Hymnal Review, Part Three: The St. Michael Hymnal

by James E. Frazier

Editor’s note: Part One, the author’s introduction to this series of reviews of three hymnals – The Adoremus Hymnal, The Saint Michael Hymnal, and The Vatican II Hymnal – is  here. Part Two, the author’s review of Adoremus Hymnal, is here.

The next hymnal under review, The St. Michael Hymnal (SMH), edited by Linda Powell Schafer and Fr. Michael O’Connor, OP, was produced by St. Boniface Parish in Lafayette, Indiana (founded in 1853), because “a disparity became apparent between the doctrinal and moral truths that were faithfully preached and handed on in the context of the liturgy and the sometimes poor or ambiguous ‘incarnations’ of this saving truth in the music and musical texts used in the liturgical celebrations.” Ms. Schafer is a member of St. Boniface Church, having served as its director of music, and Fr. Michael O’Connor, an organist, singer and composer, lives in Washington, DC at the Dominican House of Studies. The hymnal was named after St. Michael because the parish unofficially adopted the archangel as their patron and protector.

The parish had searched for a hymnal or missalette that preserved the original language of the authors, but found none. Because of the perceived theological problems in some of the newer hymns, they began producing a simple supplement containing “traditional and sound hymns” for its own use, but the effort soon took on a life of its own and became a much larger project. The editors then decided that “if we are to convince people of the truth of the Church, we would do well first to strive to capture their hearts with the beauty of the Church—the beauty of the sacred—the beauty of the Divine.” SMH was the result of the desire “to promote the musical treasures of the Church’s tradition and to maintain traditional language in hymnody.”

The editors struck a middle ground between what they called “the political ideologies of contemporary hymnals and the unhelpful extremism of some of the more traditional hymnals.” The hymnal has no “politically driven language,” which probably means inclusive language, and indeed discriminatory language is retained throughout. But let’s be honest about this and acknowledge that the drive for inclusive language is not just a “church thing.” Institutions as venerable as The New York Times use inclusive language because it has become the accepted standard in civil and intelligent discourse. Why not in similar discourse addressed to God? The very few changes found in the hymn texts are what the editors call “poetic or practical choices.” But why was it necessary to change “Day whereon Christ arose” to “Day when our Lord was raised,” or “One and all to be forgiven” to “Pray that we may be forgiven”? Nevertheless, of the three hymnals under review, SMH is decidedly more centrist than the other two. So, why include a hymn like “Long live the Pope,” with its imperialistic text?

Unlike both The Adoremus Hymnal (AH) and The Vatican II Hymnal (V2H), SMH “stands out among the smaller collection of more traditional hymnals because of its realistic assessment of the present state of liturgical music and its prudential judgment of how best to address this situation.” The editors claim that “what is most useful at the present time is a hymnal which provides for taking a decisive step forward, rather than one which prematurely tries to achieve the final goal.” There is remarkable wisdom in this, though it does mean that among the otherwise traditional hymnody are twenty-one chants from Taizé, three African-American spirituals, some forty-two songs in Spanish, several folk tunes from other countries, and the likes of the “Prayer of Saint Francis” (Sebastian Temple), “Be Not Afraid” (Robert J. Dufford, SJ), “Behold the Lamb” (Martin Willett), and “On Eagle’s Wings” (Fr. J. Michael Joncas), none of which are found in AH or V2H. The volume’s promotional material leads one to believe that there are a number of such “contemporary” songs in SMH to tide over those parishes that are still attached to this kind of repertoire, when, in fact, these are the only four, according to my count. AH also contains modern texts by the fine authors Timothy Dudley-Smith and Fred Pratt Green. Otherwise there is little standard hymnody more recent than the Second Vatican Council—a grievous shame. In assessing the predecessors of this fourth edition, one blogger wrote that SMH “weeds out more garbage with each new edition.”

