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Father Rutler’s Book on Traditional Hymns Reexamines Place of Hymnody in Liturgy

The Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns by Fr. George William Rutler. Irondale, Ala.: EWTN Publishing, 2016. 322 pp. ISBN: 978-1-68278-024-4. $18.95 paperback, $9.99 eBook.

Review by Jennifer Donelson

There are few people better poised to share “the stories of hymns” with us than Father George Rutler, a man who not only loves the great tradition of English-language hymnody dearly, but also has prayed with and savored these great masterpieces of wedded poetry and music since his youth. Father Rutler’s matchless style of storytelling weaves together in a charming and engaging manner the lives, ideas, movements, and artistic craftsmanship which produced these gems.

The present volume offers itself as an invitation to repair to the study for an after-dinner digestif, and to hear tales of a world in which textual and musical beauty bring one face-to-face with the human condition, the desires of the heart, and the praiseworthy, redeeming love of our Savior. After one has drunk his fill and heard the yarns spun, one is left with an especially strong sense of “ecumenism of an honest and fruitful kind.”[1] Father Rutler’s stories cultivate in the reader a deep appreciation of the spiritual treasures and devoted service of our Protestant brethren. Certainly, these pearls are the result of zeal for the salvation and conversion of souls through the message of the gospel, the seeking of the face of God in the sacred scriptures, and the work of continuing the patristic and medieval traditions of expressing the Christian faith through beautiful poetry and winsome tunes.

Life of Song

The story of Father Rutler’s own life comes to the fore in showing Catholics how Protestant fervor, piety, study, and hymnody fruitfully till the soil of the heart so that grace may grow unto the reception of the fullness of the Catholic faith. Father Rutler’s priestly service as a Catholic is one shaped by the sense of mission given to him by Evangelicals, as well as by a sense of dutiful, joyful, and fitting worship of God endowed to him by the singing of these great hymns, which shaped not only his theology, but also his sense of what befits the house of the Lord. As a convert from Anglicanism, Father Rutler is able to convey both an appreciation of the laudable merits of Anglican and Protestant liturgies, as well as a deep understanding of how the fullness of the Catholic faith perfects and corrects the best sentiments and elements of Protestant piety in her own beautiful liturgical traditions.

In Father Rutler’s description of the tune SALAMIS, set with the text “I think when I read that sweet story of old,” he says: “It was a favorite in the Sunday School of my youth and was frequently illustrated in the children’s songbooks with pictures of Christ surrounded by all races and clans, usually with a representative of my own denomination on His knee. The hymn, like all solid hymns for children, is really for adults serious about the interior life. The Catholic child will want to be taught that the prayer of access to our Lord’s presence,[2] referred to in the third stanza, is most perfectly realized in the Holy Eucharist.”[3]

The great figures of hymnody, Catholic and non-Catholic—St. Ambrose, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Wesleys, John Mason Neale, George Frideric Handel, Reginald Heber, John Keble, Ronald Knox, Father Frederick Faber, Isaac Watts, Catherine Winkworth, and Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman—are presented as figures fallible and faithful, people worth knowing not only because of the works they left behind for us to sing, but also because their lives show the grace of God at work in spite of error, misfortune, and sin. In the hands of Rutler’s storytelling, the figures come alive. He weaves together disparate historical coincidences; features of an author’s or composer’s character; ideas which held particular sway at some point in time; and spiritual, theological, and liturgical reflections to paint a scene for the appearance of a particular tune or text. He likewise points us to obscure connections between people, places, and ideas that give meaning and context to a certain turn of phrase or collection of hymns. That the hymnographers are personally loved by Rutler is evidenced by the frequent incorporation of bits of his own biography in the explanation of why a particular figure or fact is interesting.

Joyful Laughter

Ever present is Rutler’s humor, which presents many occasions to laugh aloud whilst reading the volume. Sometimes it is in sharing a humorous anecdote, such as Spooner’s own Spoonerism in announcing his own hymn “Conquering kings their titles take” (set to the tune of ORIENTIS PARTIBUS) as “Kinquering congs their titles take.” At other times, the droll comedy is of a pointedly self-effacing Anglican character, as at the end of the entry on one of my favorite hymns, “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending” set to HELMSLEY: “Dean Simpson was a magnificent man, of whom many stories have been told [….] As I write, there is on my desk a copy of his portrait, by Graham Sutherland, in the Hall of Christ Church. He wears a mortar board and holds a cigarette as he awaits Christ with clouds descending.”[4]

Sometimes, too, the humor cultivates appreciation for those tunes and texts which can be held dear, even if not attaining to the heights of artistic excellence. His entry on “Protect us while telling,” set to LOURDES (the tune to which Catholics usually sing the text “Immaculate Mary, thy praises we sing”) is one such instance: “Many versions have been written to this tune traced to Grenoble in 1882. Some are so cloying in diction and distressing in rhyme that only a Mother could love them, but that is precisely the point.”[5]

For Love of Hymn

The selection of hymns, Rutler freely admits, is subject to his own taste rather than some systematic method. Indeed, this is one of the charms of the book—it is a tutelage in loving hymns from someone who has held certain of them particularly dear. There are some hymns included that are familiar to many Catholics (“Alleluia! sing to Jesus”; “The Church’s one foundation”; “For all the saints”; “Faith of our fathers”), and there are others which, equally well-known, have beautiful verses or turns of phrase which may have been lost to Catholics through unfortunate editorial decisions. One example in this regard is that of the third and fourth strophes given for “Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,” to the familiar PLEADING SAVIOR tune:

3. Sing of Mary, Sing of Jesus,

Holy Mother’s holier son.

