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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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“It would be a grave error to imagine that the principle orientation of the sacrificial action is towards the community. If the priest celebrates «VERSUS POPULUM», which is legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be «VERSUS DEUM PER JESUM CHRISTUM», as representative of the entire Church.”
— Official Vatican Statement (25 September 2000)

What Makes A “Catholic” Hymnal?
published 29 May 2019 by Jeff Ostrowski

84878 CATHOLIC HYMN BOOKS HY is the term “Catholic” used in reference to certain hymnals? Let’s explore that question in an honest way. While I cannot speak for members of the Brébeuf Hymnal committee, it would be foolish to pretend conversations over the last five years have not shaped my thoughts on this issue. That said, the following statements represent my own thinking on the matter—and no one else’s!

If one physically holds a copy of the Brébeuf Hymnal, New Westminster Hymnal, Mediator Dei Hymnal, Saint Gregory Hymnal, New Saint Basil Hymnal, Arundel Hymn Book, Hosanna Catholic Hymn Book, Pius X Hymnal, or even Rossini’s Parochial Hymnal, one can feel it is a Catholic book. Every page, note, and font shows it. But today I am asking the question: “Why?”

First, let’s consider the Textual Question, then we’ll delve into the Melodic Question.

Textual Considerations:

If one desires a Catholic hymnal, shouldn’t one seek Catholic texts? When it came to the Brébeuf Hymnal, we started with the authentic core of Catholic hymnody: Pange Lingua, Sancti Venite, Ave Maris Stella, Jesu Nostra Redemptio, Christe Redemptor, Auctor Beate Saeculi, Rex Sempiterne, Ave Vivens Hostia, and so forth. Then we carefully lined up all the translations available for each hymn (sometimes as many as twenty-five) and selected the most elegant translations—provided they were faithful to the Latin original—and these almost always came from the pen of a Catholic priest or bishop. Looking back, our approach was hardly rocket science!

Is it forbidden for a Catholic hymnal to contain texts by non-Catholics? Certainly not. The famous Saint Gregory Hymnal contains several texts by non-Catholics, such as page 118. The New Westminster Hymnal—specifically authorized for use “in all Catholic churches and oratories” by the English bishops—likewise adopted several texts by non-Catholics, such as page 36, by John Chandler, a Protestant clergyman. Father Ludwig Bonvin’s “Hosanna Catholic Hymn Book” (1914) contains texts by non-Catholics; e.g. page 17 is by John Ellerton, a Protestant clergyman. Nor is this limited to translations! Father Bonvin’s hymnal contains original hymn texts by non-Catholics such as Richard Baxter, a Puritan clergyman. Examine any major Catholic hymnal before Vatican II—including the New Saint Basil (1958) and Mediator Dei (1955) and Pius X Hymnal (1953)—and you’ll discover a few texts by non-Catholics…if you look hard enough. For the record, the hymnal published by the Society of Pius X (“SSPX”) also contains hymn texts by non-Catholics, such as number 61.

While the Brébeuf Hymnal normally only chose Catholic translations (which were usually more elegant and faithful than the Protestant attempts), in several places Protestant translations were adopted. But first, Catholic priests with training in theology reviewed them carefully, modifying where necessary to bring them into full accordance with Catholic teaching. (We must not forget that Protestant translators often made false translations of certain stanzas, and did not hide their vandalism; for example, read Richard Mant’s statement.)

Many Protestant hymn texts—especially those based on Sacred Scripture—contain no heresy at all; but the question is more complex than that. It really is a question of “Catholic sensibility.” Ours is, after all, the true Faith, and should be distinctive. On the other hand, even the “Catholic sensibility” can be taken too far, such as this statement from the Standard Catholic Hymnal (1921) vis-à-vis a certain text by Cardinal Newman. I freely admit that Catholics—even priests!—can sometimes be wolves in sheep’s clothing. For instance, a Catholic priest created the so-called “American Catholic Hymnbook” (1992) which is probably the worst hymnal ever created. Nonetheless, I don’t think disobedient priests can obliterate the reality of a Catholic Sensibility. Yet it’s only natural that Catholics should want to sing texts by Catholic priests and bishops when it comes to the Sacred Mass.

