Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine addresses hymn texts

The USCCB Committee on Doctrine has offered some help in evaluating hymn lyrics for use in Catholic worship. The paper, “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church” (PDF), lists several kinds of deficiencies that are apparent in the texts of some songs, and gives examples from a few hymns selected out of the 1000 that the committee’s members read.

The bishops’ work takes its model from a 1997 project in which an ad hoc committee led by Abp. Daniel Buechlein examined catechetical materials and described ways in which they were presenting the Catholic faith in a vague, imbalanced, or misleading way. Following the example of that report, the Committee on Doctrine listed these weaknesses in hymns:

  1. Deficiencies in the presentation of eucharistic doctrine
  2. Deficiencies in the presentation of trinitarian doctrine
  3. Deficiencies in the doctrine of God and His relation to humans
  4. A view of the Church that sees her as essentially a human construction
  5. Doctrinally incorrect views of the Jewish people
  6. Incorrect Christian anthropology

Here are some ways that texts fall short in these areas:

  • In eucharistic doctrine, texts that speak of receiving “bread and wine” without expressing that they are changed into the body and blood of Christ
  • In trinitarian doctrine, texts that avoid speaking of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but instead speak of “God”, “Christ”, and “the Spirit”, as though Christ or the Holy Spirit were not also God; as the committee report frankly puts it, this is Arianism
  • In the doctrine of God, expressions that obscure the transcendence of God and seem to make him come into being as a result of human actions
  • In ecclesiology, texts that speak of human beings creating the Church, rather than the Church as God’s creation
  • In relation to the Jewish people, songs that imply falsely that the entire Jewish people rejected Christ, something which the Church does not believe or teach.

The report quotes from thirteen hymns as examples of these defects, including works by Owen Alstott, Mary Louise Bringle, Sydney B. Carter, Ruth Duck, Delores Dufner, Bernadette Farrell, Fred Pratt Green, Marty Haugen (1, 2, 3), Bob Hurd, and Carmen Scialla.

In regard to eucharistic doctrine, the area which the report says had the most common and most serious deficiencies, the report also listed examples of hymns that avoided such errors. While some of them have their own weaknesses of text or music, I’m pleased to see that the committee was in effect confirming among them that the Church’s heritage of Latin hymns is suitable for mainstream parish use:

  • Ave Verum Corpus (Pope Innocent VI, c. 1362)
  • Taste and See (Moore, 1983)
  • Gift of Finest Wheat (Westendorf, 1976)
  • Seed Scattered and Sown (Feiten, 1987)
  • I Am The Bread Of Life (Toolan, 1966)
  • One Bread One Body (Foley, 1978)
  • Eat This Bread (Taize/Batastini, 1984)
  • Look Beyond (Ducote, 1979)
  • At That First Eucharist (Turton, 1881)
  • O Sacrament Most Holy (Udulutsch, based on the Raccolta, 1958)
  • O Salutaris Hostia (Thomas Aquinas, c. 1274)
  • Adoro Te (Thomas Aquinas, c. 1274)
  • At the Lamb’s High Feast (Campbell, based on Ad regias Agni dapes, 1849)

Thanks to the Committee on Doctrine and its chairman, Bp. Kevin Rhoades (Fort Wayne – South Bend) for this helpful contribution to the Church’s liturgical work.

Comments?

New Office hymn texts in English

For several years work has been underway to develop a new edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH) in English for use in the United States. The version currently in use dates from the mid-1970s and is overdue for revision, since the second post-conciliar Latin edition was issued 34 years ago. So the new edition is coming with numerous positive changes, many of them based on the 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam.

One part of the work has reached a milestone: the task of translating the office’s Latin hymns into English has been completed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) and the results will be up for approval by the US bishops this month at their meeting.

These are great hymns, nearly 300 of them, full of theological significance and suited to the various feasts and daily observances, so they will be a true enrichment for the Liturgy of the Hours. They will replace the English-language hymns, songs, and poems that were used in the current edition, nearly all of them unrelated to the corresponding Latin texts.

