Extraordinary Catholic Hymns for Ordinary Time
If you were to ask a hundred friends for their top ten Catholic hymns, it would be nearly impossible to receive an identical list. Your friends might have various definitions of the word “hymn” and which music qualifies. Everyone’s list would likely tend toward personal preference and inspiration. Creating a “top ten” would entail near-boundless variation because of the abundance of profound hymns in the Church that invite a sense of the sacred.
My list below favors a rich history and spiritual benefit over personal preference toward a particular tune. It looks to hymns dispersed throughout the Catholic tradition, mainly those used for Ordinary Time. It is by no means authoritative, but aims to provide a sampling of the beauty, spirituality, and history of sacred hymns. So, here I present in no particular order:
This hymn is written by theologian and doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1263. Most recognize this hymn by the first words of the last two stanzas, Tantum Ergo, because it is commonly used in Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. However, Pange Lingua is the title for the complete song and sung on both Eucharistic feasts of Corpus Christi and Maundy Thursday. Saint Thomas Aquinas was not noted for being artistic, but when called upon, produced one of the most widely used hymns in the Roman Catholic liturgy. Truly a treasure of the Church, each stanza overflows with profound theological content and can stand on its own as meditation on the Eucharist.
It is attributed to Blessed Hermann of Reichenau, a blind and disabled Benedictine monk, in the 11th century. It is a Marian hymn sung after compline during Ordinary Time and also recited at the end of the Holy Rosary. It is a beautiful prayer asking our Blessed Mother’s intercession for the tribulations in this life and ultimately to lead us to her Son in eternal life. It is especially comforting to reflect on and call upon our Lady as our mother who is clement (merciful), loving, and sweet.
The author is unknown and the earliest known composition dates back to the 1700s. It is thought to have originated in Sicily and is sometimes called the Sicilian Mariners Hymn. Mariners would invoke our Lady each night by singing this hymn for protection in their travels. Each stanza has a beautiful, poetic nature honoring our Blessed Mother’s place in salvation history and invoking her protecting patronage.
Translated into English, this hymn is is titled Be Near Us, Holy Trinity. It’s author is unknown but the text dates back to the 11th century. It was used for Vespers and Matins on Trinity Sunday. Other than this, not much else is known about the hymn. It is a beautiful composition invoking the Holy Trinity and can be easily memorized in either English or Latin to invoke the Holy Trinity within the family (domestic Church).
This prayer is thought to be written by Pope John XXII in the 14th century. At one point it was so well known that Saint Ignatius of Loyola simply listed the title in his manual, the Spiritual Exercises, with the assumption that the retreatant already knew it. This is a prayer that is excellent after Holy Communion. There have been many compositions made to these words. Linked above is one of the more popular versions.
This is a beautiful Marian prayer that has been composed into a hymn. Although the author is unknown, the oldest manuscript, still in print in Saint Gallen monastery in Switzerland, dates the composition back to the 9th century. It is used during Vespers on Marian feast days. It is said that one day while in her home, Saint Brigid was under attack by a mob rioting in Rome, she prayed to the Lord asking Him if she should flee. He spoke to her, telling her to stay. The Blessed Virgin then told her, “Sing as a group the Ave Maris Stella and I will guard you from every danger.”
Written by Rabanus Maurus in the 9th century, it is used during Liturgies especially when the Holy Spirit is solemnly invoked. This includes Pentecost, Confirmation, the Dedication of a Church, and during the reception of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This hymn is also used when a new pope must be elected. Cardinals chant this upon entrance into the Sistine Chapel. A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful if recited on January 1st or on Pentecost.
The original hymn, called the “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn,” was composed in Greek for the Eastern Church Divine Liturgy, which originated from the apostle Saint James. It dates back to the fourth century and is attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem. It is a hymn that honors the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The text is very biblical, dwelling particularly on chapter 6 of Saint John’s Gospel where Jesus gives his Eucharistic discourse. This hymn transcends a top ten for merely Ordinary Time. The text stands out for the Advent and Christmas seasons, as well as for all Eucharistic feast days.
This hymn was written by Frederick Faber in the 19th century. Faber was an ordained Angelican minister but heavily influenced by the teachings of Blessed John Henry Newman. In 1845, he entered the Roman Catholic Church, was ordained a priest, and served at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri with Blessed Newman. He wrote over 150 hymns, including Faith of our Fathers. This is a beautiful hymn to meditate on beauty and mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
This is a beautiful hymn taken from the text of Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso. It reflects Canto 33 where Saint Bernard of Clairvaux praises the Blessed Mother and asks for her intercession on behalf of Dante. Originally in Italian, it was translated in the 19th century by Monsignor Ronald Knox who was an Anglican minister and converted into the Roman Catholic Church and ordained a priest. The text of this hymn shows the paradox and greatness of the Blessed Virgin’s life of virginity and motherhood.
The vast quantity of sacred music in the Church’s treasury is difficult to pare down into ten slots. This list offers a glimpse into the repository of hymns that have been passed down throughout the ages. May these hymns increase our heart’s desire to learn more of these sacred compositions! Let us pray that the Church may utilize them more frequently and teach her people the beauty and rich history of sacred music.