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.

Written by
Domenico Bettinelli