IAH – European hymnody conference III

See here for part one and part two.

Friday morning, Ansgar Franz of the University of Mainz spoke at the IAH meeting in Timişoara, Romania. His topic was the history of standardized, unified canons of hymns among German-speaking Catholics, and also the official Italian hymn repertoire recently approved by the Italian bishops’ conference and the Vatican.

Since at least the mid-19th century, there have been efforts to standardize the hymns sung in various versions by German Catholics. In 1848 a certain Bishop Müller called for a national council and a national standardized hymn canon. Müller also wanted greater national German unity politically, and greater independence of the German Catholic Church from Rome. For that and a variety of reasons, his call for standardized hymnody didn’t go anywhere. During World War I, chaplains complained that German Catholic soldiers couldn’t sing one single hymn hymns together because they all knew different versions from their home dioceses. In 1916, amid strongly divergent opinions and strong defense of local traditions, the bishops’ conference was able to agree only on a canon of 23 hymns for inclusion in future hymnals. In fact, some but not all these few hymns were even included in subsequent German diocesan hymnals. Later, the private collection Kirchenlied (“Congregational Hymns”), with 140 hymns, was widely used among Church youth movements throughout Germany, in effect creating a hymn canon for the entire country. Over 2 million copies of Kirchenlied were printed from 1945 to 1972, and 79 of these 140 hymns were taken into the 1975 official national hymnal Gotteslob.

Historically, Austria has enjoyed more national unity in its hymnody than Germany, reflecting the political history of each country. Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa decreed in 1783 that the Normalmeßgesang (‘Standardized Mass Hymns”) be used in every parish in the country. This was a series of Mass hymns which remained constant for every Sunday, with only one melody provided for each of its nine hymns. It was prescribed by force, in many cases against the will of the faithful. But as Franz-Karl Praßl has remarked, in hymnody as in human relations, with enough familiarization and sufficient time, something like love eventually can set in. These Mass hymns have remained in use to this day. By 1948, the Austrian bishops were able to establish a national canon of 119 hymns plus several strophic paraphrases of the Mass Ordinary.

In Switzerland, the redrawing of diocesan boundaries by the state in the early 19th century made standardization necessary, since in many cases peoples coming from various dioceses with their own hymn traditions now belonged to the same diocese. Because in 1958 the Swiss Catholics bishops had authorized work to begin on their own national hymnal, and because so much work had already been done by 1963, the Swiss decided not to become part of the Austrian-German Gotteslob. By 1978, the Katholisches Gesang- und Gebetbuch der Schweiz (“Congregational Hymnal. Catholic Hymnal and Prayer Book of Switzerland”) had about 100 hymns in common with the German-Austrian Gotteslob. And then, things went in a surprising direction. The next official Swiss hymnal of 1998, Katholische Gesangbuch (“Catholic Hymnal”) contained many hymns from Gotteslob, but it also had no fewer than 238 songs, including 153 strophic hymns, in common with the hymnal of the Swiss Reformed church that appeared at the same time. This was a strong move in the direction of ecumenical standardization.

Italy has little in the way of a national heritage of congregational hymnody. In the north, under Austrian influence, an Italian version of Empress Maria Theresa’s Mass hymns was introduced in 1783,  Inni per la Messa. Litanie ed Orazioni giusta la normale di Vienna (“Hymns for Mass. Litanies and Prayers According to the Standardized Practice of Vienna”). This was unknown in the southern part of the country. With some exceptions from the north, congregational singing has not been strong in Italy over the centuries.

Thus it is a sort of “Copernican Revolution” that the official national repertoire Canti per la Liturgia, approved by the Italian bishops and the Vatican, was published in Italy in May, 2009. It has 384 hymns and songs for Mass, including Mass parts, refrains and antiphons, and strophic hymns. The 25 pieces for Lent are typical of the entire collection: there are two chant pieces from Solesmes and 4 melodies by historic composers (Bach, Crüger, Neumark und Decius), but everything else is from the 20th century. This is not so much because the Italians are particularly open to things new, but because there is little by way of a tradition of congregational hymnody to draw on. The old hymn tunes, one notes, are all by German Lutherans.

