SK ANY CITIZEN what they know about RICHARD MILHOUS NIXON and Watergate. What quality of response would you get? Much that’s generally “known” about Watergate is incorrect or muddled. For instance, some would surely cite the famous press conference in which Nixon declared: “I’m not a crook!” As a matter of fact, that quote has nothing to do with Watergate. At that press conference, Nixon addressed questions that had been raised about his payment of taxes, sale of his mother’s house, sale of his presidential papers, and other financial matters. He went into such great detail, those watching probably got bored and changed the channel. Only after that litany of mind-numbing financial explanations did Nixon declare: “I’m not a crook.” It wasn’t about Watergate.
The Point Is … ? • The point is, sometimes details get muddled. We recently received an email containing a slander accusation. Below is my attempt to set the record straight. I know it will interest at least one person: viz. the one who emailed us. [We usually don’t reveal the names of our correspondents, although we’re allowed to according to our charter, posted publicly for the last eleven years.] It’s a thoughtful email which deserves to be answered.
When To Respond? • Personally, I sometimes struggle when it comes to knowing when to respond. Some people don’t have an open mind—they just want to “win.” Others argue with a “bad faith” mentality. Others will never understand something—no matter how many times it’s explained to them. On the other hand, a bit of patience is sometimes required. Explaining something in a slightly different way can help folks understand. It’s also true that “you never know whom you’re reaching.” A wonderful lady once approached me at our annual Sacred Music Symposium. She was really excited. She told me she had come to the symposium because of an article I wrote; specifically a single paragraph (!) in one of my articles. I didn’t admit this, but I’d actually forgotten I wrote that particular article! I say again: we never know who is reading our words.1
“Slander!” (Part 1 of 3) • In a moment, I will address the slander email. Before doing so, I wish to share a superb hymn my friend just recorded for me. Slander is a rather negative topic. I’d rather begin with something positive:
Abbat Pothier • I really like that tune! In the 1990s, I remember hearing a plainsong version of that same melody with the words “Concórdi Lætítia.” It was included on page 73 of CANTUS MARIALES, a book of plainsong created by Abbat Pothier—IMPRIMATUR of 23 January 1903—and offered as a gift to Pope Saint Pius X. The magnificent Andrew Hinkley re-typeset the entire book using GABC Gregorio coding. Below is how the first verse appears:
Hymn About A Donkey? • The melody is often called ORIENTIS PARTIBUS, and you can see the places that tune is used by searching the Brébeuf Portal for “Orientis Partibus.” If memory serves, at one point in history that melody was associated with a ballad telling the story of the donkey our Lady rode upon when she traveled to Bethlehem.
“Slander!” (Part 2 of 3) • Above, I spoke about something positive: viz. the beautiful ORIENTIS PARTIBUS hymn. Now I’ll address an email we received from a reader. I will disguise the name of this person by calling him “OCTAVIUS.”
[Slander “A”] • Dear Jeff: I hope this email finds you well. Your recent post includes a video wherein Ms. Natalia delves into some deficiencies that occur when hymnals layout their hymnals alphabetically. There are some rather unfair statements included in her presentation, as well as some other factors which were overlooked. The less egregious: For musical directors, it would surely make sense to have the hymns listed in thematic/liturgical/seasonal order. But what about the people in the pews? Lamentably, (I would guess that) many if not most Mass attendees are not so well acquainted with liturgical mechanics so as to competently navigate the hymns according to this metric. [Cont’d below]
Turn To Number XYZ… • Octavius, “double” numbering systems—in my opinion—are dangerous and confusing. I’m talking about books that have a page number IN ADDITION TO a hymn number. The Brébeuf Hymnal uses a single number system, not a “double” number system. That means, once the congregation is given the number, they simply turn to that page. Therefore, Octavius, in answer to your question (“What about the people in the pews?”) they can easily go to any hymn by turning to the number! Some parishes announce the number audibly—but I would suggest an even better way is placing numbers on a board at the front of the church.
