Music for the Church’s Worship 4: The Hmong Catholic Hymnal

On 5 December 2013 I had the pleasure of offering two presentations to a gathering of pastoral ministers in the Milwaukee area at Cardinal Stritch University. During one of the breaks, two young ladies introduced themselves to me as part of a team of translators who had worked on compiling Nqua Suab Cav Txog TSWV NTUJ, the Hmong Catholic Hymnal – Comprehensive Edition. I would like to call Pray Tell readers’ attention to the existence of this resource for Hmong Catholics who may be living and worshiping in their areas; I think it would also be of interest as an example of liturgical inculturation carried by translation and musical adaptation.

The Hymnal begins with an Introduction and Foreword printed in both English and Hmong detailing the evangelization of the Hmong people (a tribal people living in the hills of Laos and Thailand) by Fr. Yves Bertrais, Fr. Daniel Taillez, OMI, and Fr. Harold Joseph Thiel, C.Ss.R., and others. Since prior to Fr. Bertrais’ contact with the Hmong their oral tribal language had never been transcribed, he joined in 1953 with Reverend Linwood Barney and Dr. William Smalley to create the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet script. From the 1950s until his death in 2007, Fr. Bertrais worked indefatigably using this script to translate the Bible , the Order of Mass, the Liturgy of the Easter Triduum, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, the Opening Prayers and the Prayers after Communion at Mass from French models into Hmong, as well as liturgical and devotions hymns and chants. Fr. Taillez, assisted by deacon Va Thai Lo, and catechist Chong Thao Luy, composed new Hmong songs with contemporary melodies. Fr. Thiel in turn translated many traditional Christmas hymns and songs from English into the Hmong language.

In order to network, support one another, develop liturgical materials for on-going faith formation, and bring non-Christian Hmong to life in Christ, the Hmong American National Catholic Association [HANCA] was founded in 1983. Twenty years later a Music and Liturgy Committee was formed to explore producing an improved and more comprehensive hymnal. The present Hmong Catholic Hymnal – Comprehensive Edition is the fruit of more than a decade’s work and was published under the authority and approval of HANCA with a copyright of 2012; its imprimatur was granted by The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN.

The musical content of the hymnal falls into four sections. Numbers 1 – 216 present Responsorial Psalms for the Sundays and solemnities of the three-year lectionary cycles with a supplement for the solemnities and feasts of the Lord and saints. The refrains are provided with notation for congregational singing and the verses printed for cantorial chanting. A very helpful guide for chanting the Responsorial Psalms prefaces this section. Since Hmong is a tonal language, its written transcription includes a silent letter at the end of each word to indicate the tone: low, middle or high. These groups of tones are chanted, using the three notes of a major triad, with “do” for the low tone, “mi” for the middle tone, and “sol” for the high tone. Thus the melody simply heightens the tonal pattern of speech rather than attempts to illustrate the content of the psalm or portray its emotion. Numbers 217-244 provide Gospel Acclamations for the Sundays and solemnities of the three-year lectionary cycle. Numbers 245-397 comprise hymns and songs, organized, I believe, simply in alphabetical order. A significant number of these compositions are compositions by Hmong composers and catechists, while others are Hmong adaptations of Laotian hymn tunes; a surprising number are songs translated from non-Hmong languages, ranging from Christmas carols (e.g., “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night”) and classic hymnody (e.g., “All People That On Earth Do Dwell,” “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”), through recent compositions by, e.g., Carey Landry, Bob Dufford, Marty Haugen, Fintan O’Carroll/Christopher Walker, Dan Schutte, Rory Cooney, Tom Booth, Susan Toolan, and Lucien Deiss. My own compositions are represented by Hmong translations of “I Have Loved You,” “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place,” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” Numbers 398-437 provide various chants, as well as liturgical and devotional prayers; this section appears to be a compendium of the most “traditional” Hmong compositions (although they would all be more recent than the initial contact Fr. Bertrais had with the community in 1948). The hymnal concludes with acknowledgements and six very helpful indices, especially the liturgical and topical index, and the listing of readings, responsorial psalms and gospel acclamations for the three-year Sunday and solemnity lectionary cycle with some added special feasts.

As one who does not regularly worship with a Hmong community, I obviously cannot judge how useful this compendium is for their celebrations, but I am deeply impressed by the guiding editorial judgments: 1) to produce a worship book for use at Eucharist; 2) to concentrate on psalmody and gospel acclamations rather than hymnody; 3) to preserve traditional and beloved liturgical songs while being critically open to other compositions that might be adapted to Hmong modes of verbal expression and melodic patterns. I hope that this resource will get broad usage among Hmong worshipers in the United States and abroad. I would encourage non-Hmong-speaking composers to explore some of the Hmong melodies recorded here for possible inspiration and/or adaptation.

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2 comments

  1. Fr. Joncas, thank you for a most informative posting.

    I tried to find on the Internet a site where a copy of the hymnal could be purchased. No such luck.

    Do you have such information?

  2. My father was Deacon Va Thai Lo. I’m so happy his work and help for the Hmong community is being recognized. He recently passed and I know he always felt honored to be a part of the Hmong catholic community. Thanks for the article!

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