Gather Us In, A Bad Song Is Playing

A reader writes into Fr. Z to ask why Gregorian Chant is to be preferred at Mass to hymns like “Gather Us In” which the reader, a newly minted Catholic, happens to like.  Fr. Z responds here, and the commenters also chime in with responses that hit the mark.

Fr. Z writes:

As a preamble, music for liturgical worship is not a mere add on or decoration.  It is liturgical worship.  Therefore the texts used should be sacred texts.  The texts of those ditties mentioned in the question are not sacred, liturgical texts.  They are not the prayer of the Church.

He then discusses the quality of the hymns under discussion.  This is a more subjective argument.  After all, there are people who think the hymns located in the Gather hymnal are quite extraordinary.  I question the sanity of such people, but that’s neither here nor there.  This is a country that consistently puts American Idol at the top of the ratings, so I’m obviously a bit out of the loop with my musical tastes.

Besides, even non banal hymns seem out of place in our liturgy.  On Holy Thursday I attended Mass at St. Mathew’s Cathedral.  As always, it was a beautiful, reverent, and yes, Novus Ordo liturgy.  I don’t remember the entrance hymn.  It was a nice hymn – something more fitting than one of the turds from the Gather hymnal.  And yet there was something a bit off.  It was a fairly upbeat hymn, and as Cardinal Wuerl incensed the altar it just felt jarring.  Here is this solemn moment marking the beginning of the Triduum, and the accompanying music just does not fit what is happening up there in the sanctuary.  It’s the sort of thing that just snaps you out of the moment, and that’s the problem.

The liturgy is prayer, not entertainment.  The reason that these hymns are generally inappropriate, no matter the quality, is that they simply don’t fit in with what’s supposed to be happening.  Instead of amplifying our prayers they drown them out.  That’s why I find the incessant need to have some kind of music playing at all times whenever there is more than five seconds of silence so frustrating.  You’ve all probably heard organists vamp when the hymn ends before the Priest has reached the sanctuary, or after Communion when not all have returned to their places.  Why can’t he or she just let silence reign for a few minutes?  Why is there such a need for constant noise, especially when it does not fit in appropriately with that moment in the liturgy?

44 Responses to Gather Us In, A Bad Song Is Playing

  • Thanks a lot, Paul. Now I’ve got Gather Us In stuck in my head. “The lame”, indeed.

  • @Pinky,

    It’s even worse for me. I despise that “hymn” (and I think it’s granting it too much to call it that) so much that I only know the melody and the first few lines. Now I find myself mentally composing inappropriate hokey lyrics that better fit the message of that song! And all while I should be studying for final exams, which begin tomorrow!

  • The worst one for me is a hymn (I don’t know the name of it) which is set to the music of Holst’s Jupiter. Now, Holst wrote some great music, and I enjoy The Planets, and he even wrote hymns…but “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” is about the god Jupiter. It really messes me up. It’s like starting a Mass with a Hare Krishna song.

  • Shame of place for me in the worst hymn category will always be: “Sing a New Song”. Shudder !

  • The real issue here is a complete and deliberate ignoring of church teaching. The rubrics in the GIRM clearly indicate a preference given to the Gregorian Propers for the Mass. These are ancient chant pieces that have been passed down, most over a thousand years. True, the GIRM leaves room for “a suitable hymn” but lists it as the very last option. Why, then, are we such minimalists in our liturgy so as to make the last option the standard? Eliminating official Mass texts across the board in virtually every parish in the country is nothing short of a tragedy. It would be like deciding to get rid of Collect (Opening Prayer) and replace it with an off-the-cuff prayer.

    My apologies for the abruptness of this, but this really gets me fired up. Why can we not simply do what the Church asks? “Sing a New Song”? Please, God, let’s.

  • No apologies needed, Jake. You are absolutely on the money here and in your post as well.

