Mystic Lamb (detail, angels), by Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441).
What’s Changed? | J. E. Sigler | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
A Comparison of Self- and Divine-Referential Pronoun Usage in Hymns Written Pre- and Post-Vatican II
“He that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings.”—St. Augustine
Some HPR readers may be unaware that people have been arguing about the language of Church hymns since at least the 18th century. Dovring describes one side to a mid-18th-century Swedish Protestant hymnal controversy, as arguing that “the whole dispute (surrounding the new hymnal) was, essentially, not about doctrine, but simply about the manner of presentation,” whereas the other side insisted that “the public was not aware that they were being exposed to a new way of thinking because of the familiarity of the words and phrases (being) used”(pp. 391–392).1 To Catholics active on the music front of the post-conciliar “liturgy wars,”2 these 250-year-old Swedish battle cries probably sound pretty familiar.
They are certainly familiar to me. As both a faithful Catholic and a doctoral student in communication, I pay close attention to communication within the Church. In fact, all my previous research has centered on Church communication. So, even before Brummond’s March 2015 HPR article on the “Sanctus,” I was planning to study the Council’s effect on Church music. But Brummond’s article summed up my inspiration for the study exceptionally well:
Certainly we can point to tendencies in the postconciliar Church toward a more anthropocentric liturgy. Consider the popular hymn, “Anthem,” as an example of this trend:
We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promised to tomorrow,
(W)hile we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder.
We are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.
That’s 13 uses of the pronoun “we,”just in the chorus. The focus on the community is primary. That’s a far cry from the angelic cry of the “Sanctus,” which is wholly focused on God. 3
As a convert to the Faith from Orthodox Judaism—where hymns aren’t exactly central to worship—I had felt a weird disconnect in the hymns I’d been singing at Mass for the last three years. Some of them seemed really centered on God; others, not so much. I had worked in publishing before returning to grad school, so I started paying attention to those “publisher’s notes” in the footer of every hymn, which most people just ignore. Very quickly, I began to be able to predict what I’d see there: specifically, when a hymn was written. I couldn’t predict the precise year, or even decade, but about 98 percent of the time, I could predict whether it was a pre- or post-conciliar hymn. So I determined to study this difference more methodically, and to do it as simply and neatly as possible: using pronouns.
Together with a non-Catholic colleague, Max Renner, I selected two hymnals: one more “traditional” (the 2015 Ignatius Pew Missal), and one more “modern” (the 2015 Breaking Bread pew missal).