A Review of Three Hymnals: Adoremus Hymnal, St. Michael Hymnal, and Vatican II Hymnal

by James E. Frazier

Within the first year after the promulgation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, in 2010, no fewer than three hard-bound hymnals were published with the audacious aim of re-directing the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. They are The Adoremus Hymnal (AH), second edition; The St. Michael Hymnal (SMH), fourth edition; and Vatican II Hymnal (V2H), first edition. Because they have so much in common, the fact that they appeared almost simultaneously raises a number of probing questions.


The editors of all three volumes clearly believe that something has gone drastically wrong in the fifty intervening years since the council. All three include the Ordinary Form (OF) order of Mass in Latin, and one even has the Extraordinary Form (EF). Two of them take a strictly classical approach to liturgical music (the third is more centrist, with just a few examples of “secular” fare). Each of them was produced by a non-profit organization run by a handful of zealous, hard-working people devoted to a well-defined vision of authentic Catholic liturgy, not by major for-profit publishers of liturgical cataloguery. Indeed, for each of them the hymnal was a labor of love. Two of them even solicit donations to support their causes. The aim of all three hymnals is to restore the solemnity, the reverence, the universality, the beauty and sacredness that have actually been demeaned by many in the hierarchy, by parish clergy, pastoral musicians, composers and even some academics who have driven the reforms so imperiously for the past five decades.

The Second Vatican Council was not the enemy. There’s no denying that the pre-conciliar liturgy needed reform in a bad way and the council undertook its task with fervor. But the council fathers gave us two versions of the new liturgy, two contestants, if you will. The first was in Latin, with Gregorian chant and choral polyphony its music. Hymns and songs had no place. This made perfect sense because the primordial liturgy of the Roman Rite, at least theoretically, is that practiced historically in the Sistine Chapel where the Mass is structured around musical propers and ordinaries, and where there are by tradition no musical instruments of any sort. How could the council fathers do otherwise than to state the historical obvious: that the musical heritage of the Roman Rite is synonymous with four-line staves and square notation and with polyphony sung by SATB choirs of men and boys? That’s where one would look to find the “purest” expression of Roman Catholicism.

But there was also to be Version II, a second contestant. In it, vernacular languages and music would be used, along with all varieties of instruments indigenous to the prevailing cultures. In time there would be degrees of celebration instead of High Mass and Low Mass, with more or less music used as the situation required. Songs and hymns replaced the propers. This liturgy would not be suitable in the Sistine Chapel, but it would suit virtually all congregations everywhere else in the world, at least for a while.

In Version I, the concepts of sacrality, universality, holiness and beauty held sway, even where the performances were lackluster, and that is what one would find in the very rare parishes that preserved the propers and ordinaries, and choirs and organs (one thinks of the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota, famed of Msgr. Richard Schuler). Singing mostly remained the preserve of choirs, not congregations. For Version I the Latin word cantus that appeared in the original documents means chant, it is important to note.

But Version II was launched with “congregational music” like Michael, Row the Boat Ashore and the same Amen song that Sidney Poitier taught to the nuns in the film Lilies of the Field (let the record show that it was from this film that Catholics first learned to say Ay-men instead of the more Protestant Ah-men). This unfortunate launch of Version II was enabled by the complete absence of musical leadership, either by bishops or musicians. But then came along Glory and Praise and after it a long string of ill-equipped composers whose sincerity sold like hotcakes to congregations all over the English-speaking world. There one could find festivity instead of solemnity, major keys instead of modality, a heavy beat instead of a serene flow, climaxes instead of a consistent fabric, and combos instead of organs, with choirs relegated to a back seat, and with song leaders at their mics front-and-center. The concepts of sacrality, universality, holiness and beauty were frankly unwelcomed because they did not help to create community. Pastoral musicians and liturgists preached the three-fold judgment, did away with the language of “ordinary” and “proper,” and ignored the propers or treated them as obsolete.

In the context of Version II the official Latin word cantus was translated into English as song, not chant, with conspicuous repercussions.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium the bishops of the council never suggested that the two versions were compatible, though both were officially promulgated and formally Catholic. It probably never occurred to the bishops what Version II might come to look like down the road, or how “un-Catholic” it might come to feel to some people. Version II became so prevalent that many Catholics thought that Masses in Latin were pre-conciliar and illegal. Only in unusual cases did a congregation truly become the singing body envisioned by the U.S. bishops in Music in Catholic Worship (1972), despite the liberal dreams for participation and the lofty language in MCW.

Now come along several fervent attempts to restore an ethos of Catholicism to Version II, wherein Latin chant and vernacular hymns and acclamations could coexist, and where the principles of sacrality, universality, holiness and beauty would be evident. So several new hymnals came to be produced, including the three under consideration here.

I hasten to add that there was nothing inherently a-catholic about Version II, at least as it appeared in print in the Roman Missal. The notion is preposterous. The problem resided instead in the missal’s implementation by well-meaning but ill-informed clergy and musicians, who approached the liturgical task with an agenda whereby they would reform congregations according to their fashionable view of the church. And much of this was good and necessary. But much was also lost in the process.

