The Hymns the Church Calls Her Own – And the Coming Opportunity to Truly Make Them Our Own
Jul 15, 2015

The Hymns the Church Calls Her Own – And the Coming Opportunity to Truly Make Them Our Own

The place of hymnody in Catholic liturgy has been both an area of great interest and also of much confusion and uncertainty throughout the course of recent generations. A great opportunity awaits us, however, to bring clarity to the proper role of the hymn in Catholic worship, and to help the faithful to come to know and love the hymns of the faith that properly belong to them.

In accordance with Liturgiam authenticam, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship have announced plans and some of the details surrounding the forthcoming second edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (with an anticipated publication and promulgation date of 2020).1 This revised edition will not involve new translations of every element of the current edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (as the non-scriptural portions of the Office of Readings among other elements will not be revised); however the Psalms, canticles, scriptural readings, orations, some antiphons, and the intercessions will be either newly translated or revised in accordance with the more recent editions of the Roman Missal, the Revised Grail Psalms, and the New American Bible, Revised Edition. 2

The most substantial change in this new edition of the Divine Office, undoubtedly, will be its inclusion of the Church’s great patrimony of liturgical hymns that has been carefully crafted throughout the history of the Church in virtually every age – from Ambrose to Gregory the Great to Venerable Bede to Thomas Aquinas to Bernard of Clairvaux to Philip Bruni, among hosts of others. These hymns are currently found in their proper placement in the Latin typical edition Liturgia Horarum (editio typica altera, 2000) – the official source from which they will be translated. It is anticipated that the hymns will be presented to the English-speaking Church paired with traditional chant tunes taken from the Liber Hymnarius (Solesmes, 1983).

The significance of this gift to the English-speaking liturgical world cannot be overestimated. At long last, all Anglophone Catholics will be presented with the vast body of hymns that form an integral part of the liturgy of the Roman Rite. Aside from the sheer beauty and theological richness of this hymn repertoire, the suitability of each hymn to its designated liturgical placement is sure to clearly impress an image of the liturgical role of hymnody upon the Catholic consciousness that currently may be foggy at best. This point of clarity shows that the hymn is integral, properly speaking, not to the Mass, but to the Liturgy of the Hours.3

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours describes the role and function of the office hymn, stating: “… more often than the other parts of the office the hymns bring out the proper theme of individual hours or feasts and incline and draw the spirit to a devout celebration. The beauty of their language often adds to this power. Furthermore, in the office hymns are the main poetic element created by the Church.”4

The proper office hymn, then, has a function that is somewhat similar to the Entrance Antiphon of the Mass, which has the specific purpose of introducing the minds of the faithful to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, although through a form of antiphonal Psalmody that is fitting for accompanying the procession of the priest and ministers to the altar at the beginning of the Mass.5 This proper theme is conveyed much more concisely through the form of a brief scriptural antiphon in the liturgy of the Mass – as appointed in the Roman Missal or Graduale Romanum – than it is through the more poetic and verbose genre of the liturgical hymn in the Liturgy of the Hours.

The complete focus of the liturgical action during the singing of an office hymn within the Liturgy of the Hours is the hymn itself, unlike the Entrance Chant of the Mass which is an accompaniment of the liturgical action, the entrance procession. The textual and musical characteristics of each genre lend themselves to the specific needs and characteristics of their respective liturgical actions. In both cases, however, the form and text itself are prescribed by the rite, not crafted or selected by an individual. In the case of the hymns of the Divine Office, the personal creative authorship involved is one that is guided and sifted by tradition – the poetry contained in the Church’s hymns is not an external ornament affixed upon the liturgical rites, but has been assimilated by the liturgical tradition into the fabric of the liturgy itself, becoming an integral part of its content.

History of the Office Hymns 6

The historical origin of the hymn in the Christian tradition is not of a liturgical but of a catechetical nature. The Church’s most significant early poet is St. Ambrose, who began writing theologically rich and orthodox hymns in the 4th century in order to combat the popular Arian hymns which were sung commonly as a means of spreading elements of heretical Arian theology. Ambrose observed the power of the hymn as a transmitter of theological content, and adopted the form as a means of evangelism and of handing on the pure content of the Christian faith. Contemporaneous to Ambrose were the hymn writers Nicetas, Prudentius, and Sedulius, among others, who with him added to the Church’s store of poetry with texts of theological richness and precision, many of which have proved their value through the test of time.

