What is Sacred Music? Historically it’s a bit more complex than you may think.

120913-PopeRecently  there was a discussion on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, here in Washington DC, was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (video is below), and discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here the parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were a significant minority of comments that spoke of gospel music, as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy, and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as being sacred, whereas is Gospel, and other modern forms of music, are “not sacred,” and /or not appropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to personal preferences, the question arises, what do we mean by sacred music, and how have some forms of music come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this is a little more complex than most people today realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music today regarded as sacred, had a stormy reception in the Church, early on, before being admitted to the ranks of music called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in Church, is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. I list the sources for the survey at the end of the article, but I gleaned this basic description of the history of Church music from many years of reading and studying.

At some level, it is my hope to provide perspective on the problem that is often raised today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible, because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to baptize every form of modern music and encourage its admission into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the category “sacred, music” has varied and grown over time, and there have been, sometimes reluctantly, new forms admitted into the exulted status that we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here then, is a brief (probably not brief enough) look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred, and what is not been.

I. The early, pre-Constantine Period. Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear, as Johannes Quasten records, that the leaders of the early Church, (The Fathers and Bishops) preferred monophonic music,  that is to say, music with little or no harmony. This seems largely due, to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world, and pagan worship.

It is also worth mentioning that the rich harmonies of the modern 12 tone scale which we have today, were unknown in the ancient world. The harmonies that were used were of a more pentatonic nature, using lots of hollow fourths and  some fifths.

Thus, given its association with pagan and secular music and its less appealing quality, the use of this sort of harmony was largely resisted in the early Church and would not reappear until the late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time wherein the early Christians emphasized the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered, it all came from the one hand of God. Monophonic, (non-harmonized) music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity, still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes….et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices it says, at the end of the preface that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes): Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts!

And so, at the earliest stage, the sacred was associated with what we call today chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution. Chant develops – The earliest chants, it would seem were quite simple, largely monosyllabic, (with one note per syllable) and only a few elaborations. However, as the Church came out of a more hidden worship after the Edict of Constantine (321 AD), the use of large cavernous buildings began to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger basilica-like buildings. Syllables such as the end of the Alleluia (ia….) began to take on an extended quality of longer and longer melismas, especially in festival seasons.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismas became a  kind of an ecstatic “singing in tongues.”  Eventually as these melodies became increasingly elaborate, they were written down and collected by, among others, Pope St. Gregory;  hence our modern designation of “Gregorian Chant.”

It is less clear, as these chants became more and more elaborate, how they were regarded in terms of the question of sacredness. What is clear, is that they became so increasingly elaborate that the faithful in the congregation were less able to join in most of the chants, and special choirs, called Scholas,  had to be developed.

And thus sacred music began to move from the people to specialized choirs, in the period of late antiquity and into the early Middle Ages.

III. The High Middle Ages. Harmony enters. – The next major development in Church music takes place in the high Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony  centered in the musical schools around Paris and other places in France. It here that we see the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through Scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions, was a cosmology that spoke of the planets circling the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone, and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. Here was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. And thus the identification of harmonies and the sacred began in the imagination of Christians to seem more plausible.

The first experimentation with harmony seem to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, something like the sound that bagpipe drones make today.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new Cathedrals that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand a music more soaring, even as the vaulted ceilings soared upward, ever higher. They were the skyscrapers of their day.

Interestingly enough, as a harmonies began to sound pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study harmony, using, of all things, the Pythagorean theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus math and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. As the years just prior to the 16th Century tick by, we come gradually to have what we know today as the 12 tone scale.

As with most things musical, in the Church, the introduction of these harmonies was not always without controversy, and some complained that the words were harder to understand, a problem that would plague polyphonic music and it’s early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. Many flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance, Musical Revolution and growing crisis for polyphony- It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came in full realization, harmony from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts amazed listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music in this period,  paralleled also the remarkable developments in painting with shadow and light, perspective and depth. By the early 1500s Renaissance Polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd and many others, brought this art form to an amazing richness.

The music was not without controversy. Two main problems seem to presents with this new style called polyphony (=many voices).

The first problem, was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often being staggered across many parts and voices,  became harder and harder to understand. Clergy especially complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes,  and a kind of “theatrical showiness”  seemed secular to many.

The second thing that troubled many about polyphony was that many of the composers of the day drew their melodies from secular melodies that were often heard in the taverns, in the streets, and  in theaters. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum drew from many of the songs heard in taverns. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and an incident which almost caused all polyphony to be utterly banned from the Catholic Church, was an incident caused by the composer Orlando De Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. Here he drew, for the main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria, from a secular piece by the French composer Clemens non-Papa. The song featured a text that was so lewd that it cannot be translated here. To be frank, the text was  outright pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), the Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron Saint, St. Charles Borromeo. For some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who attended some of the sessions of the Council of Trent, Borromeo assembled them for hearing of the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. The Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation to the select Cardinals seems to have calmed some of the controversy regarding this new music. And thus, the crisis seems to have largely passed.

