ISHOP FULTON J. SHEEN was one of the greatest Catholic preachers of all time, but he was quite private—which is not surprising considering Sheen received about 9,000 letters each week. In the past, we have spoken about Sheen’s musical abilities. Although he professed to appreciate certain pieces of classical music—such as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—I believe sacred music was not particularly interesting to Bishop Sheen. Otherwise he would have spoken about it more in his lectures.
Bishop Dunne and Sheen: We must understand that Bishop Sheen was very close to Most Rev’d Edmund Michael Dunne, bishop of Peoria from 1909 until his death in 1929. (Incidentally, Bishop Dunne published several interesting books, which you can download online, such as Polemic Chat.) It was Bishop Dunne who sent Fulton Sheen to study at St. Paul Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Bishop Dunne later sent him to Europe for further studies (where Father Sheen became friends with Monsignor Ronald Knox). And it was Bishop Dunne who “tested” young Father Sheen by assigning him to a poor parish for three years—and Father Sheen passed the test.
Did Sheen Favor A Hymnal? Was there a particular hymnal Bishop Sheen recommended for the Catholic Mass? While I can’t answer definitively, I suspect Sheen would have recommended Saint Mark’s Hymnal, which we scanned and uploaded back in 2014. The Saint Mark Hymnal was published specifically for the Diocese of Peoria—where Sheen grew up—right around the time he was a teenager. Young Fulton would have been familiar with this book, and the church music we hear in our youth often becomes what is forevermore “normal to our ears.” Furthermore, the IMPRIMATUR for the Saint Mark’s Hymnal was given (in 1910) by none other than Bishop Edmund M. Dunne!
Protestant Hymns: The Saint Mark Hymnal is a bit of an anomaly, since it contains Protestant texts and tunes. This was unusual for that period, although it wasn’t completely unheard of. The Hosanna Hymnal by Father Bonvin, published in 1914, also uses some Protestant hymns. Both of these hymnals attempt to “disguise” what they were doing, using ambiguous attributions. For instance, instead of listing the (Protestant) author’s name, these hymnals put “selected”—whatever that means! It comes across as somewhat sneaky and dishonest, but perhaps they had a good reason to do what they did, viz. avoidance of scandal.
A Funky Pairing: There’s an old Latin saying: de gustibus non est disputandum. That means: “When it comes to taste, let there be no dispute.” Everyone has different sensibilities, and it’s impossible to create a hymnal without offending somebody. That being said, I find the hymn on page 45 of the Saint Mark Hymnal to be grotesque, because the melody is strongly associated with the Christmas season:
* PDF Download • A Perplexing Pairing
—Saint Mark’s Hymnal for Use in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States (1910).
Don’t Be Too Hasty: Whoever edited the Saint Mark Hymnal—perhaps one of our readers can help me find out his name—would probably defend his pairing by pointing to Arundel Catholic Hymns (an English hymnal with a very good reputation), which came with an “Introductory Letter” by Pope Leo XIII. The Arundel editor also paired an Easter text with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” In fairness, I realize not everyone will comfortable with everything my choir sings! For example, we often use a clever pairing of text and GROSSER GOTT by Charles Tindal Gatty (d. 1928) and Henry Howard, the Fifteenth Duke of Norfolk (d. 1917). It is Number 42 in the Brébeuf Hymnal, and I suspect you will recognize the tune. The microphone seems to have been placed too near the Alto section, for which I do apologize:
To Each His Own: Perhaps the best thing about the Brébeuf hymnal is its huge selection of hymns—significantly more than any of its competitors. That means if somebody is bothered by a particular pairing, plenty of other choices can be utilized. However, be careful not to assume your congregation will recognize Melody X or Melody Y or Melody Z. Experience has shown that even musicians have difficultly recognizing a tune when it’s paired to a different text. That, of course, is one of the advantages of the “switchable” texts in the Brébeuf hymnal. A clever pairing frequently forces the congregation to pray the words and poetry in a new way, making sure that hymns never become stale.
Secret Weapon For Choirmasters:
AM NOT EXACTLY a “newcomer” to the field of music. At the age of seven, I started weekly lessons with a pupil of the great Dr. Wiktor Labunski. While in high school I studied the various repertoires: harpsichord, choral, piano-forte, orchestral, chamber music, and so forth. My particular field at that time was the music of the Golden Age Pianists: Lhevinne, Hofmann, Horowitz, Friedman, Busoni, Cortot, Tiegerman, Gabrilowitsch, Chasins, Godowski, Brailowsky, Novaes, Lipatti, and so on. Yet, when I hear hymns sung SATB, I’m still surprised that something just “clicks”—the sound is magnificent. A recording cannot do it justice.
For example, this recording from last Sunday fails to convey the beauty I heard in real life with my own ears last Sunday:
Choirmasters can discover a “secret weapon” by obtaining the Brébeuf Hymnal Choral Supplement, which—for the first time in history—writes out every single verse. You see, most of my choir members struggle with reading music. When each verse is written out, however, they are able to create miracles. Here is a recording of the very first time they looked at this piece. I think it’s excellent for a first reading, and the more we sing it, the more we will improve:
Did you notice that video started with verse 4? What other hymnals do is expect the singers to memorize the SATB parts when they get past verse 3 or verse 4—and that’s quite difficult. I say again: The Brébeuf Choral Supplement notates each verse, the first time in history this has ever been done:
Addendum: Another resource I find indispensable is the snippets index. I am constantly on that page preparing for Masses!