Hymns or Heresy?

hymn, church music, chant

This will be short and sweet. Yours truly is weary of church songs, masquerading as hymns, portraying something other than Church teaching. It’s bad enough that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet wants to see himself (herself) as a composer, leaving us with what amounts to a roller coaster ride up and down the scale. Vapid words, loosely connected in some vague way to scripture, mostly out of context,  and unpoetic poetry are like clanging cymbals in my ears.

Although I am only mildly musical,  my husband describes my voice as ‘a good voice for blending with others’ , I do have a hearing ear. Tempo, imagery, and melody do matter but, what matters more is accurate adherence to scripture, dogma, and faith.  Adding synthesized beats, twirling and whirling through the octaves, and being ‘unique’ does not a hymn make. What it does is create a song, albeit not a very good one, which fails the faith test.

Mere Songs or Real Hymns?

There are many such songs in our hymnals today. They prance around,  pretending to be hymns but are really only annoying songs. They are in our pews because of a tacit sin of omission. It goes something like this. The Church asks potential hymns to have the approval of the diocesan bishop. Only then should they appear in our hymnals.

What happens, instead, is the cart is put before the horse. Creative juices flow within the breast of an aspiring music minister and a song is born. This song (not hymn) is added to the ‘music issue’ and makes its grand entrance. The bishop isn’t told, nor does he notice, so there is no objection to this melodious piece of heresy. Voila! Inferred approval is invoked and a new pseudo-hymn is born. Consequently, the people, gnashing their teeth, are bound to sing or to stand by, silently praying for relief.

Below you will find one such song. In the past, we’ve been forced to sing about being Christ for one another, a loosely applicable notion given that we are to lead Christ-like lives. But making the jump from that to actually being the Bread of Life, broken and shared, is just too much. The allusion to the Eucharistic Sacrifice just brings my voice to a screeching halt.

Singing Heresy

Words have meaning and power; within the context of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, it’s vital that composers adhere to Church teaching. Some concepts are simply not true nor are they acceptable. It’s one thing to dislike a song as a matter of taste; it’s quite another when a hymn fails to follow Truth.

Which songs cause you to grind your teeth? Is it a matter of taste or theology? Weigh in by commenting below.

O Lord, please spare us and bring us back to the hymns of old. If that can’t be done, won’t you please at least bring back faithful, God-centered hymns? Amen!

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 I Myself Am the Bread of Life


I myself am the bread of life.

You and I are the bread of life.

Taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ

That the world might live.

Verse 1

This bread is spirit, gift of the Maker’s love,

and we who share it know that we can be one:

a living sign of God in Christ.


Verse 2

Here is God’s kingdom given to us as food.

This is our body, this is our blood:

a living sign of God in Christ.


Verse 3

Lives broken open, stories shared aloud,

Become a banquet, a shelter for the world:

a living sign of God in Christ.


Rory Cooney

© 1987, North American Liturgy Resources, Published by OCP Publications

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18 thoughts on “Hymns or Heresy?”

  1. “Jesus, Hope of the World”: “Here we receive You IN BREAD AND IN WINE.” Wrong!!! I guess the writers of this hymn haven’t heard of a thing called transubstantiation.

    “Ashes”: “We rise again from ashes to create OURSELVES anew.” Wrong!!!

    “Gather Us In”: “Not in some heaven, light-years away.” So heaven doesn’t exist and this life is all we have? Sounds pretty atheistic to me. Also, “dreamings” is not a word.

    “Open My Eyes” by Jesse Manibusan: So simple and trite it could have been written by a ten-year-old. Especially the final verse, which addresses “Love” as though it were a person. And that bridge… blech. A choir of trained musicians can’t get those weird rhythms right, and we expect the congregation to be able to sing it?

    “My Song Will Be for You Forever”: No mention of God or Christ by name makes this one radio-station dedication away from being a full-out secular love song, unsuitable for any Mass except a wedding.

    “What You Have Done for Me”: Bad poetry, a melody that jumps all over the place, and a third verse that is outright plagiarized from “Les Miserables.” Which I love, but not in church!

  2. Very well said, Brigit. There are certain songs that I can’t in good concience sing. “I myself am the bread of life” is one of them.

    By the way, in the fourth paragraph the word “viola” should be _voilà_.

  3. Besides the horrible theology, could we please avoid anything that ounces like commercial jingles or Disney music? One they sing in our parish sounds like the theme from Pocahontas!
    Reminds me of the old story where the Yankee drove south till nobody knew what the snow shovel on top of the car was.
    Can I find a parish that has never heard of OCP?

  4. “I myself am the bread of life”? “You and I are the bread of life”? This song causes me to grind my teeth

  5. As a professional musician and college music instructor who also happens to sit on a diocesan liturgical commission comprised of lay and ordained members, including our bishop, I could share a lengthy litany of lamentations which concern both taste (artistic merit) and theological merit, most of which the other commission members have little or no interest in hearing. Since you have identified the meat of the issue, I will merely add a few potatoes to the stew.

    The material that is frequently heard in parishes and which pretends to be liturgical (i.e., sacred) music is one of many reasons why Catholic voice and instrumental students with whom I am acquainted refuse to participate as musicians in Catholic parishes. They, like me, attend Mass weekly and more often, but at times—well, most of the time—only grudgingly so because the musical and theological distractions, to say nothing of the pseudo-ritual activities—are considerable. Daily Masses are more tolerable than Sunday liturgies in our area because they typically include few or no hymns/songs.

