Ethics & Public Policy Center

Making a Joyful Noise

Published in The Catholic Difference on April 23, 1998


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


An old saw among musicians has it that the angels play Bach on high days and holy days, but Mozart gets the nod when they’re having fun among themselves. It doesn’t seem altogether right and just: why shouldn’t the angels sing Mozart’s “Ave, Verum,” perhaps the most sublime hymn ever composed, on Corpus Christi? Presumably, we’ll get all that sorted out in the first million years or so in heaven.

For now, the question before the house is this: Can any sort of music “carry” the Church’s public worship?

Vatican II and its implementing documents didn’t think so. The Council’s intention was that the congregation would normally sing certain “ordinary” texts in the Mass — the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei — and that Gregorian chant would have “pride of place” in setting these texts to music. In one of the supreme ironies of the past thirty years, chant recordings have rocketed to the top of the commercial charts while chant has virtually died in Catholic parishes. This suggests that there’s a way to go in implementing Vatican II in these United States.

Then there was what the Council called the “religious singing of the people” — what the rest of us mean by “hymns.” The Council encouraged them while giving priority to the sung texts of the ordinary: these were to be engraved in our minds and on our worship. But those priorities soon got reversed and a flood tide of new hymns swept the liturgical market.

Thomas Day’s wonderful book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing, did a nice job of criticizing two aspects of the new hymnody: its tendency to promote self-worshiping congregations (as when the hymn text has the congregation singing in the words of Christ) and its technical difficulty (octave leaps beyond the capacity of any but trained voices to effect). I’ve come to wonder about another characteristic of the new hymnody.

At a parish Sunday Mass I attended recently, the congregation was asked to sing two communion hymns: “Be With Me, Lord” (Michael Joncas) and “Loving and Forgiving” (Scott Soper). Virtually no one sang, but I was less struck by that than by the music’s emotional ambience, which seemed to be the world of contemporary Broadway show tunes. The tune of “Be With Me, Lord” reminds me of the crisis-song sung by the heartbroken male lead toward the beginning of the second act of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical; “Loving and Forgiving” sounds like the lovers’ reconciliation duet at the end of a similar show. To my mind, at least, neither tune is musically suggestive of the People of God’s communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. Yet tunes like this dominate the current hymnal and missalette market.

A challenger has now entered the arena: the Adoremus Hymnal published by Ignatius Press. The hymnal makes a valiant effort to restore the chant tradition by providing the entire Ordinary of the Mass in Latin and English, with notation for singing every dialogue between celebrant and congregation. The hymnal also offers eleven settings (six in Latin, five in English) of the ordinary texts the Council wanted sung by the congregation.

Then there are the hymns, 176 of them, ranging from golden oldies to 20th century masterpieces by Ralph Vaughan Williams. To their eternal credit, the editors of the Adoremus Hymnal fired “Alt.,” now the most prolific author of hymn texts in English. Every text in the Adoremus Hymnal is printed just as the author wrote it, with no concessions made to transient fashions in liturgical language or political correctness.

Future editions of the Adoremus Hymnal might amplify the selection of hymns by mining more thoroughly the two great hymnals produced in the United States this century: the 1940 Episcopal “Hymnal” and the 1978 “Lutheran Book of Worship.” The new hymnal would also be strengthened by including music from the ecumenical monastery at Taizé in France (the source of some serviceable contemporary chant) and by offering a musical setting of Morning and Evening Prayer for parishes that really take their liturgical life seriously.

The first edition of the Adoremus Hymnal is, however, a fine start. Its reception will tell us a lot about liturgical renewal in the early 21st century.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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