Your Top Ten list of Greatest Liturgical Music of All Time

Your Top Ten list of Greatest Liturgical Music of All Time

Shoot me. Shoot me now. The archdiocesan newspaper of Los Angeles (who else?) gives us the top 25 Catholic hymns of all time. Granted this was produced from an online poll on the web site of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, those fine folks who have been foisting God-awful dreck on us all these years, so you’ll expect the results to be biased toward the stuff that’s like nails on the chalkboard. Nevertheless, let’s take a look. (Let’s also take into account that only 242 people voted so it’s not exactly broad-based.)

Coming in at Number One, the greatest Catholic hymn in 2,000 years of Catholic liturgical hymnody: “On Eagles Wings” by Fr. Michael Joncas. If I ever want to havea pile of steaming sentiment dropped on me during Mass, I’ll ask for this one. Unfortunately, my mom loves it and wants it to be played at her funeral when the time comes. I’m praying for a long life for her ... and not just for that reason.

At Number Two, we have yet another shining light in the contemporary Catholic hymnody pantheon, Dan Schutte, with “Here I am, Lord,” a stirring self-congratulatory song that I like to call, “Here I am, Lord. Aren’t I great, Lord?” I particularly like the stalker-style lyrics: “I will cross the barren desert…” to come and get you!

Rounding out the top three is that staple of mid-80s Confirmation retreat Reconciliation services, “Be Not Afraid,” by Father Bob Dufford, which I re-title, “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.” This one was pulled out in the darkened chapel during the dramatic reading designed to show how we hurt Jesus’ feelings; if this didn’t elicit tears of repentance, your heart was made of stone.

Don’t worry, I’m not doing a Top 40

Kasey Kasum, counting down the Mass hits. This week’s long distance dedication goes out Marty H. from your good buddy David H., who says “You Are Mine.” (Why does this one sound like a scary boyfriend or the guy whose brand-new Hummer you just scratched with your car door?)

The Fifth most popular Catholic “liturgical song [that] most fostered and nourished the respondent’s life” isn’t even Catholic. It’s a Protestant spiritual, “How Great Thou Art,” just like Number Seven, “Amazing Grace” (which has very suspect theology regarding redemption and salvation).

It isn’t until Number Six that we come to a hymn that even approaches classic status, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” an English translation of a Latin prayer. Still, this is one hymn that any congregation can sing and sound good doing it. But notice how far down the list we have to go to find anything remotely acceptable and we still haven’t heard from some of the greatest Church music of all time. We have to wait until Number Ten to find the “Ave Maria,” and even then we don’t know which Ave Maria it is. Schubert? Someone else?

In the Twelfth spot is “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” which I presume is the new and updated Ned Flanders version, replacing the sexist language of “Let me walk with my brother” with the gender inclusive “Let me walk with my neighbor.” Howdy neighbor! Because, really, isn’t your relationship with the guy next door just as close as that to your siblings? Peace all!

Following that is “I Am the Bread of Life (But Evidently You Aren’t, Jesus)” and “The Summons.” That last one must be new to the list since 2002. Who knew we had a hymn about bishops being served with subpoenas?

At Fifteen, preceded by six songs collectively written by Haugen, Haas, Dufford, and Schutte, we finally get “Panis Angelicus.” That’s not bad though because we don’t get the “Tantum Ergo” until Twenty-Three, right after “One Bread, One Body, (One Screaming Headache because you missed the point about the Eucharist, you lyrically challenged knucklehead)”. (Right before that comes “Lord of the Dance,” which I think is about Michael Flatley and the legal rights to a Celtic dance troupe.) And the “Pange Lingua” comes in dead last at Twenty-Five.

Oh, did I forget that “Prayer of St. Francis” came in at Number Nine? “Make me a channel of your peace/Who was bringing up three very lovely girls/Where there is hatred let me bring your love/All of them had hair of gold like their mother…”

Some of my “favorites” didn’t even make the list. How about the Catholic drinking song?: “Sing to the mountains/Sing to the sea/Lift your glasses, raise them high…” Let’s not forget the hymn everyone loves to hate: “Ashes”: “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.” That’s right, we don’t need Jesus. We can resurrect ourselves!

Seriously, what this list shows is how ignorant we’ve been made of our musical heritage. What a loss to good worship that so many “pastoral musicians” would rather play this dreck on Sundays than the music brilliance that preceded it for 1,900 years. Frankly, I’d rather sing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” a capella and sung by my pastor than listen to the rest of this stuff ever again.

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27 comments
  • “I approach your banquet table in fear and trembling, for I am a sinner…I know my sins are many and great, and they fill me with fear, but I hope in your mercies, for they cannot be numbered.” 

