Goodbye, Bad Hymns

The music you hear in a family’s household says a great deal about that family. For instance, if all they ever play is the shallow, repetitive stuff that gets churned out of the modern pop music machine then they deprive themselves of the richness and depth that God intended when he gave us the gift of music. Or, if family members are forever splitting up and going into separate rooms to listen only to the music they individually prefer then the family suffers from disunity—by never sharing music or singing as one they never get to be drawn together in that way which, again, is such a powerful gift from our heavenly Father.

These are problems which affect our earthly, human families, yet to a greater degree they affect God’s family, as well. When we, the members of Christ’s body and of God’s family, gather together in God’s house at Mass, the music does not often serve the purposes of fully drawing us together in unity and deepening our relationship with the Almighty. It has the opposite effect, in some cases.

A New Kind of Hymnal

This is not another article about bad liturgical music. It is more of a clarion call to embrace a better way of performing and participating in the music of Mass. The recently released Vatican II Hymnal, published by the Texas-based non-profit organization Corpus Christi Watershed, is the pièce de résistance of this “better way.”

There are, of course, other hymnals available already from other publishers. Catholics use them at Mass every Sunday. The quality of the songs therein is debatable, and there is no dearth of opinions on the subject. Song preferences aside, the Vatican II Hymnal responds to a more pervasive problem that is rarely recognized at the parish level: every Sunday music directors “spin the dial,” as CCW President Jeffrey Ostrowski puts it. Songs for Mass are very often chosen, if not outright randomly, then with little regard for the liturgical season or for the themes of the Mass that day.

The Church put specific prayers and chants in place for every Mass many centuries ago, with the intention that we should sing them regularly and ritually: an Introit at the beginning, a Gradual and an Alleluia after the readings, an Offertory and a Communion.

Each is an exquisite gem that inspires everyone who hears. Each bears an aura of antiquity that is astounding: many of them would have been heard and sung by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Albert the Great.

The Church prefers that we use these chants today, and yet most of us have never heard them before. The Catholic Church does allow for some latitude in the music planned for Mass, but what was intended as an extraordinary exception has become a universal rule. Sunday Mass is now dominated by songs which are quite often musically inferior, thematically inappropriate, and lyrically shallow. The result is a lack of unity in God’s family and a watering down of the Mass’s inherent beauty.

The Picture of Mass

Just as the Scripture readings are formally set and repeated in cycles throughout the ages, so also is the music we are meant to hear and share in. It is all for a reason, of course—it all works together to form a particular picture.

For example, at the Mass for the first Sunday after Easter last year Catholics heard specific readings from Acts of the Apostles, the 1st letter of Peter, and the Gospel of John. The homily expounded on those readings (one hopes) and in some way exhorted parishioners to imitate the first disciples spoken of in those readings. The Church thought all of this through a long time ago for the sake of the faithful—in general, everything at that specific Mass should celebrate these particular themes and subjects. That is the “picture” it forms.

The music should add even more color and texture to the overall picture. The best way to do this is what the Church has prescribed for centuries: chant. Gregorian chant is the best, most common way of singing what are called the “Propers” of Mass: the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia, etc.

Changing to Chant

This would amount to a revolution in parish music programs, and Ostrowski is sensitive to the seismic disturbances this would cause.

“I would suggest a two-step program,” he says. “Firstly, every secular, undignified, emotionally-driven song needs to be gradually banished from our churches. Secondly, we ought not to instantly take away hymns, because we have become so accustomed to them—and many are truly beautiful and they enhance worship. However, we should remember that chanting, especially the Mass Propers, is our ultimate goal.”

“Musicologists,” he goes on to say, “have pointed out that the very form of metrical hymns, with their predictable upbeat and downbeat, tend to remind us of the passage of time and (by extension) the world. Whereas Gregorian chant, which is completely free in its rhythm, takes you into another world: prayerful, reverent, eternal, holy.”