[Slander “B”] • On the other hand, when one knows the name of the hymn, it is incredibly easier for an ignoramus to locate the hymn. (You may object “but we shouldn’t be promoting a culture where those who faithful [sic] attend Mass are so ignorant of liturgical themes that one could not find a hymn using them!” There is some truth to this, but there is a difference between promoting and making concessions.) Further, it seems as though Ms. Natalia (and possibly others) did not even consider that such an alphabetically-ordered hymnal can also include a liturgical/thematic index. Problem solved.[Cont’d below]
Don’t Muddle Things! • At the beginning of this article, I spoke of how things can sometimes get “muddled,” and ALPHABETICAL HYMNALS are a good example. They may seem like a good idea, but they make no sense and never should have come into existence. They don’t help members of the congregation, find a song, because (as I’ve already pointed out) once the congregation is given the hymn number, there’s no difficulty in locating it.
Multiple names! • Many hymns have multiple names. For example, SAINT PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE is also called “I Bind to Myself Today” and The Lorica of Saint Patrick. Which section, Octavius, would the congregation look in to locate it? In the S, I, T, or L section? Saint Francis of Assisi created a hymn which is among the first works of literature written in the Italian language. It can rightly be called “All creatures of our God and King,” LAUDES CREATURARUM, or “The Canticle of the Sun.” Where would that hymn belong? In the A, L, T, or C section? Some hymns are not called by their first verse, but instead by their refrain (e.g. “Immaculate Mary” which can also be called THE LOURDES HYMN). The magnificent Eucharistic hymn by Father Robert Southwell has two common titles—“Of the Blessed Sacrament of the Aulter” and “In Paschal Feast, the End of Ancient Rite”—and both are correct. Speaking of Southwell, his translation of the SEQUENCE for Corpus Christi can be called “Praise, O Sion, praise thy Saviour” but many other titles are also used (and are fully correct) including: “Saint Thomas of Aquines Hymne read on Corpus Christy Daye,” or LAUDA SYON, and even (in some books) “A HOLY HYMN.”
Translations should be in the same section! • More than 10,000 ancient Roman Catholic hymns are found in the ANALECTA HYMNICA by Father Dreves (pronounced like “Dráy-vez”), and they are all theologically and poetically rich. Sensible editors of hymnals include multiple English translations of the same hymn. For instance, you probably know “At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing” is the same hymn as “The supper of the Lamb to share”—but it’s a different translation, so it emphasizes (“brings out”) different items. This is especially true when it comes to EPIPHANY hymns, which are particularly rich. All translations of a single hymn should be in the same section, preferably alongside with the Latin original. I’m sure you’ll agree, Octavius, that nothing else makes sense. The Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal goes “above and beyond the call of duty” because it provides literal translations as well, allowing folks to enter even more deeply.
“Little Bits And Pieces” • Those who carefully examine the history of Roman Catholic hymnody realize that most of the hymns we sing in the year 2023 are actually “excerpts” or “tiny pieces” from much larger hymns. This is true when it comes to hymns of enormous length like the HYMN OF SAINT CASIMIR. It’s also true of relatively short hymns. For example, it would be absurd (and reprehensible) to put “Tantum Ergo” in a different section than PANGE LINGUA by Saint Thomas Aquinas. The reason is obvious: “Tantum Ergo” is simply the last two verses of PANGE LINGUA. The same is true for O Salutaris, Ecce Panis Angelorum, Hostis Herodes Impie, Panis Angelicus, and many other famous hymns.