Melodic Considerations:

Can a melody be Catholic? Can a particular pattern of notes, in other words, inherently possess qualities which are Catholic or Protestant? We must now attempt to tackle that question.

Generally speaking, there are three schools of thought:

1. Guido d’Arezzo Approach

Guido d’Arezzo is credited with designation of the notes of our scale: DO, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LA, TI. All subsequent Western music came from Catholic plainsong. Some argue, therefore, that melodies which employ those scale tones—pretty much every hymn ever written—are de facto “Catholic” melodies. There is logic here, but the Brébeuf Hymnal committee did not take this approach.

2. Melodic Fragment Approach

Many hymn melodies are falsely attributed to Protestant composers. Some say “Martin Luther” or “J.S. Bach”—but many are, in fact, plainsong melodies which somebody took from the Catholic Church. Indeed, the vast majority of hymn tunes consist of melodic phrases which can be found in plainsong, whether Solesmes or Nivers, although the rhythm is not always the same. The “melodic fragment approach” is based on sound logic. After all, when a Protestant denomination adopts Veni Creator Spiritus or Pater Noster or Ad Coenam Agni, those prayers don’t become Protestant—they remain Catholic.

3. Brébeuf Approach

The Brébeuf Hymnal committee built upon the “melodic fragment approach”—except for melodies strongly associated with the Protestant Revolution, such as Amazing Grace or Ein Feste Burg, which we excluded. Moreover, certain tunes have become neutral—that is, centuries ago they had negative associations but not anymore. We did accept excellent hymn melodies which are neutral, especially when they have been placed in outstanding Catholic hymnals for a long time.

Why I endorse the “Brébeuf Approach” becomes obvious if we consider the alternative. Some claim that musical items cannot become neutral—and if they lack a Catholic origin, they can’t be used at Mass. Such “purists” would exclude the Pipe Organ because many centuries ago it was associated with pagans (and forbidden by the Church). I find such logic absurd, because it’s clear that over the centuries the Pipe Organ became neutral—and was then adopted by the Catholic Church.

Can A Melody Become Neutral?

A “purist” would claim that O Sacred Head Surrounded cannot be used in Church because it was originally a love song in 3/4 time. Contrariwise, the “Brébeuf Approach” would say this melody lost its secular associations long ago and can now be used in church. Indeed, over the last 150 years, O Sacred Head Surrounded is found in a staggering number of Catholic hymnals. (The Brébeuf Hymnal includes it, as well as several other translations by Catholic priests which are closer to the original Latin, Salve Caput Cruentatum.)

Likewise, a “purist” would claim GONFALON ROYAL can only be used for “Vexilla Regis” because that’s what it was written for—and “after all, the very name of the tune name means Royal Flag.” But such an idea is not taken seriously by hymn experts. For example:

    * *  PDF Download • “O Christ, Our Joy To Whom Is Given” (1998)

    * *  PDF Download • “Aeterne Rex Altissime” (New English Hymnal)

    * *  PDF Download • “Sing To The Lord A Joyful Song” (2003)

    * *  PDF Download • “O Spirit Of The Living God” (1989)

Similarly, a “purist” would claim that ARFON should not be used in Passiontide because it was originally a Christmas carol—but the editors of the New Westminster Hymnal realize that association has faded away:

    * *  PDF Download • Excerpt from the New Westminster Hymnal (1939)

Along those same lines, a “purist” would claim that the text for REGINA CAELI cannot be used during Eastertide, because it was originally a Christmas Antiphon (and that’s true). Such an assertion is, as far as I’m concerned, beyond absurd. Certainly it started out as a Christmas Antiphon; but that association has long since faded away. Moreover, I could easily demonstrate that original associations for many hymn tunes have faded away (in certain countries). Examples of such melodies would include: O Amor Quam Exstaticus, Sicilian Mariners, Jesu Dulcis Memoria, Erscheinen Ist Der Herrlich Tag, Jesu Redemptor, Dulce Carmen, Ach Wie Kurz, Paschal Lamb, Deo Gracias, Te Lucis Ante Terminum, Une Vaine Crainte, Tempus Adest Floridum, Altona, Orientis Partibus, Nocte Surgentes, Omni Die, Iste Confessor, O Pater Sancte, and Valet Will Ich Dir Geben.

