Rethinking the Hymnal – Completely

For years I’ve heard the lamentations. Why can’t Catholics seem to put together a decent hymnal? We have all these companies, all these attempts, thousands of products available, warehouses of liturgical resources, pews stuffed with things, paper flying every which way. And yet, even after all this, there is no hymnal to compare with the clarity and competence that is so obvious in the book in the pews at the local Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian Church. Even the Mormons do a better job of packaging the songs of their faith for the people to sing at Sunday gatherings.

I can recall the very first exposure I had to what is laughingly called the Catholic hymnal and the practice of singing hymns. It was a small parish in Texas near the East coast. It might have been the first time I had entered a Catholic Church since I was an 8-year-old assistant to an organ repairman. I had started to develop an actual interest in the faith. The sheer shabbiness of the throw-away missallete and the seemingly universal refusal on the part of the people to sing a note startled me. Nothing has really changed in the intervening years. It’s the same most anywhere in conventional parishes: poor resources, silly music, and silent people.

I must be missing something, I thought. Well, over the years, I’ve developed a wide ranging theory that more-or-less removes responsibilities from the publishers, and I still think there is some validity here. Catholics are not historically a hymn-singing people as regards Mass. The Divine Office is another matter, but community participation in the Office has not been part of the Catholic experience for many generations. Mass is what Catholics today do, and the Mass isn’t a vessel that intrinsically calls for hymns. They will always be external to the liturgy itself, and Catholics are only responding to this reality. It is the ordinary chants, the propers, and the dialogues that are to be sung.

Further, and unlike Protestants, Catholics have never developed the practice of singing in parts and that must explain why these hymnbooks only have the melody line. There’s also the problem of the relatively recent change to the vernacular, which left the Catholics without their Latin-hymn heritage and introduce opportunities for second-rate song writers to foist their untested 70s kitsch on the faithful.

There are a number of problems with the theory. The biggest one is that there is a massive demand for a good hymnal that is not throw away, includes all readings, has good arrangements of English hymns, includes some Latin hymnody, has the Mass propers, has quality Psalmody, has solid chant in Latin and English, and otherwise offers theologically reliable texts of dignified hymns that people can sing. A hymnal is not a magic solution to the problems of bad Catholic music but it can vastly improve a parish.

Why haven’t publishers met this demand? They’ve had nearly half a century, and yet you have to dig and dig to find anything that is even presentable beside a protestant pew resource.

Right now, there are bad and not-so-bad options. If your parish gets roped into one of the bad options, years of disaster can follow. It really is true, however strange, that people refer to parishes by which publisher own them. People call this parish an “OCP parish,” that parish a “GIA parish,” and another as a “WLP parish.” You can be one of the three, some worse than others.

When out of town I like to tour parishes, and I can discern all I need to know by looking at the hymn racks. If anyone asks my opinion about what a parish should do, I always say: save your money and don’t get a hymnal at all. The readings are in English, so why do we need a book that repeats them? The Psalms can be downloaded for free. All the music of the Mass is free online in fact. As for hymns, many sites have public domain hymns for recessionals or post-communions. You can always make weekly pew aids. Rather than risk being owned by a publishers, it’s better to just do without.

Our own schola in my parish does without. We now plan liturgy without any recourse to the hymnal. This has saved us endless hours of frustration over crazy music, bad theology in texts, terrible arrangements, goofy Psalms, pathetic Mass settings, and more. We are free, and now the Roman Rite speaks for itself.

I’ve not had much luck in persuading pastors of this opinion. Taking the hymn-free option does indeed require some degree of musical expertise. You have to be pretty savvy to know how to pull it off. Not everyone can do this. New pastors who don’t entirely trust their music staff still need a hymnal just to work as a filtering device, and many pastors believe that the people do indeed need something to look at during Mass.

In this case, I’m happy to report that after half a century, there is now a viable alternative. The book is the Vatican II Hymnal. It is published by Corpus Watershed. This is not a big publisher. It is actually one person, and his name is Jeffrey Ostrowski. He has virtually no money at all, but tons of talent and passion. Alone, he has done this hymnal. I find this completely amazing.

Peter Kwasniewski wrote the following about his review copy: “How fitting, as this hymnal represents nothing short of a total elevation of the musical level of Catholic worship in a way the English-speaking world has never seen — before OR after the Council. Instead of sappy, sentimental stuff (as in too many preconciliar low Mass hymnals), it offers an excellent selection of poetically and theologically robust hymns. And refreshingly, unlike most postconciliar hymnals, there are no self-referential pop-song imitations. The rest of the hymnal is filled out with a diversity of highly useful material. What blows me away particularly is the inclusion of the entire Lectionary for Sundays and Feastdays. In one fell swoop, this hymnal obviates the need to pay big bucks to throw-away hymnal manufacturers (and, incidentally, fill dumpsters with environmental waste each year as the copyright runs out). All the readings are there; good responsorial psalms settings are there; the texts of the propers are there; the order of Mass. In short, this hymnal is a masterpiece.”

Another reader said: “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.” An astute older musician said “It is beyond comprehension how our young lions (of both genders) have virtually, single-handedly revolutionized the editorial process of compiling worthy hymnals and propers collections.” And yet another reader said: “the book really is a beautiful work! The excerpts that Jeffrey kindly shared with us in advance isn’t quite the same as actually seeing it in-hand. This ought to come in editions with ribbon bookmarks and gilded pages! The book certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of content — my gosh, just about everything is in here. Every accent, every translation, every explanation and alternative ending and twenty-plus different Mass settings and references to online resources! Bravo! And I will be sharing this with my pastor for his consideration!”

For emphasis, please consider what this means. This book was done not by some old, bureaucratized, mechanized, industrialized publishing house. It was done by one person working alone and crowd sourcing the review process online. It uses mostly public domain resources. It has full approval from the USCCB, which he obtained in record time. Everything in here is 100% reliable. The whole enterprise is truly astonishing.

I don’t want to take away anything from other valuable attempts in this past but this book really is different, mainly because of the inclusion of readings, propers, and a full English-Latin Kyriale, plus excellent hymn layout. It does indeed raise the bar. It is the perfect marriage of the old faith with modern technology. Jeffrey is an excellent musician with a lifetime of experience, and he has finally put together his dream hymnal. That same dream is shared by many.

Now that it is available, I among many others will be curious to see what happens. Will it become a bestseller in the Catholic world? Many people are watching very carefully. You can order for $19 by calling 810.388.9500 or by visiting