Nevertheless, this incident goes a long way to show how, what many today consider a very sacred sound, namely Renaissance polyphony, was quite controversial in it’s day, and had something of a stormy relationship with the Church at first. It was thought of as sacred in a widespread way only later. Polyphony, generally after passing this first crisis, became less “florid” and gave emphasis to the intelligibility of the text, secular melodies were also excluded. Later Palestrina is more austere than the works from his earlier period, for these reasons.

Hence, we see how our notions of what makes for sacred music, had already passed through two major periods. The first, where harmonies were considered secular. The second, where harmonies were introduced, but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque – New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle  Renaissance, A new cosmology began to replace the perfect symmetry of the planets revolving the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy began to reveal that most of the planets revolved the sun, not in a perfect circle, but had elliptical orbits,   some of them rather steep ellipses. And thus the perfect circles of the planets, symbolized by  the “music of the spheres”  and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits, a kind of Bach Fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical music of the Baroque.

Yes, here we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti and so many others. Perhaps the Fugue most exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In the fugue, mastered by Bach, but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth.  For example, quarter notes may annouce the theme of the fugue. And this theme is repeated in the left hand, then in the feet (of the organist) and also adapted mathematically, sub-dividing it to eighth notes, then sixteenth, even 32nd notes. Math meets music. Other forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements often named for their time: Allegro, adagio, presto, etc.

The classical and baroque periods brought in the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Great controversies accompanied these newer forms. Principle among the concerns was, once again, the intelligibility of the text, and also the rather lengthy quality that many of these masses tended to have. Some Glorias and Credos could go on for  twenty minutes or more.

Some complained to these musical settings of the Mass sounded more like being at the opera, than  Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements, speckled with Soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections and all most often supported by a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite the sonic experience!   These masses were generally so elaborate, that they could only be performed in the larger city churches that were well endowed.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years, such that,  as the liturgical reforms began at the turn the last century, Pope Pius X, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical”   (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6), frowned on their usage. This led to a de facto banishing of the form at that time from the Catholic liturgy. Only after the second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here too we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred, for example a great Mozart Mass, had to endure much of its own controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today, has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era – New Musical forms, new controversies. And this leads us to the modern era. As we have seen,  those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new, would be sadly mistaken. These debates have been quite consistently a part of church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true Musicam Sacram, and Sacrosanctum Concilium, documents of the Second Vatican Council, opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation, (e.g. MS #s 18 & 63) but it also reasserted the special accord to be given to Chant (# 50a), polyphony and the Pipe Organ (# 4a).

The fact is, debates continue about newer forms and what is sacred, but such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g. Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music have, with adaptions along the way, remained a mainstay.

As for “Gospel Music,” the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy article, a few things can be said.

  1. Simply saying “It is not sacred” or “It is not appropriate for Catholic liturgy” does not make it so. As we have seen, the judgement about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes, and what was once dubious is later admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g. Polka or Mariachi) has real sacred roots. It emerged from the Spirituals and hymns of antebellum and early 20th century time periods. And while not strictly Catholic in origin, it does not per se offend against what is allowed in Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of Gospel music, unlike most other contemporary expressions, is its focus on God. Too many modern contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than God. Not so Gospel, which almost wholly focuses on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, Gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean the whole form is flawed, only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of Gospel.
  5. Many complain that Gospel looks too “performed.” Generally however most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of congregation and singers, with performance. Applause is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. As is the case with many previous forms, discussions will and should continue.
  7. If one does not “prefer” or even like Gospel Music, they are free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that Gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities.
  8. Similar things can be said for the use of hymnody. To this author’s mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. Yet for others the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire remains a sticking point.   Here too time must prove where wisdom lies, and over time, many of these hymns are finding a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically we can see that, except for Gregorian Chant, no form of music currently considered sacred, was without its controversy. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and mediates for us what is ultimately sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps in the age of the Church, as we saw above. With necessary and rational limits, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. Were that the case, ONLY Chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

I do not, in saying this, mean to indicate that all music is just fine and that all modern forms are here to stay or should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind of this fact: that what we call “sacred music” is historically more complex than many understand. It is the result of often long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse and remote as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by mere judicial fiat, we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others, and even our very self.

Some of my sources for the above article are

  1. Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity
  2. Msgr Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music
  3. BBC Four Part Production Sacred Music
  4. Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way
  5. Thomas Day, Why Catholic Can’t Sing

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page.

Where Will You Be When the First Trumpet Sounds? A Good Question Asked in An Advent Hymn

120113Part of the Genius of the African American Spirituals is their ability to treat of serious themes, such as the final judgment, in a creatively compelling manner that steered a middle course between unproductive fear and prideful presumption. Some of them are even playful saying things like, I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name, and I wouldn’t be ready to die! Another song says, Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch, he’ll slip it on you! Yet another song warns with love: In that great gettin up morning, fare you well, fare you well! Or fare you well poor sinner, fare you well!

