Office Hymns: Will the U.S. Bishops Advance Vatican II’s Vision?

This piece first appeared as an AMEN CORNER in the May, 2015 issue of Worship. This issue is timely because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is slated to approve the ICEL hymn translations discussed below at their meeting next week. Since the publication of this piece, Pope Francis issued motu proprio Magnum principium, which decentralizes some of Liturgiam authenticum’s procedures and places greater emphasis on the character of the receptor vernacular language.

Recently a draft of some translations of Latin office hymns in English meter prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) came to me by a circuitous route. Presumably these new hymn texts, after going through the usual consultation process between ICEL, the Holy See, and bishops’ conferences, will be considered by English-speaking bishops’ conferences for possible approval and incorporation into a revised translation of the Liturgy of the Hours. The current English-language Liturgy of the Hours includes a wide variety of English hymns, most of which are not based on a Latin original. This ongoing ICEL project, if completed, would provide English translations of every Latin hymn text in the reformed office.

The most striking feature of the draft is the successful conveyance of most all the content of the Latin original in the English metrical text. The language is contemporary and elevated but not antiquated or exotic. The English verse does not rhyme consistently, but the translators have nicely allowed rhymes to arise here and there. The meter of the English hymn is consistently that of its Latin counterpart.

My examination of these draft texts, along with my ongoing work of editing a large new hymnal for daily use in my monastic community, has given me reason to think deeply about English office hymns. The issue is shot through with all sorts of challenges and necessarily involves considerations of ecclesiology, inculturation, liturgical aesthetics, ecumenism, hermeneutics (or is it just politics?) of liturgical reform, and the promotion of a true liturgical spirit.

It is well known that the 2001 Roman instruction Liturgiam authenticam [LA] called for vernacular translations which hew more closely in content and form to the Latin original found in the editiones typicae (“official [typical] editions”). In the English-speaking world, the directives of LA were first implemented in the new English missal that came into use on the First Sunday of Advent 2011. LA also allows for the creation and use of original texts not based on Latin—see nos. 106–108—but none was commissioned or crafted for the new English missal.

It is one thing to translate missal texts, but it is quite another to translate Latin office hymns. Unlike the texts of the missal (except the very few metrical hymns in the missal, such as Pange Lingua), office hymns are in meter—that is, they employ a specific and regularly recurring number of stress patterns, syllables per line, and lines per strophe. An example is “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” which has eight syllables per line and four lines per strophe, with an iambic stress falling on every other syllable. This particular meter of 8888, called Long Meter in English, is by far the most common in Latin office hymns. It is worth noting that our English example rhymes (the pattern is aabb), which is typical of English hymnody, but is surprisingly absent in the inherited corpus of Latin office hymns.

It is a formidable challenge for the translator to make the content of the Latin original fit gracefully into the constraints of a given meter, especially if the English is to rhyme. One can only admire the great nineteenth-century hymn translators such as John Mason Neale, Catherine Winkworth, Edward Caswall, and John Henry Newman. Check the index of any major hymnal of any denomination and you will readily find examples of their accomplishments. (You will also find that their archaic language has been revised, and hymnals in the last half-century or so take differing approaches to this.)

For good reason Liturgiam authenticam provides for broad flexibility regarding metrical hymns. It does not assume that every Latin hymn text will be translated integrally into the vernacular, nor is it assumed that vernacular hymn translations based on Latin will be the primary or exclusive metrical texts used in the vernacular liturgy. LA no. 61 suggests (it is “advantageous”) that Latin hymn texts be printed in vernacular editions in Latin as an addition to texts composed originally in vernacular. It advises (“it would be best”) that original vernacular hymn texts draw upon Scripture and the liturgical patrimony. In this LA follows the liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says at no. 121 that composers should use texts “drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources.”

Stanislaus Campbell’s masterful account of the reform of the office, From Breviary to Liturgy of the Hours: The Structural Reform of the Roman Office, 1964–1971 (Michael Glazier Books, 1995), shows that the Consilium which carried out the liturgical reform had in mind a similarly flexible approach to hymns. Early in the process, Group 7 (the group working on office hymns) compiled a collection of 108 Latin office hymns for use in liturgical seasons. By 1966, Group 9 (the group working on the office as a whole) already “questioned the appropriateness of many of these hymns in vernacular translation,” while admitting that some “could also be pleasing in vernacular translation.” Group 9 agreed that “for the Office in the vernacular languages SC 38 should prevail and episcopal conferences should allow both the adaptation of the Latin hymns and the creation of new hymns” (Campbell, 178). Note that no. 38 belongs to paragraphs 37–40 of SC which treat adaptation of the liturgy to local cultures and traditions.

