The Catholic Thing
Piggyback Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 27 February 2012

With superb new liturgical settings created for the Roman Missal Third Edition, why are some churches continuing to use atrocious theatrical melodies for the Confiteor, the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Sanctus, and why do we continue to sing inappropriate hymns?

Two Sundays past it was “Lord of the Dance” (1963), a “hymn” with lyrics by British poet Sydney Carter set to the music of the 1848 Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” by Elder Joseph Brackett. For all I know, some Catholic congregations may actually dance liturgically to the song, although probably not with elegant Shaker spinning, a more languid version of Dervish whirling – the one meant to shake out sin, the other to be an eddy of ecstasy.

But why is Carter’s tune in a Catholic hymnal? It’s bad enough that the book in use at my Church (from GIA Publications) also includes “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by that well-known “Catholic” decomposer Martin Luther. But Carter’s gloss on Shakerism is also a tribute to Shiva, the destroyer god of Hinduism, which is why the poet was flabbergasted when Anglican churches began singing “Lord of the Dance”:

I thought many people would find it...probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian...[but] it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in. ...I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets ... other Lords of the Dance.
Pantheism instead of “Panis Angelicus”? Why?

But there’s a line in “Lord of the Dance” that struck a chord in me:

It’s hard to dance/With the devil on your back.”

Last week while attending pre-op appointments at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery (preparatory to a partial knee replacement), I kept thinking about that lyric. I was x-rayed, scanned, probed, tested, and pronounced a perfect candidate for the procedure. If only somebody could do the same for my soul.

It would be great to have a doctor of the Church pinpoint which of the sinful thoughts that pass through my perfervid brain arise from my own fallen nature and which are the whisperings of the demon assigned to torment me. I don’t mean to make light of this, but it would be great to have a holy diagnostician whip out his prescription pad and say: “Okay, Brad, I’m sending you to the cathedral clinic for a partial exorcism. It’s not just arthritis that has you wobbling; you’ve been dancing with a devil on your back.”

Since the surgery, I’ve been squirrelly – you know, like when those fluffy-tailed rodents run out into the street in front of your car, get alarmed and dash back the way they came, reach the place they’d just left, and then do a few frantic circles before scampering up a tree. Cross street! Yikes! Run! I know this place! Where am I? Climb! Where are my nuts??!! And squirrels are like that without Percocet.

              Where once was the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem 

I stand in the bathroom. I pick up my toothbrush but realize the minty-fresh taste is already in my mouth. I hobble downstairs. My wife says:

“That was quick.”

“What was?”

“Your nap.”

“I guess...I couldn’t sleep.”

“Sweetheart, you were up there for all of three minutes.”

“Is that what I’m trying to remember?”



Two nights before in the hospital recovery room I lie awake watching the screen monitoring my “vitals” and find I can use it like a biofeedback machine. I went to Confession the day before, so my conscience is clear, but I have memories of mortal sins and use them to spike the readouts of my breathing, pulse, and blood pressure. I make the machine beep. A night nurse, thinking I’m asleep, hisses: “Make up your mind already with the heart rate.” My pulse is 73 at one point and 113 at another.

As the effects of the epidural painkillers wear off, I am well and truly agitated. Yes, prayer and contemplation have calmed my heart, but the visceral reaction to thoughts of sins three or four decades past, sins all but forgotten and long ago forgiven – this anxiety sets off inner alarms. Not merely an exercise in Augustinian-style remembrance, but a rather more serious revelation of despair.

Augustine wrote in his sermon on 1John (my paraphrase):

A father beats a boy; a pedophile caresses him. If you consider only the blows and embraces, who wouldn’t favor embraces? But consider the actual persons: it’s love that strikes the child and sin that caresses him. . . . Many things are done that look good but don’t come from love. Then again, thorns have flowers: savage discipline may come at the bidding of love. Once and for all, then, here’s a precept: Love and do what you will.

Long ago at the Newman Center of a large Midwestern university, I heard a priest turn the Latin version of the precept (properly “Dilige et quod vis fac but mistranslated by him as “Ama et fac quod vis”) into a sick joke:

“Emphasis on the doing,” he insisted, “so get out there and fac, fac, fac!” The only time I ever heard snickering at Mass.

The recovery room was full of moaning patients behind curtains, and I still couldn’t move my legs. Not the Atlanta train-station scene in Gone with the Wind – there’s no death looming here – but for Allan Bradford Miner (full name for insurance purposes), there is the grave realization that I doubt my worthiness for forgiveness.