Some of the early African American hymns from the late 19th Century also draw heavily on this tradition. One such hymn is “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?!” by  Charles P. Jones (1865-1949). The hymn consists in applying this question, “Where shall I be” to a litany of biblically based descriptions about the Second Coming of Jesus,  when He will  judge the world by fire. Each verse is steeped in rich biblical tradition and provides us a series of good advent reflections, all rooted in the essential Advent focus of second coming of the Lord Jesus.

As I sing it with my congregation each Advent, I am reminded of the familiar themes of another masterpiece, the ancient Dies Irae. That hymn too is richly biblical and I have treated of it HERE.

But as for this fine hymn, Where Shall I Be, let’s take a look at each line, asking the question, Where shall I be? I provide a biblical background for each verse and question that might help us since the rich tapestry of faith.

First, here is the hymn in toto, and then a line by line biblical lexicon, with brief commentary by me. Since this is a longish post I have put it here in PDF for you to print and read later. The hymn can be heard in the video at the bottom.

When judgment day is drawing nigh,
Where shall I be?
When God the works of men shall try,
Where shall I be?
When east and west the fire shall roll,
Where shall I be?
How will it be with my poor soul:
Where shall I be?


O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,
O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead?
O where shall I be when it sounds?

When wicked men His wrath shall see,
Where shall I be?
And to the rocks and mountains flee,
Where shall I be?
When hills and mountains flee away,
Where shall I be?
When all the works of man decay,
Where shall I be?


When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll,
Where shall I be?
Shall from God’s angry presence roll,
Where shall I be?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand,
Where shall I be?
Forever blest at God’s right hand,
Where shall I be?

Lexicon and Commentary:

1. When judgment day is drawing nigh, Where shall I be?

A. Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. (Matt 24:32-33)
B. Do not grumble….The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9)
C. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. (Rev 3:20)
D. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. (Mk 13:36)
E. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.” (Heb 10:37)
F. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess 5:3)
G. Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!” (Rev 10:5-6)
H. Comment – Judgment day is drawer nearer and nearer for us all. Which each beat of our heart the moment edges forward. Are you ready for the Day of Judgment? What are you doing to get ready. The Dies Irae says, Day of Wrath and doom impending, heaven and earth in ashes ending….Do not delay your conversion to the Lord. The Lord has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:19-20)

2. When God the works of men shall try, Where shall I be?

A. Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
B. For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matt 16:27)
C. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Rev 20:12)
D. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Rom 2:6-8)
E. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. (Matt 12:36)
F. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-11)
G. Comment: We will not be saved by our deeds, but we will be judged by them. For the veracity of saving faith is manifest by its work. As Jesus attests: The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt 12:35) Hence our works shall be tried by God, that is, they shall be judged by the Lord Jesus, to whom we must render and account. The Dies Irae says, Lo the book exactly worded, wherein all hath been recorded, thence shall judgement be awarded.

3. When east and west the fire shall roll, Where shall I be?

A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Mal 4:1-3)
B. For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place. (Micah 1:3-4)
C. By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire; they will not spare one another. (Isaiah 9:19)
D. For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many (Is 66:15-16)
E. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly….But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 7,10-12)
F. Comment: The only way to survive on the day of fire is to be fire yourself. Let God set you on fire with love and bring you up to the temperature of glory. Let God send tongues as of fire to enkindle in you the fire of his love.

4. How will it be with my poor soul: Where shall I be?

A. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (1 Peter 4:17-19)
B. Comment – While we can have confidence for the day of salvation, our confidence cannot be in our own ability, but must rest in the grace and mercy of God. We are all poor sinners, beggars before God. The Dies Irae says: What for I fail sinner pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?

5. O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?

A. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor 15:52)
B. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matt 24:30-31)
C. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess 4:16)
D. The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south (Zech 9:14)
E. Comment – The trumpet summons all to judgement; some to glory others to wrath. But all must come! This is an appoint all must keep! The Dies Irae says, Wondrous Sound the Trumpet flingeth, Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth, all before the throne it bringeth.

6. When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? O where shall I be when it sounds?

A. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12:1-2)
B. And [The Father] He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (Jn 5:27-29)
C. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor 15:52)
D. Comment – Where will you be? With the, with the righteous or with the wicked, with the Saint or the aints. Everyone will rise, but to different realities entirely. Where Shall I be?