Does That Mean Anything Goes?

This is not to say “anything goes”—far from it! If you go to Germany and use ALTONA with a text unrelated to Christmas, you’ll be publicly executed. Pairings must be done with sensitivity! The nice thing about the Brébeuf Hymnal is that there are so many options—so you can avoid pairings that don’t work for your congregation.

I find the following pairings absurd and/or reprehensible:

    * *  PDF Download • Laudate Catholic Hymnal (Kansas, 1942)

    * *  PDF Download • St. Mark’s Catholic Hymnal (Illinois, 1910)

    * *  PDF Download • St. Rose Catholic Hymnal (Boston, 1938)

    * *  PDF Download • Pope Pius XII Hymnal (1959)

Achille P. Bragers had an imaginative idea for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in which he used “seasonal” melodies for the O SALUTARIS HOSTIA—but I just can’t wrap my brain around this one. I just can’t accept it for some reason:

    * *  PDF Download • “Creator Alme” Melody for Benediction

One might well ask: “How can one tell if a melody’s associations have faded?” My opinion is that if a particular hymn has appeared in many important Catholic hymnals, that’s a good indication its associations are no longer inimical. For example, every melody shown in this Catholic hymnal (with an 1866 IMPRIMATUR) was adapted for the Brébeuf Hymnal, even though several have Protestant origins:

    * *  PDF Excerpts from a Catholic Hymn Book (1877)

I do admit there are gray areas. For example, Theodore Marier included Ein Feste Burg in his hymnal, which in its day was (perhaps) the best Catholic hymnal. The Brébeuf committee unanimously rejected this melody—although it’s beautiful—due to its close association with the Protestant Revolution. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have respect for Dr. Marier; it just means he made a different judgment call.

Melodic Frangment Approach:

I don’t want to leave this subject without shedding more light on the “melodic fragment approach.” Let us consider the following Catholic hymn. Pay special attention to the notes in green:


Somewhere along the line, this melody was modified, looking something like this: 1

84874 nun komm

I think you’ll agree it doesn’t make sense to call the following a “Protestant” melody:

    * *  PDF Download • “Come Thou Redeemer” (1886)

    * *  PDF Download • “God In Whom All Grace Doth Dwell” (1964)

    * *  PDF Download • “Virgin, Wholly Marvelous” (1998)

    * *  PDF Download • “See The Destined Day Arise” (1972)

    * *  PDF Download • “Sensus Quis Horror Percutit” (1910)

To summarize: When a Protestant borrows and rearranges melodic phrases that exist in the plainsong repertoire, he does not thereby create a “Protestant melody.” Similarly, if a Protestant says a Catholic prayer—such as the Hail, Mary—that doesn’t make it a “Protestant prayer.” It remains a Catholic prayer. On the other hand, great sensitivity must inform decisions vis-à-vis melodies with seasonal or religious associations. Particular care must be taken if a melody has a strong association with Protestant worship, especially if that association is known to the “typical” Catholic in the pews. That being said, to determine a melody’s “association” is not an exact science. Respect for this reality explains why the Brébeuf Hymnal includes abundant melodies from which the choirmaster may choose.


1   What I have described is incredibly common; hymn tunes often come from plainsong snippets. Or, they employ melodic fragments that can be found in plainsong. For more on this, see Divini Cultus Studium (1990) by Fr. Robert Skeris, especially Volume 3, p. 124ff.