Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Vernacular Hymns...

On Sunday afternoon I had a discussion with a friend, whose views I respect, about the dignity of having vernacular hymns during Liturgy. His view was that vernacular hymns were really no different from having things like Adoro Te Devote or Pange Lingua to ''fill the gaps'' (if the Propers were not Psalm-toned but were instead sung to the real plainchant melodies in the Roman Gradual there would be less gaps), since the Latin hymns were not strictly liturgical texts proper to the liturgical day. I concede this much. My view was that nothing in the vernacular is liturgical, and therefore the singing of vernacular hymns is alien to the spirit of the Liturgy. The usual rule of thumb with me is that if ever the Sacred Congregation of Rites issues a directive, always do the exact opposite, but we have it as late as 1958 (De Sacra Musica, 3rd September) that: During High or Sung Mass nothing may be sung in the vernacular. I agree wholeheartedly with this. Unfortunately the conversation was cut short because I had to go to work, but it is worth articulating a few things here.

I usually leave accusations of ''developments'' since the Second Vatican Council as being overly-Protestant to Traditionalists (Protestantism is, these days, strangely outside of my thoughts), but I cannot help thinking that vernacular hymns have contributed heavily to the collapse of Traditional Liturgy in a very Protestant fashion. (A slightly less-informed reader once accused me of Protestantism for questioning Papal authority over Liturgy - I am anything but Protestant I assure you! I would have thought that my thoughts on the primacy of Liturgy would at least indicate this...) As a boy, attending Sunday Mass with my mother (and, not seldom, also with my grandparents in the evening - you see I enjoyed being extra pious as a boy, plus I would get another Sunday roast and pudding out of it), I would sing merrily away (even at the top of my voice) with the rest of the congregation such hymns as Soul of my Saviour, The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came, even ones like Walk in the Light and Make me a Channel of your all seemed to be about ''feeling good'' about the Faith rather than uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of the Altar. Afterwards my grandmother, with her typically-Irish enthusiasm about Catholic devotions (remember the intimidating portrait of the Sacred Heart over the mantelpiece I mentioned? She even has a church-sized statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in her living room...), was wont to approach Father and say something like: ''Och, wasn't that a lovely Mass, father!'' - she might as well have said: ''Wonderful service Vicar!''

To be quite frank, these vernacular hymns (the whole Mass was in English though) dominated and smothered the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. There were no sung Propers, and if the priest read them at the Altar (or wherever he stands in the New Rite) I didn't know (or care - I was more interested in which page to turn to next in the hymnal). And in hindsight it all seemed very untoward. But what is the history of vernacular hymns?

Hymnody is as old as the hills. The ancients, the Romans and the Greeks, sang hymns (which in Classical Greek and Latin was their vernacular of course) to their gods, not only in the public Ritus, but to the Lar, the household god as well. The very word ''hymn'' is of Greek derivation. But Christian vernacular hymns are of significantly less eld than the Greeks and the wonderful Latin hymnody of St Ambrose and Prudentius. It was the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century who, in their zeal to abolish Liturgy, composed vernacular hymns, catchy, easy things to learn, enkindling enthusiasm for the new heretical movement in the hearts of their followers. People singing a vernacular hymn (packed full of propaganda against the old Roman Church) at the top of their voices created an obvious sense of community and solidarity. But vernacular hymns have no place whatsoever in the Sacred Liturgy - they are in fact wholly alien to the Sacred Liturgy, since the hymns do not express the same sentiments as the texts of the Mass, which themselves are to be sung, but the sentiments of the mind (in many cases, a reprobate mind - I have often heard Protestant hymns at Catholic funerals of relatives) that composed them. And so people who sing vernacular hymns, sometimes at Masses according to the Old Roman Rite, may be moved - there may be ''active participation'' of the faithful - but they are not moved by the Liturgy itself, but by something that is imposed upon Liturgy and something which is inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Whereas the plainchant melodies of the Gradual, which are suited to the Roman Mass, resonate from church unto church and express that singular and harmonious, concordant voice of the Universal Church which rises to God's Altar in Heaven and reflects the Heavenly Liturgy which is there. Plainsong is as old as the Church and expresses the belief of the Church. Vernacular hymns are diametrically opposed to this, and most of the ''Catholic'' ones are very recent, and reflect the growing tendency in the Church to ''liturgize'' pious devotions (such hymns as ''Sweet Heart of Jesus'' are obvious examples). It is not about singing at Mass, but singing the Mass itself. If, for practical reasons (in a parish setting, for example, the Propers are psalm-toned) there are big gaps in the chants of the Mass, then why not sing a Psalm appropriate to the day? Choose one from the Office of the Day and be content, but I have serious liturgical misgivings about the enthusiastic singing of vernacular hymns (even after the Liturgy has ended) in church.

Of course, this post is not going to change the dispositions of those who hail from liturgical Philistia and people will lamentably continue to sing vernacular hymns in the spirit of antiliturgism...


  1. I detest replacing the sung propers with hymns. In the new rite, if they're not sung they're left out altogether. The priest doesn't say them.

    I sing in our parish choir and we do sing most of the proper parts from the Graduale, however, the priest usually does insist on there being a hymn during the Offertory. The parish hymnal is essentially full of Lutheran hymns, a couple of them originally composed by Martin Luther himself. How ironic!

    On some feasts, such as the feast of St. Henry our patron saint, we do the chants in Finnish. Actually, I think Finnish works quite well with the chant (though not as good as Latin for obvious reasons). However, chant in English just sounds odd to my ears.

  2. Much as I love traditional Catholic hymns (and 'Sweet heart of Jesus' is a firm favourite - sorry), I could have written this article myself.

    It expresses everything I have been saying for years about music at Mass. Hymns (vernacular or Latin) have no place. The GIRM sets out the 'options' for the chants (Introit, Gradual Offertory and Communion) and these should be used, preferably from the Graduale Romanum, but the Simple Gradual is next in line. The last option, "hymns appproved by the conference of bishops" cannot apply in the UK, because the conference has never approved any such collection - and hasn't the theological or liturgical competence to do so, anyway, so Lord knows what we'd end up with!

    The last English hymnal to receive an imprimatur was, I believe, the revised Westminster Hymnal - and that was c.1938 - and was not produced with the celebration of Holy Mass in mind.

    So yes, keep hymns out of Mass, but on other occasions, let us sing them with gusto.

  3. Paul Knight, I imagine that Finnish must work well with Gregorian Chant - when Tolkien had his ''Namarie'' set to music in the 1960s, it more or less sounded like Gregorian Chant - and Quenya is very resonant of Finnish. That is not to say, however, that I approve of a vernacularized Gregorian chant!

    Monica, many thanks for your comment. I personally think that you should never sing vernacular hymns, or say the Rosary, in church as a public service. Keep such things in the home preferably.