Peter Nixon on Reform2

Peter links his US Catholic feature on dotCommonweal, and nets a predictably long thread of comments. I really like the work done on “Gather Us In.”

I was at an ecumenical seminar on teaching hymnology, and the presenter, a Calvinist professor, was talking about theology in hymnody. He singled out Gather Us In as a hymn that would give no offense to anyone, atheist or B’ahai or whomever. A Buddhist could comfortably sing this song. He looked directly and rather accusingly at me, the only Catholic in the seminar, and asked whether it didn’t seem strange that currently in the Roman Catholic Church the single most popular hymn does not mention God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Trinity in general, and could be comfortably sung by all the participants at any interreligious gathering.

On one hand context is everything. On the other, lets keep in mind that Catholics also consume the Eucharist just like it were drink and food. Imagine all the billions of non-Catholics who eat bread and drink wine every day and have no idea!

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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18 Responses to Peter Nixon on Reform2

  1. Liam says:

    An Objectivist would be offended by “Gather Us In.”

  2. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    Since financial considerations mean I am only able to access Commonweal and their blog online, I am unable to make a direct comment there.
    Re Vatican involvement in translation of liturgical texts, we have a similar, ongoing dialog (??) here in Japan. From both an SVD confrere, who is a Bishop here in Japan, and our SVD Provincial, a Rome trained liturgical scholar, who is on the Bishop’s Liturgy Committee, occasional news of the slow progress of the revision of the Missal and other liturgical texts gives a window on the difficulties of negotiating with Rome. Since there was, and still is, nobody in the Vatican fluent in Japanese, they used to send out the texts to young Japanese priests doing graduate work there. More recently there came the bizarre request for a ‘literal’ English translation of the Japanese translation, presumably so they could then check it word for word with the Latin.
    While most older Japanese agree the present translation has its faults, it is reasonably accurate, and speaks in a language that is accessible to both Christians and non-Christians. If we were to go for a more formal, more literary language, a language with its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, while it definitely has an elegance and beauty absent in contemporary Japanese, its accessibility would become a significant problem. Most young Japanese, particularly those who came through Senior High in the last fifteen to twenty year are just not exposed to as wide a range of literature as earlier generations, and consequently are not familiar with the vocabularly or grammatical constructs used in older literature.
    I probably arrived here when young people did more reading of older literature than at present and so have some familiarity with such language. Now, however, especially among the students I work with, that is students who because of parental work committments have spent some of their grade school or junior high years overseas, one finds an even lower level of facility and familiarity with their native tongue. Their ability to read and understand even scripture texts, never mind catechetical or liturgical texts is, to say the least, severely constrained.
    Against such a background, ongoing work on text translation and liturgical renewal and reform has more than enough barriers to overcome before discussing with Rome whether this or that text has been translated in accord with the norms of Liturgicam Authenticam.
    For now I shall continue to follow the progress of both translation projects, keeping in mind both the Japanese groups for whom I arrange and celebrate liturgies, and also the multi-national, cross-cultural community for whom I celebrate the Eucharist in English. On some occasions less than half can claim English as their first language.

  3. Mollie says:

    Context — yes. Also, I’m glad you mentioned the eucharist, because reading that discussion put the song in my head, and eventually I got around to the verse that says “Give us to eat the bread that is you.” I don’t know whether a non-Christian or non-Catholic would be offended by that reference to the eucharist, but they wouldn’t be able to pray with it as Christians/Catholics can. And isn’t that how we’re meant to judge hymns, rather than by their ability to give offense?

  4. RP Burke says:

    “The bread that is you” is Protestant theology, and particularly Lutheran theology — consubstantiation and not transubstantiation.

    Put “Gather Us In” line by line against, say, “All People That On Earth Do Dwell,” a famous paraphrase of the marching into worship Psalm 100. Tell me which one is about how great God is and which one is about how great we are. See the obvious conclusion on which one is appropriate for worship and which is not. And then please give us all a rational explanation of the disproportionate use of “GUI” over “APTOEDD” in Catholic churches.

