Published March 7, 2023
The fate of one of the most famous traditional German Catholic hymns following the Second Vatican Council offers an example of how the Church in Germany used what I call “Trojan Horse hymns” to influence Catholics to think about the Church in new ways, thus helping to pave the way to today’s German Synodal Way. Trojan Horse hymns use the external packaging of the title and music of an old hymn while in fact extensively modifying or even simply replacing the old lyrics with new, distinctly modern ones. The familiar title (and familiar tune) makes the hymn attractive and make it seem, at first, like nothing has changed. It looks like a horse. It sounds like a horse. But what is inside is not a horse.
German Catholic Militant Hymnody
A prime example of a Trojan Horse hymn today is the German hymn, “Ein Haus voll Glorie schauet,” “A House Full of Glory Gazes” (or, “A House Full of Glory”). The original version was composed by Joseph Mohr, SJ when German Catholics were rallying to push back against the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf.
The hymn in Mohr’s version from 1875 is rousing in both its text and music. Its distinctly Catholic, confident, even triumphal tone was a defiant contrast to the anti-Catholic machinations of the Kulturkampf. One commentary describes both the text and music of “House Full of Glory” as
an expression of the resistance of the Catholic Church against the Prussian state, as well as against political liberalism and other movements of the modern era that were perceived as afflictions. It was a resistance that enormously strengthened the Catholic Church internally and gave it a public image that was distinctive for a long time.
This once beloved hymn inspired German Catholics for nearly a century until a gust from the “spirit of the Council” blasted through the house.
In an essay in 1971, Ida Friederike Görres identified the hymn “A House Full of Glory” as the epitome of “what is so derided and being abolished today.” One year later, a year after her death, she would be proven right. In 1972, word got out that the commission creating a new hymnal for uniform, nation-wide use in Germany and Austria (plus some other dioceses in Europe with German-speaking Catholics) had decided to omit this hymn because it communicated an image of the Church that the commission considered passé. The fact that the hymn was one of the most well-known and beloved German Catholic hymns either did not matter or else was precisely the problem, because the hymn had the power to be influential, influential in a way the commission was trying to avoid by leaving it out of the new hymnal. Yet, enough complaints came in that, under pressure, the commission agreed to keep the hymn, but with a revised text.
Designing a Trojan Horse
Here is where the story gets shady. The commission creating what is today known as the Gotteslob hymnal announced they would hold a contest to solicit a modernized revision of the hymn. And yet, as subsequent research has shown, records make clear that no contest was ever held and that instead a member of the commission, Friedrich Dörr, wrote the text for what is essentially a new hymn cloaked under the old title and old music. Dörr kept stanza one; he had to, everyone knew it as the opening of the hymn. But then he eliminated stanzas two through seven and replaced them with four new stanzas, even writing new refrains for his four new stanzas. The commission hid Dörr’s hand and the absence of any actual contest by publishing the new version of the hymn under the pseudonym “Hans W. Marx.”
Mohr’s original hymn features themes of “the House of God,” the Church, being strong, eternal, firm, visible, and splendid, even while a “wild storm” rages around it. “Hell’s assault” is pitted against “the Savior’s love and faithfulness” guarding the “wall” and “battlement” around the House, manned by mighty warriors, “inflamed with love,” willing to sacrifice for their faith. Not least of all, Mary, “the purest of all virgins,” is by Christ’s side. There is a “holy fight,” but in the end, the “Founder of the House” is the one who grants “eternal victory.” The music of the refrain is rousing. In it, there is praise of God, petition to God, and ultimately safety and security in God’s House. Mohr intensifies the impact of the refrain by repeating it at the end of each of the seven stanzas.
The Gotteslob version in 1975 by “Hans W. Marx” is bland. In this shorter version, with five stanzas, there is “preaching” into “the world,” a Church built “on Jesus alone,” “peace,” and God “remains close to people.” There is a petition to God, “in tribulation set us free,” and the word “fight” appears once, but there are no warriors, no sacrifice, no victory. The final stanza concludes with God’s “wandering people” on their pilgrimage. Mary is omitted entirely. There is no mention of eternity (other than the “eternal stones” in Mohr’s original first stanza). In stanzas two through five, Mohr’s rousing refrain is replaced with a different text for the end of each stanza.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
The new version of “A House Full of Glory” was cited by Msgr. Heinrich Peters, the former President of the music society for the Diocese of Essen, Germany, as an example of how one can see “the changing theology in the changing texts of our hymns.” “A House Full of Glory,” wrote Peters, is “A song that can show us the development of the doctrine about the Church.” He describes the image of the Church in stanza two of the original version as a “fortress, sealed off from the evil world by high walls and protected against it.” In the new version, he explains, “the Church is the pilgrim people of God, ‘His wandering people,’ whom the Lord wants to lead in this era.” The Church is no longer in “isolation from the world,” rather now “she may proclaim to the world what God has spoken.”’ According to Msgr. Peters,
the Second Vatican Council changed the image of the Church, and this new image of the Church found its expression in a new version of ‘A House Full of Glory.’
