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Those dreadful old Catholic hymns?
The above title may need an explanation. It doesn't mean, of course, that all the old hymns we learnt as children were bad, but we have to admit that many of them were too awful to contemplate. This refers not only to the words of the hymns, but very often to the tunes as well and the sentiments that prompted the words.
On the other hand, far more numerous than the bad hymns were the good ones, hymns rich in theology, devotion and coupled with unforgettable melodies, so unforgettable that the ones we learnt as children under the direction of good nuns (remember those days?) are still remembered all through life and remain for us a source of divine inspiration. This is especially so of those hymns whose words are taken from holy Scripture.
As an example of a badly-worded hymn we can consider the old favourite "O Mother I could weep for mirth", where it is obvious that the word mirth was put in simply to rhyme with earth in the next line. One could quote many similar examples of ill-chosen words.
Some of the tunes were also very uninspiring, such as that of "Faith of Our Fathers", but many of the hymns we have borrowed from non-Catholic sources are musically of a very high standard and the words are equally good poetry.
The beautiful hymn by Parry, "And did those feet in ancient times...", as well as "For All the Saints" by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and my own favourite "Abide with Me," along with many other wonderful hymns, were all written by non-Catholics. These include the beautiful hymns by Cardinal Newman, like "Lead Kindly Light", written during the years he was searching for the true Church, and the hymns in his Dream of Gerontius.
When you have excellent poetry wedded to excellent melodies you have the makings of excellent hymns.
I have always been keenly interested in Catholic and Protestant hymnology. Several of my own compositions were chosen to be included in the St Andrew's Scottish Hymnal some years ago, nearly all of them on Scottish themes, such as "Our Lady of the Isles" and "Ye Saints of Scotland's Western Isles". My hymn for the Immaculate Conception was included in the English language breviary - "Holy Light on Earth's Horizon". I have included these personal details to explain my keen interest in the hymns of the liturgy.
I sometimes think that many of the well-known tunes associated with popular songs would make very good congregational hymns perfectly suited to the liturgy. For example, songs like "In a Monastery Garden", "The Nuns' Chorus", "Last night I Lay Asleeping", and even songs like "When you Come to the End of a Perfect Day", are all well-known and very beautiful so there is no reason why they could not be consecrated to the glory of God in our liturgical celebrations, remembering that all beauty belongs to God.
We knew so many lovely hymns in years gone by, but I doubt if children today would know many they could sing by heart, simply because they have never been taught. St Augustine mentions somewhere how much he loved to hear the workmen in the fields singing the Latin psalms they learnt in church.
I thought of this one day in Sydney when I was attached to a certain parish and the convent-educated children were coming to my Mass on the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. I asked the teaching Sister what hymns the children would be singing in honour of Our Lady. The teacher blushed, as well she might, when she admitted "They don't know any hymns to Mary".
But they knew some silly songs like "I wish I were a butterfly"! This is somewhat reflective of the dreadful falling-away from Catholic practice which has come into our schools over the past 30 years or so.
On the same theme, I wonder how many children to-day would know a hymn to St Joseph? When I was teaching in Scotland the children had a selection of lovely hymns, like
Dear Spouse of Our Lady, dear nurse of her Child,
I wonder if our children to-day are taught to lean for support on the strong arm of a Joseph.
I remember an amusing incident during a big Mass in St Mary's Cathedral when one of the congregation was amazed to see a little girl of about four singing for all she was worth. When he drew closer, he found she was singing with gusto, "Baa Baa Black Sheep!"
I am sure the angels were delighted!
One of our well-known abbots was the scholarly Oswald Hunter Blair. In his last years when he knew he was dying, he called all the monks into his room and asked them to sing his favourite hymn to Our Lady, "Mary Immaculate Star of the Morning, Chosen before the Creation Began". When they came to the line "Stretch out thine arms to us, living and dying", the holy old man peacefully passed to heaven and I'm sure to those outstretched arms of Mary.
To sum up, there is still a lot of work to be done in this area of the liturgy to get the people to learn and to sing good and appropriate hymns, "That in all things God may be glorified."
Fr Fabian Duggan OSB resides at the Lumen Christi Priory, Wagga Wagga Diocese, NSW.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 5 (June 2003), p. 12
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