7. When wicked men His wrath shall see, Where shall I be?

A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. (Mal 4:1)
B. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:7)
C. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18)
D. You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph 2:2-3)
E. You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:9-10)
F. Comment: Are you getting this. The Day of Judgment is going to be bad for the wicked. They will experience God’s wrath. What is God’s wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is like fire and water coming together. They cannot coexist, there is a fundamental conflict and one has to give way. So it is with sin in the presence of God; no can do. Only Jesus can give us the capacity to stand before God’s utter sanctity. Only Jesus can rescue us from the coming wrath. The dies Irae says, When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded

8. And to the rocks and mountains flee, Where shall I be? When hills and mountains flee away, Where shall I be?

A. As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ’For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
B. Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble. (Is 2:19)
C. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
D. Comment – You can’t run from God, because He’s already there. There will be no escape, no postponing the Day of Judgment.

9. When all the works of man decay, Where shall I be?

A. Each man’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
B. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
C. Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” (Matt 24:2)
D. Comment – All things of man shall pass away, and all our works. Only what we do for Christ will last. Jesus says, You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (Jn 15:16). Only what you do for Christ will last. All other works will decay.

10. When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll, Where shall I be? Shall from God’s angry presence roll, Where shall I be?

A. Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies…. the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves… (Isaiah 34:1-4)
B. The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night. (Rev 8:12)
C. Comment: The Dies Irae says, Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its judge and answer making. Come on now, if even the stars are struck and must answer, who are you or I to make light of judgement?

11. When all the saints redeemed shall stand, Where shall I be? Forever blest at God’s right hand, Where shall I be?

A. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. “He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness (Mal 3:2)
B. Wherefore…having done all to stand, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints. (Ephesians 6:10-18)
C. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matt 25:31-33)
D. Comment: The Dies Irae says, With thy sheep a place provide me, From the goats afar divide me, To thy right hand do thou guide me. When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.

Yes, quite a song, so rich in biblical allusion. It, like the Dies Irae accesses many scriptures quite vividly and creatively. And yet like so many of the spiritual is able to combine them in ways that are almost celebratory. The hymn is usually sung in upbeat ways, in my parish we clap hands as it is sung.

But at the end of the day the question remains: Where shall I be? Will it be among the righteous in glory, or the sinful and unrepentant in Hell. Where, poor sinner, where shall you and I be? Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy that help us to stand a chance.

But as with all offers of God, grace and mercy are only accessed through repentance.

This song, like the more ancient Dies Irae could not be more clear, we are hastening to the day of judgement, a day about which to be sober and ready. Are you ready? Where shall you be when the first trumpet sounds.

Here is the Song as sung:

For all the Saints – Reflecting on a Great Hymn of the Church

103113One of the greatest English hymns ever written, is “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. It’s imagery is regal and joyful, it’s poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. If you ask me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much like my father who loved to memorize things that moved him.

Spend a few moments now reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and treasure to shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.

First we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.


Here then in the first verses is stated the purpose of the hymn. Namely, that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the the Lord they can say, “It is finished.” Like St. Paul they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). These saints declared to world the holy and blessed name of Jesus by their words and deeds. They confessed and did not deny him. To them and us Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). And we too are summoned to take up the cry: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life is only possible by the grace of God. Only if God be our rock, our defender and our strength can we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only by Christ for he wrote: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:4). So Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by his light could they have the strength for the battle and win through to the victory.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Ah here then is our connecting verse. We, here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in heaven because we are one in Christ. The body of Christ is one and so we hav communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments unconnected to the saints in heaven. No, we are one in Christ and have communion with them. And though we feebly struggle here on earth, the vision of the glory they already share and our communion with them strengthens us. The Book of Hebrews referring to the saints in heaven says: Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)

Having gazed heavenward and derived strength from our mystical communion with the Saints in Christ, the hymn now sets forth the trials of the Church militant and counsels: Courage!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

We now who live here are told to be like courageous soldiers holding firm and loyal to the end to the true faith. We like they must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and his truth. So fight we must, in a noble way for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. It doesn’t always look that way now, But Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us or even kills us, the victor’s Crown awaits to all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved. (Matt 10:22)

Now comes a call to courage rooted in song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says: I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from heaven, through the words of scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is our today! Here the call and source of courage in this verse:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.

For now, it is God’s will that we hear the call “still to fight on.” For now we are in the Church militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things. For, one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.

And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array and the heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines as it describes the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

And the hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from heaven to earth and back to heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus had said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth with draw all men unto me.” (Jn 12:32) So now look fellow Christian! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to himself:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:

Ah, what a hymn. What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life. Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.

A Word By Word Translation and Study of the Latin Hymns Used at Benediction

071813I sometimes get requests for help in understanding the Latin texts of the very familiar hymns for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction. The O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo, though familiar to many Catholics remain only vaguely understood in terms of a word-for-word translation. Most know the poetic English renderings (“O Saving Victim Opening Wide” and “Humbly Let us Voice our Homage”) but this does not necessarily facilitate a word-for-word understanding as the Latin is sung. What I hope to do here, and in greater detail in the attached PDF files, is to give a very literal rendering that preserves the word order of the Latin so that one can understand the Latin precisely. In the PDF I also give a brief word study of each word in both hymns. It is my hope to bring these hymns more alive for the faithful who sing them who may not be highly skilled in Latin.