  • May be at work is Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

  • @ Pinky and Kevin: If you can forgive the singer his shaky voice (it’s not me), then you might appreciate this parody of the Gather Hymnal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwFJv-kmaCc. Especially you, Kevin, since you find yourself composing inappropriate lyrics for it — well, it’s already been done for you! (I died when I heard what he’d done to “Here I Am, Lord”.)

  • Anthony – Great video. The same analysis (no spoilers) of “Here I Am, Lord” is in the book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing. You’ll never hear that hymn the same way again.

  • I especially dislike “Take and Eat.” For some reason it makes me think of cannibalism instead of the Eucharist. There are some hymns I enjoy from my school days at an Episcopal school. I really like this one for children, and the Catholics I know don’t seem to know it. Not appropriate for mass, but maybe for religious education classes.
    http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh712.sht

  • I am new at being Catholic, having come into the church 4 years ago from a protestant background. I have been and continue to be puzzled by the shallow nature of the hymns I find in this profound church – how can that be? In my former Episcopal church, shallow theology reigned, but we sang some deeply meaningful, historical and lovely hymns. Oh, well, clearly converts are not here for the music, but for the Eucharist!

    But a main concern I have is that when this subject is discussed, the fallback position seems to be Gregorian Chant. Everything would be better if we had Gregorian Chant back! GC may be beautiful and profound, but for the convert, it is incomprehensible. I know, I know, we can learn. But I am overwhelmed with learning, and I may not have time to learn another language in the time I’ve got left. Could the church not unleash a creative and profound new form of hymnody/chant combining music AND Theology – maybe a whole new form that feeds our prayer through use of the vernacular. Isn’t that what Gregorian Chant did in it’s day?

  • You have named the leader on my most despised hymns list – not so much because of the words as the terrible “melody.”
    The nastiest of all Communion songs, though, has got to be “There is plenty of bread at the feast of life………” It’s appropriate for dancing in to a bacchanalia – not receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion!

  • “I have been and continue to be puzzled by the shallow nature of the hymns I find in this profound church – how can that be?”

    The short answer Dawn is that the Church in this country and much of the West has undergone a musical “Babylonian Captivity” by some Catholics who came of age in the Sixties and the Seventies and are intent on their banal gibberish being almost the only music heard at Mass. Time will take care of this problem. (Since I came of age in the Sixties and the Seventies I may not live to see it, but I assume if, by the grace of God, I reach Purgatory there will be magnificent hymns, not to mention the beatific sounds of Heaven. In Hell I suspect the musical taste will reflect…best not to go there in both senses of that phrase!)

  • Oh Thank you Fr Z…THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! I so much long for sacred silence during Mass and after Mass as well when currently the second miracle is performed and the sanctuary is miraculously turned into a social hall. As for the music…I truly miss the sacred liturgical music now only heard either during Tridentine Masses or when listening to Masses on TV usually celebrated by the Holy Father. I am a revert…six years now having been away for 45 years and now near 64y/o. I long for reverence in Mass and in Church generally. I long for the space to encounter Christ that sacred silence affords. I long to forget myself and relish in the person of Christ before me. But my question to you is ‘How or what can anyone do to bring this back? Our pastors seem disinterested and more influenced by what is perceived as the will of the congregation. It is not enough to just complain or say only if.. What concretely can we do?

  • Volunteer for the choir and begin exercising an influence over song choices. I truly believe that a lot of the atrocious hymns are deeply unpopular but too many Catholics are content to stay in the pews and do a slow burn as they hear a hymn they hate endlessly recycled Mass after Mass.

  • Pinky

    It’s like starting a Mass with a Hare Krishna song.

    you neveer heard of the Christmas Caroll
    “We wish you a hare Krishna”

  • George Weigel on bad Catholic hymns:

    “For classic Lutheran theology, hymns are a theological “source:” not up there with Scripture, of course, but ranking not-so-far below Luther’s “Small Catechism.” Hymns, in this tradition, are not liturgical filler. Hymns are distinct forms of confessing the Church’s faith. Old school Lutherans take their hymns very seriously.