The multiplicity of new hymnals from a variety of publishers reflects a fervent claim for the soul of the American Church. What does the American Church sound like? What should it sound like? Do the various new hymnals represent diversity in the church, or division? Can an EF congregation worship with an OF congregation? Can a Worship­–Four congregation worship with an AH congregation? If not, do we have a multiplicity of “Uses” within the American Church, distinguished partly by the music they sing and the language they use?

We could legitimately ask whether Version I congregations and Version II congregations should be designated independent Uses within the larger Latin Rite inasmuch as they claim distinct linguistic, liturgical and musical patrimonies. (Remember, I’m referring to Version I, not the Extraordinary Form). Both versions pledge allegiance to the bishop of Rome and use the same order of Mass, but with musical and linguistic styles that completely isolate the one from the other. The adherents of one would not be happy worshiping with adherents of the other.

One of the most troubling issues of the three hymnals is a theological one.. If there was one important thing to be gained by the Council’s authorization of Version II, it was that God is manifest to us in the present moment, not just in the past (as represented by a dead language), but through all vernacular languages and worthy musical idioms. That is, the Incarnation was not merely an event in a manger; rather it is an event for all times and places. This means that the best theological insights of the best poets and the best composers in our own day have the capacity to express new understandings of the paschal mystery. For a new hymnal to exclude virtually all hymnody past 1962, therefore, is utterly unconscionable. The argument sometimes given for a total reliance on classical texts and tunes is that they represent the best of Christian tradition. But most of them also cost nothing to reprint. The low budgets of the three hymnals is no excuse for completely avoiding modern texts and tunes. In the process they set limits on the Incarnation.

Another thorny question that merits asking in this context has to do with the justification of a Mass celebrated in a language that extremely few people understand. Yes, Latin is the historic language of the Roman Rite, and in that capacity it deserves preservation, which is one of the reasons for Version I. But in parish practice, in an era when Latin is rarely taught in the schools, how can most Catholics actively participate when they don’t understand the language of the rite? “Active participation” refers to Latin Masses as well as English (or Spanish…). But can the typical congregation take an active part in the Latin? Does the use of such a language force the worshipers into the mode of private devotion, where the liturgy and its music simply go on around them, as a backdrop to the rosary? There is no longer any justification for this kind of attendance at liturgy. How many worshipers will actually bother to read the English translation in a hymnal? At the same time, I am quick to add that I believe there is good reason to retain the Latin.

I think it is best used in moderation, in places where polyglot congregations worship and where choirs are capable of singing anthems or motets, but only if the translation of the sung texts is available for the congregation to read.

But you certainly did not embark upon this hymnal review expecting a whole history of liturgical renewal and rites. For that I apologize. But because the three hymnals under consideration here constitute a concerted attack, as it were, on what goes on in so many Sunday liturgies in North America, I thought some background would be helpful. If their purpose was to merge Versions I and  II into a “blended” liturgy, they are largely successful.

James Frazier is organist and choir master at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul. He was formerly music director in the office of worship of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

The review of the Adoremus Hymnal will appear on Friday. The reviews of St. Michael Hymnal and Vatican II Hymnal will appear next week.


  1. Well said. I’m sure folks of various perspectives will pick at your assertions and point out exceptions, but as a broad sweep of 50 years, you lay it out well.

    I maintain that the Episcopalians have it right– a Rite I service at around 8:00 a.m. for the traditionally-minded and a Rite II service at roughly 10:30 a.m. for the progressives. With Sunday school, bible study, and fellowship between the two shared by attendees of both services. The Episcopal parishes where I served were models of unity in diversity of worship expression. Has that been your experience, James Frazier?

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #1:

      I agree with Scott Pluff’s hunch that Episcopalians have it right. Their Rite I is loosely equivalent to the Extraordinary Form, in that both preceded the liturgical reforms in the 60s and 70s. One major difference, of course, is that Rite I is in Elizabethan English while the EF is in Latin. It is much easier for Rite I folks and Rite II folks to worship together than it is for EF folks to worship with OF folks. In both instances, however, it is a reverence for the beauty of the earlier language that attracts worshipers to Rite I and EF–among other concerns.

      I strongly support Adam Schwend’s desire for a setting of the propers in English. I’m not sure what Adam means by a “contemporary” setting of them however. A diatonic setting, I’m afraid, would have the same problems that we find in so many of the “contemporary” settings of (responsorial) psalms and antiphons found in so many OF publications. The Vatican II Hymnal makes a modest but successful foray into English-language propers. It contains newly composed antiphons for the (responsorial) psalms written in modal chant, with square notes and four-line staves. They are written by a single composer, Aristotle A. Esguerra, and in my view are paradigms for what is possible in a complete set of English propers. I have strong reservations about the use of diatonicism in short forms like antiphons, and I think Esguerra is on the right track.

