Listen to the Most Beautiful Catholic Hymns
Sometimes we forget that there was a time when the Church was one faith and to be “Christian” was to be Catholic. In this age of secularism, we do right to strengthen the bond which is a shared belief in our Savior, the Son of God, Who died and rose for us. But we must not cease to proclaim the fullness of the truth, both for our own souls and for the salvation of others. What better way to do this than through the beauty of song—in hymns that express the entirety of our belief without qualification or contradiction?
“To sing is to pray twice.” - St. Augustine
There is something ineffably powerful about those words which saints and scholars of the true faith have written, and which followers of the faith have set to music “all to the glory of God.” Decorated in verse, the Truth is yet bared, exposed, and perhaps more striking in song than inadequate prose. Here are some of my favorite hymns that were written by saints and other holy members of the one, catholic, and apostolic faith—their lyrics are heavenly food for contemplation!
O Jesus, King Most Wonderful
“Jesus, may all confess thy name, thy wondrous love adore; and, seeking thee, their hearts inflame to seek thee more and more.”
This venerable Latin text was written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153. It is part of his magnificent set of 53 verses Jesu Dulcis Memoria (set to a poignant Gregorian chant) known as “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” in translation. The original Latin has been set to music by many composers over the almost 1000 years of its existence. The Latin title of one section of Jesu Dulcis Memoria is Jesu Rex Admirabilis (O Jesus, King Most Wonderful), as used in this beautiful motet by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. (If you want to hear more of Palestrina's incredible music, listen to Sicut Cervus, “As the Deer Longs.”)
The tune used in this English verse setting of Jesu Rex (listen here) is actually taken from a theme by Thomas Tallis (1505-1595). It may be familiar as it was borrowed in the famous work for string orchestra Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis by the renowned British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958). Thomas Tallis was a prolific composer who became a musician for the court and Gentleman of the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII during the Reformation, as well as under Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I; but he always remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church. (If you want to hear a complete song of his, not just a theme, listen to If Ye Love Me.)
Tallis composed this melody for a setting of Psalm 2, so it was always meant for voice and for worship. This arrangement is by Walter MacNutt, who created the choral parts from Vaughn Williams’ orchestral score. MacNutt was actually an Anglican, as was Vaughn Williams, but the original music is still by a Catholic, one who resisted the Reformation at that, despite the risk of persecution. Read the lyrics here.
Be Thou My Vision
This Old Irish text is certainly the most ancient on this list. It was long attributed to Saint Dallán Forgaill of the 6th century, who was thought to be inspired by the words and ideas in the prayer by St. Patrick known as his “Breastplate.” However, there is now evidence that the hymn wasn't written until 950 A.D.
In Old Irish, it is Rop tú mo baile (pronounced rop too moh walluh) and in modern Irish Bí Thusa 'mo Shúile (bee hessa moh hooluh). These versions by Maire Brennan and Meghan Doran are particularly beautiful. The tune is the traditional Irish melody “Slane”. Listen here and read the lyrics here.
The more literal translation is:
Be my eyes, O King of creation.
Fill my life
With understanding and patience.
Will You be in my mind
Every night and every day?
Sleeping or awake,
Fill me with Your love.
Will You be my guidance
In my words and actions?
Stay with me forever,
And keep me on the right path.
As my Father, take care of me
And listen to my prayers
And give me a place
To live inside Your heart.
In researching Be Thou My Vision and Jesus King Most Wonderful, just as with many old texts, original or translated, you will find many different versions. Often one stands out to you more than others, or perhaps the one you knew first will always be your favorite. However, it struck me how in each different version, the profound meaning of the text did not change, and the truth about our God that is at the heart of the verses was just as powerful despite poetic alterations.
Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty
Spirit seeking light and beauty,
Heart that longest for thy rest,
Soul that asketh understanding,
Only thus can ye be blest.
Through the vastness of creation
Tho' your restless thought may roam,
God is all that you can long for,
God is all his creatures' home.
Taste and see him, feel and hear him,
Hope and grasp his unseen hand;
Tho’ the darkness seem to hide him,
Faith and love can understand.
God, who lovest all thy creatures,
All our hearts are known to thee;
Lead us thro’ the land of shadows
To thy blest eternity.
This beautiful, haunting hymn was written by an English nun of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Janet Erskine Stuart (1857-1914), who converted from Anglicanism. She set the words to the lovely Gaelic tune Domhnach Trionoide which translates “Trinity Sunday.” Listen here.
Jesus! my Lord, my God, my all!
“Sweet Sacrament, we Thee adore. O make us love Thee more and more!”
Another text by a convert, Jesus! my Lord, my God, my all! was written by the Anglican priest turned Catholic priest, Frederick William Faber (1814-1863). This is a classic hymn, loved by many, though it is not heard as often by today’s generation. It is possible that Fr. Faber adapted the lyrics from the version by Anglican minister Henry Collins so that they expressed a Catholic perspective. This setting is the traditional tune known as “Sweet Sacrament.” The text presents a beautiful meditation on the Eucharist that could be used alone, without music, during Adoration or prayer before and after Communion. However, the sweet melody also aids contemplation of Our Lord in the Sacrament. Listen here.
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
“All on earth Thy scepter claim, all in Heaven above adore Thee; infinite Thy vast domain, everlasting is Thy reign.”
The original German text for this hymn was written by the priest Ignaz Franz in 1777. The words paraphrase the beautiful Te Deum prayer. The song was carried to the United States by German immigrants in the 19th century and became popular after it was translated by Clarence A. Walworth. The composer of the melody is unknown, but the tune is named after the lyrics: Grosser Gott (in German) or Te Deum. Listen here and read the lyrics here.
At Mass recently, I was pondering why the Gloria was made part of the Liturgy. Of course, we go to Mass to worship God, but how are any words adequate? But at that moment it struck me exactly how perfect the words are, and how convenient it is to have them at our fingertips to give due praise to our Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier. Adapted from Scripture and printed in our Missals, we simply read them (passively sometimes). Essentially, He gave us these words and all we must do is repeat them back in order to greatly please Him. It is relieving to know that there is no insufficiency—that we don't have to experience the frustration that sometimes accompanies trying to frame such words ourselves. Directly and indirectly, God even shows us how we should approach Him; otherwise, we would be at a total loss. When we say the Gloria, we recite or sing, these praises, these statements of Who God is, together, as we might imagine the angels do at every moment. What better way to give “glory to God”? And so it is with hymns whose authors are in communion with God's Truth and abide in His abundant Grace.