Another commentary explains that the 1875 version of this hymn is “clearly recognizable as a battle song,” with the “distress” of facing an “enemy.” But as for the 1975 version, this commentary can only muster the observation that, “the hymnological genre of the new song is somewhat uncertain.”
Manipulating the German Faithful
And here we come to how the mechanism of Trojan Horse hymns makes it possible for the Gotteslob hymnal to have so much influence. In using the titles and the music of some traditional hymns while essentially replacing the text, Gotteslob gives the impression to those who do not know better—such as subsequent generations and foreigners like me—that a hymn is the real deal, and it is presented to the public this way.
In a speech introducing a new edition of Gotteslob, one Archbishop in Germany specifically mentioned the inclusion of “A House Full of Glory” in the 2013 edition of Gotteslob. He said, “And if you are worried now whether the ‘authentic classics’ are still in there: Don’t worry,” they are “included, ‘A House Full of Glory,’” among others. The problem, however, is that this is just not true. What is included in the 2013 edition, in the edition for the Archdiocese of Berlin and elsewhere, is the 1975 version penned by “Hans W. Marx.” Those who do not know the original version would be unaware of just how different the new one is, especially when an archbishop is assuring them the “authentic classics” are included, even naming this one in particular.
The Case of the Missing Old Classic
Today, it is hard to find musical renditions of the traditional version. For one thing, because the new version uses the same title, it is difficult to search online for the traditional version. A search for the hymn with its German title on YouTube, for example, leads only to many recordings of the new Gotteslob version by “Hans W. Marx.”
And in my experience, German-speaking Catholics today generally know only the new version. At a Sunday Mass in Austria in January 2023, we sang several stanzas from the 1875 original (thanks to a “unicorn priest”). What I heard was striking. In stanza one, which is in both versions, the congregation sang unusually robustly (this hymn is inspiring!). But then, suddenly, at the next stanzas from the old version, provided on a songsheet that not everyone had, large parts of the congregation dropped out; the volume dropped noticeably. Many people did not know the stanzas of the traditional version. This is an example of how the Gotteslob has succeeded in replacing the traditional version with a modern ersatz version in the memories of German-speaking Catholics. Even this relatively conservative congregation no longer knows the original text of this great, once-famous hymn.
The “New” New Version
But there’s more. The hymn “A House Full of Glory” is now receiving another update. In February 2023, the Diocese of Wurzburg, Germany issued a press release to celebrate the publication of a new hymnal titled, Mit anderen Worten. Neue Texte zu bekannten Melodien [In Other Words: New Texts for Well Known Melodies].
The diocese explains, “Many traditional religious songs stir the soul with their melody. But the images of God contained in the song lyrics no longer fit today’s era.” One of the contributors illustrated “the principle of the book” by explaining book’s treatment of “A House Full of Glory,” likely because it is such a famous hymn.
In Mohr’s 1875 version, the first stanza, retained in the 1975 revision by “Hans W. Marx,” is:
A house of full of glory gazes
Far over all the lands,
Built of eternal stone
By God’s master hands.
In the 2023 version of the new In Other Words hymnal, Mohr’s first stanza has been eliminated. The new first stanza is:
I dream of church
that exists without power
that proclaims Jesus’ message
that God lives in man.
According to Fr. Franz Schmitt, a contributor to the new hymnal,
Terms like ‘eternal stone’ are no longer in keeping with the times … That’s why we tried to express a new dream of church…
Schmitt explains, further, that they did this by replacing traditional “Church language” with “texts that are grounded.” Thus, in addition to the Trojan Horse hymns scattered throughout the Gotteslob, the new book In Other Words is a hymnal consisting entirely of Trojan Horse hymns, tugging on heart strings with traditional melodies while keeping the focus on what is appropriate for “today’s era” with “grounded” lyrics.
And yet, the fact remains that the older German Catholic hymns are a rich treasure. I suspect that congregations of Catholics raised on those old hymns would be significantly less susceptible to the Synodal Way agenda than are Catholics who have known nothing but the Gotteslob for nearly fifty years now.
The Truly Living Tradition
Familiarity with the history of the German Gotteslob hymnal is useful for tradition loving Catholics today. It should help us appreciate the value of protecting and preserving traditional hymns and composing new hymns with traditional roots.
Tradition is, after all, alive; as Görres describes it, it is “at the same time a process that occurs and its result.” But there is a difference between allowing a tree to grow versus removing the tree and letting a weed plot go to seed. Cherish the hymns of Tradition: teach them to your children, sing them at home, sing them during processions, study them, and, not least of all, memorize them so that if someone tries to repackage them inside a Trojan Horse with “zir new and improved version!”, they will fail, and the traditions of the Church will live on for the benefit of souls.
Jennifer Bryson, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She lives in Heiligenkreuz, Austria.
Jennifer Bryson, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Catholic Women’s Forum. Currently, she is translating the works of Ida Friederike Görres (1901-1971) from German to English while in residence at the Pope Benedict XVI Philosophical-Theological Institute, known as Hochschule Heiligenkreuz, in Austria.