    Most Catholics don’t. Instead, we settle for hymns musically indistinguishable from “Les Mis” and hymns of saccharine textual sentimentality. Moreover, some hymn texts in today’s Catholic “worship resources” are, to put it bluntly, heretical. Yet Catholics once knew how to write great hymns; and there are great hymns to be borrowed, with gratitude, from Anglican, Lutheran, and other Christian sources. There being a finite amount of material that can fit into a hymnal, however, the first thing to do is clean the stables of today’s hymnals.

    Thus, with tongue only half in cheek, I propose the Index Canticorum Prohibitorum, the “Index of Forbidden Hymns.” Herewith, some examples.”

    http://catholiceducation.org/articles/arts/al0288.htm

  • An excellent discussion on bad Catholic hymns:

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/07/06/are-these-the-ten-worst-hymns-of-all-time/

    I love this comment:

    “The problem with these hymns is that they date very badly: they may have been passible in the 60?s or 70?s (though even as a kid in the 70?s, I remembered these hymns as sounding pretty “dorky”), but they sound even more pathetic today – sort of like the aging hippy trying to “get down” with the kids. Really good hymns, like those of Gregorian chant, are timeless. But if one were making a list of the best Catholic hymns, I’d probably put “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” near the top of the list along with hymns I remember singing in my childhood during Benediction service, “O Saving Victim,” and “Tantum Ergo.” They still send shivers up my spine!”

  • Way up there on my list for worst hymn would have to be the “We come to tell our story, we come to break the bread” one. Ack.

    I’d put that down as significantly worse than Gather Us In.

  • Unfortunately, “Taste and See” seems to be a popular Communion song in these parts.

    I am not proud of having been a lapsed Catholic for many years, but after a long absence you do notice changes in liturgical fashion. “Sons of God, Hear His Holy Word” – named the worst hymn by the FT writer – was a ’70′s staple at my parent’s old parish. I haven’t heard it since then. But to my mind, it’s far from being the worst. I haven’t heard “Lord of the Dance” in at least 30 years and for that I heartily thank God. Like a FT commenter said, I used to hear versions which sounded like Michael Flatley and crew were going to run out of the sacristy any second and start line dancing.

  • Dawn: “I am new at being Catholic, having come into the church 4 years ago from a protestant background. I have been and continue to be puzzled by the shallow nature of the hymns I find in this profound church – how can that be?”

    I am a convert myself and wondered the same. Most of my favorite hymns of youth seem far more substantial and reflective than what I typically grew up with. Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste was helpful reading.

  • “I have been and continue to be puzzled by the shallow nature of the hymns I find in this profound church – how can that be?”

    It’s even more puzzling when you consider the legacy of fantastic classical music inspired by — and written for — the liturgy by the greatest masters of the Western hemisphere. Not only a triumph of bad taste but also the victory of historical short-sightedness and an absurd worshipping at the Altar of the Trendy. … Or, at least, what was trendy almost fifty years ago.

  • My earlier post was written before I scrolled up and saw Mrs. Zummo’s. So it’s “Take and Eat,” not “Taste and See,” I guess. My bad. I confess to trying to block the song out of my brain whenever I hear it and to focus all my attention on the Real Presence. I suppose I’ve been successful, since I couldn’t even recall the actual name of the hymn – only that I dislike it for exactly the same reason Mrs. Zummo does.

    I’ve never heard “Anthem.” From all accounts I should consider myself lucky.

  • Even at Churches which otherwise have good music, most Communion hymns are quite awful. Are there any good Communion hymns? And I second my wife’s take on “Take and Eat.”

  • That is indeed a beautiful hymn. Unfortunately I rarely if ever hear it as a Communion hymn.

  • We have a volunteer cantor who loves singing it at communion. The advantage of being in a small parish: no budget for “professional” songsters.