It was with the rule of St. Benedict in the 5th century that hymns – taken from the store of texts that had begun to build up and prove their worth – became a part of the liturgy of the Divine Office. Out of Benedictine monasticism came one of the greatest hymn writers of the 6th century, Pope St. Gregory the Great, who most famously composed six hymns that describe the six days of creation in Genesis chapter one. These six hymns remain today as the prescribed Vespers hymns for the first six days of Weeks I and III of the four-year cycle through the year. Venantius Fortunatus, who has been called “the last of the Roman poets,” composed the “Vexilla regis” and four other hymns in the current arrangement of the Divine Office toward the end of the Patristic period. 7

The office hymn repertoire continued to grow during the Carolingian era – during the height of the development of the music that the Church calls her own, Gregorian chant – with additions made by St. Paulinis, Paul the Deacon, Alcuin of York, and Rabanus Maurus, and with Notker of St. Gall, St. Peter Damian, and others. The Scholastic period saw a kind of culmination in the development of the sung Divine Office in the Roman Rite with additions to the hymn repertoire by Adam of St. Victor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard, and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others. St. Thomas most famously composed the hymns of the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264 as commissioned by Pope Urban in 1264 as commissioned by Pope Urban IV – including “Pange lingua gloriosi,” “Sacris sollemniis” (verses 5 and 6 of which comprise the “Panis angelicus”), “Verbum supernum prodiens” (verses 5 and 6 of which constitute the “O salutaris hostia”), and the “Lauda Sion salvatorem” sequence of the Mass for Corpus Christi – all of which remain in the office of the Roman Rite to this day.

The Renaissance Humanism of the early 16th century and early Tridentine period brought with it a desire by many within the Church to revise or “modernize” both the melodies of Gregorian chant and also the Latin hymn texts of the received tradition. In the field of chant scholarship, this so-called updating amounted to a kind of mutilation of the authentic Gregorian tradition – one so devastating that the monks of Solesmes undertook a complete effort of Gregorian chant restoration in the mid-19th century through the comparative analysis of the earliest chant manuscripts. Similarly, those concerned with the recovery of the riches of classical antiquity sought to revise the vulgar Latin of the Middle Ages, including the poetry of the hymn tradition. This revision found its climax in the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope Urban VIII in the first part of the 17th century with alterations to the classic hymns of the office that were not insignificant in both form and content.

During intervening years prior to the beginning of the 20th century, a number of hymns continued to be added to the repertoire, especially as was required by the addition of new feasts and by the expansion of the liturgical calendar.

The liturgical reforms of the 20th century began in 1903 with the “motu proprio” of Pope St. Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, and were substantiated with the publication of the Vatican Edition of the Graduale Romanum in 1908 and of the Antiphonale Romanum in 1912. The Antiphonale, though still containing the hymns of the Urbanite reform, also included an appendix with the hymns of the ancient tradition in response to the growing awareness in the Church of the damage done to the theological and poetic content of the hymn corpus. It was only with the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council that the hymns of the Divine Office were finally set to be restored to their original purity, as stated in article 93:

“To whatever extent may seem desirable, the hymns are to be restored to their original form…. Also, as occasion may arise, let other selections from the treasury of hymns be incorporated.”8

In response to this, several ancient hymns of great value were incorporated into the post-conciliar edition of the Divine Office, Liturgia Horarum, as several new hymn texts were also composed with the expansion of the office to its current four week cycle.

Office Hymns in the Post-Conciliar Era

With the publication of the typical edition Liturgia Horarum in 1973, the hymns of the tradition of the Roman Rite were fully restored and placed before the faithful as an integral part of the public prayer of the Church. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours insists that this prayer is not reserved for clerics and religious only, but that it properly belongs to every member of Christ’s body:

“Wherever possible, other groups of the faithful should celebrate the liturgy of the hours communally in church. This especially applies to parishes – the cells of the diocese, established under their pastors, taking the place of the bishop; they ‘represent in some degree the visible Church established throughout the world.’”

Hence, when the people are invited to the Liturgy of the Hours and come together in unity of heart and voice, they show forth the Church in its celebration of the mystery of Christ.9

The publication of the Liturgy of the Hours in English in 1975 by the conferences of Catholic Bishops in Englishspeaking countries, however, perhaps unfortunately, did not include English translations of the vast majority of the newly restored and expanded body of hymnody that the Church has come to call her own over the course of two millennia. Instead, the hymns that were included in this edition were more freely chosen according to the permission given in the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours:

“For vernacular celebration, the conferences of bishops may adapt the Latin hymns to suit the character of their own language and introduce fresh compositions, provided these are in complete harmony with the spirit of the hour, season, or feast. Great care must be taken not to allow popular songs that have no artistic merit and are not in keeping with the dignity of the liturgy.”10

While there are a few certain cases where English translations of the Latin hymns of Liturgia Horarum were included in the Liturgy of the Hours, the vast majority of the vernacular hymns that were included in this edition were “fresh compositions,” or broad borrowings from the English hymn tradition of previous 100 years – from both Catholic and Protestant sources alike.

The rapid publication of the English edition of the Divine Office left little time for the proper translation of the 291 hymns found in Liturgia Horarum, even if their use was desired at the time. Despite the virtual exclusion of the hymns of the typical edition in the English edition, a notable and heroic contribution was made to the English-speaking Church nonetheless by St. Cecilia’s Abbey of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, UK. This community of female Benedictines undertook the monumental task, almost immediately, of translating into English the hymns of the typical edition of the Divine Office, although for decades they would not be heard by many outside the walls of the monastery of St. Cecilia’s Abbey.

