There is a pivotal scene in The Bells of St. Mary's when Bing Crosby, playing Father O‘Malley, sings O Sanctissima. The producers knew what they wanted: a quintessential Catholic moment that would melt the heart of the movie's curmudgeonly skinflint. They reached for a Latin Marian hymn that the movie's Catholic viewers would know by heart, and that would have been recognized instantly as Catholic by Protestant or Jewish viewers.
A new hymnal edited by Father James Socías (see interview, Page 11) includes O Sanctissima and 80 or so other hymns from the Church's musical patrimony, plus various Mass settings and other prayers. It is a welcome work of cultural stewardship, as it presents in a handsome volume the most outstanding, and most familiar, of the Church's chants and hymns. If they have fallen from popularity, Father Socías’ book may help them find a new audience. Physically beautiful, Cantate et Iubilate Deo (Sing and Rejoice in the Lord) is worthy of the hymns it contains. Most hymns are illustrated with a reproduction from the Church's artistic patrimony. Included here are such classics as the central detail from Michelangelo's Last Judgment, along with well-chosen newer pieces. These include a Zairean painting of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes with an African Jesus, and a Chinese painting of Pentecost in which our Lady and the apostles all have Chinese features.
Calling a hymnal “devotional and liturgical” immediately raises questions and, indeed, this volume's subtitle indicates its unusual purpose. In normal Catholic parlance, devotions are distinguished from liturgy. Most devotions wouldn't require a hymnal, and Can-tate is most definitely not intended to be bought by parishes to stock their pews. So who is Cantate for?
“The aim of this collection is to present, for the benefit of the laity, a selection of the Church's treasury of sacred music,” write the editors. “This collection may be more suitable as a supplementary parish resource or for smaller prayer groups, in schools and adoration chapels.”
Cantate is a continuation of the work previously done by Father Socías in his various prayer books (Handbook of Prayers, North American College Manual of Prayers), wherein he presented a selection of the Church's treasury of prayers. This volume's main, though not only, contribution is to introduce readers to the riches available in the Church's musical tradition, hymn by hymn. It does this by going well beyond the key signatures and metrical notation found in any standard hymnal. For example, Amazing Grace is presented on two pages, one devoted to an image and text, the other providing the melody and lyrics. The image chosen is a Ukrainian icon of Christ the Redeemer, a nice touch for a hymn written by a Protestant (John Newton). The accompanying text is a short catechesis on grace and the moral life, constructed from quotations from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and the General Catechetical Directory.
Physically beautiful … worthy of the glorious hymns it contains.
Elsewhere Vexilla Regis (The Banners of the King Go Forth), a sixth-century chant referenced by Dante in The Inferno, is presented with a depiction of the deposition of Christ from a book of Gospels dating from 1268. Aprocessional hymn composed by Venantius Fortunatus, one of the most colorful characters in the history of sacred music, it commemorates the victory won by Christ on the cross and is still sung at vespers on Palm Sunday and the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The text speaks of the cross as Christ's standard of victory, on which redemption was won through suffering; it concludes with a quotation on uniting our sufferings to those of Christ from Pope John Paul II's letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris.
“The military standard of Christ, the king of kings, is the cross, whereby he conquered death and restored life to the fallen children of Adam,” comments the accompanying text on Vexilla Regis. “The water and blood which burst forth from Our Lord's side represent two sacraments of the Church: the cleansing water of baptism and the bood of Christ present in the Eucharist.”
Also, in this month of the Holy Souls, it is worth mentioning the inclusion of a requiem Mass in the section of Mass settings. Readers who have never attended such a Mass will benefit from a quick study of its sequences and antiphons, learning how beautiful and realistic is the Church's teaching on death. The great sequence Dies irae (Day of wrath) is translated in full, as is the well-known Lux aeterna (Eternal light grant …) and the supremely consoling In paradisum (Into paradise). The Mass setting is complemented by quotations from the Catechism on heaven, and from Blessed Josemaría Escrivá on the particular judgment.
Here, as with all the Latin hymns it contains, Cantate provides excellent and thorough English translations of the lyrics. The English cannot be sung, as it does not fit the meter, but it's good to have the literal meaning of the words close at hand.
Cantate et Iubilate Deo is not aimed at the traditional hymnal market. If it turns out there is a pent-up demand for an innovative presentation of sacred music, Cantate will be able to help satisfy it in a most worthy and welcome fashion.
Raymond de Souza is the Register's Rome correspondent