On Hymnals and Alternatives

In a recent magazine column, I wrote this opinion:

Parishes with hymnals tend to be a little more serious about liturgy, and probably the commitment to good liturgy is a bit higher.

Every so often, a comment comes in. And when they do, I take them very seriously. One pastoral liturgist took exception to my blanket statement and wrote in reply:

… I think you are seriously off-base with such a comment, having worked in two parishes that had hymnbooks. One, where the pastor invented the Eucharistic prayer every week and the other, where the books in the pews were embarrassing by their threadbare appearance (Worship, by that time nearly 20 years old) and the parish’s inability to commit to a purchase of new books.

I suspect that (missal publishers) too would be offended by your comment, since their whole commitment to missals is based on the presumption that all parishes take liturgy seriously, even those who purchase a new worship aid every year. Part of that seriousness comes from the availability of new music, at least yearly, rather than being stuck in the same repertoire for several years because of the expense of purchase of the hymnals.

I wish you could hear our people sing, and witness the attentiveness with which they participate in word and eucharist. I believe that part of that attentiveness is related to their not being distracted by looking at a number-board and paging through a hymnbook for the right song. The other part of their attentiveness is about the seriousness of presiding and homilies of the pastor and his commitment to ministry formation by all the liturgical ministers.

Since most Catholics’ worship experience is in having hymnbooks or other semi-permanent resources in the pew, I’m sure you didn’t think about the implication of your statement when you wrote it. Unfortunately, a lot of us never get to be in someone else’s pew on Sunday, but we still need to be mindful of it. It’s important when writing to be careful about generalizations, which I’m sure you know. I’m hoping that you’ll see my message as a help to you and, perhaps, a challenge for future columns.

There was a lot of food for thought here. I’ve considered a few factors that had not occurred to me. First, parishes and pastors may well inherit hymnals (or some other good system) and fail to maintain what preceded them. I knew of at least two parishes that would try to save a buck or two by milking an annual music collection and keep it in the pews two or even three years.

I do know of colleagues who appreciate having new music available. While novelty isn’t everything, most all of us realize that Catholic liturgical music isn’t where it should be in almost every parish. My opinion is that there’s not much in the current repertoire that can’t be replaced for something better. And far be it from me to shill for the music publishers or the organ+choir+hardbound hymnal crowd. I was once a parishioner in a community that segregated music: Worship for the organist, and mimeographed sheets of lyrics for the contemporary groups. My friend would have nodded that the organist was listed with the secretary and custodian as part of the “support staff,” a philosophy that took till the late 90’s to remedy. They had the hymnal, but heaven knows where it came from.

More dining on crow from my reply:

Upon further reflection, I think you’re right. It was something of a throwaway line, but it’s based on the notion that investing in a hymnal means (at least initially) a higher outlay of funds for the assembly. That might take vision. Or it could be accidental. Or it could, as you suggest for one of those parishes, just be a wasted inheritance. In fact, threadbare hymnals might even indicate a lesser commitment to liturgy than an annually renewable resource that requires, of course, it’s own financial commitment.

Personally, I don’t feel particularly committed to hymnals. I’ve had them in parishes for the last nine years, and they might just be part of the background setting. I have my own issues with their lack of flexibility, and in the case of GIA, the lazy inattentiveness to non-keyboard musicians in their published products. I haven’t yet seen the accompaniment editions for Gather Comprehensive II, so I don’t know if the many errors in GC I have been corrected or not. OCP, on the other hand, and much to their credit, does recognize that parish musical leadership doesn’t begin and end with the organ or piano.

Anything else I should have added?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to On Hymnals and Alternatives

  1. Matthew J. M. says:

    I really think there’s no hymnal that is really good enough to be the be-all-end-all of a Parish music program. I think weekly (or even bi-weekly) printed worship aides are the best way to go if you’re “serious” about liturgy. You can have your unfamiliar Mass Ordinary parts in there, any propers and their translations that you’re using, the best hymns both modern and traditional (assuming you have licenses), the texts of any choral pieces, and anything else you might need.

  2. Liam says:

    It depends on the quality of the hymnal/missalette/worship aid.

    To me, the quality of a hymnal or missalette is primarily driven by that quality of its service music and psalter, and those are typically the Achilles’ heels of both. While I love the re-use of traditional tunes to new texts, I am not a fan of *displacing* public domain texts with copyrighted texts (I would prefer new texts be added), which is a common if self-serving publishing industry technique.

    My own parish’s estimable hymnal (Hymns Psalms & Spiritual Canticles, 2d edition, 1983) is awaiting the finalization of Missal texts so it can *finally* be updated. The process is underway, as best I can tell. I have encouraged the powers that be to consider electronic modules for licensing its wonderful selection of service music and what is very likely the best vernacular lectionary Psalter in English – resources not duplicated anywhere else, and that would help meet needs underserved by other resources.

  3. Randolph Nichols says:


    A lot of folks agree that Hymns Psalms & Spiritual Canticles has the best Psalter around, but not every parish can musically pull it off. Because it requires musicians who know what they’re doing, the hymnal never found the market that I think Ted Marier hoped for.

    By the way, why is project to make the hymnal available on-line going so slowly? There should be no legal issues regarding those parts that Marier composed – and that’s what most liturgical musicians want.

  4. Liam says:


    I am not sure, but I have heard one reason was practical: the original materials used to publish the last edition are not intact and are largely missing. The other reason, I would imagine, is that the Lectionary (and thus the Lectionary portions of the psalter) was revised in 1998, and the status of different translations that were permitted to be used when the hymnal was compiled (and which were used – Ted did not use the NAB exclusively, but also use Grail, for example) have been narrowed. Thus, the Psalter texts need to be revised in part.

  5. Jimmy Mac says:

    My parish does not use hymnals. Rather, the music for each of our 3 weekend liturgies (each one is different)is published on a slipsheet inserted in the weekend bulletin.

    Our music comes from a variety of sources, so no one hymnal would suffice.

    It would be very difficult for anyone to fault the liturgy, music, parish participation or overall quality of what we have and do.

    No book will turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, but hard work, talent and commitment will.

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