As with most things in the world of church music, there is debate. Happily, the hymns are being put into English with an eye to preserving the original meter of the Latin hymns. This will make it so that the original melodies, simple Gregorian tunes, can be used with them. But in a move that inspires misgivings, the hymns are being rendered as unrhymed text.

Here’s an example:

Iesu, redémptor sæculi,
Verbum Patris altíssimi,
Lux lucis invisíbilis,
Custos tuórum pérvigil :

Tu fabricátor ómnium
Discrétor atque témporum,
Fessa labore córpora
Noctis quiéte récrea.

Qui frangis ima tártara,
Tu nos ab hoste líbera,
Ne váleat sedúcere
Tuo redémptos sánguine,

Ut, dum graváti córpore
Brevi manémus témpore,
Sic caro nostra dórmiat
Ut mens sopórem nésciat.

Iesu, tibi sit glória,
Qui morte victa prænites,
Cum Patre et almo Spíritu,
In sempitérna sæcula.

Demo videos from ICEL for nine of the new hymn texts are available on the net.

Of course, the decision to avoid rhyme in the English translations of these hymns was not made without reason. In some cases, obtaining a rhyme can force the translator to change conventional English word order. This is commonplace in hymnody and poetry, but, it is said, it could arguably make the text seem artificial for the many clergy who observe the daily office alone, who read it rather then singing it.

One must concede that that is a reason, but it reflects a sad state of affairs: that now, as in the liturgical reform of the 1960s, the celebration of the liturgy with music is treated as something good but secondary, as somewhat less important than the desire to celebrate the liturgy in merely spoken form.

As a consolation, I am told that the new unrhymed English hymns will not be mandatory: that it will be permitted to use other translations, including the classic rhyming translations by greats such as Neale and Winkworth, or more recently those from the nuns of St. Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde or Stanbrook Abbey.

More information on the status of the LOTH is available at the site of the USCCB.

Read “Go Set a Watchman” Yet?

Who knew that Harper Lee’s characters had entered the fray regarding how the Almighty should be worshipped in song!
I’m not sure if this flouts copyright law, so rather than post the entire section that tickled me, I link

she went down the aisle to corner Herbert, who had remained behind to shut the windows. Dr. Finch was faster on the draw:
“—shouldn’t sing it like that, Herbert,” he was saying. “We are Methodists after all, D.V.”
“Don’t look at me, Dr. Finch.” Herbert threw up his hands as if to ward off whatever was coming. “It’s the way they told us to sing it at Camp Charles Wesley….The music instructor… taught a course in what was wrong with Southern church music. He was from New Jersey,” said Herbert….
“He said we might as well be singing ‘Stick your snout under the spout where the Gospel comes out’ as most of the hymns we sing. Said they ought to ban Fanny Crosby by church law and that Rock of Ages was an abomination unto the Lord….He said we ought to pep up the Doxology.”

Peppy…

Aurora lucis rutilat

An Easter hymn by St. Ambrose

The light of dawn is reddening,
The heavens’ morning praises spring,
The earth exults: “The morning! Hail!”
While hell’s sad dwellers groan and wail.

Our King, the victor in the strife,
When death was smashed apart by life,
Has trampled hell triumphantly
And captive led captivity.

The Lord, whose barricade of stone
The soldiers kept sharp eyes upon
In vict’ry conquers through that gate
And rises forth in pomp and state.

 “The Lord is risen from the dead!”
The splendid angel loudly said.
And hell is evermore left free
To grumble in its misery.

Be this our thought through all life’s days,
Our Easter joy, our Paschal praise:
The grace in which we are reborn
Was won in triumph on that morn.

Jesus, to You let glory rise,
Who vanquished death and won the prize;
With Father and the Spirit blest,
Be endless ages’ praise addressed.


Trans. c. 2013 Kathleen Pluth