National Catholic Register

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Meeting Priests’ Needs Led to Books for Laity

Apostolate spawned by a need for hymnals, missals and prayer books

BY Jim Cosgrove

November 21-27, 1999 Issue | Posted 11/21/99 at 2:00 PM


The Midwest Theological Forum has released an unusual new hymnal, Cantate et Iubilate Deo (Our Sunday Visitor Books, $29.95). As much a reading experience as a book to sing by, the volume includes not just words and music but also historical background, artistic interpretations and other innovative features. (It's reviewed in this issue of the Register on Page 8.)

The hymnal was edited by Opus Dei Father James Socías, head of the Chicago-based forum, which, through a variety of educational initiatives, assists priests and seminarians in deepening their spiritual life and continuing their ongoing theological formation. Its previous books have included Our Moral Life in Christ, Priesthood in the Third Millennium, Marriage is Love Forever and Guide for Confession, along with the Handbook of Prayers and the Daily Roman Missal.

While in Rome recently, Father Socías spoke with Register correspondent Raymond J. de Souza about the new hymnal — and the forum's expanding presence in the culture by way of the print media.

Why did you set out to write a new hymnal?

Well, I never thought I would produce a hymnal, because I do not have a good ear. They tested me when I was 10 years old, and they found that I did not have the ability. But I love both Gregorian chant and English hymns. I have been in the United States for 10 years, and I have been impressed with hymns in English. So when some people suggested that Midwest Theological Forum produce a hymnal, I thought we could collect some hymns from the patrimony of the Church, about half Gregorian chants in Latin, and about half in English.

St. Augustine says that when we sing we pray twice. That is true, but we have to know what we are singing. I found many times people liked to sing certain hymns, because the music is beautiful, but they did not know what they were singing. So that is why I began to do the research on the history of the hymns, and of course translations for those hymns that are in Latin.

‘I never thought I would produce a hymnal, because I do not have a good ear.’

— Father James Socías

What made you decide to include historical background on the hymns along with the standard words and music?

In order to know the real meaning of a hymn, it is helpful to know who wrote the hymn, when it was written, and what purpose it was written for. When you know these things — and when you have a clear translation of the meaning of the words if the hymn is in Latin — then you can pray with that hymn. Also, when we pray together, as in the liturgy, we also want to express the mysteries of our faith in our singing.

So I went to the Catechism, and I wanted to link all these hymns to the Catechism, where it explains the doctrines that the hymn is expressing. Then also I found some very good commentaries in the writings of the Fathers of the Church. All these are included along with the hymns, including other Church documents and even the writings of Pope John Paul II. Perhaps not everybody will be interested in all this work, but I think those who love the hymns will benefit from knowing them better.

The hymnal is physically very handsome. Why did you choose to include reproductions of Christian art?

When you see that secular books can be marvelously presented, it seems that something as important as sacred music should also be something attractive, but also practical. Sacred music, especially in the liturgy, is the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, which moves us to praise God. So if we produce something that is beautiful, then people will be more inclined to read it, to spend time with, to treasure it.

What is the mission of Midwest Theological Forum, which previously published the well-known Daily Roman Missal and the Handbook of Prayers?

We did not start with the intention of publishing books, but of helping priests with various things that they would need. Our first book was Letters to My Brother Priests, a collection of Pope John Paul II's Holy Thursday letters to priests. The first edition came out in 1986, and we were sold out in one month, so we realized that there was a need for these kind of publishing ventures. We have now about 10,000 priests who are in contact with us, on our mailing lists, and we try to help them get access to materials that will help them and their people.

The Daily Roman Missal was something I had done when I was in the Philippines, and when I came to the United States, I was asked to do something similar here. So we did, and now that too has sold very well. Then there was the Handbook of Prayers. All of these were aimed at helping people to pray better, to understand better, to meditate more on the Mass and their other devotions.

We try to produce things that are not being done elsewhere. That's why I am very happy when I see that something is published by someone else that I thought was necessary — it means that we don't have to do it! One of our most recent projects was the book Our Moral Life in Christ, which tries to provide an introduction to moral theology at the high school or first-year college level. We thought it was something that was missing, so we tried to do it.

You mention the Handbook of Prayers, which is bought mostly by lay people, even though your mission was originally to priests.

When we did the Daily Roman Missal it was decided that we wouldn't include devotions, because that was a liturgical book. So we decided to do something for devotions, even though the financial supporters of Midwest Theological Forum did not think that the project would be viable. A friend of mine gave $3,600 of his own money, and we had a first printing. In six months we sold out, and now it is a best seller. There is no secret; we just included those devotions that have always been loved by the Catholic people, and then also decided to add the order of Mass, as a practical step. I then also decided to add the Prefaces for Mass because they are very beautiful and very few people know them well.

The Handbook is very popular with the laity, yes, but I am also happy that so many seminarians have it and use it. I know it helps them with their devotion to St. Joseph and our Lady, and in their love for our Lord. Then we have the North American College Manual of Prayers, a book that was designed for seminarians and priests, and that too sells much more among the laity.

Why have you taken on a publishing apostolate?

It is not only myself, but the work of all of us together at Midwest Theological Forum, which is an association of diocesan priests to help other priests. I am a priest of Opus Dei and [Midwest Theological Forum] is an apostolate to help priests; even if it is not strictly speaking a work of Opus Dei, it has that spirit. And then my pastoral work is spent largely hearing confessions, perhaps 20 hours a week — so publishing is only one part.

Yet publishing is also a very rewarding apostolate. There is a great need to present the authentic faith and life of the Church, especially to young people, so that they know what it is that the Church proposes. People are often interested, but do not know where to turn to discover the tradition of the Church. Publishing can put in their hands something that presents that tradition to them.

I have received letters from all over the world — from Africa, from all over Latin America, where the Spanish-language editions are distributed, and from the United States. People write to say that our materials are helping them with their spiritual life. That's our goal, whether with this new hymnal or with the other projects.

Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.