    —Prayer before Communion of St. Ambrose

    “Be not afraid”

    —Communion song chosen by parish music minister

  • Guess this isn’t the time to admit that I own a CD put out by the St. Louis Jesuits. (Actually, there’s probably never a good time to admit that around here.) I’m very orthodox, and I’m not saying that I agree with the idea of ranking them, or of the spots they occupy in the rankings, but I do like some of the tunes. Reminds me of – sorry again – the folk group at BU, which I also liked.

    I absolutely loathe the song, “Let there be peace on earth,” however (so please don’t ban me). Wasn’t the Lord of the Dance song sung at Joe Moakley’s funeral by some schoolkids from South Boston? *cringe* I like the tune, but it doesn’t belong at a Mass.

  • There’s a GREAT collection of Catholic music in a book called “Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles,” put out by the late Theodore “Ted” Marier, founder of the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School.  Mr. Marier received the Order of St. Gregory (I believe) for his lifetime of service and for this collection of authentic Catholic music, arranged for liturgical use.

    In it are classics, such as “The Breastplate of St. Patrick,” “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” among many others.

    Do yourself a favor—find a copy and introduce the music “minister” at your parish to it.

  • This morning I wrote about my Mass adventure this past weekend in Richmond. The music was great if you like jazz (which I do) however it really didn’t fit into Mass. I expected the soloists to stand up and take a bow after their improvisational segments. The sultry voiced vocalist put an interesting spin on the hymns. The jazz club atmosphere made one think communion would be distributed by cocktail waitresses.

  • Richard: “But they’re not Catholic as such, and I am a little perplexed by their inclusion here unless the list is Top 25 Christian hymns.”

    If this list were the top 25 Christian hymns, Ave Maria would be on the list, and that’s about it.

    If the list were the top 25 heretical hymns, there would be stiff competition from our parish’s OCP hymnal to get on the list.

  • Dom,

    “On Eagles Wings” is actually appropriate for a funeral. That was the original intent.

    I once pointed that out to someone who had that song played at their wedding. The response was (something to the effect of) “well, that’s OK I love the imagery.”

  • The linked report (carried in The Tidings) is a CNS story and indicates that some 3,000 people participated in the poll, not 242.

    The words “I will cross the barren desert…” are actually, “You shall cross the barren desert…” and they are found in “Be Not Afraid,” not in “Here I Am, Lord.”

    I would not defend the hymns and psalms in the poll results as great music – examples of “musical brilliance” they are not.  But as a pastor, I recognize that many of these titles are scripture based songs that people love, sing and pray with.  Many of the titles (but certainly not all!) are also appropriate for liturgical celebrations.  My parish repertoire includes a good cross section of musical styles including the good, solid (but not musically brilliant) “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and the much loved (and also not musically brilliant) “Here I Am, Lord.”  I believe there’s room for a variety of sacred songs. I also note that the elder members of our parish who are more familiar with the older titles in our pew books tend to choose Haugen and Haas and the Jesuits over more traditional hymns for funerals. 

    I’ve just never understood what is to be gained by loving-to-hate and trashing the songs that other people pray with.

  • Pardon my misreading of the story. 3,000 people voted and 242 voted for “On Eagle’s Wings.”

    As for getting the lyrics mixed up, I count that as a credit to my musical ear. All that baloney sounds very much alike.

    And perhaps people love to hate this stuff because it is acoustic dreck that is forced down our throats. I doubt people love it so much as it’s all they’ve ever been given and so they don’t know what they could have. If someone’s only ever had McDonald’s Big Macs and never had a filet mignon, their claim that the Big Mac is the height of cuisine doesn’t make it so.

    You also seem to be making the assumption that I think the height of Catholic liturgical music occurred in the lifetime of anyone around today, so the fact that elderly people choose dreck means nothing to me.

  • Theodore Marier’s hymnal, cited above by Fr. Jim Clark, is out of print. Former choir members at St. Paul’s in Harvard Square—like me—were asked to lend choir hymnals they had bought because the adult choir had grown so much; they promised a copy of the new hymnal when it’s published. (I still use mine for a campus ministry so I didn’t lend mine to the cause.) I believe at this point there is no reason not to wait to see what Latinate mess becomes the new text for the Mass (as opposed to the English mess we now have).

  • The St. Michael’s hymnal is a good compromise hymnal. The traditional favorites as well as some contemporary hymns are there. There is also both English and Latin translations of the Mass.

  • Aplman, because they are 4th rate jingles—worse than hamburger joint songs.  They’re not fit for worship.

    Here I am, Lord has the same tune as the Brady Bunch song.  You realize that???  Just hum it and see.  There are a whole bunch of these sound-alikes.  Surf the net.  Google is your friend.

    Very few people sing these trashy things in church for the same reason very few people wear fruit on their heads.  They’re ridiculous, demeaning and make people feel stupid.  Besides, they’re sung in keys that few people can manage because the lectors are trying to be movie stars and trying to sound like mariah carey.  They shriek, squeak and squawk.

