AITHFUL CATHOLICS scandalized by excessively colloquial language in modern hymnals have sometimes sought refuge in the opposite extreme, adopting inordinately archaic language from 200 years ago. My experience working in parishes and cathedrals all over the United States has convinced me this approach—despite good intentions—will never work. Today’s congregations will not accept language so archaic that it’s outlandish and hopelessly old-fashioned. Words that were quite common in the nineteenth century no longer have the same connotations; e.g. “breast” and “gay.”
The Brébeuf hymnal took so long to complete because the editors carefully examined every text. We did not consider certain words—Thee, Thy, Thine, Thou—to be problematic since all Catholics use them in the HAIL MARY and the OUR FATHER. On the other hand, modern hymn texts in the Brébeuf hymnal sometimes use “you” instead of “thee”—and #814 is an excellent example:
Rehearsal videos for each individual voice await you at #814.
E MUST AVOID hymn lyrics that are “unreasonably archaic”—but how can we judge that? After all, if somebody is forced to use a dictionary to find out what a word means, isn’t that positive and enriching? I am willing to bet that many of us have added words to our vocabulary because they occurred in a hymn and we wanted to know what they meant. Furthermore, in our current society anyone with an iPhone has instant access to a dictionary. Is this an exact science? Certainly not. For instance, I know a hymn editor who hated the word “womb” and refused to use it—whereas I have absolutely no problem with singing that word. So, honest people can disagree about hymn lyrics.
On the other hand, many 19th-century Catholic hymnals translated the O Salutaris Hostia as follows: “Intestine wars invade our breast.” A 19th-century Catholic translation of the Veni Creator Spiritus said: “And sweetly let thy Grace invade, Such Breasts, O Lord, as thou hast made.” A recent Catholic publication tried to “fix” the translation of Quem Terra Pontus Aethera, but made it even worse by mixing registers ineptly: “O happy Mother, you are blest; Enclosed beneath your lowly breast.” Many 19th-century hymnals have verses like the following: “Thou hast Made the Sparrows Gay; Listen to our Earnest Lay.” Would modern congregations accept this language? If you think I’m exaggerating, open any 19th-century hymnal or examine the 1906 Saint Basil’s Hymnal, promoted by Catholic bishops of that time. Or consider this stanza from a 1913 Anglican hymnal, which refers to “axles of thy car” as well as using the word “bosom” plus an archaic version of the Holy Name.
Whenever possible, the Brébeuf hymnal preserves the original language of the poet. On the other hand, hymn lyrics are constantly “smoothed out” over time, a process both natural and appropriate. For instance, I bet you sing: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”—but the original version of that song was “Draw nigh, Draw nigh Emmanuel.” Similarly, I am willing to bet money that you sing: “Hark! The herald-angels sing”—but the original version of that song was “Hark how all the welkin rings.”
At a certain point in history, it seemed Saint John Henry Newman was going to be asked to translate the entire Bible into English for Catholics, but this never materialized. However, a century later the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales commissioned Monsignor Ronald Knox to accomplish that task. In Trials of a Translator, Monsignor Knox says he would have liked to have eliminated “Thou” and “Thee,” writing as follows:
As I mentioned already, the Brébeuf committee had no issue with “Thee” and “Thou” and “Thine”—and we felt no obligation to eliminate those words. In 1975, G.I.A. Publications forcefully agreed with the Brébeuf approach, although they inexplicably abandoned it a few years later. On the other hand, the Brébeuf hymnal included certain hymns using “You” and “Yours”—such as #814 above. In other words, we took a “both/and” approach, and since the book includes hundreds of hymns, people can do as they like.
The melody in the video above (“LAFITAU”) is quite beautiful, and I have come to love it. I have played it on the organ many times, using the Brébeuf Organ Accompaniment volumes. I never expected to fall in love with this hymn, but I have. Moreover, the composer Claude Goudimel (d. 1572) has made an ingenious harmonization with the LAFITAU melody placed into the Tenor voice:
I will create a score for this version—because it is so beautiful—but how should this be used? After all, there are multifarious ways to sing a hymn. Hymn #814 by Father Popplewell has nine (9) verses, so here is one possibility:
Please let me know your thoughts in the Facebook combox (see below).