From his throne in heaven he sees us,

Thither calls us every one,

Where he welcomes home his Mother

To a place at his right hand,

There his faithful servants gather,

There the crownèd victors stand.

4. Joyful Mother, full of gladness

In thine arms thy Lord was borne

Mournful Mother, full of sadness,

All thy heart with pain was torn.

Glorious Mother, now rewarded

With a crown at Jesus’ hand,

Age to age thy name recorded

Shall be blest in every land.

Many of the hymns in the volume recommend themselves to the lips and hearts of Catholic congregations because of particularly boisterous or striking melodies which would seem wildly adventurous when contrasted with the fare in the average Catholic hymnal, or with what comes to mind when Catholics think of an older style of hymnody. There are the octave leaps of ALL HALLOWS, the arresting pauses of ST. ANDREW OF CRETE, the lilting quarter note triplets of ALTA TRINITA BEATA, the earnest steps outlining the minor and major modes in LEONI, and the grand swoop of the whole notes in MOUNT SION. Certainly every choir would do well to have in its repertoire the breastplate of St. Patrick (“I bind unto myself today”) set to the combined tunes of ST. PATRICK and DEIRDRE that Father Rutler recommends.

The volume does contain a number of small typos that could have been corrected in the editing process, especially since this volume is reissued from Ignatius Press’s 1998 publication of the same book under the title Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns. One notes, too, that Father Rutler’s desire to succinctly explain the rather complicated history and theory of modes to the non-musician falls prey to fanciful scholarship. The entry on “All praise to thee, my God” set to TALLIS’ CANON tune mistakenly ascribes four modes to St. Ambrose, and the addition of four more to St. Gregory.[6]

Tua Culpa, Tua Culpa…

Rutler sometimes pointedly chides Catholics by showing that Protestants have conserved beautiful texts and artistic traditions which Catholics have unnecessarily let fall out of use in the recent decades of liturgical reform. Consider this excerpt from his story of the text “Round the Lord in glory seated” to the tune of MOULTRIE in which he considers the chants assigned in the Graduale Romanum to accompany the adoration of the holy cross: “All Byzantine rites include the ‘Trisagion’ chant: ‘Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and immortal, have mercy on us.’ It passed through the Gallican Rite of the 10th century to the Roman rite by the 12th century and is retained in the Solemn Reproaches of Good Friday.

“Omission of the venerable Reproaches constitutes one of the most depraved vandalizations of the Church’s Liturgy. Serving as an office of preservation not unlike John Mason Neale, Richard Mant went to the sources of chants like this and thus revived in his own denomination many liturgical treasures that have become lost by profligacy within the Catholic Church itself.”[7]

Rutler’s insights are particularly important ones for Catholics, who must bring to bear an understanding of the role of hymnody in the Roman rite, both historically and in light of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in reading his book. In his forward, Father Rutler outlines the liturgical relationship between hymnody and the Mass in the following way: “The hymns that follow complement the Liturgy but are not part of it. The whole Mass itself is its own gigantic hymn, and it is only by indult that it is said at all instead of being sung.

“It is liturgically eccentric to ‘say’ a Mass and intersperse it with extraliturgical hymns. Hymns may precede or follow the Mass, but they should never replace the model of the sung Eucharist itself with its hymnodic propers. In the Latin Rite, that model gives primacy of place to the Latin language and Gregorian chant, according to numerous decrees, most historically those of Pope Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudnini and Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.

“The Church has normally reserved other hymns for other forms of public prayer, especially the Daily Office. And, of course, all hymns can be part of private prayer, following the Augustinian principle that he who sings prays twice.”[8]

Critical Mass

Father Rutler has a strong sense of the textual integrity of the Propers of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia/Tract, [Sequence], Offertory, and Communion), which are integral to the sung Mass, not only in text, but also in music which serves liturgical and ministerial functions in the celebration of the rite. Because hymns at Mass are chosen by the music director rather than appointed by the Church’s liturgical books, they are usually replacing the proper liturgical texts assigned by the Graduale Romanum to the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion processions. Of course, this prerogative highlights the importance of the high quality of text and music which is needed to serve this purpose, and Father Rutler’s book points us toward hymns with robust theological import and marvelous musical excellence which may fulfill that role.

While the paragraphs quoted above summarizes well the applicable legislation on hymnody for the sung version of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, Father Rutler may be overstating the restrictions placed on the substitution of hymnody for the Proper of the Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite. Section 16a of Musicam Sacram foresees the singing of hymns by the congregation, and General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) articles 48, 74, and 87 make explicit and universal the permission to substitute a hymn for the proper liturgical text.

