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All about three patriotic hymns Catholics can sing with gusto on the Fourth of July. By Joseph Pronechen.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Patriotic feelings run high on the Fourth of July. So does
the urge to thank God for our country — in song.
As well we should. Three perennial favorites, in particular,
are as at home closing the liturgy as they are leading the parade. “America the
Beautiful” and “America” (also known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) are
included in the St. Michael Hymnal. Along with “God Bless America,” they are often
used as the recessional hymn on or near patriotic holidays.
Hearing the opening lyrics of “America the Beautiful” puts a
lump in many an American throat. The only thing that should top the patriotic
feeling is the refrain that changes its patriotic prayer slightly with each
repetition: America! America! God shed His grace on thee / And crowned thy good
with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea … God mend thine ev’ry flaw; Confirm
thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law!
Originally a Poem
The lines of “America the Beautiful” were originally
published as a poem on July 4, 1895. No wonder this hymn saw its share of
20th-century movements to make it our national anthem, or at least co-anthem.
Two Independence Days earlier, its writer, Katherine Lee Bates
(1859-1929), was riding on a train passing through Kansas wheat fields. The
sight would soon become “amber waves of grain.”
But the hymn had to wait for one more site to inspire Bates.
As an English professor at Wellesley College headed to Colorado Springs to
teach a summer session at a college there, she went by wagon, mule and foot to
the top of 14,000-foot tall Pike’s Peak. The majestic view overwhelmed her.
Story has it she starting writing the poem in her head at once.
The poem was immediately popular and set to many different
existing pieces of music. Bates polished the hymn in 1904 and herself picked
the music we now sing it to: organist and composer Samuel A. Ward’s hymn titled
A native of Newark, N.J., Ward (1847-1903) wrote it in 1888
with the title “O Mother Dear Jerusalem.” Unlike poet Bates, who lived to see
the hymn become a patriotic-religious icon, the tunesmith died in 1903, never
knowing how loved and recognizable his music would become.
“America,” which is probably better known as “My Country,
’Tis of Thee,” doesn’t have as colorful a start. But to remind us of our
country’s need to honor God, it includes a stanza — its fourth, too often
omitted in public presentations — that makes no bones about mixing faith with
love of country. Our father’s God to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing /
Long may our land be bright, With freedom’s holy light, Protect us by Thy
might, Great God our King.
Rev. Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) of Boston’s Park
Street Church wrote the lyrics in 1831. At the time studying to be a Baptist
minister at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Mass., he was translating
a German poem for an acquaintance.
Smith set it to a tune he liked, which happened to be the
British anthem “God Save the King” (or “God Save the Queen,” sung when the
reigning monarch happened to be a woman). First sung on July 4 in Boston, then
published in 1832, “America” became the country’s unofficial national anthem
for much of the 19th century.
Slightly more than a century later, “God Bless America” had
supporters wanting to make it our national anthem right from its earliest
performances, the first in November 1938. America’s top female singer at the
time, Kate Smith, asked composer Irving Berlin (1888-1989) for a patriotic song
for her weekly radio show. She wanted to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice
According to Richard Hayes, archivist of the Kate Smith
Commemorative Society, Berlin pulled the song out of his trunk, where it had
been gathering dust for 20 years. He had written it for an Army-camp show where
he was stationed in World War I, but the producers snubbed it. After the radio
show, phones rang off the hook and Smith then sang the new “unofficial anthem”
on nearly every show through the end of 1940.
With clouds of World War II on the horizon, how appropriate
the lyrics, Stand beside her, and guide her / Through the night with a light
from above. How appropriate to sing those words today, as new kinds of clouds
“I love my country and I believe in what America stands
for,” says Father James Farfaglia, pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of
Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, “but I am very concerned about
what’s happening in the country. We’re in a terrible cultural crisis, and we
parish priests need to support young families and encourage them to be always
Freedom Brings Duty
In Kingsport, Tenn., Janel Lange finds singing “God Bless
America” or the other patriotic hymns at the end of Mass in St. Dominic Catholic
Church “always moving.” She and her husband, Deacon Bob Lange, a retired
25-year Naval officer, are authors of The Treasure of Staying Connected for
Military Couples (Serviampublishing.com).
“It’s so moving when we think about our country and the
freedom we have to live our faith, yet we take that freedom for granted,” says
Janel. These hymns always remind her of our freedom to worship, something not
all countries have.
Linda Schafer, editor of the St. Michael Hymnal used
throughout the country, uses “America the Beautiful” and “America” at St.
Boniface Roman Catholic Church in Lafayette, Ind., where she’s music director.
“I think these are appropriate for the Fourth of July,” she
says. “Even though America as nation has strayed far from its Christian principles,
we should sing these songs as prayers for God’s guidance for our nation.” She
adds that we need to pray for God’s mercy on our nation because right now “it
seems to promote a culture of death across the board.”
“The songs should be sung with the understanding that there
is a tension between what is and what should be,” adds Schafer, “and as a
prayer that God will deliver us and guide us.”
She suggests two other very fitting hymns more in keeping
with our patriotic celebration and its spiritual dimension: “This Is My Song”
and “God of Our Fathers,” she points out, are “patriotic without being
Ultimately, the traditional patriotic hymns at the end of
Mass should inspire us to actively put our faith and country together. Deacon
Lange notes that “Mass” comes from the Latin meaning “sent.”
“We’re being sent to take the gift of our faith throughout
the country, and using one of those patriotic hymns at that point ties it
together beautifully,” he says. “Ite Missa est. That’s our charter, what we’re
challenged to do — take the gift of our faith into society.”
The Fourth of July: a celebration to sing about. Even in
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.