  2. I’m not sure I perceive “attack,” though I would definitely be in the camp of version II and would find little of use in these hymnals. (I confess I have perused the online tables of contents of them.)

    Interesting reflections on the numbers of “uses” within American Catholicism. I suspect that the past generation has seen something of a fusion among the usage of instruments in many parishes. (I know of a “folk group,” for example (still calls itself that) that relies on organ accompaniment because the last guitarist left the group in 1989. The group identity is so strong, they see themselves as a “folk” group, even if they sing a usual blend of contemporary music and hymnody.

    The lack of a post-conciliar musical repertoire is somewhat corrected by the number of post-conciliar Masses composed by living music and chant directors. Still, a lack of texts from contemporary poets is more interesting and less surprising. Clearly, these people are still hurting from Vatican II and wanting to dodge any appearance of modernism.

    The tables of contents I see read similarly to the ICEL public domain collections–only that they lack significant music for the rites that ICEL promoted circa 1980.

    Otherwise, looking forward to the reviews.

  3. Where does this gentleman get the idea that Latin is rarely taught in the schools? Indeed a year ago June I joined hundreds of my fellow Latin teachers in Minneapolis for the annual meeting of the American Classical League. We even held a Latin Mattins service according to the BCP. Of course such a service was understanded of the people in that situation.

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #3:
      National Latin Exam participation at the third year level (secondary school) is about 1/2 of 1% of US 10th grade high school enrollment, which suggests that “rarely” is an appropriate adverb.

  4. There are a lot of people in the Version II camp who wouldn’t feel comfortable worshipping with other folks from the same camp.

    I attend the EF mostly and sometimes dislike how most post-1960s music is avoided or shunned (especially since some 19th C. hymns are just as shmaltzy and childish as the 1970s and 80s stuff). However, I think those who seek to limit, or completely do-away with, the EF and “Version I” of the OF also set limits on the Incarnation by seeming to deny that God can still work through older styles, languages, and liturgical forms. I think it is the extremism (and sometimes shocking cruelty) of the Version II camp that ultimately leads to some people rejecting everything post 1962 wholesale.

  5. I think a lot of those who prefer “Version I” have come to think of music post-1962 as St. Louis Jesuits and the music of that style. In the same light, I think a lot of “Version II” people think of anything pre-1962 as “O Lord I Am Not Worthy” or “On This Day O Beautiful Mother”, and the horrible saccharine and schmaltzy stuff like them. Both sides have positive and negative aspects.

    I, for one, am not a fan of contemporary music in the Mass…but putting style completely aside for a moment, if some do insist on using contemporary music, I would love to see a contemporary setting of the propers….Because the loss of the proper texts of the Mass is something we should all be ashamed of. I’d love to see a contemporary composer come out with a setting that could be used in “Version II” parishes. I think it would do a lot to bridge the gap between the reasonable minds on both sides of the aisle.

  6. I would suggest there was also another Version: The Ted Marier approach (something worth remembering as his 100th birthday is remembered this week). AKA The Road (Largely) Not Taken. It provided for a sung Mass (mostly in the vernacular, but with congregations also being familiar with settings in Latin of dialogues and the Ordinary and some classic liturgical hymnody), room for propers but not an emphasis on them, a tremendous mostly-vernacular psalter based on the Roman tones, and hymn selections that typically involved settings that often chosen for being sympathetic to a chantlike (arsis-thesis) delivery of phrases in a single breath (this last aspect of Marier’s hymn choices is not obvious to the eye or just looking at his hymnals, but gradually reveals itself over a period of years of listening to how many of those hymns were typically offered.) Marier loved the chant tradition, yet also had “let the people sing” as a mantra. He studiously avoided the polarization that occurred in Catholic liturgical music after the Council. Instead, he combined deep scholarship with decades of cumulative experience dating to the late 1940s in working with congregations to sing the liturgy.

  7. ” But then came along Glory and Praise and after it a long string of ill-equipped composers whose sincerity sold like hotcakes to congregations all over the English-speaking world. … The concepts of sacrality, universality, holiness and beauty were frankly unwelcomed because they did not help to create community.”

    Overall, this introduction to the three reviews was quite thought-provoking, but I must admit that the two statements I’ve quoted here made me bristle.

  8. I’ll stay out of internal Catholic matters in this comment, but as a young fiercely traditionalist Episcopalian who is fortunate enough to belong to one of the few large parishes (Incarnation in Dallas) that offers a late-morning Rite I choral Eucharist, I’m amazed that people apparently think that the standard 8:00 said Rite I/11:00 sung Rite II system, which is indeed the way it is in most Episcopal parishes (if Rite I is offered at all) constitutes an acceptable compromise. What about Episcopalians who want choral music AND traditional Cranmerian language? In most places there’s nothing for us, and that’s a crime. I will not give up either, and liturgical traditionalists should NOT be forced into an early-morning ghetto. The Facebook groups put it best: Rite II Makes Baby Jesus Cry, and Praise Bands Annoy God.

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