HERE IS NO SECRET that there is a crisis of belief in the Church today. Many Catholics have a hazy idea of what a Catholic is required to believe, or even whether to hold such precise beliefs is at all important.
I think that many of us would consider that the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is of primary importance. However, a widely – publicized survey shows:
“…a new Pew Research Center survey finds that most self-described Catholics don’t believe this core teaching. (The Real Presence of Christ) In fact, nearly seven-in-ten Catholics (69%) say they personally believe that during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine used in Communion “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”1
There is a universal law – lex orandi lex credendi– “we believe what we pray” or if I may be permitted to transpose this to musical terms – “We believe what we sing.” If it is true that he who sings well prays twice, then the doctrine, words and beliefs that we SING in church are of great importance. What we sing in church, day after day will undoubtedly shape our beliefs and theology. Even if are not always attendant consciously to the words that we sing, they will seep into our beliefs and have an eventual effect.
And there is no secret of this crisis – I one had a priest in good standing berate me that as a music minister, I was planning too many hymns during Communion that dealt with the Real Presence, he instructed me to replace those with tunes speaking of the “Meal” and “Supper” aspect of Communion. If this is what an ordained priest believes concerning the Eucharist, is it any wonder that the people in the pews experience confusion and a crisis of faith regarding the Real Presence of the Sacrament of the Altar?
There also seems to be confusion regarding whether it is proper to adore Christ in the sacrament during communion – many “liturgical authorities”, seem to believe that we should not sing songs of “adoration”, but rather music which emphasizes the unity of the Body of Christ, and music which speaks of praise– exactly where this instruction first was promulgated or where it came from is difficult to understand. Not all agree with this view, as Cardinal Sarah said: ‘We should be crawling on our hands and knees to receive”. Certainly many communion chants for the old rite adore Christ in the sacrament quite explicitly.
Recently, the USCCB published a document concerning the texts of hymns that are currently being sung in the American Catholic church. Although this document pretty much slipped through the cracks and was hardly noticed, I would recommend it for all those who do music in the church.
Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics2
The main point of the article is simple:
“the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources.” (no. 1158)
The author proceeds to list a number of ‘deficiencies’ in hymn texts. Of primary importance:
1. Deficiencies in the Presentation of Eucharistic Doctrine
a. This deficiency, by far the most common and the most serious… Since the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11), deficiencies in Eucharistic doctrine affect other teachings, such as the Church (because “the Eucharist makes the Church,” CCC, no. 1396) and the priesthood (because the priest effects the sacramental presence of the sacrifice of Christ the High Priest). Catholics nurtured on a steady diet of certain hymns will learn from them that at Mass we come together to share bread and wine, which remain bread and wine, a common meal, even if under special circumstances. They will learn that the bread and wine signify in some vague way the presence of Jesus, but they will not be given a basis to understand the Catholic belief that the Eucharistic elements can be worshipped because under their appearance is a wholly unique, substantial presence of Christ. These hymns correspondingly also downplay or eliminate entirely reference to the sacrifice of Christ, his priesthood, and his status as both priest and victim, as well as to the role of the ministerial priesthood in the Church. A steady diet of these hymns would erode Catholic sensibility regarding the fullness of Eucharistic teaching, on the Mass as sacrifice, and eventually on the Church, as formed by that sacrifice.
According to an informal search with Ms. Google, the most popular communion hymns are:
- I am the Bread of Life
- Taste and See
- Seed, Scattered and Sown
- The Supper of the Lord
- Eat this Bread
- One Bread, One Body
- I Received the Living God
- Behold the Lamb
This survey of the most popular Communion hymns, shows that there is an overwhelming emphasis on the word “bread”. This emphasis is almost absent from pre-Vatican II texts, and venerable hymns such as “Adoro te Devote”. In seven stanzas, ranging through a wide variety of responses to the Sacrament, and encountering the Lord in the Sacrament, the word ‘bread is mentioned once. This is because – according to the dogma of Transubstantiation – “bread’ is only a physical element, and retains only it’s appearance when the elements become Christ. Indeed, the CCC states that:
“by the consecration of the bread and wine, there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood.”3
The writers of these hymns have a deficient understanding of Transubstantiation, and much of the theology presented is closer to a protestant understanding of Communion. The word “sacrifice” is almost entirely missing from all contemporary hymns, including an absence of concept of the Priesthood of Christ. As well, there is a persistent insistence on avoiding the use of the word “altar” – the word “table” is used at every instance. This little detail speaks volumes. “Altar” implies sacredness, something set apart in a special holy place, and most importantly, the concept of a sacrifice. “Table”…well, brings to mind a family dinner with beer nuts.
At this point, I have to wonder: is the current crisis of Eucharistic belief due in some part to the steady diet of bad theology that we, as music ministers have been feeding God’s people for the last 40 years? It is frankly shocking to think, that those who do music in the church have been responsible for the erosion and abandonment of the belief in the Real Presence!
It seems to me that our responsibility of teaching the Faith through music is much more serious than is commonly perceived. It is not a matter of scheduling some songs to fill out the empty spaces in the liturgy. Rather, we should be conscious that the music we sing preaches and teaches Faith just as much as a homily does. It is easy to become hidebound to repertoire, which we now realize, even after the maturing of Vatican II, and the Reform of the Reform that inadequately represents our Faith and does not accurately teach the truth of the Eucharist. I was reminded of this recently, when on a very large and popular Facebook group comprised of Catholic music directors; I mentioned this USCCB article, and the idea that many of the most popular Communion hymns, such as the ones mentioned in the article are inadequate at best. The blowback I received was very surprising. Many musicians simply do not want to give up hymns containing poor theology because they have become attached to them musically, and even seek justification for retaining them in a parish repertoire.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Gregory A. Smith, Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ, Pew Research Center, August 5, 2019
2 Committee on Doctrine, USCCB, Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics, September 2020
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1376 – Vatican website or USCCB flipbook