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Is There Any Hope For Modern Catholic Liturgical Music?


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

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