One of the most regular grumbles I receive is about my choice of hymns for Mass. It’s a minefield because I am convinced that the vast majority of people like or dislike a hymn in a purely subjective manner. I guess usually they have memories of hymns they like because of their childhood or because a particular hymn pushes a particular emotional button for them.
What people don’t seem to realize is that there are actually some criteria for choosing good hymns. The fact that so many of the hymns in our Catholic hymnals are terrible musically, heterodox theologically, contain execrable poetry, maudlin sentiments and trashy pop psychology doesn’t help. People need to learn that just because a hymn is published doesn’t make it good. Furthermore, just because it’s popular doesn’t make it good.
So what are the criteria for decent hymns? I’m going to do several posts on this topic to cover the territory. I hope they help. First thing: we choose a hymn for what it contributes to the liturgy. A gospel song may be inspirational. It may be decent musically. It may be okay poetically. It may be very popular, but it may not be suitable for the liturgy. Everything in the liturgy is meant to complement and focus on the action of the Mass. The music needs to be appropriate for the particular part of the Mass in which it is used.
In other words, we don’t just choose hymns because we like to sing them. The processional hymn is a modern form of the introit. The words should lead us in praise to God as we enter into his presence. This is a first and basic principle for a hymn. It should be obvious that a hymn is a song of praise to God. It is directed from us to God. It’s simple. However, an awful lot of modern hymns are not songs of praise to God at all. They’re about us. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook (Notice that it is called ‘Gather’ not ‘Worship’) and see how many of the hymns are not about God at all, but they are about us, our gathering together, our mission in the world, our life, our love, our fellowship. Read the words. It’s amazing how many hardly mention God at all. These are not hymns. They’re pep songs and when we use them we turn worship into a pep rally.
The processional should not only use words of praise to God, but the music should be suitable for a procession. It should be singable with a dependable rhythm and accessible tune. It should be positive, reverent and stately for we are entering into the court of the King. The organ should lead with a strong and firm tone as the procession enters. As it does our hearts are lifted and prepared for worship.
The offertory should be a quieter hymn of reverent offering of ourselves and our gifts to God. It too is a hymn of praise to God, and not a hymn of personal devotion or subjective emotion. This hymn voices a corporate action of worship and should not be about ‘me and Jesus’. A great offertory hymn is Now Thank We All Our God.
Communion music (in my opinion) should not be sung by the congregation, but by the choir. This is the opportunity for a eucharistic hymn or anthem. Here the more devotional, personal and intimate hymns are appropriate. How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds or I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. If contemporary chant and reverent, personal gospel songs are used, this is the place for them. However, it should be noted that an awful lot of contemporary communion hymns used in Catholic worship do not express Catholic theology. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook and see how many Eucharistic hymns talk about our ‘eating the bread and drinking the wine.’ Uhhh. We’re Catholics. It’s not bread and wine. Remember? Heretical Eucharistic theology is expressed in these hymns which are often written by Protestants. Considering that the only theology most Catholics receive is through their hymns, not wonder belief in the Real Presence is fading.
I’m of the opinion that the final hymn (if there must be one at all) should be sung after communion while the ablutions are going on. Here is where some of the upbeat, strong and inspiring Eucharistic hymns like Alleluia Sing to Jesus can be used. It’s also a good place for solid hymns of thanksgiving, praise and worship like Love Divine All Loves Excelling or O God Beyond All Praising.
This leave the organist to play a postlude for the recessional which leaves people in the mood to get up and go. No more fiddling about with hymnsheets and hymnbooks. Just listen to the music, watch them leave and then go out to love and serve the Lord.