The hymnal also contains a fair sampling of devotional songs associated with childhood or family memories, including, for instance, the maudlin On this day, O beautiful Mother and Bring flowers of the rarest (for May crownings). Among the other Marian hymns are the four Gregorian antiphons previously associated with Compline. Many of the other Marian hymns have texts that are influenced by traditional Marian devotions rather than by the scriptures.

In any case, the quantity of ancient hymn texts and music in SMH is a witness to the scholarship of the editors. They include some rarely printed texts from the early centuries of the church, by Ephrem of Edessa, for example, Synesius of Cyrene, and the later John of Damascus, Bede the Venerable and Gregory the Great. The book also contains a fine Marian text, “Maiden, yet a Mother,” by Dante Alighieri, the medieval author of The Divine Comedy, as do AH and V2H.

Both SMH and the other two hymnals have happily discovered the quintessential British tune THAXTED, by the composer Gustav Holst, that is based on the stately theme from the Jupiter movement of his orchestral suite The Planets, ordinarily sung by the British to the patriotic text: I vow to thee, my country. In American hymnals it is usually used for the text O God beyond all praising. Another British tune that has made its way into SMH and AH is JERUSALEM, by C. Hubert H. Parry, to which the Brits sing And did those feet in ancient time, a patriotic poem by William Blake. The tune is used in SMH for the text O love of God, how strong and true, and in AH for the text Come, spread the news with shouts of joy. If these tunes ever catch on in the U.S., they will be winners.

A large number of the hymns come from British and German Protestant hymnals, along with many from European Catholic hymnals from earlier centuries. Some readers of Pray Tell will be happy to know that SMH includes “How great thou art” and “This is the feast of victory” (beloved of Lutherans). A few tunes have fresh-sounding harmonies, such as EDEN CHURCH and RAQUEL, a welcome relief from the standard harmonizations. The Scottish tune LOCH LEVEN, which I have not seen before, is fetching, as is the Irish tune SACRED SONG (An Chomaoin Naomtha). King’s Weston is about the only non-chant tune meant to be sung in unison. Like AH and V2H, SMH has no hymns specifically designated for the Easter Vigil.

What should we say about the sad duplication of texts and tunes? Many of the tunes appear twice, while twelve of them appear three times each. Stuttgart appears four times, and Lasst uns erfreuen five times. In several cases the tunes are repeated to accommodate both Spanish and English versions of the same text, which is understandable, but in other cases they represent merely an excessive repetition of tunes. Yes, certain texts that are likely to be sung only rarely can benefit by being set to a familiar tune. But was it really necessary to include two English versions of Adoro te devote (“Godhead here in hiding” and “Humbly we adore thee”) in addition to the Latin version? Moreover, the text “Godhead here in hiding” is available twice, with two different tunes. Or why two strophic English versions of the Te Deum (“God, we praise you!” and “Holy God, we praise thy name”) along with the original version in Latin chant?

Several of the hymns contain descants, and one (“O Come, all ye faithful”) even includes the classic altered harmonization by David Willcocks, with descant. Such enhancements make a hymnal more fun and engaging for the singers.

SMH is available in five versions: the pew book and the four modes of the organ/choir book (the large and heavy hard cover, soft cover, spiral bound, and loose leaf). The book has eight sections: the Order of Mass in Ordinary Form(OF), Mass Settings, Service Music, Entrance Antiphons, Hymns, Prayers, Indices, and Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The full score and the assembly cards for the Entrance Antiphons and seven of the English Mass settings are available for download free from the website. Recordings of the Mass settings are also available. The hymnal does not contain the Extraordinary Form, the psalms or the readings, the editors believing it imprudent to include psalmody in a permanent hymnal “until the coming Lectionary revision has been completed.” They recommend instead that parishes use the Chabanel Psalms (more about them in the next review), or those by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB and by Fr. Columba Kelly, OSB. They also allow that many parishes still prefer to use a missalette or other booklet for the readings, most of which include a setting of the Sunday psalms.

