My boss asked me the other day if I knew anything about the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.” Since I have been an organist in the Catholic Church for about 25 years now, I must have played the hymn dozens of times at Mass, but I could tell him little.
My boss is a priest from
As in many other aspects of American culture, “Faith of Our Fathers” was imported.
Settlers of the American colonies
established the roots of the American tradition of hymnody, and the colonists
were members of a variety of Christian Protestant denominations. Of those, the
most developed tradition of hymnody came from the Anglican and Lutheran
churches. It wasn’t until the 19th century that an influx of Catholics from
Europe would bring many Catholic hymns to the
For Catholics living in the
The Second Vatican Council had an immense impact not just on the liturgy, but on hymnody as well. Parishes suddenly faced real voids in the liturgy that they had to fill.
Modern Catholic liturgists looked to their Protestant contemporaries and borrowed parts of or entire hymns from non-Catholic sources.
Like secular songs, hymns oftentimes have separate and distinct origins of music and text. For example, composers of opera typically write complex classical musical compositions and marry them to the libretto (little book — as in a short story). Similarly, the well-known composers of the modern American musical, Rogers and Hammerstein, combined their respective writing talents in the fields of music and storytelling to create their popular masterpieces.
In the same way, the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” began its evolution in a common secular song “Mein Gmut ist mir verwiret” (My Heart Is Distracted by a Gentle Maid) written in 1601 to the rhythmic time signature of 3/4. This time signature is common for waltzes or dances. Through the years, Hans Leo Hassler (among others) took that common melody and changed the meter to 4/4, a time signature more appropriate for sacred hymns, and created a hymn tune which became known as the “Passion Chorale.”
During the middle part of the 17th
century, this hymn tune was married to a text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux by Paul Gerhardt (“Herzlich
The song came full circle when Paul Simon put new words to the tune and recorded it as a pop song that he called “An American Tune.”
In the case of “Faith of Our
Fathers,” the commonly known music for the hymn was composed after the written
text. The hymn tune known as “St. Catherine” or “Tynemouth”
was composed in
Fifteen years earlier, in 1849, the prose that would decades later be married to the hymn was written by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), who is ultimately given credit for the hymn.
Faber had written and compiled a series of poems or prose for hymns in a publication called Jesus and Mary. It was not until 1874 — a full 25 years after Faber wrote the text and 10 years after the hymn tune “St. Catherine” was written that another composer, James Walton, wrote the refrain and adapted the text of “Faith of our Fathers” to the hymn tune “St. Catherine.”
The hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” that is familiar to most Americans was thus born after a gestation period of a quarter century, and after input from three separate composers. Perhaps this is one of the keys to this hymn’s longevity. Its components passed the test of time musically and in prose before it was ever published.
Why did Frederick Faber choose to write this particular text for use as a hymn?
Interestingly, Faber was a
religious convert to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican Church in
Cardinal Newman, himself a
convert, knew Father Faber very well, and the two collaborated in the creation
of the famous “London Oratory” which was ground zero for Catholic liturgy in
Father Faber converted just around
the time that
The hymn “Faith of Our Fathers”
thus speaks of the martyrdom of the leaders of the Catholic Church during the
16th century. Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII in 1534 and for
approximately the next 50 years or so, the English monarchy confiscated Roman
Catholic institutions, dissolved monasteries and executed clergy. In the
English Catholics knew Father
Faber for his loyalty to the Holy See and his devotion to Mary, the Mother of
God. By the time the Church ordained Father Faber,
In the original text of the third verse of “Faith of Our Fathers,” the true significance of the poem is clear. Keep it in mind the next time you sing the hymn.
“Faith of our Fathers, Mary’s
prayers shall win our country back to Thee; and through the truth that comes
Darryl Podunavac writes