  • I have to wonder – is the problem of terrible hymns an issue throughout the Catholic world, or just the Anglosphere part of it? Are churchgoers in Rome, Paris, Manila and Rio suffering through tripe produced by their own versions of Marty Haugen? Somehow it’s difficult to imagine parishioners in, say, Munich or Vienna droning along to the Germanic equivalent of “On Eagle’s Wings.” I doubt that the Holy Father distributes Communion to the strains of “Take and Eat.”

    It would be nice to have a reader from or familiar with the liturgy in a non-English speaking country enlighten us. Mundabor?

  • @Donna V:

    I’ve lived in Spain for some years and spent some time in Mexico and Argentina, as well. I can assure you that bad liturgical music is also widely present in Hispanic countries’ Masses, as well. There are always parishes with excellent music, of course, and perhaps even more than we have here in the States (percentage-wise), but I’ve heard a number of these awful “hymns” by Haugen, et al translated into Spanish and accompanied by guitars and poor singers–UGH! “Pescador de hombres” (“Fishers of men”) is an especially egregious and insipid hymn, which I believe was actually composed in Spanish first, then translated into English some time ago. But I’ve heard “Gather Us In” and “On Eagle’s Wings” in Spanish masses in those countries, as well.

  • Thanks for the reply, Kevin. Yuck, how depressing to think of “On Eagle’s Wings” spreading into the non-English-speaking Catholic world as well.

  • I am in my early 60′s and have little hope that this will change in my lifetime or even soon thereafter. So much has been undermined by my generation in our Church, it would take a revolutionary Pope to fix this mess or a lengthy series of Popes gradually changing so many things that need to be changed. Sadly, I seriously doubt such changes could come from below. The laity is too weak (and this is not necessarily a bad thing) and much of the clergy is wrong headed and still trained to be. The so-called music ministers seem hopeless and/or impotent. The entire abolition of singing at Mass would be preferable to the current situation, in my view. A (short) list of the only songs permitted would be an alternative but, even at that, I can only shudder to think what the US bishops’ bureaucracy would put on that list. Sigh! When the end comes closer, I will put together my list for my funeral and that gives me some comfort but must leave it to my wonderful wife to make sure nothing weird gets in.

  • Dear Pinky: You’ve got it backwards, I think. Holst wrote the hymn tune “Thaxted” first and then incorporated it into The Planets as Jupiter. In my diocese we sing it as “O God, Beyond all Praising” and the words are actually pretty good – “we worship you today, and sing the love amazing that songs cannot repay.” Try learning the words to a decent version and singing along with Jupiter.

  • …and to the lady in her 60′s – so am I – how do you like “Taste and see” sung to a slow version of the Wyatt Earp TV Theme? yggg.

  • The hymns I remember from my youth were different in two respects. First, they were more theological (even though some of them were written by the Wesley brothers). They were hymns about the Trinity and Mary. I think half of them rhymed “Son” and “one”. The other thing that stands out about them, I don’t know exactly how to describe. Musically, they were more baroque than romantic. They were 3/4 or 4/4 time, solidly built. They weren’t written for impassioned songleaders to interpret.

  • I am an organist/accompanist in a local parish. It seems like due to circumstances beyond my control, my task not to help facilitate a good liturgy, but to try and make it the least horrible as possible. That’s very hard to do. Can anyone relate to the following?

    1. The Gather hymnal reigns supreme. Why are we required to sing the awful stuff within its pages, just because GIA publishes it?

    2. I do not make the musical selections. They are given to me by the others…liturgy planners…etc. Because of the wide array of options in Gather, any liturgy can and often does have a mix of: a song by Marty and company, maybe an African American style piece, a tradional hymn (protestant or Catholic) and maybe something scored for drums/bass/keyboard that sounds more like happy hour at the Leopard Lounge than church. The result is that there is no continuity, no unified sound. What is the music supposed to sound like…who knows?? Proponents of this would say it represents “diversity” but I would say it represents the church having lost a musical identity.