There are six Gregorian chant ordinaries in Latin, twelve English Mass ordinaries using the new translations, over sixty-five items of service music in English, Latin or Spanish, a complete collection of entrance antiphons for Sunday Mass, and 440 hymns in English, Latin or Spanish (one short instance of German). I cannot imagine any congregation needing as many as eighteen ordinaries.

The six settings of the Gregorian chant ordinary include Iubilate Deo, De Angelis, Cum Iubilo, Alme Pater, Orbis Factor, and In Dominicis Adventus et Quadragesimae, all with accompaniments by Carlo Rossini. The twelve English ordinaries include the Roman Missal Chants; Missa Simplex (Richard Proulx); Mass of the Sacred Heart (Richard Rice); Siena Chant Mass (Michael Dominic O’Connor, OP); Mass of Charity and Love (Paul Benoit and Steven C. Warner); Mass of the Patriarchs, in Spanish and English (arr. M.D. O’Connor); Missa Verbum Caro (James McGregor), Mass of St. Michael, after Ukranian chants (O’Connor); Mass of the Emmanuel (James McGregor); Mass of the Great Prophet, after Elijah of Mendelssohn (O’Connor); Heritage Mass (Owen Alstott); and the People’s Mass (Jan M. Vermulst). The settings are very good overall, but the Mass of the Patriarchs consists of only three chords and will probably wear better than most of us would anticipate. The People’s Mass still holds its own after all these years. But the finest writing is by James McGregor, Director of Music Emeritus of Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey.

Among the more satisfying features of SMH is the typography of the Order of Mass (Latin on the left, English on the right), where the rubrics are—believe it or not—in red (Latin ruber = red), and where the font looks to be Garamond, or an elegant variant of it. It is beautifully done. For an unnecessary reason, however, the English text of the Lord’s Prayer is printed in a different font, in bold. The beautiful design, layout, typography and engravings in the volume are by World Library Publications, the music and liturgy division of J.S. Paluch Company, Inc. They are superior to those of AH, though there are a few errors in the typography (inconsistent use of hyphens and en dashes between birth and death dates of composers and authors) and in the musical engravings (see Angels we have heard on high.)

The most disturbing feature of the book is that the hymns are printed in alphabetical order by first line (or by familiar title in the case of “On Eagle’s Wings”; “You who” does not appear in the index), rather than in seasonal order. There is little to be gained by such an arrangement, while there is much to be gained by seeing the life of the church spread out across a hymnal’s pages the same way it is spread out across the church year. That’s how the finest hymnals have always organized their materials. It facilitates the planning of the liturgy and the choice of its materials, and it more visibly expresses the book’s theology. With SMH, however, anyone selecting hymns for Advent, say, must go to the Liturgical Year Index and thumb back and forth through the entire hymnal, from hymn 401 all the way to hymn 819, to find out what’s available for this first season of the church year. Moreover, the hymns that appear in both Spanish and English to the same tune—for example, “All creatures of our God and King” and “Oh, Criaturas del Señor,” to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN—really should be adjacent to each other, but in SMH they cannot be. Likewise, the two Gregorian chants, Requiem aeternam and Lux aeterna luceat eis, the introit and communion from the Mass for the dead, are found in their proper places in the alphabet, but should be adjacent to each other. The alphabetical arrangement gives the impression of disorganization.

Despite the preference of the hymnal for traditional materials, several of the Spanish hymns are better rendered on the piano than the organ. But a number of the Spanish texts are set to familiar hymn tunes from the British or German traditions, making it easier for Hispanics and Anglos to share the stanzas of a hymn. The now popular Tú has venido a la orilla (“Lord, you have come to the seashore”) is included in SMH.

There are many Latin hymns in this volume, a considerable percentage of them unfamiliar to most American Catholics: Ave Maris Stella, Ave verum, Concordi laetitia, Crucem tuam, Da pacem Domine, Laudate Dominum, O Trinitas laudabilis, and Oremus pro Pontifice, among others. But there is also the Te Deum and with it the historically significant hymn Christus vincit, in the short and long versions. A couple of these chants have Spanish texts. Three of the present four sequences are also included, with only Lauda Sion, Salvatorem missing, for some reason.

