Tinkering with hymns = avoidable disaster

My old pastor used to lament both the deeply awful translations of Scripture used at Mass and changes to standard, traditional hymns. As Christmas rolled around each year he would line both up and say, “Imagine singing, ‘Away In A Feedbox'”.

How about “God Rest You Happy Gentlefolk”?

Woke enough?

My pastor’s disgust underlined the problem with those who incessantly tinker and update, those who think that liturgical worship should be relentlessly updated to keep up with how people talk (and think). They think people are stupid. And they may be increasingly right, given the disaster that public (at least) education has become. But the real problem is the arrogance of the tinkerers.

At Catholic Thing today, Anthony Esolen has a good piece that addresses this.

The Vandals in the Choir Loft

any readers will recall renovations their churches suffered in the 1970’s, ripping out the Communion rails, tossing statues of saints into the dump, whitewashing walls once decorated with stenciled designs, reducing altars to rubble, or tearing down the buildings whole, to replace them with – things. It’s hard to know what to call them.

In my experience, fewer people are clear about what was done to the music, and almost nobody knows what has been done to the texts of such traditional hymns as remain in Worship, Glory and Praise, Gather, and other instruments of stupidity. If that sounds harsh, I beg the reader to consider how much easier it is to ruin things that people only hear rather than see, or not even hear but retain vaguely in the memory.

I have vowed eternal enmity against the liturgically and poetically stupid. The hymnals I have named give me plenty to work with. Make no mistake. God is not well praised by what is slovenly and stupid; and bad taste often slides over into bad theology. When they mess around with old hymns, the editors do not want so much that we shall feel or think what they like, but that we shall not feel or think what they dislike. They subtract.

Look at one fine Lenten hymn, spoiled by the editors of Worship. Here are the first two stanzas, as they appear in old hymnals:

Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Shall we not Thy sorrows share,
And from earthly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Glad with Thee to suffer pain?

There’s nothing difficult about those lines. Any child who prays the Hail Mary and the Our Father will have no trouble with thou, thy, and thee.


He goes on to compare those lyrics with the bowdlerized version excreted by the tinkerers who publish hymnals and missalettes. He digs into more than one hymn.

They edit the hymns for content not just for style.

That’s what happened with the prayers for the Novus Ordo.

For the Novus Ordo, older prayers were edited for content.  Certain concepts were systematically stripped out, so that nary a mention of themes like propitiation, sin, guilt, judgment and sacrifice remain.  The emphasis was shifted to happy thoughts about the life to come, eschatological bliss with only rare traces of eschatological judgment.  Only 17% of the orations from the traditional Missale Romanum survived unscathed in the Novus Ordo edition.   There were in the older Missale 1182 orations.  For the Novus Ordo, 760 were expunged.  Of the remaining 422 (36%), half were edited.  And there were orations that were revived from ancient sacramentaries or cobbled up from bits and pieces of older prayers. They were edited for content.   What you find removed from the old or missing from the new are teachings that any well-trained boy or girl would once have learned from their basic catechism.

Remember: We are our rites.

If we pray a certain way, we come to believe the content of what we pray.  If we believe in certain things, our prayers reflect those beliefs.  This is a constant interplay.  It is at the heart of the phrase from Prosper of Aquitaine, “ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi”… which gives us the catch phrase “Lex orandi lex credendi“… the law of what is to be prayed is the law of what is to be believed”.

Decades of praying prayers whose content was shifted to ignore whole swathes of belief and certain doctrines – and decades of really bad translations – have produced an only vaguely Catholic people with an increasing percentage who don’t know or believe what the Church teaches about faith or morals.

Wrapping up, Esolen gives us this image, sure to stick in your head as you heave that copy of Worship or Gather.

Black mold does not weigh much. But would you want it on your walls?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. And then there are the new ditties which, at best, rise only from the inane to the sophomoric. Though the following, which comes from a solipsistic, woke ditty called “In These Days of Lenten Journey,” doesn’t even make it all the way to sophomoric:

    We reach out to those who are homeless/To those who live without warmth/In the coolness of evening we’ll shelter their dreams/We will clothe them in mercy and peace.

    What does this even mean? I have no idea, except that it proves we need someone with the jawbone of an ass to come and break the siege of the philistines.

  2. APX says:

    You should see what’s been done to Faith of Our Fathers now called “Living Faith”.

  3. Charles Sercer says:

    Speaking of “tinkering with hymns”…that sounds like something a certain Urban VIII did/authorized for the Office Hymns, which needs to be reversed. Post V-II many of the latin texts (not that many use latin in the modern LOTH) were reversed but still many do not reflect the texts as they existed pre-Urban VIII. Many (though admittedly not all) that were revised were ancient texts.

    [Quod non fecerunt barbari…]

  4. Elizium23 says:

    During Christmas, I customarily visit my parents and attend their parish, where I am an honorary member of the choir. I was in the habit of bringing a hymnal or two from my collection. One Christmas, I packed the traditional, beautiful Adoremus choir edition, which has four-part harmonies. Well, come to find out that we would be singing everything from OCP’s stable, which meant lots of tinkering with the lyrics of traditional carols.

