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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Hymnal Theology

by The Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

This question and answer appeared in the November / December 2003 Issue of The Catholic Answer. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

Q.   I'm writing to get your thoughts on a song that appears in the Gather Comprehensive hymnal. While the song has a lovely melody, the theology contained in the lyrics bothers me. While the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, it seems to me that the songwriter has taken this a bit too far. I've enclosed a copy of the song. I'm trying to gain some clarity on the theological issues that appear to make this song problematic. I hope we can develop greater theological oversight in the area of liturgical music. While there is a lot of good Catholic music out there, some of it is woeful.

Name and address withheld [by magazine]

A.   For the benefit of readers who don't know the lyrics, let me share the refrain:

I myself am the bread of life.
You and I are the bread of life,
taken and blessed, broken and shared
by Christ that the world may live.
(non-capitalization given as written)
The first difficulty, which has been noted by commentators such as Thomas Day in Why Catholics Can't Sing, is that hymns which attempt to speak for God (Christ, here) are pretty much a novelty in the history of hymnody. The tradition has been that the congregation makes known its sentiments (adoration, contrition, petition, thanksgiving) to God but does not attempt to speak for God — the one notable exception being the Reproaches of Good Friday.

With this song, the problems are multiplied because we begin with Christ speaking (presumably), followed by my speaking to you (!), with extremely problematic theology thrown into the mix. That Christ is the Bread of Life is the clear teaching of the sixth chapter of Saint John's Gospel. That you and I are can be found nowhere in Scripture or Tradition. That we are to be used by Christ for the salvation of the world is solid.

In recent years, we have witnessed an array of songs purporting to be eucharistic that equate Christ's eucharistic Body with ourselves as His mystical Body, the Church. This is reckless and flies in the face of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), which speaks of the various "presences" of Christ in the Mass; it begins by observing that He is indeed present in the assembly gathered to worship and goes on to list other forms of presence — in ascending order — culminating in His presence in the eucharistic species. That you and I are called to be Christ for others is indisputable, but we are equivocal signs of that presence because of our sinfulness; the Lord's Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist is an unwavering sign — objective and perpetual.

The verses of the piece also offer questionable theological positions, especially referring to the Sacred Species as "our body ... our blood" [sic].

The long and short of it is that we certainly need "greater theological oversight," and it would seem that help may be on the way since the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has established a subcommittee to review the texts for hymns destined for liturgical use, with the intentions of coming up with a list of approved and unapproved works — a long overdue but most welcome development.

Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas

Copyright © 2003 The Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas.
Reprinted with permission.

See also the CNP article: Where Is Duke Street? — The Triumph of Bad Hymns

 Back to Hymns and Hymnody Index

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