There are also some wonderful tunes that have not appeared very often in earlier hymnals, such as CHISLEHURST, the strong and sturdy Welsh tune BRYN MYDDIN, the epic-sounding NASHOTAH HOUSE (the Episcopal seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin), and the tune AUGUSTINE, by the renowned twentieth-century hymnologist Erik Routley. There are also some fine traditional American melodies that deserve attention, including ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA!.

There are indices for the Liturgical Year; Liturgy of the Hours; Rites of the Church; Topical Index; Metrical Index; Index of Tune Names; Index of Mass Parts and Service Music; Alphabetical Index of Entrance Antiphons; Index of Entrance Antiphon Psalms and Canticles; Index of First Lines and Titles. Unlike AH and V2H, SMH has a thorough Index of Copyright Holders, doing justice where justice is due.

Despite my reservations about SMH, the hymnal will serve any parish well that wants a traditional hymnal of this sort, with a fair range of non-traditional options. It is a tribute to SMH, and no little hope for the church, that the book is used by the seminarians at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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 reviews of Vatican II Hymnal will appear later this week, as will the author’s conclusion to the series.


  1. It is also — no surprise — used by the Dominicans at the House of Studies in Washington, DC.

    I am interested in the criticism, in both this and the AH review, concerning the lack of hymns for the Easter Vigil. I’ve got to say that it never occurred to me that the Vigil needed much in the way of hymns, and what it might need could be well served by general Easter hymns. But perhaps there is some particular hymn(s) that the reviewer has in mind. For my part, I can’t think of any Vigil-specific hymns.

  2. “Or why two strophic English versions of the Te Deum (“God, we praise you!” and “Holy God, we praise thy name”) along with the original version in Latin chant?”

    Very fair review, James, thanks for this. I disagree with the above, though. The answer to this rhetorical question is, “Because they’re all awesome and there was room.” Right?

    “The most disturbing feature of the book is that the hymns are printed in alphabetical order by first line, rather than in seasonal order.”

    Respectfully disagree here, as well, though I see your point about hymns being unable to be “mirrored.” But we use the St. Michael Hymnal at my parish, and EVERYONE has been thrilled when they see that hymns are in alphabetical order. The problem with pigeonholing tunes in seasonal sections is that directors hesitate to choose certain hymns outside of that season.

    For instance, there is much thematic overlap between the last Sundays of Ordinary Time and early Advent . . . but many don’t even consider certain Advent tunes for late OT since the editors have plastered “Advent” above it.

    There’s no perfect solution for this, admittedly.

  3. For my part, I can’t think of any Vigil-specific hymns.

    Deacon, for my part, I have always thought of “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain” very much as a Vigil text. Given the immediacy of the writing and the references to the Red Sea.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #7:

        One of the best hymns for the Easter Vigil, that I’m aware of, is “Through the Red Sea brought at last,” which reads as follows:

        Through the Red Sea brought at last, Allelluia!
        Egypt’s chains behind we cast, Alleluia!
        Deep and wide flows the tide
        Severing us from bondage past, Alleluia!

        Like the cloud that overhead, Alleluia!
        Through the billows Israel led, Alleluia!
        By his tomb Christ makes room,
        Souls restoring from the dead, Alleluia!

        In that cloud and in that sea, Alleluia!
        Buried and baptized were we, Alleluia!
        Earthly night brought us light
        Which is ours eternally, Alleluia!

        In response to Jared Ostermann’s observations about inclusive language, it is important to note that the Messiah, the oratorios of Mendelssohn, operas and Shakespeare’s plays, among countless other cultural gems, are not intended for the liturgy. When people gather to sing corporately at worship, other parameters must be taken into account that do not apply to concert works.

      2. @James E. Frazier – comment #8:
        I’m interested in your critique of Easter Vigil hymns.

        First of all, the hymn you list is wonderful, but of course very few Catholic congregations would be familiar with it unless they have the H1982 in the pews (I don’t even think it was in the 1940).