Group 9’s position was integrated into the 1971 General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours [GILOH], which says at no. 178 that bishops’ conferences “may adapt the Latin hymns to suit the character of their own language and introduce fresh compositions, provided these are in complete harmony with the spirit of the hour, season, or feast.” The GILOH foresees that bishops both adapt Latin sources and approve original vernacular texts of office hymns.

I am of two minds about all this. By monastic formation and spiritual temperament I am drawn to liturgical stability and order. When I see the nearly 300 Latin office hymns in the post-conciliar Liber Hymnarius, all carefully assigned to their seasons and days and feasts, with their texts restored (“ressourcement”) and revised (“aggiornamento”) as called for in SC 93, I am drawn to this magnificent corpus. When I am away from the monastery and praying the office alone, I appreciate praying and singing these Latin hymns. I see the value of having these texts translated in toto so that our English-language office reflect the content and structure of the reformed Latin Roman office. I readily see the value of ICEL’s work in translating anew every Latin office hymn into English.

But I also see why both GILOH and LA allow for, and even seem to assume, that bishops’ conferences will approve other vernacular hymn texts from a variety of sources. This issue looms especially large for the English-speaking churches, where we have available to us a particularly impressive body of historic hymn texts both original and based on Latin (or German or other vernaculars). ICEL’s limited task is to provide translations from Latin, but the task of bishops’ conferences, in deciding which texts—from ICEL or elsewhere—to accept and approve for use in the liturgy, is by nature broader. To explore the several issues bishops’ conferences will have to examine is no criticism of ICEL’s impressive work-in-progress on office hymns—ICEL is doing what it was asked to do by the bishops’ conferences. Principal among these issues is the overriding concern of the Second Vatican Council that the liturgy be a living and dynamic source of Christian piety for the peoples of various regions and cultures. It is highly interesting to put ICEL’s recent work alongside other translations from our treasury of English-language hymnody—and in fairness, we should remember that the texts from ICEL are drafts that might undergo further refinement. Consider the first strophe of the hymn Veni, redemptor gentium, now assigned to the Office of Readings in late Advent.

Veni, redemptor gentium,
ostende partum Virginis;
miretur omne sæculum:
talis decet partus Deum.

The versification of William Reynolds (1812–1876) is well-known.

Savior of the nations, come!
Virgin’s Son, make here your home.
Marvel now, both heaven and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

The meter of the text is 7777. Customarily it is paired with the tune NUN KOMM, DER HEIDEN HEILAND, a tune first found in a Lutheran hymnal in 1524 and sung by Catholics and Protestants alike ever since the sixteenth century. Like its Latin original, ICEL’s translation of this same strophe is in 8888 meter:

Redeemer of the nations, come;
reveal yourself by Virgin birth.
Let every age with wonder know
that such a birth befits our God.

A second example is the morning hymn of Advent, Vox clara ecce intonat. (Yes, the post-LA translation commission got its name from this Advent hymn.)

Vox clara ecce intonat,
obscura quæque increpat:
procul fugentur somnia;
ab æthre Christus promicat.

Caswall’s well-known version in 8787 meter runs like this:

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding,
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say;
“Cast away the works of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”

It is most often paired with the tune MERTON. In more recent times, Anthony G. Petti has offered this recasting of Caswall, preserving his 8787 meter:

Hear the herald voice resounding:
“Christ is near,” it seems to say,
“cast away the dreams of darkness,
welcome Christ, the light of day!”

Here is ICEL’s draft, which again is in 8888 meter like the Latin original:

Behold! a voice resounding, clear,
rebuking hidden deeds and fears:
“The dreams that linger, put to flight,
for Christ shines forth from heaven’s height.”

Here is a third example of ICEL’s work, a version of Corde natus ex Parentis:

Corde natus ex Parentis
ante mundi exordium,
Alpha et Omega vocatus,
ipse fons et clausula
omnium quæ sunt, fuerunt
quæque post futura sunt.

(Note that there are elisions of vowels so that i-e is one syllable in the second line and, similarly, with a-e in the third line.)

Of the Father’s heart begotten
ere the dawning of the world,
he is Alpha and Omega
ancient source and final end
of all things that are and have been,
and that future years shall see.

The reader probably knows this hymn in John Mason Neale’s fine version:

Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the world began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore.

The additional final line in Neale’s version allows it to be sung to the well-known medieval tune DIVINUM MYSTERIUM.

I hope that readers can appreciate the fine quality of these ICEL versifications, and those who compare them with the Latin original will be impressed by their accuracy. Readers may also find the ICEL texts, although poetic in spirit, rather prosaic and uninspiring. One may wonder whether regular rhyming, though not very common in Latin hymnody, is not part of the culture of English-language hymnody. And I am probably not alone in being disturbed at the prospect of bypassing the existing treasury of texts that have so long been an important part of English-speaking Christian culture, ecumenically conceived.

