Should Catholics sing hymns at Mass? Given the state of Catholic liturgical music, it’s a fair question. In the last century, Catholics exchanged their musical solid food for milk—usually skim and on the edge of going sour. Hymns at Mass are a recent addition to the liturgy. Hymns were used in the daily office, rotating by day or by season, but the Tridentine Mass had chants for particular days—the propers of the Mass—not hymns. Protestant congregations who were departing from medieval practice in other ways introduced hymns into the liturgy itself, and, as many Christians of all kinds acknowledge, Catholic attempts to appropriate and improve on this Protestant modification have not turned out well.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that some Catholics who want to fix church music focus on Gregorian chant and move away from hymns altogether. Others lean more favorably toward hymns, but seek to make sure that they are Catholic hymns. But there are good reasons for Catholics to sing hymns—and Protestant hymns, at that. Even as they strive for excellence in Gregorian chant and other areas of musical renewal, Catholics would do well to remember what good hymns can do and why excellence in hymn-singing should be part of the Catholic liturgical renewal.
First, good hymns offer an excellent opportunity for catechesis, which is one of the purposes of liturgy. Like the proper chants, they can help us digest the truths of God we have just received in Scripture and offer an exegesis of particular feasts themselves. Consider the Lutheran Easter hymn, “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness”:
Now I will cling forever
To Christ, my Savior true;
My Lord will leave me never,
Whate’er He passeth through.
He rends Death’s iron chain,
He breaks through sin and pain,
He shatters hell’s dark thrall,
I follow Him through all. . . .
He brings me to the portal
That leads to bliss untold,
Whereon this rhyme immortal
Is found in script of gold:
“Who there My cross hath shared
Finds here a crown prepared;
Who there with Me hath died
Shall here be glorified.”
Notice the unexpected way Paul Gerhardt puts it: It is not that I will never leave Christ, whatever I pass through, but that he will never leave me. In a short turn of phrase, Gerhardt reminds us of the assurances that come through Christ’s resurrection: Whatever we suffer, we suffer with him at our side—and knowing the end of his story, we have hope for the end of our own. We follow Christ as he harrows Hell and routs the many places it has encamped in our own souls. We are promised the cross, yes, but also the crown. In these two verses, Gerhardt had left us a rich primer on the resurrection, a sixteen-line sermon on what the triumph of Christ means for the life of a Christian.
Because these hymns can be vehicles for handing on the Catholic faith, they remind us of the real meaning of Catholic. At its heart, to say that something is Catholic is not to say that it was written by a person in communion with the bishop of Rome but that it is in accord with the universal apostolic heritage. This means, of course, that not all hymns are suitable for Catholic liturgies. But it also means that if a hymn proclaims the Catholic faith, then—regardless of its origin—we should consider it a Catholic hymn.
This is the vision of catholicity put forward in Vatican II. The Council fathers write in Lumen Gentium that while the Church in the world subsists in the Catholic Church, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.” In the decree on ecumenism, they note that such elements “belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” They continue: “Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian . . . can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.”
In other words, if a Protestant hymn contains Catholic truth, it is a Catholic hymn as well. Singing such hymns is, in the deepest sense of the word, truly Catholic. Furthermore, many hymns capture the particular genius of a group of believers, a way of putting things that the Holy Spirit has allowed to develop in particular times and places. In singing hymns that embody that genius, Catholics can claim them as a gift for themselves as well.
For the sake of teaching the faith and living out its catholicity, therefore, Catholics should give serious consideration to good hymnody. Yes, we should resurrect our own treasures that we have discarded. Restore Gregorian chant to its rightful place and ramp up the Latin, by all means. And yes, we must be careful about what hymns we chose. But it is good for Catholics to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” and “Abide with Me.” For with them all Christians can praise God, hand on of the faith, and help bind up sad divisions. If the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, and if being Catholic means what she claims it means, then singing such hymns truly is a Catholic thing to do.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.
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