N ONE of my recent articles, I referred to a 1977 book by Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt, formerly the editor Caecilia (a sacred music magazine). He spoke of attending Mass at the SAINT JOSEPH ORATORY in Montreal, whose choir—consisting of 80+ singers—was as fine as any on the continent, according to Monsignor Schmitt. During one of their Sunday Masses “a polyphonic Creed was sung during the distribution of Communion.” As far as my liturgical sensibilities are concerned, it’s weird to sing a polyphonic Creed at that moment. [By the way, I know what Saint Joseph’s Oratory was trying to do: viz. preserve the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE at a time when following the mandates of Vatican II was frequently met with hostility.]
Shun Weird Things! • Broadly speaking, I’m against doing “weird things” at the sacred liturgy. When I served on the editorial committee in charge of producing the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal, the hardest task—which required years of grueling work!—was to eliminate (or fix) hymn lyrics which would strike contemporary Catholics as weird or unseemly. For one thing, certain words don’t have the same connotations as they did in former centuries. Specifically, certain words now have a sexual connotation; whereas 200 years ago they did not. Furthermore, certain translations from a former age would seem weird to Catholics living in the year 2023. Consider the following very common (!) translation, used in many Catholic books in the 19th century:
Intestine Breasts? No! • The Brébeuf committee commissioned Catholic priests, world-renowned poets, and experts in Latin to correct (“update”) weird translations such as that one. After all, it wouldn’t be good to have Catholics in the year 2023 singing about “intestine wars that invade our breasts.” Indeed, the major criticism I have of many ‘traditional’ Catholic hymnals marketed today has to do with clumsy, inelegant, unbefitting lyrics. Another trap into which many ‘traditional’ hymnals fall has to do with rhymes so rudimentary and predictable they are mind-numbing. The public worship of Almighty God should not resemble poorly-constructed nursery rhymes.
Jeff Didn’t Say “Never” • On the other hand, the Brébeuf Hymnal contains about 900 hymns. Space was found for historical hymns. These are treasures from ancient Roman Catholic hymnals. That means some of the language might be slightly archaic—but if anyone doesn’t want that, there are billions of other choices available. Indeed, the important Latin texts of our heritage (Vexilla Regis Prodeunt, Pange Lingua, Salutis Humanae Sator, Verbum Supernum Prodiens, Ad Regias Agni Dapes, Veni Sancte Spiritus, Conditor Alme Siderum, Veni Redemptor Gentium, Veni Creator Spiritus, Ave Vivens Hostia, Urbs Jerusalem Beata, Ave Maris Stella, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Sancti Venite, Salve Caput Cruentatum, Crudelis Herodes Deum, Quem Terra Pontus, and so forth) are usually given at least one “historical” translation, for optional use. Some of these come from Catholic hymnals going all the way back to 1599AD!
A Patriotic Hymnal • At my church, we don’t sing patriotic songs during Mass. However, around the 4th of July, we sang #394 from the BRÉBEUF HYMNAL. The Brébeuf editors say that text comes from: Catholic Hymnal for the United States (1807). The Brébeuf footnotes cite the book’s full title: “Hymns for the Use of the Catholic Church in America” published in Baltimore by John W. Butler in 1807. The PREFACE is rather remarkable, and was most likely written by the Most Reverend John Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore. The BRÉBEUF HYMNAL includes an excerpt from it:
“Next to the offering of the Eucharistical Sacrifice, which is the most sublime and the more essential act of divine worship, the singing of the praises of God and of the Lamb is unquestionably the noblest employment of a Christian. He who sings to God with a proper sense of devotion associates himself to the Choirs of Angels, and shares upon earth in the sweetest occupation of the blessed inhabitants of Heaven. It cannot be doubted but that the most proper time for this holy exercise is when the faithful meet together in Church; and especially when the Lamb that was slain on the cross for the redemption of the world, comes down on our altars, and there continues to offer himself for us to his heavenly Father. […] Besides a variety of Spiritual Canticles, the Catholic reader will have the satisfaction of finding a translation in verse, as literal as this kind of composition could permit, of those ancient hymns, which have been sung in the Catholic Church on the various festivals of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin and of the Saints, through the year, for upwards of fourteen centuries…”
The “Liturgical Movement” was clearly not the first to emphasize such things in the Catholic world! To give some historical context, that PREFACE appeared two years before Pope Pius VII was taken prisoner by Napoléon Bonaparte, not being released until 1814. We can see how fitting it is for Catholics to sing from a book dedicated to (perhaps) America’s greatest patron (Father Jean de Brébeuf), using melodies and texts sung by American Catholics for centuries.
How Does It Sound? • Here’s a live recording of my volunteer choir singing. Notice how verse 1 is used as refrain in SATB:
To access this hymn’s media in the Brébeuf Portal, click here.
Shared Tunes Technique • According to the BRÉBEUF HYMNAL, that melody comes from Schumann’s Geistliche Lieder (1539AD) via an adaptation by Father Stephan Lück (d. 1883) in his hymnal: Gesang- und Gebetbuch für die Diözese Trier (1847). It has various names: Vom Himmel Hoch, Erfurt, Altona, and so forth. It has been set by such composers as Hassler, Gesius, Praetorius, and Bach. The BRÉBEUF HYMNAL is indispensable for the serious Catholic choirmaster because of its brilliant use of common tunes, which are also known as “shared hymn tunes.” To understand what that means, compare the above recording to Hostis Herodes Impie, which is #18 in the BRÉBEUF HYMNAL.1
1 Another way to understand common tunes would be to search the Brébeuf Portal for “Altona.”