Externals of the Catholic Church – Psalms and Hymns

A hymn meant originally a song of praise in honor of gods or heroes. It had a religious character which distinguished it from a mere laudatory ode in honor of a living man. Among the Jews it is not certain that hymns, in the modern sense, were sung, for the word as used in the Old Testament includes psalms and canticles.

From very early times psalms and hymns were sung in Christian assemblies. We have alluded elsewhere to the testimony of Pliny, who, in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, in the year 104, mentions the Christian custom of singing a hymn to Christ as God in their “meetings before the dawn.”

How Psalms are Used

The Psalms of David, during the centuries of persecution, were the most natural expression of the Church’s sorrow and hope when trials weighed heavily upon her, of her joy in the midst of tribulation, and of her faith in the Redeemer Whose coming the Psalmist had prophesied.

These still form the greater part of the Church’s liturgy. They are used in the Divine Office, and portions of them constantly occur in the words of the Mass. In the recitation of the Office they are chanted antiphonally; that is, alternate verses are said or sung by each half of the choir. This custom is attributed by some authors to Saint Ignatius, a famous martyr of the early Church; by others it is said to have been introduced at Antioch during the reign of Constantine, by two monks named Flavian and Diodorus. In the Western Church this method of chanting was first practised at Milan, in the time of the great St Ambrose. It is related that the Roman Empress Justina, an Arian heretic, sought to imprison Ambrose. His people gathered around him in his church to protect him, and spent several days in the alternate singing of the verses of psalms and hymns.

The Sacred Canticles

Besides the 150 psalms, the Breviary contains thirteen canticles taken from the Old Testament and three from the New. Some of these have been used in the Office since about the year 800, while others were added very recently in the revision of the Breviary under Pius X.

Our Church also uses other canticles which are not found in the Scriptures – the “Te Deum,” the “Trisagion” and the “Gloria in Excelsis.” The Te Deum, according to an old legend, was sung by Saints Ambrose and Augustine after the baptism of the latter – but there is no foundation whatever for the story. The canticle has been attributed to a certain Nicetius, bishop of Treves in France, and also to Saint Hilary of Poictiers. It is recited at the end of Matins on most of the days of the year.

The Trisagion (“O Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal, have mercy on us”) is said in Greek and Latin by the celebrant at the veneration of the cross on Good Friday, and is used in the prayers at Prime in the office on penitential days. It has been adopted into the Western Church from the Greek liturgy, and is traceable back to the fifth century.

The Gloria, or Greater Doxology, is used in the Mass, and is an amplification of the hymn of the angels at Bethlehem. It is a translation of an old Greek hymn, and was originally sung only at Christmas. Later it was extended to other joyful feasts, but up to the eleventh century it could be used by bishops only, except at Easter.

Hymns of the Breviary

About the sixth century the use of metrical hymns, often with rhyming stanzas, became common. Some of these go back even to an earlier date, being attributed to Saint Ambrose.

The Breviary contains a great number of hymns – 173 in all; and many of them are of great beauty. Some occur frequently in the Office, while others are used only once in the year, on particular feasts. We shall confine our attention to those that are used in the public services of the Church, and that are thereby more or less familiar to our readers.

The beautiful hymns in honor of the Blessed Eucharist are mostly the work of the “Angelic Doctor,” Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century. Among them are the “Adoro Te Devote,” the “Pange, Lingua,” which is sung in processions of the Blessed Sacrament, and of which the last stanzas form the “Tantum Ergo” at Benediction, and the “Verbum Supermini Prodiens,” of which the last portion, the “O Salutaris,” is usually sung at Benediction.

The anthems sung in honor of the Blessed Virgin at the end of Vespers are the “Salve, Regina,” used during most of the year, and probably written by Hermannus Contractus, a German monk, about 1050; the “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” by the same author, sung during and after Advent; the “Ave, Regina Coelorum,” by an unknown author, sung from the Purification to Holy Week; and the “Regina Coeli,” used during the Easter time, dating back probably to the tenth century.

Other well-known hymns to the Blessed Virgin are the “Ave, Maris Stella” (“Hail, Star of the Sea”), attributed to Fortunatus, bishop of Poictiers, in the sixth century – and the mournful “Stabat Mater,” used frequently in our churches at the Stations of the Cross. This was composed by Giacopone da Todi, a disciple of Saint Francis, in the thirteenth century, and has furnished the text for the immortal music of Rossini.

Hymns of the Missal

The “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), used at Masses for the dead, goes back to the thirteenth century, and was composed by a certain Thomas of Celano. It is written in rhyming three-line stanzas, giving a vivid description of the General Judgment, the sounding of the Angel’s trumpet, the resurrection of the dead, and the gathering of all mankind before the dread tribunal of the Judge; and it ends with a prayer for the eternal rest of the departed.

The “Veni, Creator Spiritus,” the hymn to the Holy Ghost, is usually sung in our churches before the sermon, to invoke the aid and blessing of the Spirit of Wisdom. It is also used in the Mass and Office of Pentecost. By some it is attributed to Charlemagne, but it is more probably the work of Saint Gregory the Great.

On Holy Saturday, at the blessing of the paschal candle, the “Exsultet” is sung – a long unrhymed hymn of praise and prayer. It is ascribed by some to Saint Augustine, but is probably of somewhat later date.

The “Lauda Sion Salvatorem,” used in the Mass of Corpus Christi, is the work of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas. He was a master of Latinity, as of nearly every other branch of knowledge. His hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament are unsurpassed in poetic beauty. In stanzas of faultless rhythm and rhyme they give a clear statement of the Church’s teaching regarding the Real Presence, combined with a spirit of prayerful devotion worthy of their saintly author.

Saint Thomas and Saint Bonaventure. There is a story connected with the composing of these hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. When Urban IV established the office and festival of Corpus Christi in 1264, he directed Saint Thomas, a Dominican, and Saint Bonaventure, a Franciscan, to prepare appropriate words for the Church’s ritual. When the task had been completed the two Doctors of the Church appeared before the Pontiff to submit the result of their labors. Saint Thomas was requested to read his composition; and as the holy Bonaventure listened to the exquisite cadences of the “Pange, Lingua” and the “Lauda, Sion,” he quietly tore his own manuscript into small pieces; and when the Dominican had finished and the Franciscan was called upon, he replied with saintly humility that his hymns were unworthy to be compared with those which had just been read.

The beautiful “Adeste, Fideles,” so familiar to us at the Christmas season, is not of ancient origin. It is probably of French or German authorship, and was first used in London in the chapel of the Portuguese Legation in 1797.

Our English Hymns. Of many of the hymns in our own tongue, the less said the better. Few of them possess any artistic merit, and many of them are decidedly bad in wording and music. Those recited as a part of the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin” are excellent examples, both in rhyme and rhythm, of “how not to do it.” In an effort to imitate the short metre of the Latin originals, the translator (who is deservedly unknown) has produced a series of jerky stanzas distinguished by really atrocious attempts at rhyming. For the benefit of our sodalities, a rewriting of this Office is much to be desired.

However, there are some excellent English hymns. “Lead, Kindly Light” was written by John Henry Newman, afterwards Cardinal, before his conversion to Catholicism. In beautiful and mystical language it expresses his seeking for the light of truth which shone so radiantly into his soul a few years later.

The hymn “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” is a free translation of the “Te Deum.” It was composed by the Rev. Clarence Walworth before his conversion, and first appeared in a Protestant hymnal in 1853. Hs sonorous chords are well suited to male voices, and it is commonly sung at the meetings and services of Holy Name societies and other men’s sodalities.