The issue of meter is vexing. Putting all the Latin Long Meter hymns into English Long Meter allows the vernacular text to be sung to the original chant melody. But doing so with ferocious consistency has its price, for some Latin tunes work better in English than others. Latin more readily allows for note groups on weak syllables than does English, which is why the English chant in the new missal is adapted the way it is. (See the explanation of all this in Chants of the Roman Missal: Study Edition, co-published by ICEL and Liturgical Press.) I would hesitate to shift note groups around too arbitrarily in historic chant melodies for the sake of English accents. But when I consider how much the Latin chant hymn melodies vary in the manuscript tradition, and what best allows for English texts to be sung, I am inclined to step back from the thoroughly modern musicological “original is better” mind-set and make judicious melodic adjustments. I grant that in the formulaic nature of metrical hymnody, text and tune do not necessarily match up equally well in every strophe of a given hymn, and that some people have been quite comfortable aesthetically with mismatch—see hymn no. 19 in the venerable Hymnal 1982 for complete preservation of an original melody with no consultation of English accents. But all in all, I think some high-minded and careful compromise is called for.

The larger problem with the meter of the new ICEL texts arises when they are sung to non-chant tunes, which in many communities would probably be most of the time. Long Meter predominates in the Latin corpus, but not in English-language hymnody. For English-speaking Christians, exclusive use of ICEL’s office hymns would mean that one portion of our body of existing traditional hymn tunes would be over-used, but many of the other most important tunes would go unused. The 1986 edition of The New English Hymnal from England, for example, has roughly the metrical distribution one would expect:

  • 78 Common Meter (8686) tunes,
  • 55 Long Meter (8888) tunes,
  • 22 tunes in 8787 meter,
  • 18 tunes in 7777 meter, and
  • 16 Short Meter (6686) tunes.

If ICEL’s new hymn texts were used exclusively, many beloved traditional tunes such as NUN KOMM DER HEIDEN HEILAND and MERTON would in effect be abolished from the English office. DIVINUM MYSTERIUM in 8787877 would be widowed, and we would have to get used to marrying ICEL’s text for Corde natus to one of the other sixteen 878787 tunes that NEH gives us.

The earlier citations from SC, GILOH, and LA suggest a further consideration: the desirability of including texts not based on a Latin original, be they from the historic treasury of past centuries or from the fresh work of contemporary poets since the so-called “hymn explosion.” The latter involves knotty issues of copyright permissions, so for now I will concentrate on the former. A few better-known examples will remind readers of the rich, ecumenical treasury of original vernacular office hymns available to us. I think of “Beim frühen Morgenlicht” from a German Catholic poet of the early nineteenth century, known to us (again from Caswall) as “When Morning Gilds the Sky,” most often paired with the fine, rather Romantic British tune LAUDES DOMINI. Or there is “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Sky” by Charles Wesley—a text in the spirit of Latin office hymnody if there ever was one, from an evangelical Christian who was steeped in the Latin and Greek fathers. “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun” by Anglican bishop Thomas Ken includes the familiar doxology “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” And so on.

Episcopal conferences that take seriously the latitude commended to them in the post-conciliar Roman documents may explore several possible avenues, whether or not they approve the ICEL hymn texts in whole or in part:

1. A conference might simply approve all the ICEL hymns and take them into the vernacular office in their proper place, but make provision for the substitution of other freely-chosen hymn texts by local communities for pastoral reasons. This permission could be an amendment to episcopal documents such as the U.S. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, or it could be a Roman-approved adaptation to the GILOH as particular law in a particular country, analogous to national adaptations to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal for the Mass. Either way, the episcopal permission would be clearly noted somewhere within the English edition of the Liturgy of the Hours so that it is well-known.

2. A conference might approve all the ICEL hymns, but in several cases provide alternate texts printed alongside them. These could be historic texts, with archaic language updated for consistency, or more recent texts. In the case of a hymn such as, e.g., Veni, redemptor gentium, cited above, this approach would allow the English hymn to be sung to the chant tune or the well-known German tune. It would also be possible in this scenario to place all the alternative texts in an appendix.

3. A conference might approve all the ICEL hymns, but for each season and each genre (such as apostles, pastors, etc.) provide a “common” of some hymn texts that would be approved for substitution. These texts could be based on Latin or original vernacular texts old or new. They could appear within each season or in an appendix.

4. A conference might approve only one hymn in each case, and this might be the ICEL version or another historic version or a more recent version, depending on their merits. This would allow for a variety of meters, including those not well-represented in the Latin corpus. The difficulty here for those who wish to use chant tunes exclusively would only partially be addressed by the use of newly-written chant tunes, of which there certainly are fine examples from recent decades.