On top of this, it is the preferred music of the Church—not the hymns to which we have all become so accustomed. Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” wrote the Council Fathers in 1963’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (par. 116) and yet this mandate has largely been ignored for decades.
It seems, however, that chant’s time has come. Corpus Christi Watershed has achieved amazing success as the go-to place for any and all resources having to do with chant, and the Vatican II Hymnal is a crown jewel of that success. The hard work and persistence of the staff, board members, composers and performers associated with CCW is all an effort designed to meet a modern resurgence of interest in the ancient forms of liturgical music. New scholas, or liturgical musical groups, are springing up in dioceses across America and they are often comprised of young, enthusiastic folk with very little formal training—they only know that they love the music that Corpus Christi Watershed is making available.

At this point, the biggest obstacle for the average Catholic is simply a lack of confidence. They are unfamiliar with the traditional music and so they are not sure if they will be able to learn it or perform it correctly. Again, that is what Corpus Christi Watershed was created for: to assist Catholics everywhere in rediscovering and implementing ancient polyphony and chant in their parishes.

Imagine the glorious beauty of every Catholic Church on earth joining in harmony to hear the ancient Scripture readings assigned to a particular Sunday, to be pondering and fixating on the same themes and ideas, and to share in the one, holy sacrifice of the Mass all to the music of sacred chants that have been sung by Catholics on that day since the first centuries of Christianity? That is a more profound sharing in and realization of the unity of God’s family, and a foretaste of the heavenly reality that waits for all of us at the end of time.

The Vatican II Hymnal, like everything Corpus Christi Watershed produces, is done with no other purpose in mind than to bring us all into closer contact with God and with each other at Mass. It is high time that music directors stop thumbing through missalettes in search of mediocre songs that may or may not be prescribed by the Church. It is time to rediscover the ancient glory of the chants that the Church gives us.

Dan Lord


Dan Lord is the author of By the Downward Way (SalvO, 2014) and Choosing Joy (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). His articles have appeared in Crisis, National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency, and Fathers For Good and he is a national speaker on various topics. He blogs at That Strangest of Wars.

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  • Wm M

    I’ve purchased the Vatican II Hymnal by the C.C. Watershed and am sorry to say that I find it very wanting.  The hymns are nearly all of a Protestant provenance, unfamiliar to Catholics, and largely inappropriate for Catholic Worship.  We Catholics have vast treasury of traditional hymns, both vernacular and Latin, but the folks at CC Watershed are not interested and not even willing to discuss the matter.   The “Saint Michael Hymnal” is vastly superior and should be promoted.

  • voice

    Chant having pride of place does not equate to “totally replace” as this article promotes.   Medieval chant is not the ONLY form of proper expression in the liturgy and this has been expressed by Holy Mother Church.   It gets so tiresome reading about the liturgy wars, and descriptions from each “camp” as if the mystery and love of God can be captured by a single human innovation.    So small.  So silly.    So American and Euro perceived.    Enough music snobbery.      

  • Dan Lord

    Hello Voice. Chant is not merely “medieval.” It actually goes back to pre-Christian Jewish traditions. Some of the tones and melodies of the Psalms, as preserved and promoted by Holy Mother Church, would have been sung by Jesus and Mary. This is one of the reasons why the Church gives chant pride of place. If these are “liturgy wars,” then chant supporters are the biggest losers of all time. That which is supposed to have pride of place has virtually no place in any parish. Could you at least be open to greater efforts being made to put chant back somewhere closer to where the Holy Spirit-guided Church says it is supposed to be?

  • William Henry, I see you posted this exact post on the New Liturgical Movement.  But when you were asked to name examples, you refused to do so.  From what I can tell, St. Michael’s Hymnal has 50x the amount of Protestant hymnody that Vatican II has, including TIEZE PIECES (!).  I refuse to buy the new St. Michael’s hymnal because it is February 2012 and there is still no accompaniment booklet for St. Michael’s, so what good is it?  I suggest you go research the history of hymnody: you will be surprised at how many “Protestant” hymns you find.

    Let me try again: can you name some examples of what you’re talking about?  You wouldn’t name any examples on NLM.  You wouldn’t name a single one.

    By the way, I have used the Chabanel Psalms since 2008, and I love them!