[Slander “C”] • Lastly, the more egregious: about halfway into your video, Ms. Natalia states “The real reason editors alphabetize is because it makes it difficult to notice the gaps and weaknesses in their book” (emphasis hers). What’s problematic with that statement? Aside from the also unjust assumption that such a hymnal must de facto contain such gaps and weaknesses, it unjustly assumes that any and every editor of an alphabetical hymnal is motivated by such an intention—as though any of the former considerations, which are more noble, could not qualify as licit and primary factors which motivated the decision. The way I see it, this is a form of slander. While sincere and invested Catholic musicians are able (and should) recognize deficiencies and pitfalls of many mainstream hymnals (the usual culprits come to mind), it is one thing to advertise a hymnal on its strengths (orthodox, quality music, versatile, etc.) while it is another thing to needless denigrate, not merely others’ work, but even their character. We are servants in the apostolate of Catholic sacred music, not animalistic competitors in the jungle of capitalism. Your hymnal may have a system which many or some find useful and advantageous, but please don’t get cocky and think of your methods as somehow innately superior or universally and inarguably superior in their benefits. One size does not fit all. So, if I were Jeff, I would consider revising or retracting his boldly asserted answer “believe it or not, that’s the wrong answer,” replacing it with something that carries more awareness of, well…context for other people’s circumstances and dispositions. Thank you for reading my email. I am aware this was perhaps an intense criticism. If you believe it to be unfair or at least too aggressive, I would anxiously hope you would alert and correct me to this for the sake of your justice and my humility. Please be well and blessed in Jesus Christ. [We don’t publish names, but this correspondent is music director at a Catholic Church in the United States.]
“Slander!” (Part 3 of 3) • First of all, Octavius, the video can’t be accused of slander. Consider an analogy. Suppose someone says: “Everyone born in Asia is ambidextrous.” That would be a very foolish statement, but it wouldn’t be slander because slander doesn’t apply to “countless nameless people.” Many people have published Catholic hymnals over the years. Indeed, the Brébeuf Hymnal editorial committee located, scanned, and uploaded to the internet close to 10,000 pages of Catholic hymn books. More importantly, Octavius, brief videos cannot say everything. If the video becomes too loquacious, people will stop watching. If Natalia had all the time in the world, perhaps she could have said something like:
“I certainly admit that I can’t determine the motives of every single person who ever created a hymnal, but the statement I have made basically means that we feel the reason for alphabetically-arranged hymnals is to make it look like the book is a lot more comprehensive than it actually is. The people who created the Brébeuf Hymnal have such depth of experience—and have worked on so many different liturgical projects all over the world—they feel 99% certain they know the reason why some editors have chosen the alphabetical route. Of course, they cannot know with absolute certainty (unless every single editor came and told them, and most are deceased). But based on the thousands of pages from hymnals they have studied meticulously, what we are putting forth in this short film represents their considered opinion—which, of course, everyone is either free to accept or discard.”
Nobody would watch a video like that. [By the way, the statement I just made is not slanderous against people who would watch a video like that!]
Speak Up! Come Forth! • Nobody seems willing to give a justification for the alphabetical-arrangement of hymnals. The Brébeuf hymnal committee made available online—for the first time in history—many serious hymn collections, such as Rev. Joseph Connelly’s Hymns Of The Roman Liturgy (1955) and Fr. Aquinas Byrnes’ Hymns of the Dominican Missal & Breviary (1943). Excellent books like those never employ alphabetical-arrangement of their hymns. I only know of one book which attempted to justify an alphabetical-arrangement: viz. a Catholic hymnal published in the 1970s. The reason they gave was (paraphrased): “Singing the same songs over and over is bad, so mixing them up like this will force people to get to know more of them, owing to how cumbersome it is.” Octavius, I think you’ll agree that’s a poor justification! From a purely aesthetic point of view, it makes no sense to have a random collection of songs that are alphabetized. The patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church deserves better.
Here is the video you referenced, Octavius:
Here’s the direct URL link.
Something I Know About! • We already established the video cannot be “slander” (your word), because slander doesn’t apply to countless unnamed people. If I declared that “all Australians are thieves,” it wouldn’t be slander—but it would be a dumb statement. Libelous statements are something I know about. For example, many years ago, a certain website posted absurd and libelous statements against myself and several colleagues. This must have ‘pricked the conscience’ of the person in charge of that website, because he later called me (under false pretenses) and immediately brought up the subject. I said to him, among other things: “Your organization has worked closely with this colleague in the past, and it’s libelous and inexcusable to publish all that nonsense about him.” I can’t remember his exact response, but he said something to the effect of:
“Our policy is to let folks say whatever they want: true or false, libelous or not. If you don’t like our policy, feel free to go through our entire website, find all the statements you consider libelous, write a response to each, and perhaps we’ll publish it.”
