“What is a Hymn and What’s it For?

Missed this from early November, (hmm…. what is it that could have had me distracted? can’t remember,) by Father Dwight Longenecker, blogging at Patheos.
He is, because of his background, perhaps a little hymnocentric, but he makes some good points. (And he gets to the right place eventually, though not, perhaps, for the right reason.)

Since moving here ten years ago I’m still having some problems with music. Part of it is my problem. I spent fifteen years in the Anglican Church with the New English Hymnal–which is probably the finest hymnbook ever published in the English language. Musically and liturgically it was the best that traditional Anglicanism had to offer.
…My problem is that I am actually unfamiliar with most of the music in American Catholic Churches because I have lived abroad for so long.
However, what I do experience is not encouraging. Who on earth is writing these hymns, publishing these hymns and choosing to buy, prepare and perform these hymns? Doesn’t anybody know what a hymn is for?
Surely a hymn is first, and foremost part of our worship. That means the words are words that we use to address our praise, adoration and worship of God. So much of the stuff I come across isn’t that at all. Instead it is sentimental language in which God talks to us to reassure us, make us feel better and comfort or inspire us. So…”Be not afraid…for I am always with you…Come follow me.. etc” This may be a pleasant enough devotional song to remind us of God’s promises, and there may be times when it is appropriate to sing such songs, but Mass is not one of those times. We’re not really at Mass to sing God’s comforting words to ourselves. We’re there to worship Him….the Mass is meant to take us to the threshold of heaven; if it is meant to be a glimpse of glory and a participation in the worship of the spheres of heaven itself, why then the sentimental, sweet and comforting songs just won’t do. They wont’ do not because they are bad or untrue, but because they are not good and true enough. Worship that takes us to the threshold of glory needs to be, well…glorious….not all parishes can manage to have a grand organ, a paid organist and a fine choir. True, and that’s why the church recommends Gregorian Chant. 

6 Replies to ““What is a Hymn and What’s it For?”

  1. I'm so thankful for this message – I thought I might be the problem when I attend Mass where these kinds of hymns are sung

  2. Originally hymns were sung at devotional services in the Catholic Church, not at Mass. The reforms of the Vatican Council which resulted in the Mass in English presented a musical void. This was quickly filled with hymns and a lot of devotional music, much of it poor in terms of content and musical construction.

    The main thing is that they are not in themselves liturgical and can never supplant plainchant. The new translation has given the church an opportunity to divest itself of much of the dross. It is up to parishes to address the issue and ensure that liturgical music is available. In my 53 years of experience I find that of the clergy support it, the congregation will follow.

  3. The use of vernacular hymns goes back a bit before Vatican II: in many countries, there was a custom of singing hymns at Low Mass, even vernacular hymns, and you can see official approval for it, for example, in the 1958 Instruction on sacred music.

    It seems that this practice, low Mass with vernacular hymns, was taken by the clergy to be the model for music in the revised liturgy, since the Church to this day has not provided the needed materials for a fully sung Mass in the vernacular: i.e., it has not published an official translation and musical adaptation of the Latin propers in the Graduale Romanum.

  4. "Be not afraid…for I am always with you…Come follow me.."

    More than a devotional song. The first is a common greeting of angels to human beings, and not inappropriate to the season (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10). In the context of the unnamed song, it is part of the prophetic message in Isaiah 43. Also, the songwriter has yoked Matthew 11:28, drawing the invitation of the Lord into the picture. It seems to be a caricature bordering on the absurd a clergyman would suggest that the substance of the Bible is not appropriate for Mass.

  5. "It seems to be a caricature bordering on the absurd a clergyman would suggest that the substance of the Bible is not appropriate for Mass."

    O God, smash the teeth in their mouths;
    break the fangs of these lions, LORD!
    …Let them dissolve like a snail that oozes away,*
    like an untimely birth that never sees the sun….
    Then the just shall rejoice to see the vengeance
    and bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked….

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