  5. Todd says:

    While I don’t hold to consubstantiation, it is a theology that requires more than five words to define it. Context again is important. Earlier in verse 3, Haugen channels John 6 by referring to the “bread of new birth.” I’m satisfied that in the Catholic context, the hymn is rooted in Scripture, though not as explicitly as the metrical setting of Psalm 100.

    As for why “Gather Us In” is more popular, my guesses:
    – An explicit merging of the actions of Gathering and Eucharistic sharing
    – A tune that works well with organ or contemporary accompaniment–remember this hymn was one of the early crossovers between these accompaniment forms, back when chant was an afterthought of contemporary composers and the big battle was organ vs guitar
    – The tendency of some organists to take traditional hymns at too slow a pace

  6. Liam says:

    Lest we repeat the rabbit hole that is Gather Us In, I am not sure GUI is more popular than APTOEDD. I don’t count polls by groups that have a bias towards or against Catholic hymn idioms – eg, NPM, AGO or Adoremus – as terribly dispositive of the question. I can’t recall a poll on Catholic hymnody that would demonstrate sufficient rigor.

  7. CarpeNoctem says:

    If “popularity” is a guide, I would question GUI’s status as “most popular”. Why? I have never been asked to use it at a funeral or wedding. What do people think of when they are asked what they want for these occasions? The same old schlock: “Eagle’s Wings” would be an indiscriminate choice for either occasion.

  8. Jim McK says:

    “please give us all a rational explanation of the disproportionate use of “GUI” over “APTOEDD” in Catholic churches.”

    Some Catholics that in church do sing find awkward and inscrtrutable words that in songs do try to imitate rhythms which have not often, nay almost never, found a space in common linguistical endeavors, rather than directly communicate that sense which was intended by the words used in the lyrics that they sing for that worship which they wish to offer to God who is intimate with them in the community which comes to be there in that building known as a church.

    Most prefer brevity.

  9. CarpeNoctem says:

    You know, I’ve been thinking about it and Todd’s comment pointing to context.

    God talk is a slippery, inexact, and somewhat dangerous thing. Granted. As they say, “text without context is pretext”. We do need to be careful about how we are influenced by the way that we read texts, be they scriptural, lyrical, liturgical, or whatever.

    There is one unassailable contextual fact which this tune cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to talk away the apparent theological-language inadequacies… it was written by a fellow who (at best) doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the correct Catholic language to describe the Eucharistic mystery… needing only to fit the correct number of syllabals with religious sounding verbage OR or (at worst) he is denying the fullness of the Eucharistic mystery and Trojan-horsing his musings on Eucharistic theology into Catholic hymnody… I suppose this could be a conscious or subconscious effort.

    One cannot ignore the context that these lyrics were written by a fellow who is, well, lost… maybe “exploring” is a kinder word. What is he now, no longer Lutheran, but some flavor of Unitarian? One can scratch one’s head at some of the lines from St. Thomas (such as times when he used simple “bread” language), but we can gather from his life and the expansive corpus of his works what he meant. Can we really know what is meant in GUI without understanding something about its composer?

    I am not saying that he or his music should necessarily be banned, but he needs to have a really good editor and ecclesiastical censor if his stuff is going to appear in Catholic hymnals or publications… why? Because his music is not primarily a shared expression of his faith with the Church, but is rather the product (perhaps at times, even a good product) of a hireling’s labor.

    If one of the purposes of Liturgical music is to gather the worshipping community in a common expression of faith, shouldn’t this include not just the musicians and the celebrant, not just “the people”, but also include the composers of such music? Without this, there is a lack of integrity, which I think is the root of the grief which is expressed over this little ditty.

  10. Todd says:

    Carpe, I would be really cautious about over-analyzing the man. At the time GUI was composed, Haugen had been working in a Catholic parish, a Franciscan-run community for several years.

    Positing things like spiritual trojan horses is actually pretty creepy. Are you saying that a person’s future determines, in some way, their past?