In 2007 – a full 30 years later – the Ryde hymn translations would finally see the light of day with the publication of The Mundelein Psalter. 11 This remarkable book was the first widely available edition of the Divine Office since the Second Vatican Council that allowed for the principle hours (Morning and Evening Prayer, in addition to Night Prayer and the Office for the Dead) to be fully sung in English, using the officially approved texts of the Liturgy of the Hours. The edition is a response to the Church’s insistence that:

“The sung celebration of the divine office is more in keeping with the nature of this prayer and a mark of both higher solemnity and closer union of hearts in offering praise to God. . . . Therefore the singing of the office is earnestly recommended to those who carry out the office in choir or in common.”12

While The Mundelein Psalter has provided a simple way for virtually anyone to chant the Divine Office to simple psalm tones, its only deficiency is the absence of hymn tunes for a large number of the hymns which are included in the edition in text only. While many of these can easily be sung to a common tune (such as “Old Hundredth,” or “Iesu dulcis memoria”), the full use of the hymn repertoire requires the use of a companion hymnal.

The Lumen Christi Hymnal has filled this need. 13 This edition provides English translations of the entirety of the corpus of hymns contained in Liturgia Horarum for Morning Prayer (Lauds), Evening Prayer (Vespers) and Night Prayer (Compline), each paired with authentic chant tunes taken from the Liber Hymnarius. In this way, it serves as an ideal companion hymnal for those who pray the office regularly, and especially to those who celebrate it in common. The Lumen Christi Hymnal provides a bridge to, and is helping prepare the English-speaking Church for, the fruitful reception of the anticipated 202014 Liturgy of the Hours, Second Edition. For those who wish to begin singing the authentic hymns of the Catholic tradition, in their proper context, there is no need to wait.

The Future of Catholic Hymnody

There is great reason to look forward to the forthcoming English translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, and to the treasury of hymnody that, through it, will be presented to every Catholic as their own. Like the time that preceded the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, the years that lie ahead will provide a great opportunity for further liturgical catechesis and for engaging the faithful in the Church’s official public prayer that properly belongs to them. In our day it would also be fitting to reinvigorate the common celebration of the office, especially in the domestic Church, as a means of  sanctification, unification, and strengthening of family life amidst troubled times.

The prayer of the Church will be greatly strengthened by the forthcoming edition of the Liturgy of the Hours. Its hymns should find their way into the homes and hearts of all who eagerly await the coming of the Lord with lighted lamps, and who long to be made worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.


  2. Ibid.
  3. In certain cases hymns have also been taken into the proper structure of the Mass, such as the Gloria in excelsis, Sanctus, the Sequences, the Crux fidelis of the Good Friday liturgy, the Gloria laus et honor of the Palm Sunday Procession, the O Redemptor of the Chrism Mass, among a few others. GIRM 88 also states that “When the distribution of Communion is over…[i]f desired…a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation. Hymns can also very effectively be sung prior to the beginning of Mass (before the Entrance Antiphon), and at the end of Mass (after the Ite missa est). Acknowledging that the singing of a hymn during the Entrance, Offertory and Communion processions of the Mass is both licit under the provisions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and is also the common experience of most Englishspeaking Catholics of the last several generations, it is worth noting that GIRM 48, 74 and 87 make no specific mention of hymns. The form of the chant sung at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion processions of the Mass is described as the singing of scriptural antiphons and Psalms taken from liturgical sources or from sources approved by the Conference of Bishops or Diocesan Bishop. The singing of hymns during these times finds its historical precedent primarily in the indults granted to certain German-speaking regions, and in the singing of hymns of an essentially devotional nature at Low Mass in the United States during the first part of the 20th century – a practice that was first officially and universally sanctioned in 1958. Without questioning the merits and importance of such religious singing in the devotional lives of the faithful, it is important to note that the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council desired that the faithful actively participate in the liturgical rites themselves, and not in devotional activities while the liturgical rites are being carried out –according to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, music is not ancillary to, but “a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (SC 112).
  4. General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH), art. 173.
  5. See General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), art. 48.
  6. For a more exhaustive treatment of the history and development of the office hymn repertoire, see: Eric M. Andersen, ‘History, Reform, and Continuity in the Hymns of the Roman Breviary’, Sacred Music, March 2009.
  7. Joseph Connelly, Hymns of the Roman Liturgy (Westminster, Md., Newman Press, 1957), p. 81.
  8. Sacrosanctum concilium, art. 93.
  9. General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, art. 21-22.
  10. See GILH, art. 178.
  11. Douglas Martis and Samuel Weber, OSB, eds., The Mundelein Psalter (Liturgy Training Publications, 2007).
  12. General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, art. 268.
  13. Adam Bartlett, ed., ‘Lumen Christi Hymnal’ (Mundelein, IL: Illuminare Publications, 1 September 2014).
  14. pdf

Adam Bartlett

Adam Bartlett is the founder and CEO of Source & Summit. He is the composer and editor of Simple English Propers (CMAA, 2011), editor of the Lumen Christi series (Illuminare Publications, 2012-2016), and is the editor and publisher of the Source & Summit Missal and Digital Platform. He formerly served as a parish and cathedral music director, as a faculty member for the Liturgical Institute and Mundelein Seminary of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, as an adjunct faculty member for the Augustine Institute, and as a sacred music consultant for FOCUS. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with his wife and three children.