1. The O Salutaris – The Author is St. Thomas Aquinas. These are the last two verses of a longer hymn Verbum Supernum Prodiens (The heavenly Word, going forth) which was composed for Lauds (Morning Prayer) of the Divine Office of Corpus Christi. The meter is Iambic Dimeter, accentual with alternating rhyme. This hymn was said to so please even the hostile Rousseau that he would have given all his poetry to be its author. I propose here to record the Latin text to the left and then a very literal English translation to the right which also preserves the word order for easy comparison:

    • O salutaris Hostia (O saving victim)
    • quae caeli pandis ostium (who of heaven opens the gate – i.e. who opens the gate of heaven)
    • bella premunt hostilia (wars press hostile – i.e. hostile wars press)
    • da robur fer auxilium (give strength, bear aid)
    • Uni Trinoque Domino (To the One and Threefold Lord)
    • sit sempiterna gloria (may there be eternal glory)
    • qui vitam sine termino (who life without end)
    • nobis donet in patria (to us may he grant in the Fatherland)

I have prepared a printable and more thorough word study here:Study the O SALUTARIS

2. The Tantum Ergo– The author is St. Thomas Aquinas. It was composed for Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, rhyming at both the caesura and at the end of the line. These two verses are the last two of the full hymn Pange Lingua. There is here a wonderful union of sweetness of melody with clear-cut dogmatic teaching. I propose here to record the Latin text to the left and then a very literal English translation to the right which also preserves the word order for easy comparison:

    • Tantum ergo sacramentum (So great therefore a sacrament)
    • veneremur cernui (let us venerate with bowed heads)
    • et antiquum documentum (and the ancient document)
    • novo cedat ritui (to the new, give way, rite i.e. gives way to the new rite)
    • Praestet fides supplementum (may supply faith a supplement i.e. may faith supply a supplement)
    • Sensuum defectui. (of the senses for the defect i.e. for the defect of the senses)
    • Genitori Genitoque (To the One who generates and to the one who is generated (i.e. Father and Son)
    • Laus et jubilatio (be praise and joy)
    • Salus, honor, virtus, quoque (health, honor, strength also)
    • sit et benedictio (may there be and blessing)
    • Procedenti ab utroque (to the One proceeding from both)
    • Compar sit laudatio (equal may there be praise i.e. may there be equal praise)

I have prepared a printable and more thorough word study here: Study the TANTUM ERGO.

I hope that this may be of some help along with the printable PDF word studies.

Here is setting of the Tantum Ergo by Mozart which I paired with some video footage I found:

A Brief Consideration of the Sequence Hymn of Pentecost: Veni Sancte Spiritus

Holy SpiritThere are several Feasts of the Church wherein a “sequence” hymn may be sung. The sequence hymn is sung Just before the the Alleluia (Gospel acclamation). The feasts with sequence hymns are these:

  1. Easter – Victimae Paschali Laudes (To the Paschal Victim give praise)
  2. Pentecost – Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)
  3. Corpus Christi – Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion)
  4. Our Lady of Sorrows – Stabat Mater (Stood the Mother sad and weeping)
  5. All Souls – Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)

Too many parishes simply omit the sequence hymn. But, for my money, they ought to be sung. Especially the ones that occur on Sunday. (I’ll admit that the Lauda Sion is rather long).

Most Sequence Hymns were written in the Middle ages and were sung just before the Gospel as the clergy processed to the place of Gospel. Sometimes, in larger churches, the Gospel was chanted midway down the nave so it could be heard, and these hymns, for special feasts helped fill the time of that procession. Many prominent feasts of the Church began to have these hymns composed in the period of the 11th- 13th Centuries.

However, after the Council of Trent, in the Missal of Pius V (published 1570), the number of sequences was reduced to four: Victimae paschali laudes sung at Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost, Lauda Sion Salvatorem sung at Corpus Christi, and the Dies Irae for All Souls and in Masses for the Dead. In the 1700s Stabat Mater for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was added to this list. Later in the early 70s the Dies Irae was removed from the Requiem Mass of the revised Roman Missal and restored in the Liturgy of the Hours as an Advent hymn, which it originally was. It can still be sung on the Feast of All Souls. And thus we have the list we see above.

Since Pentecost has just passed we ought to sample the sequence hymn for Pentecost: Veni Sancte Spiritus.

The Hymn was likely written by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216). Written in Trachaic dimeter (catalectic), it is widely regard as one of the masterpieces of sacred Latin poetry. It was obviously written by one who had experienced many sorrows but also consolations in those sorrows. The rhyme in this hymn is quite rich and complex. Lines 1 & 2 always rhyme and the third line of every verse ends in “ium”

The sung version of this hymn is gorgeous and soaring. It starts subtly and then builds through the center with soaring notes. It sets us down gently at the end.

Here is the Latin text and a translation of my own, (fairly literal).