  • ST. Markymark

    Adoremus Hymnal is totally Catholic

  • mary ann

    I am not against chant especially in some of the responses but the point I would like to make is that a lot of this new modern music written for the church is so complicated that it has to have experts singing it since the music half the time does not even follow the milody and sometimes it even imitates carnival style music The people that are leading the music half the time are elites that do not seem to be interested in the fact that the problem is that it needs to make the mass holier and is not a concert for choirs during church. Choirs have their place but don’t overdo it. In my church somebody that does not seem to know that we don’t have new hymns constantly and as you say seems more interested in showing off their talents rather than make the mass holier and hymns meaning ful to the people. Now the priest wants to get rid of the organ (that was given to us )  a small Allen organ but it is so much better for church music  than a electronic piano that has an organ sound among many others they have no idea   how much good music has been written for organ for the church I have studied church music from some  great people and had two years of church music and a lot of music history but am not respected can’t sing any more anyway let’s get to something that helps the congregation participate and feel more holy and is appropriate there are some beautiful protestant hymns  as well  as negro spirutals it’s the words that count and the music having a prayful sound. or joyful when appropriate. There’s  plenty of bad stuff around now.  pray for all of us musiians that are trying and what about some good bach, etc before and after mass  mary ann

  • voice

    Hi Dan.   Please know that I am NOT opposed to chant;  in fact we do some in our parish, and I am open to it. I have several CD’s that I enjoy listening to outside the liturgy.   I just don’t like the “battle” of one style vs. the other in our faith.   I appreciate ALL styles of liturgical music and believe (as does the Church) that they have a proper place if done well with the proper liturgical perspective.    One need only to travel the world to understand that not one size fits all in our faith.   Also, the Jesus and Mary chant reference …  well …  then should that not have pride of place over Medieval Gregorian?    And should we not be “reclining at table” when we celebrate the Eucharist instead of  all the ceremonial innovations that have gathered over time?    I find that ALL camps in the Church – traditional, conservative, progressive, liberal .. all seem to “cherry pick” the Jesus’ era when convenient for the view… but then avoid it when it does not fit their perspective.   Reality is … it’s 2012 … and the Church has the “keys”.   Jesus is alive TODAY… and so I believe that the mystery of God is not limited to the 1 AD era.  All forms of Chant are GOOD.   But so are other forms of modern expression (art, music, etc.) in the Church and liturgy.    Again, I tire of the divisions in the Church and prefer to embrace the diversity with love and enjoy ALL of them versus promoting my personal preferences.    I believe most of these discussions simply fall into one’s personal preferences and stye of worship.    Do not mean to upset those who are “promoting” chant, BUT not everyone thinks it’s “easy” or the proper expression of the love and desire to worship God.   The Lord seeks authentic love of heart not a certain style to qualify for this.  Hence, a small child singing a simple love song intended for God qualifies.    

  • “Wm M” what are you talking about?  I’ve been a Catholic my entire life, and these hymns have been sung by Catholics since I was young.  The editors of the Vatican Hymnal should be commended for producing the most singularly Catholic hymnal I’ve yet experienced.  My strong suggestion is that you do some research on the Catholic liturgy before posting comments, especially since the St. Michael’s hymnal is severely flawed from the perspective of the Catholic sacred music.

  • Bkm

    It can’t be as bad as the situation in the UK where we seem ti have every kind of heresy and blasphemy incorporated in hymns, with the attitude that it does not matter as long as it rhymes. For instance:
    “The Father has raised Him, together we’ll praise Him
    And march with the Lord at our head.”
    Saying the Father raised Jesus denies the Resurrection  the mosrt important tenet of Christianity, yet this denial of the divinity of Jesus (who raised himself, anyone could be raised by the Father) is regularly and blasphemously sung at Mass. Priests of all people should know better than to put doggerel rhyme before theology.

  • Nowayjose

    The Eucharist is THE Mass. Music, whatever version you are all arguing about is so far secondary tat why get yourselves into this nonsensical argument. If you need music to worship, then I don’t know what to tell you

  • catholicexchange

    I’m with you on the centrality of the Eucharist, but your view on church music is awfully harsh and at odds with Church teaching: “The musical tradition of the universal church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #112). Given that this is so, it’s worth a healthy struggle to get it right!  -Dan