Then an Extraordinary Minister is there, as I’d requested, and I repeat the Centurion’s words, proclaiming myself unworthy that God should enter under my roof. And He has said the word, and I am healed.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing and a senior fellow of the Faith and Reaon Institute. A former Literary Editor of National Review, he is the author of six books, and a board member of Aid to the Church in Need, USA.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Joseph, February 27, 2012
I'm an organist, and our tri-parish had a hard time finding a Gloria. We settled on the old Christian Unity Mass for a singable Gloria that sounds like real prayer. For the Mystery of Faith, we use simple chant. For the Agnus Dei it's Latin and simple. That Shaker song and Fortress have never been played.

Up to date lyric changes also sadly render old favorites unusable.

The hymnals are thick, but take away the Spanish, the altered hymns, and the unusable, there's about 50 songs at 4 per Mass to spread over the Ordinary Year, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.

We just squeak by.

written by Bill Russell, February 27, 2012
Re: fine English for the Liturgy

Converts and The Symphony of Truth | First Things

Jan 11, 2012. George Weigel. Why do adults become Catholics? There are as ...
written by Dave, February 27, 2012
Oh that the chants of the Liber Usualis, with its propers and ordinaries, were translated into English for use at Mass! Historically, hymns were sung in the Daily Office only. The antiphons, graduals, sequences, offertories and communion antiphons are the words of Sacred Scripture itself or tied directly to it. We have needlessly given up a great heritage that nourished the faithful for two millenia. Give up the shaky, sentimental hymns and return to Gregorian chant, in Latin or in English, and watch people return to Mass.
written by Louise, February 27, 2012
"proclaiming myself unworthy that God should enter under my roof. And He has said the word, and I am healed."

This seems to be a theme in current reflections. The very day when I was berating myself for my lack of generosity, my penuriousness in my devotion to our Lord, I came upon these words from St. Teresa of Avila:

"Oh, what a hard thing I am asking of you, my true God, that you should love one who does not love you; that you should open the door to one who does not knock; that you should give health to one who prefers to be sick and chooses rather to walk in her infirmity! You say, my Lord, that you have come to seek out sinners. These, my Lord, are the true sinners. Do not look on our blindness, oh my God, but at the streams of blood that your Son shed for us. May your mercy shine on such grave wickedness; remember, Lord, that we were made by your hands." (St. Teresa, Exclamations of the soul to God, 8, from Fernandex: "In Conversation with God", Scepter Press, p. 21.)

I hope that helps. God be with you.
written by Darren, February 27, 2012
Could someone clear up my confusion on this point (with apologies before hand if I am asking too much!): why is it that the Latin setting isn't translated into the local language, ie English, with the setting/form retained? Why is that the form, timing, arrangement of the altar, vestments & etc. were not retained and simply the language changed?
written by Elizabeth D, February 27, 2012
The music at my church, especially the new music for the ordinary of the Mass which was chosen to be suitable for the "praise and worship" Mass (setting is "Mass of Renewal") and was implemented for almost all Masses even weekdays, is driving me nuts (they do use certain Latin chants sometimes but not the ICEL missal chants). There is also very little good judgement about hymns. Sunday mornings I attend an EF Mass so I now know what the music proper to the Roman Rite is actually like. It makes the poor choices at many Novus Ordo Masses that much harder to bear.
written by DS, February 27, 2012
Pope Benedict recognized the value of non-Catholic Christian cultural patrimony (of which music is a large part) when he established the Anglican ordinariate, and of course we share a baptismal bond with all Protestants.  Further, Catholics don't have a monopoly on good hymnody.  Catholic hymns (both old and new), have had their fair share of clunkers, just like Protestant ones.  So we should joyfully incorporate music from other Christian traditions into the liturgy provided that (1) the tune is reverent and has musical depth, (2) it leads the congregation to worship God (vs. entertaining them), (3) the congregation can actually sing it, and (4) it is consistent with Catholic beliefs and not explicitly forbidden. Using these criteria, I would exclude the Lord of the Dance, but most certainly include A Mighty Fortress, a wonderful hymn that praises Jesus Christ, not Martin Luther. The object of music worship is to glorify God, not test the orthodoxy of the hymn composer.
written by jeremiah, February 27, 2012
It is kind of silly to attack "A Mighty Fortress" because it was written by Luther. Is there anything theologically unsound in it? I found no reason to reject it because it was written by a Protestant! It is an inspiring and rousing hymn. Does it not make more sense to accept the good and reject the bad? For ecumenical, aesthetic and liturgical reasons, I strongly support keeping it as an optional. HH Pope Benedict XVI expressed an admiration for and quote Luther only a few months ago? It is "traditional Catholics" who will blindly reject everything that they see as tainted by evil who are harmful to our mother Church. But I do agree with you about the liturgical dancing and heretical pantheism. That is blatantly scandalous.
written by beez, February 27, 2012
thanks for the great article!
written by Stephen E Dalton, February 27, 2012
I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one upset by "Lord of the Dance", and "Mighty Fortress" being in our hymnals. BTW, you could have added "Amazing Grace" too. Catholic worship should only use Catholic music. Yet, when Michael Voris of Real Catholic TV criticized AG, Mark Shea and Dave Armstrong, two prominent catholic bloggers, roasted him for daring to suggest that non-Catholic music has no place in our worship. I supported Voris by saying Catholic music for Catholic people. Mr Armstrong labeled me a Pharisee for saying that. Oh well!
written by Aeneas, February 27, 2012
"Give up the shaky, sentimental hymns and return to Gregorian chant"

