Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 93

Vatican website translation:

93. To whatever extent may seem desirable, the hymns are to be restored to their original form, and whatever smacks of mythology or ill accords with Christian piety is to be removed or changed. Also, as occasion may arise, let other selections from the treasury of hymns be incorporated.

Latin text:

93. Hymni, quantum expedire videtur, ad pristinam formam restituantur, iis demptis vel mutatis quae mythologiam sapiunt aut christianae pietati minus congruunt. Recipiantur quoque, pro opportunitate, alii qui in hymnorum thesauro inveniuntur.

Slavishly literal translation:

93. Hymns, as much as it seems advantageous, are to be restored to their pristine form, with those things excised or changed that are understood as myth or are less congruent with Christian piety. In addition, as opportune, let other [texts] that are found in the treasury of hymns be received.

I have found both Matthew Britt’s The Hymns of the Breviary and the Missal (New York et al.: Benziger Brothers, Inc., 1955 [orig. 1922] and Joseph Connelly’s Hymns of the Roman Liturgy (New York et al.: Longmans, Green and Co Inc, 1957) helpful in appreciating the Latin hymns appearing in the Roman Rite Divine Office.  I expect that the new online Dictionary of Hymnology (hymnology.co.uk) will have even more riches to plumb as scholarship has advanced.

Both Britt and Connelly provide background to the Council Father’s directive that the hymns of the Office are to be “restored to their pristine form.” Connelly writes: “Whatever the origin of the hymnal, it is quite certain that, when formed, it came under fire from the Humanists. It was, in their eyes, a tasteless thing and its Latin inelegant and barbarous. A revision of the hymns was made…and Clement VII allowed its use in the private recitation of the Office…. The unrevised text of the hymns was used by Quignon in his Breviary and also in the Breviary of Pius V. But the desire for reform was still present and the seventeenth century saw the desire fulfilled. This revision, no universally admitted to have been a great mistake, was set on foot by Urban VIII and carried out vigorously by him in his double capacity of pope and poet….” [xvii].

Britt offers a summary of the hymn text revisions carried out under Urban VIII: “952 corrections were made in the 98 hymns then in the Breviary. Eighty-one hymns were corrected: 58 alterations were made in the hymns of the Psalter, 359 in the Proper of the Season, 283 in the Proper of the Saints, and 252 in the Common of the Saints. The first lines of more than 30 hymns were altered. The Ave, maris stella, the Jam lucis orto sidere, the hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas, and a few others were spared. It required no little confidence to correct the hymns of St. Ambrose, Fortunatus, Sedulius, and Prudentius; but apparently there was no lack of confidence. Some hymns were practically rewritten, others were scarcely touched…. The revised version…was introduced into the Roman Breviary in 1632.” [xxiii-xxiv].

While the work of restoring these Latin hymn texts does appear in the post-Vatican II multi-volume Roman Rite Liturgia Horarum, it has had relatively little impact upon those praying the Office in English since the hymn texts found there (mostly written in the 19th and 20th C) are not limited to translations of the hymn texts found in the Latin editio typica. Presumably territorial bishops’ conferences decided that more recent vernacular hymn texts could fulfill the prescription that “other [texts] that are found in the treasury of hymns be received [in the reformed Office].” Interestingly, a few decades of use made it clear that the vernacular hymn texts provided in the English versions of the Liturgy of the Hours were not always congruent with the idea of the sanctification of daily time at the core of the Office. A group of distinguished liturgists and musicians from a variety of religious communities collaborated on the creation of a Hymnal for the Hours (Chicago, IL: G.I.A. Publications, Inc., 1989), but how wide-spread its use has been is unclear. New English translations of the revised Latin hymn texts have been made a priority for the revision of the English-language Roman Rite Divine Office.

Although this change was not mandated by the Council Fathers, the revisers of the editio typica moved the placement of the hymn from its traditional place after the biblical readings (thus serving in many cases as a meditative summary of the scriptures proclaimed) to the beginning of each hour after the opening dialogues (and the Invitatory Psalm in the case of the Office of Readings).

Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss: 1) the present position for the hymn in each Hour; 2) the advantages and disadvantages of singing the hymns in their revised Latin texts; 3) the advantages and disadvantages of restricting Office hymnody to vernacular translations of the revised Latin texts; 4) the characteristics that should mark Office hymns intended for “full, conscious and active” participation of the faithful; 5) what distinctions might be made between the hymnody needed for religious communities who pray the Office in common daily and parochial and other communities who pray the Office more irregularly.

3 comments

  1. I saw the Office hymnal, Hymns for Prayer and Praise frequently in English Roman Catholic and Anglican religious communities and other places that celebrate the Office regularly. To me, this seems the best of both worlds for Office hymnody. It features translations of the traditional Office hymns, with ‘chant’ and ‘melody’ forms provided for each hymn. This hymnal offers a vast amount of material for the various liturgical seasons, feasts, and regular psalm cycle. The fact that it’s an ecumenical resource ranks it high on my list as well.

  2. The Mundelein Psalter seems to make use of the original Latin hymns in English. At the very least, the Latin and English are often presented side by side in the book (only for the hymns), and both texts utilize the same poetic meter. While there are chant melodies suggested for these hymns, many of them quite lovely, they can also be set to more familiar hymn tunes for congregations. My sense is that some of these texts would work better than others, depending on the needs of the congregation. I used one of the English translations at a Vespers gathering for priests and seminarians a few years ago, and it fit with the hymn tune CHRISTE SANCTORUM, so we used that. The singing was robust, and the text came across beautifully.

  3. I think ## 1 and 3 are somewhat related, for the effect of departing from the Latin hymnal is compounded by the switch in position. I haven’t seen any articulation of the *necessity* of moving the hymn from its late-central to beginning position at morning and evening prayer, so on that score I would argue against it as yet another instance of tinkering overreach on the part of the Consilium. But that being said, I could easily live with the change if it weren’t for its happening in conjunction with the provision to move beyond the Latin hymnal to include, as the GILH puts it, “fresh compositions” in the vernacular together with expanded options for the sake of variety. The practical effect has been that the hymn has become essentially a free-for-all (what does your Liturgy of the Hours provide? #24 or 63? I can’t sing either of those, let’s do something else). Because of this custom, at least in praying with the faithful, of simply choosing whatever seems most *singable*, the hymn loses much of its character as a prescribed part of the Church’s public prayer and becomes, functionally, much more like “before we pray this hour let’s make sure to sing a song, because singing to God is good.” It comes across as a tack-on, not integral to the office. Whether, then, we try to “translate” the Latin hymns (“adapt” is probably much more appropriate) or settle for a vernacular hymnal (and that hopefully at the broadest levels linguistically feasible), we need a much stronger sense that the hymn is just as much a part of the rule of prayer as the other components of the office.

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