speak, on the text.

    The apex of such is the Chant's Propers (and Ordinaries.) All other sacred music is measured against that standard.

    Hymnody, therefore, is not properly "sacred music," because text is secondary to the melodic/rhythmic "set" of the hymn.

    If it is not "sacred music," then it is not properly sung during the Mass. Before, yes. After, yes.

    Not during.

  18. To expand a bit on Dad29, I agree that music illuminates the text (great choice of words).

    That said, sacred music has a pretty broad expanse beyond the Mass, and allowably, even within it. Hymns are sacred music, but they are not many things. They are not ordinaries (except for the Gloria and by some measure, the Sanctus). They are not usually propers, but they might be; though like many here, I would prefer psalmody. Unlike many in CMAA, I'm fine with different styles of psalmody, and I think it's all sacred music.

    I think it's safe to say that for many of us, certain pieces or styles of music are significant in a religious way and others are not. That's all FT is trying to do here: somebody stakes a flag and says "This stuff you like I think is crap." And we've achieved the level of an argument in a sports bar. Congrats to FT for lowering standards.

  19. how many of you play these songs week in and week out and have done so for decades.
    I am 1.5 decades into doing just hat. I think i have played mass of creation at least 50 weeks a year for 15 years.
    after doing that one knows what works and what doesnt.
    the above list is in the second category and let me tell you I am tired and i am trapped into playing these things for the rest of my useful life.
    Please give me at least a sympathetic venue to vent without being accused of setting the discussion back to a base level.
    I mean, how much crummy writing can a musician stand?

  20. This music is not bad, by popular music standards. They can stand up to songs like "Rainbow Connection", or "The Circle of Life", or a very good toilet paper commercial melody. But is that really the standard against which liturgical music ought to be measured?

  21. by the way, that list isnt about at a style of music it was about those songs. even hard core contemporary types hardly consider them the best of the genre do they?

  22. droy7,

    I disagree. I'd rather listen to any of these songs than to much of what passes for pop music these days. I think that Todd is right that a lot of talent went into the music on the "worst" list. I'd also rather listen to these songs than to most Christian pop music. It's praiseworthy that the composers listed have use their talents to make good Christian pop songs based on biblical texts. I just don't think that they are suited to the Catholic liturgy.

    And I bet that that's why the songs were put on a "worst" list–not because of the poor quality of the songs but because people recognize viscerally that such music just doesn't fit the Catholic liturgy ("liturgy" taken broadly to include Vespers, Eucharistic Adoration, etc.)

    I love reggae, salsa, bossa nova, jazz, bouzouki, but none of it is appropriate to the liturgy.

  23. you have a point denis. but repitition is a greaT test for how good a piece is. i hate the pachelbel canon but after a million performances handels messiah still thrills.
    the music on that list through no fault of its own has become important to the liturgical lives of millions. we all look fondly at the hymns of our youth no matter how bad. pastoral conciderations therefore makes it necessary to give said songs way more repetition then they eather warrent or can handle . as such having to play them over and over is necessary and torture. way better if instead we had insisted on for example, healy willians mass used in countless episcopal churches for years. one can dream which is what i usually do while playing pan de vida yet again…

  24. "I love reggae, salsa, bossa nova, jazz, bouzouki, but none of it is appropriate to the liturgy. "

    -Whyever not?

  25. Jeffrey asks:

    "The question that everyone asks right now is: what is the next step? "

    A very good question.
    As a parish musician, I am always on the lookout for good music. Is there any good original new liturgical music out there?

    – "Gather us in" is a classic hymn of the Church, both in terms of music and words.

  26. "The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given first place in liturgical services."

    (Section 116, the Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy)

    "An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony" (Pope Benedict XVI, June 24, 2006)

  27. John said:

    "Gather us in" is a classic hymn of the Church, both in terms of music and words.

    OK, I'll bite. Sing its praises, please. Tell me what is great about the music other than its recollection of Gordon Lightfoot (who was popular when GUI was written). Then try to defend the text. Introits generally ask for God's assistance or mercy in some way and are derived from the Psalms. How does a self-congratulatory song like GUI accomplish the same thing? Just asking?

  28. John asks "whyever not?"

    That's pretty much the question that characterizes the Ordinary Form, and why it is, alas, probably beyond repair. For every silly idea that degrades the Catholic liturgy–whether it's clown costumes, liturgical dancing, cowboy masses, polka masses…you all know the examples–without guidance from above, even well-intentioned people have no way to answer that question: "Why not?"

    There's plenty out there written in answer to that question, John. There's the work of the Holy Father, for one. There's also SING LIKE A CATHOLIC by Jeffrey Tucker. Ask the experts around here for a reading list, if you're interested.

  29. The 'illumination' is a quote from Ratzinger, which is why it is an excellent choice of words!

    Hymns are sacred music,

    Not by the definition of the Popes. Hymns and "other religious music" are NOT musica sacra by definition.

