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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles

by Gary D. Penkala


A portion of Saint Paul's letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-11) is holy poetry. While it doesn't have the rhyme scheme we associate with most poetry, if you find this passage in a Bible or in the Lectionary from which it is read at Mass, you'll see that it is set off in the special "line phrases" of poetry, rather than the block printing of prosody. This Pauline text has inspired many musicians, from the many chant and Renaissance settings of Christus factus est (Christ became obedient) to the great 20th century hymn by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, At the Name of Jesus, found in many hymnals. The Church, capturing some of the eloquence and the ability of poetry to speak directly to the heart, makes frequent use of poems in her liturgies. There are three types of liturgical poems, captured (by coincidence or not) in the title of a hymnal by eminent Boston musician and scholar, Dr. Theodore Marier. The title of the excellent volume, Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles, says it all.


Hymns, in the precise and accurate sense of the word, are more rare in the Roman liturgy than we might assume. By "Roman liturgy" I mean those rituals that are celebrated by the Latin Rite (or Roman Rite) of the Catholic Church, as opposed to the rituals celebrated by the Ambrosian Rite or the various Eastern Rites, like the Maronite or Coptic Rites. If we define a "hymn" as a sacred poem in stanza form, with recurring meter and rhyme pattern, with each stanza set to the same music, then a hymn is called for in the official Roman Rite much less than we might think.

A hymn is found near the beginning of every hour in the Liturgy of the Hours (in the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer and Night Prayer). This is a required part of the liturgy, and the hymn stands on its own - in other words, it is meant to accompany no other action, as a processional hymn might do.

There are several hymns called for in the Eucharistic Liturgy. The Gloria that we frequently sing near the beginning of Mass is a poem, a hymn, based at the outset on the song of the angels found in the second chapter of Saint Luke's Gospel. The Sanctus with which we open the Eucharistic Prayer may also be considered a hymn.

Beyond these, though, the "hymns" that we sing at Mass (for example, the Entrance Hymn, or the Communion Hymn) are not really what the Roman Rite envisions at those points. The official rite calls for an antiphon (called the Introit or Communion Antiphon), with psalm verses sung between. That particularly "Roman" style opening can be seen in CNP's Roman Basilica Processionals. We, in Anglo-Saxon countries, have perhaps too easily substituted hymns for these official antiphon/psalm settings, in part as a bow to our Protestant brethren in whose tradition the hymn and chorale as such developed.

The only other occurrence of hymns within the Roman Rite are the processional hymns that are called for on special occasions: All Glory, Laud and Honor on Palm Sunday, or Pange lingua on Holy Thursday.


Undoubtedly the most familiar form of liturgical poetry is the psalm. The Book of Psalms (often called the Psalter) was the prayerbook, or more precisely, the hymnal, of Jewish worship. Our Savior himself was thoroughly familiar with this hymnal, and made frequent quotations from it in his ministry. The use of psalms continued unbroken into early Christian worship, and even to this very day. We are quite familiar with the Responsorial Psalm with which we sing our corporate response to the First Reading. Each of the antiphons I mentioned earlier (Introit and Communion) are most often derived from a verse or two of a psalm.

While these are the most familiar uses of the psalms in normal parish life, the Church makes much greater demand on the Psalter in the Liturgy of the Hours, the other half of her liturgical life. Psalmody forms the basis of each hour, whether it be one psalm in Night Prayer, two psalms and a canticle in Morning and Evening Prayer, or three psalms in Daytime Prayer and the Office of Readings. The full beauty of the Psalter is exposed as its psalms are distributed over a four-week period at the various hours. For centuries, clergy and religious have come to be inspired and nourished by chanting these psalms. Only recently has this treasure been opened to and promoted for the laity. All would do well to seek out services of Morning and Evening Prayer as a valuable means of expanding our own exposure to the Church's full liturgical life.


Canticles, technically, are poems found in Scripture From the "Blessing of Israel" in Genesis to the "Wedding Song of the Lamb" in Revelation, the Bible is replete with examples of sacred poetry. The Church uses this wealth in the Liturgy of the Hours. Canticles, or Scripture poems, from the Old Testament are sung daily at Morning Prayer, twenty-five of them being distributed over a four-week period. Seven canticles from the New Testament, on the other hand, are sung, one on each day of the week, at Evening Prayer. This pattern repeats weekly at Evening Prayer.

The great Gospel Canticles found in Saint Luke form the climax of the Hours in which they are found. The Benedictus (or Canticle of Zechariah) is sung daily at Morning Prayer. The Magnificat (or Canticle of Mary) occurs at Evening Prayer. The Nunc dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon) closes Night Prayer and with it the Church's liturgical day.

The canticles, other than appearing as Lectionary readings as the Philippians text does on the 26th Sunday of Year A, do not generally have a part in the Mass.


One can see by the meticulous care that the Church shows in selecting poetry for liturgical use, that great importance is placed on this mode of prayer. Those of us entrusted with the realization of this sung prayer are highly blest, whether it be the cantor with the Responsorial Psalm, the choir with a setting of one of the canticles, or most importantly you, the congregation, in the singing of hymns: we are all given a worthwhile and noble task. We are called to praise the Holy Trinity with our minds and our voices, in songs that span the centuries, from the very roots of our Jewish ancestor's worship to songs and anthems being written today. What a wonderful opportunity to link the past and the present, as we march triumphantly forward, singing to God from our hearts in "psalms, hymns and spiritual canticles."

Universal Music for Morning Prayer

Universal Music for Evening Prayer

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