    It may be worth exploring any possible connection between a person’s moral or ecclesiastical alliances, and what they’ve produced artistically for the Church … if for no other reason than to explode the concept. Does this sink JS Bach for Catholics, Tallis for Anglicans, or Mozart for Lutherans?

  11. Randolph Nichols says:

    Jim McK,

    Have you been reading Proust this summer? Or is that paragraph just a byproduct of medication?


    “It may be worth exploring any possible connection between a person’s moral or ecclesiastical alliances, and what they’ve produced artistically for the Church . . .” You can start with Saint Saens, Fauré, Elgar and probably many others who served as organists in Catholic churches but were nonetheless nonbelievers.

  12. Liam says:

    The lack of consistent, good editorship (at a variety of levels) at the major American sacred music publishers aiming at the Catholic market is their single greatest glaring weakness.

  13. Liam says:

    Haugen is a member of the United Church of Christ now, IIRC, which is not the same as Unitarian-Universalist. The UCC is a Christian church; UUs (except perhaps for remnant Universalist congregations that may have somehow retained that flavor instead of Unitarianism) are not.

    Regarding JS Bach and his denomination: he was clearly Evangelical. He had patrons who were not Evangelical: the Kings of Prussia were Reformed rather than Evangelical. The Electors of Saxony became very very very nominally Catholic in order to be eligible for the Polish-Lithuanian throne over which many powers fought like vultures over a half-dead body. All that said, despite the clear denominational differences in Germanic lands, with lots of hatreds and bitterness that convulsed the area during the Thirty Years’ War, by Bach’s time there was a growing sense of commonality against the expanding non-Germanic powers who tried to eviscerate those lands (most notably, France, but also Sweden and increasing fear of Russia). My sense is that one sees something of a incipient shared Germanic sacred musical culture. I think that may helps explain why, but for obvious denominational anthems like A Mighty Fortress, there was a body of hymnody that grew to be somewhat shared across denominations in that culture. I defer to others who know more about this than I do.

  14. RP Burke says:

    At the risk of sounding like a postmodernist, I think we commit the argumentum ad hominem fallacy when we tie the value of a text or work of music — especially one clearly connected to our own religious heritage like a psalm — to the author’s or composer’s personal religious heritage.

  15. Jim McK says:

    I think the theological criticisms of GUI are more deficient than the hymn itself. The objection in US CATHOLIC is essentially a denial of the reality of the sacramental presence of Christ. And the consubstantiation objection must come from someone who has never read that Jesus said “I am the bread of life.”
    GUI seems to have been inspired by the Eucharistic prayer in the Didache, a second century Syrian text, so even complaints about its lack of trinitarian language are problematic.

    “As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever…
    Thou, Lord Almighty, didst create all things for thy Name’s sake, and didst give food and drink to men for their enjoyment, that they might give thanks to thee, but us hast thou blessed with spiritual food and drink and eternal light through thy Child.”

    And Haugen’s syntax is still better than either this translation of the Didache or APTOEDD.

  16. Gavin says:

    It still can’t beat “Father, we thank Thee Who hast planted”, Jim.

    I find it odd that GUI has become such a rallying point of the effort to bring good music to churches (or at least remove bad). It IS a bad hymn, in my opinion, but the crux of my work as a church musician isn’t to argue breathlessly with those who like it – all I need to do is not use it.

    One of the MAJOR failings of “Reform2” musicians is the insistence on not just running their own programs but running other people’s as well. I can’t count how many times the major issue of the day is that I happen to use “I am the bread of life” once or twice.

  17. RP Burke says:

    Gavin, you’re lucky in that you have the authority to bar “Gather Us In,” where us schmucks in the pews are often stuck with it, and any complaint immediately gets the all-purpose put-down in reply, “That’s your personal taste.”

    As for Toolan’s piece — an urban legend says that it was retrieved from her wastebasket by someone else — incoherent as it is, at least it’s scriptural.

  18. Tony says:

    A tune that works well with organ or contemporary accompaniment

    I think it would work well with a tuba, accordion and clarinet. I tend to dislike any church song that I can imagine riding a carousel horse while listening to.

    Try it sometime.

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