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Is There Any Hope For Modern Catholic Liturgical Music?



Jeff Ostrowski - published on 12/15/14

While most Catholic hymns do not contain formal heresy, a surprising number of lyrics push the envelope

Some people,when attending a concert, wait until the following morning — when newspaper reviews of the concert appear — to decide whether or not they enjoyed the concert. A similar phenomenon exists with regard to hymns. Some people require the “dates” (i.e. when a composer lived) to decide whether they like a given hymn.

I argue the inherent qualities of the hymn are what should matter. Some are determined to sing “modern” hymns … no matter what.

While most Catholic hymns do not contain formal heresy, a surprising number of lyrics push the envelope. Consider a famous verse by Marty Haugen (a non-Catholic):

Not in the dark of buildings confining, / Not in some heaven, light-years away,
But here in this place, the new light is shining, / Now is the Kingdom, now is the day.

This song has been included in major Catholic hymnals for decades. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof from the Worship Hymnal (GIA Publications).1

Leaving aside the issue of heresy, I find the poetic quality of much modern Catholic hymnody deplorable. It often sounds like the poet used a rhyming dictionary to “force” each verse, with predictable rhymes similar to this children’s video.

Can the term predictable be defined? It’s not easy, but when I open up my copy of GIA’s Worship Hymnal I find verses like:

You are called to set the table, / Blessing bread as Jesus bless’d,
Then to come with thirst and hunger, / Needing care like all the rest.


The melodies, too, are frequently predictable. When I open up GIA’s Gather Hymnal, I find a Pentecost song which sounds like this. (I have no idea whether the accompaniment by Marty Haugen referenced at the bottom improves this song.) Indeed, my major criticism of today’s Responsorial Psalms is their predictability. Just yesterday, I heard one sounding like this. How different are such concoctions from Gregorian chant, whose melodies sound mysterious and fresh, even in a simple mode 7 psalm tone.

I’m not trying to pick on GIA’s Worship Hymnal — I could easily have chosen any of the “big” Catholic publications — but this hymnal just happens to be sitting on my desk. Consider number 737 in GIA’s Worship (here’s proof):

If life is like a wedding feast / And we are cast as guests,
Then it is limiting to list / The ones we like the most

Is this drivel why we got rid of the ancient, furiously powerful, dignified Gregorian melodies? To replace them with goofy, weak, poorly-constructed poetry? Were the Mass Propers, which mostly came from Scripture, so terrible by comparison? Is it because none of the Mass Propers warned against “limiting” — but, rather, spoke of sin, judgment, and eternity? Progressive liturgists extol “inculturation, creativity, diversity, and local control” — but when we see what it actually looks like, who could defend it?

This does not even touch the issue of accuracy in translating ancient texts. Consider the translation chosen by Father Anthony Ruff in his recent GIA publication Cantica Novum:

Original Latin:
Bone pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserere.
Ruff/Canticum Novum:
Noble Shepherd, bread nutritious,
Jesus, hear our cry for mercy.

Others can argue about whether “vere” means nutritious, but here’s my question: Doesn’t singing the word “nutritious” sound weird during the public worship of Almighty God? Or am I crazy? Consider one final example from GIA Worship Hymnal (here’s proof):

And yet, God has supplied / Enough goods to divide
If we turn from our fear, hate, and greed.
We can answer a prayer / With our love, grace, and care,
And through us God can meet ev’ry need.

Leave aside the issue of singing songs about
our grace: Such poetry strikes me as goofy and effeminate. Moreover, I’ve not even broached the topic of approval (required by the GIRM) for hymns replacing Mass Propers. For example, over the last four decades, every Catholic hymnal has placed on its first page this notice: PUBLISHED WITH THE APPROVAL OF THE BISHOP’S COMMITTEE ON THE LITURGY.  But practically no one realized that this approval had absolutely nothing to do with approving any hymns contained in the book. 2

I sound like a "negative Nancy," and you probably want me to explain how to fix the problem. I would suggest the following:

It is not impossible to find good poets in today’s world. Our own Veronica Brandt recently posted this hymn text by Father Dominic Popplewell, a young priest of the Fraternity of St. Peter. Written in honor of Mary MacKillop (Australia’s first canonized saint), his poem contains some excellent verses which avoid sounding “forced” like the ones we mentioned above. Our job is to locate more fine poets like Father Popplewell.

Thanks to recent publications — the Jogues Missal, Simple English Propers, Lalemant Propers, and so forth — parishes need not be held hostage by books lacking Propers. However, as these parishes begin to implement Propers, they should continue to use fine hymnody, and a number of adequate hymnals have become available.

Consider how beautiful hymnody can be. For example, in the Campion Missal & Hymnal, we took the poetry of English Martrys — St. Thomas More, St. Philip Howard, etc. — and set it to beautiful melodies. Several of the melodies were commissioned from composer Kevin Allen,3and many of the hymn texts are by St. Robert Southwell, a Jesuit martyr whose poetry was admired by William Shakespeare.

I will share with you a few verses from the Campion Hymnal, but it hurts me, because I find them so beautiful. It’s hard to refrain from tears. Here’s an excerpt from Southwell about the Holy Eucharist:

What God, as author, made, He alter may;
No change so hard as making all of nought;
If Adam fashion’d were of slime and clay,
Bread may to Christ’s most sacred flesh be wrought:
He may do this, that made, with mighty hand,
Of water wine, a snake of Moses’ wand.

Notice how, just like Father Popplewell’s hymn, each ending is rhymed (very difficult to accomplish). Consider this excerpt from Southwell’s hymn about the Immaculate Conception:

Four only wights bred without fault are named,
And all the rest conceivèd were in sin;
Without both man and wife was Adam framed.
Of man, but not of wife, did Eve begin;
Wife without touch of man Christ’s mother was,
Of man and wife this babe was bred in grace.

See how glorious Catholic hymnody can be? Are you in tears? You should be!

To see a superb ancient hymn, try this one:
* *PDF Download: Pange Lingua (6th century hymn)

Did you notice it doesn’t rhyme? The ancient Latin poems almost never rhyme. For the record, those pages are excerpted from the Jogues Illuminated Missal, which tried to use fancy letters for all the prayers, signaling to the congregation their depth & dignity.

I have been appointed project leader of a new hymnal. We are planning to do amazing things, but we need your help. Very soon, we’ll be releasing more information. To learn more, click here and scroll down to book #2. Information will be released on Views from the Choir Loft.

1   I’m told some newer hymnals (after 2011) have begun removing this verse, but that does little to repair the damage done over a period of decades.

2   Much could be said about this subject, but the time is not now.

3   To get a sense of Mr. Allen’s amazing skill at setting English, please go here and click on the Cardinal Newman video, or hear an actual setting he composed for the Campion Hymnal.
GIA Worship IV Hymnal

A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), where he also did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.This article originally appeared in the blog "Views from the Choir Loft" on the website Corpus Christi Watershed. It is reprinted here with kind permission.

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