Michael Joncas Evaluates “An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics”

Pray Tell contributor, Jan Michael Joncas, has written a careful and thoughtful commentary on the recent document concerning hymn lyrics, written by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine.

Father Joncas’s article, “Reflections on ‘Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for  Evaluating Hymn Lyrics,’” was published at The Hymn, the journal of The Hymn Society, in their Spring 2021 issue.

With the kind permission of the Hymn Society, we are pleased to offer a link to that article here.

Some highlights include

Questions, such as…

  • “[The document] is not primarily addressed to the general public, but in first place to the bishops who lead dioceses to assist them in making judgments about hymnals proposed for use in their diocese. This is interesting in itself: Is the committee hoping to assist only the bishops who grant a nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way”) and/or imprimatur (“let it be printed”) as official authorizations for hymnals that are distributed throughout the U.S.A. and the wider world under Catholic auspices, or is it hoping to assist bishops in judging whether or not particular hymnals may be used in their own dioceses? For that matter, is the committee hoping to assist bishops in deciding which individual hymns may or may not be sung in their own dioceses?”

Affirmations, such as…

  • “The Preface of the actual document is extraordinarily positive in its discussion of the beauty of Catholic hymnody. It grounds its assertions about the evaluation of hymn texts according to: 1) a theory of transcendentals; 2) use of hymns in the Church’s liturgy; and 3) the catechetical effects singing hymns has on worshipers.”

Suggestions, such as…

  • “I think the committee might want to distinguish between a doctrine of the Real Presence and the theological language and theories to express that Real Presence.”

Critical Analysis, such as…

  • “…there are basically four modes of language that have responded to the problem of religious language: the via negativa (referring to God by identifying what God is not); analogy (using human qualities as imperfect but truthful descriptors of divine qualities); symbolism (using non-literal language to describe otherwise indescribable realities); and myth (using narratives to reveal religious truths). The committee, following the lead of Thomas Aquinas, adopts an analogical understanding of human language about God and identifies that as the Catholic understanding of religious language. I would argue that there are examples of at least three of the above-named approaches to religious language within the Catholic ambit.”

And much, much more.

We share the article in the hope of continuing the conversation about this important subject, and we invite our readers to add their thoughts in the comment section.

In the coming days, Pray Tell will respond with other voices added into the discussion.

If you are not already a member of the Hymn Society, why not check it out? Founded in 1922 as The Hymn Society of America, and renamed in 1991 The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, this interdenominational non-profit organization sponsors conferences, workshops, publications, and more. Their Center for Congregational Song, which is the resource and programmatic arm of the Hymn Society, was launched in 2017.


One comment

  1. The switch within a few sentences of noting the difficulties in communicating meanings using technical medieval scholastic terms few people understand (i.e. substantial etc), to recommending using an even more obscure technical usage of symbol is a bit jarring.

    I appreciate the desire to use words inline with their ordinary modern English meanings, but contemporary technical jargon also needs to pass that test.

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