    And the sickest, most ridiculous & depraved part is that some of the greatest music ever written was written for us!!!  But do we play it in church?  No.  We have to buy records recorded by non-catholics and play it at home to hear it.

  • In the first parish my wife and I belonged to after we were married, one of the tenors in the choir would quietly hum “Happy Trails” as a counter-melody to “We are Many Parts”. Musically, they work very well together…

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything theologically wrong with “We are Many Parts”. But, in my opinion, it is kind of musically silly…

    In terms of substitutes for the songs that we have been discussing, I’m all in favor of Gregorian Chant. Even English translation of the Latin done in chant format would be better in 99% of current liturgical music choices. And if you have a decent choir, some polyphonic chant would be cool, too.

  • I am surprised “Taste and See” (e.g.“Scratch and Sniff”) didn’t make the list.

    A personal favorite from my Folk Mass days…“Sons of God”…guess late Sixties folk is not inclusive enough.

  • At Number Two, we have yet another shining light in the contemporary Catholic hymnody pantheon, Dan Schutte, with “Here I am, Lord,” a stirring self-congratulatory song that I like to call, “Here I am, Lord. Aren’t I great, Lord?” I particularly like the stalker-style lyrics: “I will cross the barren desert…” to come and get you!

    I guess this is what happens when you spend your time at mass as a music critic, and not listening to the lyrics of the music.

    The only problem I have with this particular one is that we sing God’s part (which we shouldn’t sing, that ought to be the priest), and then we shift to singing our own part (which is a bit schitzo).  But the words (if you’re listening to them and not setting up your next witty rejoinder) are biblical and moving.

    Oh, and Gerald, you must not be hiding very good, because every week I see some new criticism of some mass that I had assumed you attended.

  • We always giggled at “We are the young, our lives are a mystery”…and yes, what is with Singing a new Church into being? Is that how it’s done? My bad, guess we’ve ALLL been duped these 2000 years.

    On the other hand, I am not entirely crazy about the “old hymns”.  Not all of them are easy to sing.  Being Charismatic I do appreciate the better praise music (KEY WORD: BETTER-there are some crummy ones in there as well.  Think Jim Cowans’ great stuff) and respond to that more than the old hymns.

    But I’d agree, Mozart, Schubert-that is some fine music for Catholics. And Peter: Bach-Gounod is def better than Schubert, maybe because we don’t hear it enough.

  • So is there any truth to the rumor that Marty Haugen is working on setting to music the 1999 Rite of Exorcism in a new album entitled “Depart”?

  • The worst thing about “Sing a New Church Into Being” is the theft of the beautiful “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

    Jesus sought me when a stranger,
    Wandering from the fold of God;
    He, to rescue me from danger,
    Interposed His precious blood

    I mean, I know it’s Protestant and all, but c’mon!

  • I would add a correction: The lyrics are “paraphrased” from the songs. They’re not any accurate English translation that I know of. And it’s in the paraphrase that the bizarre theology arises.

  • Laura,

    The Congregation of St. Athanasius in West Roxbury, MA, is 100% Roman Catholic. 

    They use the 1940 Hymnal.

    If you’re ever in the area, or near one of the other parishes granted the Pastoral Provision…

    http://www.locutor.net

  • Rest assured that I know the difference between a time for worship and a time for critical assessment of the liturgy. My sacraments professor, Fr. Giles Dimock, admonished us that when we are at Mass, we are not to be a Sacramental SWAT team, ready to swoop down on liturgical offenders.

    But afterward, there’s nothing wrong with a little prudential judgment about what’s appropriate for worship and what is not.

  • Rest assured that I know the difference between a time for worship and a time for critical assessment of the liturgy. My sacraments professor, Fr. Giles Dimock, admonished us that when we are at Mass, we are not to be a Sacramental SWAT team, ready to swoop down on liturgical offenders.

    So Dom, do you sing along with On Eagle’s Wings at mass?

  • No, but then I rarely sing along because the cantor is a soprano and I’m not a good enough singer to adjust my voice.

    But to answer your direct question, even if I could sing along, I wouldn’t. I keep my mouth shut and turn my mind to prayer.

  • But to answer your direct question, even if I could sing along, I wouldn’t. I keep my mouth shut and turn my mind to prayer.

    Then I submit that you aren’t entering into the Holy Mass.  Your prideful silence interferes.  You could pray by yourself anywhere.

  • First, it’s not pride, it’s taste.

    Second, strictly speaking the hymns are not part of the liturgy. They are addiitons. This is why Masses in which hymns are not sung are still valid and licit.

    I would suggest you read the liturgical documents, including the Vatican’s directives on liturgical music, before you go accusing other people of pride and not worshipping properly.

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