The case has been made many times, however—including in the pages of Adoremus Bulletin—that this option of substituting a hymn for the text of the proper antiphon (given as the fourth of four options in the U.S. adaptation of the GIRM) doesn’t encapsulate the fullness of what the Church envisions for the solemn celebration of her rites according to the reformed liturgical books. Father Rutler’s vision, like that of the post-conciliar legislation of sacred music, is of a peaceful coexistence between proper antiphons and excellent hymnody, made possible by purposeful, slow-moving processions.

“Bear in mind,” Father Rutler writes, “that a processional hymn needs a procession: not a quick traipse up the aisle but a little pilgrimage of its own, around the church, even perhaps going outside.”[9]

It is possible that a hymn, with all its verses, can fittingly accompany the opening procession of the Mass if executed in this manner, and the Introit can be used for the incensing of the altar. Father Rutler also proposes a hymn as fitting music to accompany the procession outside the church after Mass, which, of course, has no proper liturgical text. (One notes that Father Rutler might prefer a phrase like “retiring procession” for the procession following Mass given his wry quip in the book: “for the Devil does not like any kind of processions—he is all for recessions.”)

Certainly there is varied success with a hymn at the end of Mass, since people usually rush out the door right after the Ite, Missa est (if not immediately after communion) or as soon as the priest is no longer visible; few stay to sing until the organ has stopped, and rare are the times when a Catholic organist will play all the verses of a final hymn. Few Catholic congregations have a robust hymn-singing tradition.

Sing Through It

The proposition that a recited Mass is only possible through an indult likewise overstates the current restrictions of liturgical law, even for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite. The Low Mass has been part of the Roman liturgical tradition since at least the 12th century. With regard to celebrating a Low Mass with hymns, Pius XII’s legislation applies to the celebration of the liturgy according to the Missale Romanum of 1962. De musica sacra et sacra liturgia (1958) article 14b states: “At low Mass the faithful who participate directly in the liturgical ceremonies with the celebrant by reciting aloud the parts of the Mass which belong to them must, along with the priest and his server, use Latin exclusively.

“But if, in addition to this direct participation in the liturgy, the faithful wish to add some prayers or popular hymns, according to local custom, these may be recited or sung in the vernacular.”

For the high or solemn Mass, the restrictions are a little tighter. Latin hymnody or motets were allowed following the singing of the Offertory or Communion, but the use of vernacular-language music was regulated by indult. This regulation was reiterated in De Musica Sacra 14a, which itself cites article 47 of Pius XII’s 1955 Musicæ Sacræ Disciplina, and canon 5 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law: “In sung Masses only Latin is to be used. This applies not only to the celebrant, and his ministers, but also to the choir or congregation.

“However, popular vernacular hymns may be sung at the solemn Eucharistic Sacrifice (sung Masses), after the liturgical texts have been sung in Latin, in those places where such a centenary or immemorial custom has obtained. Local ordinaries may permit the continuation of this custom ‘if they judge that it cannot prudently be discontinued because of the circumstances of the locality or the people’ (cf. canon 5).”

If one interprets Rutler’s statement generously in light of Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram, however, it can be taken to point to the solemn celebration of the Mass as the liturgical ideal and the reference point which gives room for the celebration of Masses with less or no singing. Sacrosanctum Concilium 113 says: “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song, with the assistance of sacred ministers and the active participation of the people.”

Musicam Sacram follows up by spelling out in article 27 when a special point should be made to celebrate the Mass in song: “For the celebration of the Eucharist with the people, especially on Sundays and feast days, a form of sung Mass (Missa in cantu) is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day.”

As a former Anglican, Father Rutler has a keen sense of the spiritual benefit of singing in liturgical worship, and his note about the “eccentricity” of celebrating a spoken Mass with hymns can be charitably interpreted as an encouragement for Catholics to take up the directives of Musicam Sacram to fulfill their proper liturgical role by singing the integral texts of the Mass which belong to them (along with a hymn at the beginning and end) with gusto, and to listen with open hearts to the beautiful chant and polyphony sung by the choir.[10]


[1] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 18.

[2] The prayer of humble access, which has had various placements in the Anglican liturgy, is similar in sentiment to the Domine, non sum dignus text of the Roman rite, having a similar inspiration in the centurion’s words in the Gospel of St. Matthew 8:8. It serves as a preparation for the Eucharist, and is much beloved by those accustomed to worshipping with the Book of Common Prayer. It has been retained in the Ordinariate’s Divine Worship: The Missal immediately preceding communion.

[3] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 251.

[4] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 146.

[5] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 80.

[6] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 139.

[7] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 238.

[8] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 7. NB: the full saying, dubiously attributed to St. Augustine, is “he who sings WELL prays twice.”

[9] Rutler, The Stories of Hymns, p. 25.

[10] Cf. Musicam Sacram, ¶¶ 16, 17, 19, 20.

Jennifer Donelson

Jennifer Donelson

Jennifer Donelson is an associate professor and the director of sacred music at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in New York, where she also teaches sacred music courses in the St. Cecilia Academy for Pastoral Musicians.