VENI, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
COME, Holy Spirit,
send forth from heaven
the rays of thy light
Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.
Come, Father of the poor;
Come, giver of gifts,
Come, light of [our] hearts.
Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes animae,
dulce refrigerium.
Oh best Comforter,
Sweet guest of the soul,
Sweet refreshment.
In labore requies,
in aestu temperies
in fletu solatium.
In Labor rest
in the heat, moderation;
in tears, solace.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed Light
fill the inmost heart
of thy faithful.
Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.
Without your spirit,
nothing is in man,
nothing that is harmless
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Wash that which is sordid
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Make flexible that which is rigid,
warm that which is cold,
rule that which is deviant.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to thy faithful,
who trust in thee
the sevenfold gifts.
Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium,
Amen, Alleluia.
Grant to us the merit of virtue,
Grant salvation at our going forth,
Grant eternal joy.
Amen. Alleluia.

Here is the traditional Gregorian Chant of this sequence. Enjoy this little masterpiece:

And here is a rather nice modern version of the same text:

While earth rolls onward into light…A Beautiful Meditation on Time in an Old Hymn


It is late on the east coast of the United States, the 23rd hour (11 pm) of the day we have called March 8. But in Sydney Australia, it is 1pm in the afternoon of March 9 and they finishing lunch; before I have even gone to bed on the previous day. In Wellington, New Zealand, their day is almost over, it is 3pm and many are perhaps pondering dinner plans on a day that doesn’t even exist for me yet.

Time, what could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say, It is 11pm March 8. And yet what could be more mysterious than a simple thing like 11pm, March 8; for time interacts with space and folds back on itself. It is simply a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.

And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time some of us sleep, and some of us are at noonday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says:

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

Other verses beautifully say:

We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night

As o’er each continent and island,
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away

Magnificent lines, a beautiful and poetic description of the Church, always praising, always sighing, always at worship. While some sleep, the praises continue. One of the psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations. (Psalm 113:2-4). And yet the praises never end for the sun is always rising, even as it is setting somewhere on this earth.

And Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 1:11). At any one time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on the orb of this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful, somewhere on this spinning orb of the earth. Yes, in the mystery of time this planet of ours is a perpetual place of praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of heaven for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation): And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy Holy Lord God of hosts…..

Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St Paul says to us as individuals is also fulfilled by the worldwide Church. And the advice is so simple and yet profound. He says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17)

Here is the full hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The full text is here: The Day Thou Gavest.

A Summons to Courage and a Reminder of Victory in an Old Hymn

063014There is a lesser known hymn, at least in Catholic circles, which is remarkably fit for our times since it both challenges us to soberly see the choice before us and also encourages us that the victory is already our if we choose Christ Jesus. I would like to present the verses of the hymn and supply commentary throughout. First a little background.

The hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation is a gloss on a poem written by James Russell Lowell. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1819, and his father was the pastor of the West Congregational Church in Boston for 55 years. Graduating from Harvard in 1838 he became a lawyer, poet, and editor of Atlantic Monthly. He was also an ardent champion of abolition.

In 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him ambassador to Spain and, in 1880, to Great Britain. He was in great demand as a public speaker….

Written over 160 years ago, Once to Every Man and Nation is a poignant reminder of Who is in control of history, and Who will ultimately write the last chapter.

The Poem by Lowell’s that served as the basis for this hymn was titled, “The Present Crisis,” and spoke to the national crisis over slavery leading up to the Civil War.

Lowell was right, the darkness of slavery could not ultimately prevail of the light of truth. And thus this hymn can also serve to summon us now to courage and remind us that the increasing moral darkness of these present times cannot ultimately stand. The light of day will return. We have already won the victory in Christ Jesus.

And now the hymn, my comments are in red.

Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light

Yes, we have to decide. There are only two ways, God or the World. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Lord says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Mat 6:24). Of old Joshua warned,  But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Jos 24:15). And James also warns: You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

And yet, far too many want two lovers, want to serve the world and get it’s passing blessings, and also inherit God’s blessings. But there comes a moment to decide.

And now as never before we see how the path of this world is diverging steadily and inexorably away from God. Sin, evil, open rebellion, sexual confusion, secularism, atheism, shredded families, and a growing tyranny of relativism and false tolerance are poisoning our culture. And secular culture increasingly sees the light of faith as harsh and obnoxious, something to be ridiculed, marginalized and ultimately criminalized.

Our choice is ever clearer and the distinctions are ever more stark. It is time for Catholics, for the Church to stake out far more clearly our choice for God. If there ever was a time when lukewarm would do, (no such time has ever really existed), it is surely not now. And the word of the Lord is true which warns by way of rebuke to the lukewarm:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. (Rev 3:14-19)

It is going to be a lot tougher in the near future to be a Catholic, and its going to take fiery believers who are prepared to speak the truth in love, endure persecution and ridicule, and suffer loss. The Lord has been purifying and pruning his Church in recent years for just this moment. It is decision time. Once to every man and nation, Church, comes the moment to decide.

