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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Sing Them All!

by Gary D. Penkala
How would you feel if your favorite football team "called it quits" after the second quarter of the long-awaited bowl game? Or if the local news team decided not to bother with the weather one night? How would you react if your favorite television mystery never returned after the last commercial break to reveal "whodunit?"

In all probability, each of these events would excite our anger, test our tempers, and prick our nerves. It is a strong possibility that any one of these events would provoke strong public reaction.

But let us move a little closer to the point. How would you react if your lector began reading the Scriptures telling of the birth of Christ but never got to the scene in Bethlehem? "He'd never do that," you could say. Maybe so. But that's, in effect, precisely what we are often guilty of when we sing our favorite hymns.

Judith Gotwald has written the words above about the state of hymn singing in Catholic churches in this country. Many believe that hymns are to be sung only in small doses -- no more than two verses at one sitting, for certainly more than this would "overtax the average adult attention span." This is entirely contrary to common sense, to century-tested usage in non-Catholic denominations, and to the directives of our own Church which hope to restore music to its proper place in the liturgy.

This haphazard view of hymn singing has been given clerical support by the false notion that the Entrance Song (an official part of the Mass) is merely "walking music" to accompany the priest to the altar. One who proports this distortion is not fully aware of the liturgical function of the Entrance Song to unite the congregation at the beginning of their communal celebration. A look at the General Instruction on the Roman Missal reveals the purpose of the Entrance Song is "to open the celebration, introduce the mystery of the season or feast, and," only lastly, "accompany the procession." (paragraph 25) The rubrics indicate that the Greeting is to begin after the Entrance Song, not when the priest reaches the altar! If, by clerical edict, this song must stop upon arrival at the altar, the message is very clear -- "Community singing is not important and is subservient to time and convenience."

On many hymns it is a literary and theological sin to stop short of the final verse. For example, in the hymn, "Sing Praise to Our Creator," the role of the Holy Spirit is often ignored, simply because it is mentioned in the "unnecessary" third verse. The end of the second verse of "Sing of Mary" leaves us on Calvary, witness to the Crucified Christ, with no hint of the Resurrection to come. Many Catholics have never even heard the third verse of "The Church's One Foundation," with its timely plea for the unity of all Christians. Hymns such as these, and almost all other hymns, should be sung in their entirety.

It is wrong to insist that a hymn has no spiritual value save as filler-music. The attitude of the celebrant should reflect full acceptance and participation in the hymnody of the Church. Singing the entire hymn might mean delaying the start of the procession until the second verse begins, or walking slower (to "process," not to "jog"). At the and of Mass it might mean leaving the altar later. Is this so wrong?

Any Sunday morning congregation should be able to sing hymns including even as many as five verses, with the proper support of the clergy and the organist (whose duty it is to make the hymn singable, interesting and enjoyable). Serious questions, however, must be raised about the selection of hymns with over six verses and as many as eleven. Are the text and the music of sufficient quality to warrant the singing of that many verses? Being an organist and choir director myself, I would still find difficulty in singing all the verses of "Whatsoever You Do." The text and music in no way justify that much expenditure on my part. One is on much more solid ground, however, in choosing pieces from legitimate Christian hymnody.

Thus in reviewing music in the Church we see that hymn singing must be given its proper place in the liturgy. Its rightful status must be reflected in the attitudes of the celebrant, the organist, and the other ministers. The value of hymnody as a catechetical tool in our parishes, for adults and for children, must not be underestimated. The truths of the faith become fixed in our souls when they are linked to melody. Few people leave the church on Sunday whistling the sermon!

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