    Rather than jettison the beautiful baritone harmonies which I could sing with Adoremus, I began to write sticky notes on each hymn and carol with notations on where and how the lyrics were changed. I borrowed the sticky notes from Mom, and they were garish pink things which read “GUESS WHAT HIT THE FAN WHILE YOU WERE OUT!”

    I learned my lesson to use the prescribed hymnal (I purchased a copy of Choral Praise, holding my nose) but in my home parish, the music director tends to un-alter lyrics so that they read in the traditional manner (especially references to “men” meaning “mankind”).

  5. JakeMC says:

    I think something a 10-year-old once said years ago, upon hearing the Hail Mary with “you” and “your” instead of “thee” and “thy” is spot-on: Prayer is special. It should have a special language.

  6. albinus1 says:

    This past Christmas while visiting a friend’s parish I discovered that “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is now “Good Christian *Friends* Rejoice,” which I refuse to sing.

    I suppose that’s not as bad as the alteration in “Let There Be Peace on Earth” (I song I don’t like, but that’s another topic): “With God as our Father / Brothers all are we” is now, “With God as our Father / We are Family,” which to my ears sounds a little too much like Sesame Street. I suppose we should at least be grateful that they kept “Father.”

  7. veritas vincit says:

    Linguists argue that the forms “thou,” “thy,” “thee” and “thine” were not reserved solely for the Godhead in the Elizabethan English of the King James and the Douai-Rheims Bibles, but were in common use at that time. I have no problem replacing the pronouns in prayers. Obviously, in a work of poetry, including song and hymn lyrics, that’s a different matter, because changing disturbs the rhyme and invites unneeded tinkering.

    My biggest gripe in singing Catholic hymns (and not just modern hymns) is that there are no four-part harmonies, as “Elizium23” points out. I usually have to wait until Christmas time to sing the harmonies of carols or hymns that I learned to sing growing up Methodist.

  8. teomatteo says:

    From the ubiquitous dunce file: I’d like to see choir directors sing the hymn from the last stanza ‘up’ to the first. That way we get to experience a ‘new’ hymn due to the repetition of not singing the entire hymn. I bet the lyricist worked harder on the last stanza than on the first. (kinda like how the last chapters of my college text books never got taught because the prof ran out of time). Then again, I often read a magazine backward. Did i say dunce?

  9. SoliDeogloria says:

    The ruthless destruction of beautiful, dignified hymn texts has been a pet peeve of mine for the past 15 years or so, when I first began working as Organist at a church with one of the GIA hymnals. Yes, there were some beautiful tunes in that hymnal, but they were outweighed by the deconstructed texts of nearly every traditional hymn in the book. Nearly every masculine reference to God had been neutered to “God”. It’s as though the editors had missed their third grade English class about pronouns! Christmas Carols were the worst. Whenever we held Lessons and Carols at the parish I would get public domain versions of the original unaltered texts. I could not bring myself to allow those awful altered texts to degrade what was supposed to be a dignified liturgical service. And you know what? No one had a problem with the original texts, including liberal Protestants who sang with us one year.

    Thankfully I got a new job in a more traditional parish and one of my projects after being hired was to select a new hymnal for the parish. The parish had been using OCP resources for a while. I ordered several different hymnals to examine while we were selected, including GIA’s offerings. GIA was just as politically correct as I remembered; in fact, even more so (like hymns about eco-justice whose texts were like angry screeds, yelling at the people singing them). In order to maintain stability cor the parish, we ended up getting Journeysongs by OCP. In spite of some of the contemporary songs we will not use, it has a lot of the old devotional Eucharistic hymns that GIA did not have, and many of the carol texts are the original public domain versions. Adoremus or St. Michael Hymnal would not have worked for our parish, but hopefully will be an option for the parish’s future.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Anthony Esolen said it and said it well:

    “I have vowed eternal enmity against the liturgically and poetically stupid…Make no mistake. God is not well praised by what is slovenly and stupid; and bad taste often slides over into bad theology.”

    Indeed. So, against insipid hymns, against cartoons on vestments, against idols on the altar, against 2+2=5, against a Communist regime as “best realizing the social doctrine of the Church,” against paganism from across the Rhine, against liturgical dancers and fire bowls, against the worship of shrubbery.

    Simon de Montfort would agree with Esolen:

    “God has established only one enmity — but it is an irreconcilable one — which will last and even go on increasing to the end of time. That enmity is between Mary, his worthy Mother, and the devil, between the children and the servants of the Blessed Virgin and the children and followers of Lucifer.”

    Deus Vult.

    p.s. I am in receipt of a suggestion: perhaps Herman Melville and Captain Ahab would be helpful here.

    “To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

    Well, that’s a fine sentiment in this context, but a little over the top. There is a saying in the Marine Corps: Good initiative, poor judgement. “Spitting from Hell’s heart” is not the preferred method, that’s rather theologically unsound.

    Instead, the Gospel of Matthew:

    “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

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