The foreword states that the official national repertoire should be integrated into existing hymnals as soon as possible; in dioceses which have no hymnal, the national repertoire should form the core for future hymnals, along with the free addition of local hymns and songs.

*          *          *          *          *

I have some observations on the liturgies celebrated by the IAH conference participants: two Catholic Masses, one Lutheran Eucharist, and one Orthodox Vespers.

I write as a Roman Catholic. With all due respect to my Protestant and Orthodox fellow Christians, from which my church certainly could learn very much, I admit to being rather proud of the Vatican II-reformed Catholic rite of Mass as I celebrated it with other Christians from other traditions.

I’m drawn to the beauty and sacredness of the Orthodox liturgy, the sense of an inherited tradition not invented by us, the absence of commentators and announcers and songleaders waving arms at us, the absence of ad-libbing celebrants, the purity of vocal music without accompaniment. But the people do not seem to form a community celebrating the liturgy together. Each individual makes the Sign of the Cross repeatedly, seemingly whenever moved to do so; only when a certain word or phrase is picked up by the worshipers did they (or many or most of them) make the Sign of the Cross at the same time. The iconostasis, as artistically beautiful as it is, distorts the liturgy and divides the assembly too much into privileged clergy and excluded people, even though the entire church space is clearly sacral, and the people are clearly connected to what is going on behind screen, even when the doors are closed and they can only hear but not see the liturgy.

At the Protestant Eucharist (see part one) – and this is probably because I like what I’m used to – I missed the familiarity of the Catholic ritual. I certainly appreciated the excellent selection of solid, traditional Protestant hymns and the strong preaching. But the outline of the service didn’t seem adequately rooted in the Western tradition. I wished it were closer to, for example, the 1983 ecumenical statement Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.

Maybe this is only true of conference liturgies, but it always seems like we’re unsure when to sit and when to stand at IAH Protestant Eucharist, and it doesn’t always seem clear why either is done. Ease of participation is facilitated by familiarity in bodily ritual, and one is drawn into the sacred mysteries through such strong signs as, for example, always standing for the Gospel reading.

The Catholic Mass, reformed according to the instructions of the fathers of Vatican II, got it right, in my view. It is clearly traditional (more so than the Protestant Eucharist) and clearly communal (more so than the Orthodox liturgy). The “high church” rituals are there – kissing the altar and Gospel book, bowing, genuflecting, crossing oneself – but they have clearly been brought into a communal action, and only to the extent that they serve the communal action. Ritualism in the pejorative sense is avoided.

I hope this very personal expression of my views doesn’t sound too prideful. There are plenty of problems and deficiencies in Catholic practice, also at IAH conferences – still distributing Communion primarily from the tabernacle, still offering Communion under only one form to the people (only the ordained deserve two forms?!). No one could claim that the level of preaching or of congregational singing is consistently high yet across the Catholic church.

In a future ecumenical collaboration aiming at greater interdenominational agreement, I would be open to changes and improvements to the Catholic ritual of Mass as we gained from the strengths of other Christian traditions. (Shared translations of liturgical texts would be a nice place to start, or continue, but for now, let’s not go there.)

Call me old-fashioned, but I still rather like the great dream of Horace Allen and Geoffrey Wainwright and Gordon Lathrop and so many others: gradual ecumenical convergence through gradually increasing similarity in our liturgical forms.

And I continue to believe that the Missal of Paul VI, now under siege from, of all places, the Pope from above and zealous Catholics from below, has a singularly strong contribution to make to the ecumenical endeavor.



  1. Thanks, Anthony, for these reports. I have been able to attend IAH only once, and it was a great, great experience. This organization is very different from the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, for sure! But we have a lot to learn from each other.
    I am interested in the discussion about a “canon” of hymns, and standardized versions. This is a big issue in the United States as well (at least for hymnal editors grappling with it) that needs a lot more thought and discussion.
    Much appreciated are your personal observations on the ecumenical aspects of the conference. Whenever I take part in such gatherings, such as HSA or AGO, I am struck by how much unites us as Christians and lovers of song. While we need to be mindful of differences, these differences are not barriers to singing together to praise God.

