Bishops Plan To Make New Hymn Rules

WASHINGTON — At the beginning of this Lenten season, some Catholics in the United States were singing the hymn “Ashes” and announcing, “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew.”

Although some might be inclined to dismiss the words as poetic license, others argue that it is Christ who creates us anew, and that the line is symptomatic of problems with many of the worship songs that have become part of Catholic hymnody in the years since the 1960s.

The U.S. bishops agree it is time to take a look at what Catholics have been singing. A subcommittee headed by Oakland, Calif., Bishop Allen Vigneron is crafting a set of composition guidelines to ensure the Church hymns conform to Church teaching.

Msgr. Anthony Sherman, associate director of the bishops' secretariat for liturgy, said the work was undertaken in response to the 2001 instruction from the Holy See, Liturgiam Authenticam, on the use of vernacular languages in books of the Roman liturgy.

The document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments urges “the greatest prudence and attention” in the preparation of liturgical books, saying they should reflect sound doctrine, use exact wording and be free from all ideological influence. It also calls on bishops' conferences to provide “for the publication of a directory or repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing” within five years.

Rather than issue a repertory, Msgr. Sherman said it is more likely the bishops will try to provide a set of principles to Church composers.

Although he believes there is much good music in use in U.S. parishes, Msgr. Sherman acknowledges that some of it falls short.

For example, he said, “there are some hymns that you could look at and say there is too much emphasis on what we are doing and not enough on God's action in our life or on God's grace that uses our instrumentality to achieve things.”

Dr. Susan Treacy, professor of music at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an editor of Ignatius Press' Adoremus hymnal, said the hymn “Ashes” is just one of a number of current texts that contradict Church teaching. Another, she said, is “For the Healing of the Nations,” which, in addressing God, makes a reference to “dogmas that obscure your plan.”

“Dogma shows us God's plan and frees us in doing so,” Treacy said. “That, at least, is what the Catholic Church teaches.”

Treacy said what Catholics sing is important because “even if we're not consciously thinking about it at the time, we remember what we say, what the words say, and they get programmed into us.”

Msgr. Felix Losito, who keeps a close watch on the texts sung by parishioners at Holy Rosary Church in Reading, Pa., added that hymns can serve as tools of instruction, which is why he insisted that a particular hymn casting the Eucharist as a symbol no longer be used in the parish.

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