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Once her cause brought fame and profit,
and was prosperous to be just;
Now it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied

In a way it is glorious time to be a Catholic, to be a Christian. Perhaps in the past one could even be praised for being religious, and in the once Judeo/Christian setting, religion was gain.

Now all that is changing and there is a glory in choosing God when that choice brings only ridicule, what the song calls “wretched crust.” It’s one thing to be a Christian when it is easy, it is a far more noble and glorious thing to be so when it is hard, even dangerous.




The distinction between courageous and the cowards to which the song refers is once again becoming clear. It is like Gideon of old who had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianites who had 60,000. But said to him, “Your Army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home” (Judges 7:3).  So Gideon dismissed any of the soldiers who didn’t think they were up for this battle. 20,000 left. Now with only 10,000 God said to Gideon, “Your army is still too large, lest you think you would win this battle on your own.” So God had Gideon observe the men at the stream as they drank water. Some drank leisurely and others lapped up the water like dogs! “That’s your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with three hundred men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned his ranks, and chose only a remnant as his true soldiers. (cf Judges 6 & 7).




Yes it is a time to stand up and be counted. It is a time for courage. It is a time to be prepared to suffer loss and endure ridicule. It is a glorious time in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3:14).

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.

We walk the path of Christ who said, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21)

If, for a brief time, the world had some tolerance for Christ, and his followers, that is going away. Frankly, we are returning to the normal state for true Christians, a state that has us despised by the world. Too many Christians spend too much time wanting to have the love and respect of this world. No can do, unless you’re willing to compromise and outright surrender the Gospel.

So, welcome to the normal Christ life.

The hymn speaks of times like these which make ancient good “uncouth.” That is, as our world heads steadily downward into unbelief and the rejection of God’s truth those of us who remain with the Lord’s vision are considered “uncouth” in other words, rude, boorish, ill-mannered, hateful bigoted, homophobic, intolerant, i.e. “uncouth.”

But it is not we who have changed, nor has God, the world has slouched toward Sodom, and “ancient good” and ancient wisdom is ridiculed as uncouth. We who would dare doubt the cultural radicals are assailed in this way.

And we ought to be sober about it. For mere name-calling soon becomes demonizing and paves the way for a persecution about which the persecutors feel self-righteous. Marginalization soon replaces ridicule, and criminalization follows marginalizing. Say hello to more assaults like the HHS mandate and so called “hate-crime” legislation directed against biblical Christians who still follow the “ancient good” now seen by the radicals as “uncouth.”

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet on that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above His own

The truth will out. The light always conquers the darkness, the dawn always returns after every dark night.

Every now and again on this blog I received scoffing remarks from secularists and certain militant atheist who laugh and ridicule, saying that the days of the Church are over, that the world has come of age and no longer believes our “infantile myths.” Yes they scoff that our days are done and close to disappearing and will soon be gone forever.

Such remarks not only show no knowledge of God, but also no knowledge of history. The Church has perdured through the rise and fall of many civilizations, many nations, many philosophies have come and gone, risen and fallen; the Church alone remains. And for everyone who has announced the the Church’s doom, they have gone and the Church is here, the Gospel is still being preached, and the Sacraments celebrated. The Church has buried every one of Her undertakers. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Socialist Republic?

The darkness cannot win, it is always destined to be scattered by the Light of an upcoming day. The hymn refers to martyrs on the gallows, saying, on that scaffold sways the future. The darkness of unbelief is not natural to the human family and the light of belief will always return.

I do not know what what will ultimately become western culture, but whether it stays or goes, the Church will surely be here. Perhaps it is needful that she should be pruned for a time, or her numbers even reduced, as was Gideon’s army, but reduce though it was, Gideon’s army won the day against overwhelming odds.

The Church is indefectable, by the Lord’s promise (cf Matthew 16:18) And we carry the same promise, as did the army of Gideon, the  promise of the Lord who said,  and I will be with you (Judges 7:7; Matt 28:20). The darkness of these times cannot win, the light wins, He always wins.

Here is the hymn. The tune is “Ebeneezer” and the movie clip is from a Polish Movie on the Christian Martyrs of Rome.

A Beautiful Summary of Eucharistic theology in an antiphon by Aquinas

011713-pope-2There is a great hymn, an antiphon actually, written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Office of Corpus Christi. It is O Sacrum Convivium and it serves as a wonderful summary of Eucharistic theology that is worth our attention. With that in mind I’d like to make a brief reflection on some of its compact teachings. First the text, then some commentary:

O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

O sacred Banquet
In which Christ is received
The memory of his Passion is recalled
The Mind is filled with grace
And Pledge of future Glory is given to us.

