Liturgical Music

I’ve contemplated writing about liturgical music for some time.  I think I will make this “Liturgical Music” week (remember “Education Week” back in the first days of this blog?) although I am not promising to write every day!
I am only a lay person, with a lay person’s understanding of this topic–I want to make that clear up front.   I do, however, have a lot of opinions, and instead of continuing to rant about expound upon them to my family and friends, I would like to share them here.  I would welcome your thoughts!
Let’s use a recent post at a First Things blog as a jumping off point.   The authors decided to come up with a list of what they considered to be the worst hymns ever.  I’ll list them (with my comments), although you may want to click on the link anyway to see/hear them performed.
Note:  This is not the post in which I discuss what kind of music is officially preferred for use at Mass.  This is just for fun!
10. “Pescador de los Hombres” (Lord, When You Stood by the Seashore)
Well. I love this song.  Not only because it was said to be the favorite of Pope John Paul II, but because I think the music and the message are beautiful, and I love the image of Jesus “kindly smiling.”  I chose this for my grandmother’s funeral Mass, and now I can’t hear it without crying.
9. “I Am the Bread of Life,” by Suzanne Toolan
I loved this song until the advent of inclusive language, which is going to get an entire post to itself (I can’t wait!!)  Now I dread it.  Sometimes I just sing it the right way despite everyone around me.  Please tell me I am not alone in doing this!
8. “On Eagles’ Wings, ” by Michael Joncas
This is the music I grew into my faith on, from about 7th grade through college.  I had this played at my wedding and at my last high school reunion Mass.  This one is emblematic of Catholic 80s music, which is apparently a Bad Thing (and we will talk about that later as well).  What can I say?  I like the song, I like the music, it’s all straight out of the Bible, and everyone knows it and can belt it out.
7. “Pan de Vida, cuerpo del Señor,” by Bob Hurd and Pia Moriarty
I don’t know this one and I will confess that I don’t really get why a congregation of English speakers are forced to sing in a foreign tongue. Yes, on multicultural occasions or at a Spanish Mass, but other than that it feels false and trendy to me.  If we aren’t going to sing in English, let’s try, you know, LATIN. [edit: I know this one now but my opinion hasn’t changed.  Although it’s kind of fun to try to sing in Spanish.]
6. “Sing a New Song,” by Dan Schutte
We won’t be able to sing this as written much longer anyway, now that “Yahweh” has been nixed.  I suppose this one gives off a kind of scary folk mass vibe, what with those “glad tambourines” and all, but folks seem to enjoy singing it.
5. “We Remember,” by Marty Haugen
We’ve done this one to death at my parish, thanks to a custom we had of singing the SAME SONG EVERY WEEK at communion, for months at a time, apparently because someone felt it would be easier for people since they couldn’t carry their song books up to communion with them (I don’t know about you, but I know THOUSANDS of hymns by heart.  Why not just pick from the ones we all know?).  No, I don’t think I like this one much.
4. “Here I Am, Lord,” by Dan Schutte
I love this one.  I admit it.  I know they say it’s theologically incorrect for the people to sing as though they were speaking God’s words.  But I still love this song.  Except when they don’t let us sing the whole thing (the subject of another post).
3. “City of God, ” by Dan Schutte
I think this makes a rollicking exit hymn.  These people sure have Dan Schutte on their hit list, don’t they?  He’s a favorite of most people who grew up when I did.  Sentiment definitely plays a role in musical preference, doesn’t it?  And Dan sure does like to sing about dancing!
2. “Gather Us In,” by Marty Haugen
People LOVE this one.  Marty Haugen’s songs are catchy.  Some of them are a little . . . heretical, I’m afraid.  I like the way people sing out when this is the opening song.  I don’t really care for its navel gazing self-celebratory tone, or for this line “Not in the dark of buildings confining.  Not in some heaven light years away.”  Umm . . . why are we in church at all, then?  Is heaven not important any more?  What exactly does he mean?  Does he even know, or did it just fit with his rhyme and rhythm scheme at the time?
1. “Sons of God, Hear His Holy Word,” by James Thiem
You know what’s funny about this?  When I was really little–a preschooler–my parents were college students and we frequently attended John XXIII, the campus church.  This was my favorite song we sang there.  I remember being excited when we sang it.  I haven’t heard it in years and years, or most of the songs we sang then (probably a good thing).  But I can’t help but be happy when I hear this one.  Admittedly the lyrics are nothing to get excited about, but at least they aren’t heretical as far as I can tell.
Is anyone brave enough to chime in at this point?  What do you think of these songs?  What would be on your “worst hymns” list?  (“The Servant Song” would top mine–does everyone hate me now?)