Oh please God! Why on earth do so few use the Gregorian chant, it's so stunningly beautiful, so deeply spiritual, so very Catholic!

My own parish uses some pretty rotten music, though not all is so bad. But given that this is MASS, you know...that whole body and blood of Christ'd think they would have choosen better!!!
written by Mary, February 27, 2012

There is plenty of good royalty free music out there including in standard notation as well as chant and solid hymns. There is no reason for any parish to search for the music that is ours as Catholics.

Check out the website of Musica Sacra. There you'll find simple English Propers for the Entrance, Offeratory and Communion in simple chant notation. Also the simple Choral Gradual has the propers for the Entrance, Offertory and Communion in simple standard notation.

For those parishes who want/need to sing a hymn after the proper there are two new great solid hymnals out there in addition to the latest Adoremus hymnal: Vatican II Hymnal, and the Lumen Christi Missal

All this is out there and available.
written by MikeG, February 27, 2012
Dave, check out the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett on the Church Music of Association of America's site (and online booksellers). It has chanted entrance, offertory and communion propers for Mass in English!

Corpus Christi Watershed has preserved all the chant propers in Latin for the year as well.

As well, ICEL has revised into English the chanted ordinary of the Mass with the familiar chant melodies (e.g. Credo III) as suggested by Pope Paul VI back in 1974. Mr. Miner's link to the St. Cecilia Schola recordings have many of these.

Now to get more parishes to use them...
written by DS, February 27, 2012
I write this as a former parish organist and a currently active choir member.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly said that true liturgy is about one thing: worshiping God.  From that perspective, there is little value then in judging the Catholic orthodoxy of a deceased hymn writer.  The Pope also recognized the value of non-Catholic Christian cultural patrimony (of which music is a part) through his generous creation of the Anglican ordinariate.

Practically speaking, no one has a monopoly on good hymnody.  Catholics have had their fair share of clunkers (both old and new) just like Protestants.  So Catholics should joyfully incorporate music from other Christian traditions into the liturgy by following some simple guidelines: (1) the tune is reverent and has musical depth, (2) it leads the congregation to worship God (vs. entertaining them), (3) the congregation can actually sing it, (4) it is consistent with Catholic beliefs and not prohibited by the Church, and (5) it is done with discretion, balance and careful planning.

Using these criteria, I would exclude the Lord of the Dance (doesn't come close), but most certainly include A Mighty Fortress, a wonderful hymn.  The last time I checked, the hymn text was effusive in its praise for Jesus Christ and did not mention Martin Luther once.

Is it worth the bother?  Absolutely.  Anything that can allow us to worship God more fully in liturgy is worthy of our efforts.  So on occasion, supplement Latin and chant and Marian hymns with a Protestant hymn, an Anglican anthem, an African-American spiritual or a Taize chant.  It can indeed be done with integrity.
written by Stephen E Dalton, February 28, 2012
Luther's "Mighty Fortress" has no place in Catholic hymnals. It was written as an anti-Catholic fight song. One only has to do a little fact checking to find that out. And when you consider that ol'Marty called the Pope very Anti-Christ, hellish father, born out of the devil's rear end, and other slanderous, libelous names to the day of his death, it should be plain that "Mighty Fortress" is anti-Catholic propaganda.
written by Linus, February 28, 2012
A funny thing happens in our parish every lent. Instead of the usual " musical " fare, we sing the main parts of the Mass in Latin - Kyrie Sanctus, Angus Dei. It's the chior master's idea of making the entire parish do Penance. Little do they know that some of us look foreward to Lent as a reward for suffering through eight months of musical horror.
written by Tom, March 01, 2012
Hmmm I have read and re-read the lyrics to A Mighty Fortress and I don't see anything 'anti-Catholic' about it. Its a wonderful tune and, frankly, it has quite wonderful lyrics. Martin Luther did a lot of good for the Catholic church, since his actions led to the Council of Trent and the Counter-reformation and, frankly, the Church was in great need of reformation at that time.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author