O Sacred banquet (O Sacrum convivium) In recent decades there was perhaps a tendency to over emphasize the meal aspect of the holy Mass, without due and balanced reference to the sacrificial aspect of the holy Mass. But the necessary correction in more recent times, back toward emphasizing that the Mass makes present the Sacrifice of the Cross, should not lead us to forget the mass is also a holy banquet, a sacred meal with the Lord.

For the Lord says, For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink (Jn 6:55). Thus, the Holy Eucharist is no mere sign, or symbol, but is in fact the true food of Christ’s true Body, true Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist, is also a foretaste, a praegustatum, of the great banquet in heaven, of which Christ says, And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk 22:29-30). And yet again, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).

Note too that the Latin word convivium, of which “banquet” is an adequate translation, but also contains nuances that go beyond a mere meal. The Latin emphasizes a kind of coming together a sort of celebration of life. Con (with) + vivere (to live). Hence, the meal here is no mere supplying the food or calories. It is a coming together to celebrate new life. We receive the food of Christ’s Body and Blood, which not only gives an ingredient for life, but is in fact the true and very life of Christ.

In the Eucharist, we receive Life Himself, for Christ said of himself, I am the life (Jn 14:6). And further, he declares, As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will have life because of me. (Jn 6:57).

Of this life, he further describes it as “eternal life,” a term which refers not merely to the length of life, but also to the fullness of life.

Thus the Holy Eucharist is a meal, but no mere meal, it is Life, it is a convivial celebration of that life; it is a banquet which gives Life Himself.

In which Christ is received (in quo Christus sumitur)– Here again, is affirmation that we do not receive mere food, we receive Christ himself. This is no mere symbol, no mere wafer, no mere memory. It is Christ himself that we receive.

The verb here, sumitur, is in some sense bold. More literally translated than “received,” it is more literally translated as “taken up.” It is a present passive indicative form of the verb. And this indicates the great humility of our Lord. He lets himself “be taken up.”

Imagine, the Lord being in a moment of a passive relationship with us. He lets himself be taken up, or taken in by us. He is taken up, and becomes our food. Here is an astonishing humbling by our God, who then allows himself to be assimilated by us, and thereby assimilates us into him.

His humility, is meant to conquer pride in us. Yes, in this great banquet Christ himself is taken up, is received, is assimilated by us. And in this humble manner we are taken up into him, taken in, more perfectly to be a member of his body.

The memory of his passion is recalled (recolitur memoria passionis eius) The Eucharist is not only a meal, it is the making present of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In every mass, we are brought to the foot of the cross, and the fruits of that Cross are applied to us.

We are also at the resurrection, for in Holy Communion we receive Christ who is living, present, and active.

The Latin verb recolitur, is properly translated “recalled.” However, once again there are nuances in the Latin verb which are hard to render with one English word. The Latin verb recolere means “to cultivate anew.” This somewhat agrarian image points to a kind of careful and intentional growing and fostering of something, in this case the memory of Christ’s Passion.

To cultivate in agriculture, is also to prepare for, and or pave the way for the growth of something. It means to prepare the soil.

In non agrarian settings, to cultivate anything implies a kind of care for it, and intention to foster the growth of something, to further or encourage something.

In all these images we see that the memory of Christ’s Passion is something that we should cherish, encourage and foster. It is something in which we should prepare the ground of our heart for ever deeper insights and for new growth in the memory of what He’s done for us

The other word, “memory,” is also a very precious word. What is memory and what does it mean to “remember?” To remember is to have deeply present in my mind and my heart what Christ has done for me, so that I am grateful, and I am different. It means to have it finally dawn on us what Christ has done for us in such a vivid and real way that our hearts and minds are grateful, transformed, and different. Our hearts of stone are broken open and God’s light and love flood in and we are changed. This is what it means to remember.

It is of course and ever deepening process to recall the memory of His Passion, not a mere one time event.

The Mind is filled with Grace (mens impletur gratia) – There are many graces of course that come with holy Communion:

Our venial sins are forgiven, our holiness is increased, our union with Christ becomes more perfected, we gradually become the One we receive, we receive strength and food for the journey across the desert of this world unto the Promised Land of Heaven, we receive life, and begin to participate in eternal life, our union with Christ and membership in his body is strengthened, as is our union with one another, and our union with the saints in heaven.

Yes, so many grace are infused, are poured forth into the mind and heart!

And a pledge of future glory is given to us (et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur) – with the reception of Holy Communion come promises from Christ:

But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever….Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day….Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:50-58)

Yes, here is a pledge of future glory, of victory. Jesus alludes to the manna in the wilderness that sustained them for forty years in the desert. It was a sign of the victory to come. For why would God sustain them in the desert if he did not will to lead them ultimately to the Promised Land? It is the same for us. That God feeds us in this way is a sign and promise of his will to save us and bring us to the Promised Land of Heaven. He blesses and strengthens the journey and so adds surety and the pledge of the destination of future glory.

To this pledge the Lord also adds a warning: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53)

And St. Paul also adds: Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29)

Not a bad little summary of Eucharistic theology, all in a short antiphon.