    And as you recall, the Pope has exclusive domain in regulation of the Liturgy, which would include definition of the terms.

  30. John

    If you read my post I did not say that the Word of God had no worth I said these so called "hymns" had no worth, when they did not quote from the Word of God, from approved books.

    The Church has told us the special privilege given to the Vulgate, no English TRANSLATION has been described as the exact Word of God, not even the Douay Rheims. A translation is only man opinion, and we can find plenty of opinions.

    In our parish we sing Hymns (in Latin of course) that have been sung for up to 1600 years, those 10 worst 'hymns' will be forgotten long before then.

  31. Well, there are either 1) subtleties or 2) contradictions.

    Pius XII's 1955 Instruction (para 36) refers to 'that music which is not primarily a part of the sacred liturgy….religious music [which] can exercise great and salutary force…when used in churches during NON-liturgical services and ceremonies or….outside of churches.' (Para 37) 'The tunes of these hymns, often sung in the language of the people…' (etc.)

    He clearly distinguishes hymns as sung during 'non-liturgical services or ceremonies' and includes them in "religious music."

    You pose two questions. First we should distinguish the Divine Office from the Mass.

    Secondly, the hymns of the Divine Office are Chant hymns, which are treated differently from those hymns described in Paras 36/37 above.

    A bit confusing? That's not all!!

    The 1958 Instruction from Cong. Rites adds to the, umn, challenge of interpretation.

    In Chapter 1,#4, we read: "By 'sacred music' is meant: a. Gregorian chant; b. Sacred polyphony' c. modern sacred music; d. sacred organ music; 3. popular religious singing; f. religious music.

    And in #9 of the same graf, we read: 'popular religious singing' is that which springs spontaneously from […] religious sentiment…is recommended today for arousing the piety of the faithful and for giving beauty to pious exercises. Sometimes it can even be permitted in liturgical functions themselves."

    Apparently (but not explicitly) "hymns" are included in 'popular religious singing' in the 1958 Instruction.

    Let us assume that two documents issued only 2 years apart will not contradict each other.

    We can then conclude that "hymns" are a category of music NOT sung for Mass (ergo, not "musica sacra") even though they are considered "musica sacra" when used in the Divine Office.


    Yah, well….

  32. This comment on the FirstThings blog gave me a good chuckle!

    "I’m finding that all these songs sound pretty good if you play all the files simultaneously. Sounds like early industrial music, or something off the 2001 Space Odyssey soundtrack."

    That might be the only way I'd ever like to hear any of the selections again unless forced…

  33. The only reason "Sons of God" has disappeared is that it is viewed as sexist….and the lyrics cannot be changed.

  34. I grew up with all of these hymns. I am so sick of them. They were catchy at the time, but they are tired and worn out now. My kids cringe when they have to sing them, which is about every Friday at the school mass. Of course, all hip, guitar toting teachers love these hymns as I'm sure it makes them feel like they're back in school themselves. When discussing this with children (I direct a kids choir), I hold up a very cool cartoon image of Christ and ask if it's indeed cool. Yes! Then I ask if we should hang it in the sanctuary. No! We then discuss vestments as apposed to jeans and a t-shirt with a thought provoking image. No contest; the vestments win. So, what kind of music feels right at mass? Our praise and worship tunes from youth group or hymns and chant. I've never had a majority asking for the campfire tunes ever.

  35. funny, pescadores is one that jp2 loved, he must be a heretic burning in hell for singing and enjoying this, like the rest of us "commoners."

  36. Bad music and lyrics can still touch people and cause them to be drawn to it for emotional reasons.

    The use of songs with renewal testimonies put all this bad music with poor lyrics in the Mass, church musicians were unable to stop the flow of this. They were unable to overcome the mass hysteria of people who were finally allowed to go up on the altar, stand with the priest during the consecration….

    People who could play a few guitar chords were intimidated by the very musicians who could have had a positive influence over the music, so a wall of guitar cases was erected to protect them while they strummed.

    Fr. Pete in his jeans, plaid shirt and motorcycle was their best buddy, while the pastor sat evenings alone at the dinner table, wondering what happened.

  37. The Hymnal Noted by John Mason Neale

    The future of Sacred Music in the Latin Catholic Church.. in the english speaking world..

    so long as the end times haven't yet hit…


    The Hymnal Noted by John Mason Neale
    type it into google book, order a copy from lancelot andrewes press..

    don't just let these things sit around..
    have protest meetings outside your churches..
    let that palmer/burgess "Plainchant Gradual" and all the Adam of St Victor Sequences translated by Digby S Wrangham actually be used..

    Learn what your identity as the latin church is..
    read all the homilies by the Fathers in our traditional Matins books.. Give the neocatechumenal way and modernists a dose of their own medecine…

    We don't have to take no for an answer anymore…

    come join the anglican ordinariates or western rite orthodox if you feel defeated..

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