Needless to say, I don’t have time for that—especially when my reply might not even be published. I mention this, Octavius, simply to assure you that libelous statements are something we take very seriously.
What Father Skeris Says • What can be done about libelous statements? Ultimately, very little. There’s an old saying: “Never wallow with a pig in the mud because you get dirty and the pig likes it.” Should a Christian become depressed about this? No, because Matthew 10:38 says: “Qui non accipit crucem suam et sequitur me non est me dignus.” I’m sure you’ll agree, Octavius, that we only have one job in this world. We must wake up each morning and offer to God all our sorrows and all our joys. In the words of Father Robert Skeris, our prayer must be: “Do with me, Lord, what Thou wilt…” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said famously:
“The person who thinks only of himself says only prayers of petition; the one who thinks of his neighbor says prayers of intercession; whoever thinks only of loving and serving God says prayers of abandonment to God’s will—and this is the prayer of the saints.”
Take It Easy, Octavius! • Let’s take a step back. The video (in a very brief way, without naming names) gives people something to think about. It doesn’t mean folks must agree. I personally have been involved with creating hymnals since 2005, and the assertion strikes me as eminently reasonable. One of the reasons—and this is not speculation, but is based on my personal knowledge—that the Brébeuf Hymnal took so long to produce had to do with filling in those “gaps.” In other words, there are a zillion great Advent hymns and Epiphany hymns. But the liturgical year, Octavius, does not consist only of Advent and Epiphany. The conscientious choirmaster needs abundant hymns for Ordinary Time, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the feast of the Ascension, and so forth. (When we remember that the feast of the Lord’s Baptism only began its existence in 1962, we better understand why it takes time and effort to locate or commission hymns for that feast.) If somebody picks up a hymn book arranged alphabetically, it’s virtually impossible to notice the deficiencies and lacunae.
Hard Pill To Swallow • One colleague who’s always been supportive of my compositions is Dr. Horst Buchholz. I deeply appreciate his support through the years, because he’s a very prominent organist and conductor. Nevertheless, he once spoke to me about the incipits for several of my psalm settings. He said something to the effect of:
“Jeff, you often employ a particular dissonance, which doesn’t sound proper when a man is the cantor. It sounds fine with a female cantor, though, because she’s an octave higher. But you would do well to take into consideration male cantors as well.”
I defended myself by pointing out that the LEMMENSINSTITUUT uses the same dissonance, but his comment didn’t sit well with me. Years later, I came to the conclusion that Dr. Buchholz was absolutely right. I bring up this little tale, Octavius, because sometimes we have an “emotional” reason to oppose something. Because of your thoughtful letter, I’ve had the opportunity to carefully consider that video. At the end of the day, I can affirm that alphabetical-arrangements still make no sense—at least to me. I was able to speak to at least one of the other editors on the telephone last week. He also agrees “alphabetical” is no way to organize a hymnal.
1 We also never know who might be in the audience! For example, I used to give Sunday afternoon lessons on VESPERS. I treated everyone the same—because the class was open to everybody, completely free of charge. There was one lady who turned out to be a world-famous singer/songwriter with a magnificent voice (and wonderful keyboard skills). I get embarrassed when I remember this, because I spent weeks teaching her how to find MIDDLE C on a keyboard—when all the along she was a platinum recording artist! Speaking of “the need for patience,” human beings tend to be idiosyncratic. I remember FATHER VALENTINE YOUNG always said the words of absolution in a very loud voice: Deínde ego te absólvo a peccátis tuis… etc. Once, I asked: “Father, why do you say those words so loud? People standing outside the confessional might rush to judgment if someone does not get absolution.” He replied: “Jeff, I say those words so loud because in the olden days priests used to mumble them so softly the penitent could not even hear them.” I share this story to demonstrate that people might have a surprising reason for doing certain things. If we don’t ask, we might never know!