    3. The songs are always “lead” by a cantor at a microphone, creating a very artificial sound. Why is this necessary? Why is the organ not deemed suitable to lead the singing? What’s even better is when there is a deacon who is very zealous for singing, but somewhat off pitch and always behind the beat, who has a very hot lapel mic. Then it becomes a contest between the deacon and cantor for who to follow.

    4. The insipid, banal and borderline blasphemous lyrics of some of the songs. Last week, being Mothers Day, we had to sing “Hail Mary…Gentle Woman.” Ugh. What about the part that references Mary as “morning star” and “gentle dove”…um, the last time I checked, Jesus is the Morning Star and the Holy Spirit is the Dove. Does anyone ever read these lyrics?
    What do they even mean sometimes? Usually they just mean some lame brain is trying to come up with some stupid rhyme that matches the equally lame line that just preceded it. As long as were talking “worst songs”, “All that we Have, and all that we offer…” really ranks up there.
    Ugh. But it is a favorite for the presentation of gifts….simply because it has the word “offer”. BUT, the congregation squaks out a few of the insipid lines, and so boom…”active participation” is achieved…therefore…SUCCESS! No matter if everything is horrible musically, stylistically, and theologically.

    I could go on and on but I’ve probably said far too much already. Initially, back in my naive days, I wanted to be a force for creating a better liturgy, but across the boards in US parishes, I think that goal is beyond hope.

  • Very well said James. Your comment hits the nail right on the songbook of so much that is wrong with the truly bad music prevalent in Catholic parishes today.

  • I left the church specifically because the Masses are simply not uplifting and the music is dreadfully depressing. I call it dying cow music. My daughter has changed to a Zion church and I’m considering a Baptist church. Just can’t sit through another unmotivating, soul sucking Mass. White, old men in charge, you’re not going to make very much progress in change.

  • Gee, Helen — I can’t help being white, and I can’t help being in my fifties. It’s puzzling and sad that you’d give up Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament because of songs sung by old white priests. If your pastor apologized for his age, skin color, and musical taste would that keep you from leaving the Church founded by Jesus? Almost as importantly, does being judged “by the content of your character rather than by he color of your skin” include everybody, or only for folks that aren’t old white men?

  • Well this while old man agrees with Helen insomuch as the music of so many Masses really is depressingly bad. But I suppose that is where our agreement ends. First, leaving the Church because the Mass is insufficiently uplifting is unthinkable. Even I’m not that ego-centric — and I’m a lawyer! Second, I sort of doubt that Helen and I would be moved by the same tunes. I like jazz ok and blues a lot, but not for Mass sorry. I’m not there to be entertained really, but I realize I’m odd that way.

    Now for some goodies:

    Now Thank We All Our God
    Holy Holy Holy
    Holy God We Praise Thy Name
    Come Holy Ghost
    How Great Thou Art (ok not strictly Catholic, but orthodox anyway)
    Immaculate Mary
    Faith of Our Fathers
    Oh God Almighty Father

    My final semi-rant: I have no problem with a choir reserving one song which they offer as a gift to God and his people, but I really do wish choir directors would choose hymns that are singable by normal folks — you know with normal octave ranges and with recognizable melodies. Even some outstanding choir directors are so intent on choosing the most perfect song for that day’s readings, we end up hearing it at most once every three years — in which case it is unrecognizable and therefore unsingable. End of semi-rant.

  • And I forgot to add: Oh God Beyond All Praising. Disagree with Pink on that — Agree with MEW. When properly done, very powerful hymn.

  • Hate Hate Hate the Taize music. As a 20 year member of several choirs, I dread singing that insipid “We have come to share our story…” ad nauseum. I would not, however, leave the sanctuary of the Blessed Church and the Holy Eucharist, for a church with a better playlist.

    At masses where we sing some of the classics hymns as well as spectacular choral peices (Ave Verum, Ave Maria, Panis Angelicus), the parishoners take notice. Sometimes I wish that the choir directors would take more notice, and change.

    PS – I don’t want to “Sing a New Church Into Being”, I like the one Jesus created, thank you very much.

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