  2. Father Ruff,

    I’m not sure that you’re correct in saying that the reformed Roman liturgy has a greater sense of community than the Byzantine Liturgy. In the Orthodox Church it is still the case that only one Eucharistic celebration is permitted on Sundays so that the entire community may gather. Only one chalice is permitted per celebrations from which the faithful and the clergy received. For the proclamation of the Gospel the deacon enters out amongst the assembly rather than doing so from within an ambo in the sanctuary. The deacon goes out into the assembly to incense its members and doesn’t just do so from the sanctuary. For the consecratory prayer to the Holy Spirit upon the gifts, both the priest and the lay faithful prostrate themselves, instead of your practice of the priest standing and the faithful kneeling.
    Finally, the byzantine liturgy can be celebrated with different gradations of ‘lay participation’, (congregational singing, the size of the iconostasis may vary, the royal doors aren’t closed everywhere for the anaphora, etc.), but the same is the case for the reformed roman liturgy which may be celebrated ad orientem, in latin, and communion under one species at an altar rail without being improper.

  3. Fr Anthony,

    Your comments on the iconostasis make me wonder if we in the west think too readily, or rather too exclusively in terms of power sturctures and the (Gospel) criticism thereof. (That is one of our contributions.) There is another dimension to the hiddeness/revelation of a Byzantine liturgy. The icons and the screen which hold many of them up are as much about revelation as hiding; as much about acknowleging the unseen and yet revealed grace of Christ. The mystery is hidden. . . in order that it may be revealed. The climax is the coming out the doors of the presider with the chalice- the coming to us of Christ. So the “screen”, in context, is not ONLY a division of laity and clergy and or power. The clergy are icons in a sort of “acted icon” or of course, sacrament of the glory which is to be revealed. The entire church, as you note, is the space of this “acted icon.”

    Thanks too for your mention of Gordon, my first teacher in college days before seminary.

    Mark Miller

  4. Maria Theresa had a lot of power to do that 3 years after she died. However, once she died, her son Joseph II did do a lot of regulation of things Catholic that his mother had resisted doing….

  5. “Each individual makes the Sign of the Cross repeatedly, seemingly whenever moved to do so”
    It sounds like you would enjoy the regimented, military-style uniformity of the Old Believers’ churches, where everyone must cross themselves and bow at the same time (or else!). It’s all in perspective I guess – what you see as being anti-communal I see as a free mix of the communal (collective crossing at certain generally important points) and personal (crossing when God touches a person in a particular way during a service).

    “The iconostasis, as artistically beautiful as it is, distorts the liturgy and divides the assembly too much into privileged clergy and excluded people”
    I don’t think any Orthodox view the iconostas this way, especially given that some of the churches’ biggest goof-offs (its boys) are often serving in the altar with the “privileged clergy” :-).

    “…announcers and songleaders waving arms at us, the absence of ad-libbing celebrants, the purity of vocal music without accompaniment”
    All reasons why I don’t attend modern Roman Catholic or Protestant services – they’re both embarrassing and awkward, whatever language they’re in.

  6. Fr. Anthony,

    Thanks for the report on the various vernacular hymnodies. Did I miss something or did no one speak about French? I know that into the early 20th century there was a strong tradition of Catholic “cantiques” (dominated by Louis Lambiotte, who was more precisely a Belgian by birth) and the French Protestants sang metrical psalms to the tunes of Louis Bourgeois and others, and they sang translations of German and English hymns in “les ecoles du Dimanche.”

    Also I’m surprised that the Italians don’t honor the tradition of medieval “lodi spirituali” and the catechism songs (I’ve forgotten the proper Italian term) that Alfonso de’ Ligouri is supposed to have sung from the pulpit.

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