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  2. Julie says:

    So, these are the worst songs according to some people? These are some of my favorite songs. “City of God” and “Here I am, Lord” especially. They remind me of all those masses at St. Joseph. I also like “Gather Us In” and “Sing a New Song.” My kids sing “Sing a New Song” at mass at St. Bernard and they love it – it’s one of those songs that’s so easy to sing and that everyone join in with. How sad that my favorite music is either out of fashion or (gasp) heretical. “On Eagles Wings” always made me sad when I was little, I think because there were so many minor notes in it – it just sounds sad.

    • lesliesholly says:

      I knew I could get people stirred up with this topic! It seems to stir up strong emotions, for whatever reason. I do think a lot of it has to do with the sentimental value we feel at songs we have grown up hearing. I’m very critical by nature and once I start to dig into things like what the lyrics really mean it is hard for me to stop. I think for kids it’s important that THEY like the music and get excited about joining in. We sang some pretty dreadful songs at St. Joseph when I was first there (I plan a post on some of those oldies but maybe not so goodies eventually!). Would you believe, though, that one of the objections (officially) to these songs is that they are NOT easy to sing? That old-fashioned hymns and CHANT are easier for the majority of folks in the pews? I don’t feel equipped to judge that because I love to sing and I can read music so they seem easy to me.

  3. Emily says:

    I still think are being too hard on the Servant Song…
    I like:
    -Tree of Life or anything that uses that tune
    -Somebody’s Knockin at Your Door
    -Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley
    -All Glory, Laud and Honor
    -O Sacred Head Surrounded
    -Were You There
    -The King of Glory
    -Canticle of the Sun
    -Sing Out, Earth and Skies
    -I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
    -Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
    -Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
    -How Great Thou Art
    -Joyful, Joyful We Adore You
    -All Creatures of Our God and King
    -We Walk By Faith
    -We Remember
    -Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God
    -How Can I Keep From Singing
    -Be Not Afraid
    -Amazing Grace
    -On Eagle’s Wings
    -Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
    -What Wondrous Love is This
    -Shepherd Me O God (might be my favorite)
    -You Are Mine
    -Bring Forth the Kingdom (it’s fun to sing)
    -The Servant Song (minus verse 3)
    -Tis the Gift to Be Simple
    -Here I Am, Lord
    -I Danced in the Morning
    -The Summons
    -Lord When You Came to the Seashore (i love this one, but of course I cry everytime I hear it now)
    -We Are Called
    -Make Me A Channel of Your Peace
    -All Are Welcome
    -Gather Us In
    -Morning Has Broken
    -Soon and Very Soon
    -Hail Holy Queen
    -Immaculate Mary
    -Ave Maria
    -Softly and Tenderly
    -Though the Mountains May Fall
    Most of these are probably terrible songs, but they’re the ones that I have fond memories of and I feel closer to God when I’m singing them, which is what I think matters about hymns.

    • lesliesholly says:

      I see you have a mixture of old and new there. On a personal level, I think there are good new songs and good old songs–enough good songs that I wonder why we have to sing the bad ones? Can’t we look at the new stuff with a more critical eye, and at least not sing the heretical or nonsensical ones?

  4. Melanie says:

    Well a couple of my favs are on the list too. I love Eagles Wings & Here I am. They remind me of many a mass at St Joes or KCHS. What’s the big deal about 80’s mass music? If we liked the songs, we sang out strong, if not we barely mumbled through them right?

  5. Miss K. says:

    Well,
    Here’s the point:
    Surprise! “Hymns” per se do not belong at Latin Rite Catholic Mass. The congregation / choir is supposed to be “singing the Mass”, not singing AT Mass. Propers, ordinaries, all the like.
    Please see the website musicasacra.com. It is eye-opening! You will get an education!
    Surprise! Vatican II says that chant has “pride of place”. When do you even ever experience chant at your local parish church? Why is it all crap written in the last 40 years?
    Just some things to think about!
    It is telling that a lot of these comments focus on how much the kids love certain songs – – the music that is foisted on Catholics fits the taste of a 6-year old. No one is ever allowed to grow up to something else.

    • lesliesholly says:

      Thanks for that link. This is really something that I don’t know a whole lot about, and what I do know I have found out on my own, which is telling. The average Catholic in the pews doesn’t have a clue about any of this. The only time we do chant is on Holy Thursday. And I love it!

  6. Katy B says:

    My husband and i read this string of comments out loud–and we howled! We especially loved the parody of “Gather Us In”. We voted for “Sing a New Church” as having some of the worst words (though we love the Nettleton melody) and “The Cry of the Poor” for just the worst overall.
    Definitely, there i some baaaaaad music being sung in lots of Catholic churches today. Some of it is bad theologically, but most of it is just lamely performed. (We listened to some samples of the St. Louis Jesuits performing their own stuff and it’s way better than what we hear). The other problem is the frequency with which some of the songs are used. Our missalette has LOTS of songs in it, but I’ll bet we hear less than a third of them.
    Notice I said “hear” –not that anyone sings other than the cantor. Our parish doesn’t sing as a group. Most everyone just “watches” the Mass. It’s like watching TV, only it’s live and there’s communion in the middle of it.

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