    Typically, our Catholic voice majors are employed, are paid (welcomed, supported, honoured…), as choral scholars by Anglican, Lutheran and United Church of Canada congregations in our area where they routinely sing Palestrina, Byrd, Bach, Duruflé and the like. The students refuse to indulge tripe at Catholic parishes primarily because, in addition to theological difficulties, such fare heaped on Catholics by “Spirit of Vatican II” and regressive liberal ideologues offers little or no musical (artistic) merit. For example, the responsorial psalms included in the Catholic Book of Worship (Canada) and those practically imposed by the national liturgical office are, as most are probably more than aware, shabby. A first year harmony student commented to me that “the settings demonstrate everything we are supposed to avoid (with regards to composition)”.

    1. christopherschaefer

      I was member of a diocesan liturgical commission back in the mid 1970s. I often showed up at meetings with a copy of Vatican II’s ‘Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’ and repeatedly would ask “How are we going to ensure that the people also are able to say or sing their parts in Latin?” “What are we going to do to ensure that Gregorian Chant has pride of place in the Liturgy?”, etc . The Commission’s priest/director–who is STILL the director–always responded “We’ve moved WAY beyond that Vatican II stuff.” Indeed, we have: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html

  6. Of course-this is no accident-lex orandi lex credendi; and part of what those who want to change the Church seek to do, in their efforts to, either abolish the priesthood or drastically herertically change it, to have each of us “be the priest.” This entails each of us standing when the priest alone is supposed to stand; hands in orans posture when priest alone is to assume orans posture; and each of us saying the words of consecration or the words of the doxology along with the priest. By sneaking in many of the priest’s word into the songs, the ordained priesthood is relegated to mere “celebrant,” mere “presider;” and in many of the new church/theaters, mere MC; and the faithful, because of praying/singing as they now do, come to believe in their hearts that anyone . . .drum roll . . .even a woman! . . . can say the words, do the gestures, do everything a priest does, without testicles. Therefore, church teaching on limiting the ordained priesthood to men must change. Evidently the Jesus and the Holy SPirit got in dreadfully wrong for about 2000 years. This is why there was/is great oppostion to “and with your spirit.” It is the ordained priest – alone – in the Church who is empowered to be there in the spirit of Christ, in persona Christi as the head of the mystical body of Christ. Make each of us the equivalent of an ordained priest, and you have destroyed the evil partricarchical hierarchical priesthood whose only scheme was to make us all “pray pay and obey.” If I can sing “I am the bread of life,” I am the priest, and this is my body. If I can “sing a new song unto the Lord,” that old song must have been bs (baloney sausage.). If I can “sing a new church into being,” I can abolish that old stupid arrogant despotic church. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas USA

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      It’s heartening to know that I am not alone. Bless you for saying, so eloquently, what disturbs my soul so much. As a fifty-something, I can still vaguely remember when Mass was about God alone, the priest was revered and obeyed, and the choir was heard but not seen – while singing to the glory of God. And I do also remember sacred silence. Today’s Mass often reminds me of entertainment – let them (the ‘audience’) never be bored with their own thoughts or listening to the whisper of the Holy Spirit. Lex orandi lex credendi, indeed!

    2. Birgit-In a way, you are blest for not knowing what the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was pre 1967 or so. I was gifted to hear the Mass every day in Latin and twice on Sundays, high Mass and low Mass, up until the Latin was abolished. When my onset dementia turns into full blown senility, I will still be able to say the Latin replies to the priest’s words. I might forget my grandchildren’s names, but I will never forget “et plebs tua laetabitur inte” or “et clamor meus ad te veniat,” and certainly never forget “et cum spiritu tuo.” There is something other-worldly, heavenly, about hearing/saying in community the Gloria and the Credo in Latin, and even the Dies Irae of the requiem Mass. Check it out-perhaps somewhere near you today you can attend a Mass where they say Sanctus, sanctus; Agnus Dei; and Domine non sum dignus – you will think you are on the threshold of eternity. Guy

    3. Birgit Atherton Jones

      I was ten during 1967, so I remember a bit – just enough to make me hunger and thirst for it. My first guitar Mass on an Air Force base brought a deep sense of foreboding and tears.

  7. christopherschaefer

    This problem would be eliminated if we returned to the practice of singing the Proper antiphons of the Mass, instead of hymns and “songs”. There are many English-language resources available, e.g.: http://www.ignatius.com/Products/PMSS-H/the-proper-of-the-mass-for-sundays-and-solemnities.aspx ~~AND http://www.ccwatershed.org/lalemant/ ~~AND http://art-productions.us/jogues/ ~~AND http://www.ccwatershed.org/english/propers/
    Of course, the original Latin Gregorian chant settings are used by a growing number of parishes: the 1974 Graduale Romanum for use with the 1969 Order of Mass, the 1961 Graduale Romanum or the Liber Usualis of 1961 (or many earlier editions) for the Traditional Latin Mass/TLM aka “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite”.

  8. Strange as this may sound, I think that the appeal of much of this modern Church music is in the melody, not in the lyrics themselves. The melody just gets stuck in your head, or it is a quiet melody during communion that serves to satisfy some people’s longing for a meditative time during mass. I wonder how many people, if they actually sat and thought about the wording and point of the verses, how many would actually cringe?

    For the most part, I wholeheartedly agree with you on much music that has come into the Church since the 70’s. I call it selfish music, lots of ‘I am’ and ‘We are’ when the point of the music should be to direct us in worship of the great I AM. Sadly, this change has walked hand in hand with our selfishness as a society, Church and mass have become “what do I get out of it” .

    1. Birgit Atherton Jones

      You’re right; it’s catchy like a commercial that you just can’t forget – for better or for worse. I find that many of the rolicking music makes me want to sway with the beat rather than meditate. Yes, we are a selfish society, with selfish songs during Mass. As Pope Benedict XVI famously said, we need our worship to be vertical (toward God) instead of horizontal (about us).

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