In a more radical version of this last option, conferences would decide in some (or many) cases to approve as a proper hymn an English text not based on any Latin original. This approval would be on the basis of its merits as an English text, its importance in English-speaking Christian culture, its ecumenical value, and its ability to speak to Christians today. Conferences would decide, then, which Latin hymn texts are carried over in English translation and which are simply omitted for good pastoral reason. As much as this option is probably out of the question in 2015, it is clearly well within the range of pastoral initiatives intended by the council fathers and those who gave us the reformed liturgy. In my reading of SC, the council fathers envisioned that our bishops would be seeking out the hymn texts of a Genevieve Glenn or an Aelred-Seton Shanley (to name two among many) in striving to make the office come to life and take root in contemporary culture.

In the pendulum swings of ecclesiastical history, the liturgical mind-set has swung decidedly in the direction of centralism and uniformity, Pope Francis notwithstanding. The belief that the unity of the Roman rite is a textual unity, though rejected by the council fathers, is ascendant in some powerful circles. To be honest, I have the sinking feeling that I have penned this entire column for naught. If I have, so be it. If the bishops approve new hymn texts from ICEL for exclusive use in our vernacular Roman office, I will see the good in these texts and rejoice in that. But not without some regret for what could have been, and also some hopeful curiosity about what future generations might do.



  1. A very scholarly and, at the same time, heartfelt post. And I admire greatly the humility in your final paragraph. I learned quite a bit in a relatively small amount of time.

  2. Their only concern is abortion, with a nod for immigration to the new Opus Dei president. If they do anything else, it will be miraculous. There is virtually no precedent for doing so, and that seems to be the only concern for the US Conference of Big Boys.

    Ressourcement and aggiornamento? Since they had to invite a consultant to teach them how to do theological reflection, i sadly doubt that they know what either means or have any desire to be in step with the Vicar of Christ (Cupich had a succinct statement in that regard).

    They would rather hold onto the monies of the Catholic 1%; their actions evidence that loudly and clearly. The pews have received that message; liturgy and hymnody are irrelevant to that constituency. They fear change.

    Standing with Joan Chittister, the time for prophetic spirituality is now.

  3. Thanks a lot, Anthony. You have a wider point of view than many LA- based working groups. The present German Stundenbuch has some links to common ecumenical traditions and allows substitutions for pastoral reasons, e.g. supplements with Gotteslob-versions.
    Going away from ecumenical consents by changing the meters is a real disaster
    Which experience with music as a spiritual tool and value do they have? Maybe none. Schreibtischtäter (perpetrator on writing desk) we call this in German.
    What about the monastic ecumenical liber hymnarius Hymns for Prayer and Praise? This obeys the Roman LH AND English practices. No Modell any longer?

  4. I agree with you, Anthony. I do not think the English-speaking world needs these hymns, and an unalleviated diet of Long Metre texts and melodies will kill the spirit. Perhaps that is the idea, in the same way as the current Missal translation was quite evidently intended to kill the spirit of clergy and Massgoers (and has to a large extent succeeded).

    Having said that, it is in fact possible to continue to use tunes such as NUN KOMM and MERTON with the new texts via some judicious modifications to produce variant forms.

    Since comments here cannot include graphic images, I will describe the process.

    For NUN KOMM, add an anacrusic quarter note G before the first measure and change all half notes except the last into two quarter notes on the same pitch. Voilà! A Long Metre version of NUN KOMM.

    For MERTON, the process is similar: add an anacrusic E quarter note before the first measure, and change the half note at the end of line 1 to two quarters on the same pitch. All you have to do then is treat the last quarter of measures 2 and 6 as if they were the first quarter of the next phrase, and that leaves you with a Long Metre version of MERTON.

    I am not saying that these are satisfactory solutions, but they would at least work in a situation where someone unwisely insisted that the ICEL texts be used to the exclusion of all else, and might provide a flavour of what we had previously.

  5. This was very interesting background. I’m in formation for the permanent diaconate, so I pray the Office regularly alone and also collectively with our deacon community. So a couple of points to ponder:

    It’s a little embarrassing, but a lot of us in formation don’t know a good chunk of the English hymns in the current Office (for our first year of formation, the most popular hymn we sang with the Office was “Morning Has Broken” because everyone knew it!). Most of our parishes rarely play music written before 1965 (I know I’m breaking your heart, Anthony!). Yes, it is possible to go online and find recordings, but we always sound bloody awful when trying something that most folks haven’t sung before. It’s easy to say that our formation process should have included more musical education, but formation time is scarce and just about every topic could use more time.

    I suspect that things will get even worse if we’re expected to learn a bunch of new hymns based on Latin originals that no one has ever sung before. Who is going to help us learn these? If the answer is “no one,” then they’ll just sit there in the back and rarely get used. Maybe this is a possible market for a new TLP product? 🙂

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