        Secondly, when would one use it at vigil? At the beginning (it would make sense, as we progress through Genesis, OT, then NT)? This hymn isn’t really monophonic in my mind…but one should prudentially avoid instruments in the early part of the vigil, if possible. If used after Baptism and sometime in the remainder of Mass, isn’t the focus more on the Resurrection? I realize the parallelisms in the verses of the text, but I have to admit that I think of this hymn as one for the general season of Easter. The back-and-forth between Exodus and Resurrection would be distracting to me during the Easter Vigil.

        (of course, this is a subjective opinion!)

      3. @Bruce Ludwick, Jr. – comment #12:
        Bruce–we actually sang this hymn at the Paschal Vigil this year after the singing of the Gospel but before the sermon. It’s short, with a good tempo, and perfect as a transition between the two.

  4. “Or why two strophic English versions of the Te Deum (“God, we praise you!” and “Holy God, we praise thy name”) along with the original version in Latin chant?”

    Not sure why this is included as a criticism – I would feel limited by any hymnal that does not include both NETTLETON and GROSSER GOTT for the Te Deum paraphrases. In my experience these are two of the loudest-sung tunes in the Catholic repertoire.

    As to the alphabetical order, if this is the “most disturbing feature” of the hymnal, it must be a pretty good book!
    With respect, any reasonably competent music director should have enough knowledge of the hymn repertoire to plan music without the crutch of an editor’s categorization.
    I agree with Heath, comment #3 – the categories are often more limiting than empowering. When I do select a hymn from a different category, it irks me that the congregation has to see “ADVENT” or “PENANCE” in bold letters at the top of the page. It’s not helpful.

  5. As for inclusive language –

    Although it would be very interesting, I have yet to attend or hear an inclusive-language performance of the Messiah or of Mendelssohn’s oratorios or of any operas or Shakespeare plays. Somehow even the most self-professedly ‘liberal’ folks are ok with the older language of older works of art. So why the obsession with going back and ‘fixing’ hymnody from Watts and the Wesleys, etc.?
    I could see inclusive language being an issue if new hymn texts are written today, with a conscious avoidance of such language. But it seems like a non-issue with the older authors.

  6. “When people gather to sing corporately at worship, other parameters must be taken into account that do not apply to concert works.”

    Granted. But selections from these larger works are very often used in the liturgy. I suppose the argument would be that it is ok for the choir to offer non-inclusive Mendelssohn choruses as sung prayer during the liturgy, but the congregation can’t be asked to? The congregation may bring interior participation to such non-inclusively texted works, but not exterior participation?

    Ironically “Blessed are the men who fear him,” from Elijah, is actually sitting on my desk as I write this.

    What about SS Wesley “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace”? 🙂

    There is a vast repertoire intended for liturgy that uses non-inclusive texts.

  7. Just to clarify – I’m not asking the congregation to sing the Mendelssohn. That sentence should go “…but the congregation can’t be asked to sing a non-inclusive hymn text?”

  8. I am sure that the hymn writers who wrote in such “discriminatory language” sincerely repent, but they only had English to work with. Hopefully one day the Church will get in step with such venerable institutions as the New York Times, but till then I dare to say that when most things are revised to be 21st century inclusive, English seems to become more awkward and harder to understand than MR3.

  9. Mr. Frazier, Thank you for this excellent and well written review. Like you, it bothers me that the hymns in The St. Michael Hymnal are arranged in alphabetical order; I would prefer having them grouped by liturgical season and topic. Other than that, however, it’s an excellent hymnal and I would recommend it to any Catholic parish.

  10. We ordered the St Michael Hymnal for our parish three years ago. While it has a good selection of hymns, we find the English Mass settings rather tawdry. Also, whoever harmonized the Latin chants needs to revisit chant accompaniment. None of them reflect the natural stress of the text throughout. Most often, the accompaniments are diametrically opposed to the text. I do my own harmonizations.

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