Observations: Phil Donahue’s Hymnal—A Youthful Protest against the Censorship of Catholic Hymns

I have noticed for a few years that the older people at Mass generally sing different words to the hymns than those who carefully follow the hymnal or missalette. I have also noticed a certain amount of annoyance among those older people who disdain the changes that now cause them to be lost during songs they have sung all of their lives. With the help of a few of my fellow Catholics, I analyzed a typical missalette companion hymnal to see what changes have been made and why.

The hymnal analyzed is the We Celebrate Hymnal, published by J.S. Paluch Company, Inc. The preface gives an explanation of why traditional Catholic songs have been altered: “Attention to archaism and inclusiveness… dictated an occasional appropriate updating or editing to reflect today’s more acute sensitivities while preserving the artistic quality and intent of the original.”

The changes in text usually concern the perceived gender of God and corresponding masculine traits that are considered inappropriate. For example, in the

English translation of “Ich glaub’ an Gott”—”To Jesus Christ, Our Sovereign King”—the original words “Christ Jesus, Lord and Commander” are changed to “Lord and Redeemer,” to make the song sound less militaristic and to appease feminist criticism of such overt masculinity. Since the song was written in Germany during the days of Otto von Bismarck’s reunification of German states, it should surprise no one that it has such a war-like tone.

Similar changes can be found in “How Great Thou Art.” The phrase “mighty thunder” is changed to “rolling thunder,” which seems like an unnecessary switch. Does the word mighty really bother that many people? Is it not acutely sensitive enough for modern Catholics to sing? An alteration as petty as this one is so unnecessary, it is actually amusing.

One of the most ridiculous—to some people, enraging—changes was made to “Amazing Grace,” one of Christendom’s classics. The very first line “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” was changed to “How sweet the sound that saved and set me free!” True, the change softens the line and makes it less self-effacing, but what if the author really did view himself as a wretch before his conversion? Who are we to impose a modern-day, I’m-OK-you’re-OK mentality on such an honest and simple hymn?

Anti-nuclear activists have somehow managed to sneak a verse about the horror of nuclear weapons into Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Despite the fact that this hymn has nothing to do with criticism of the cold war and the nuclear arms race, the new verse reads: “Behold his wondrous deeds of peace/ The God of our salvation/ He knows our wars and makes them cease/ In every land and nation/ The guns and nuclear might stand withered in his sight/ The Lord of hosts is with us.” This addition is incongruous and absurd, especially since Luther wrote the classic hymn in the sixteenth century and had no prophetic foresight of nuclear warheads at the time. Even if he did, he chose not to write about it in that particular hymn.

Inclusive language is forced upon even relatively harmless hymns such as “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” I grew up singing this song, both in church and in school, and I never heard anyone complain about the word brother being used, as in “Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony” and “Brothers all are we.” All instances of “brother” throughout the song have been changed to “neighbor.” I find “brother” to be a closer, more meaningful and loving term than “neighbor,” which seeps more distant. In making such a substitution, those responsible have changed the meaning of much of the song and thereby contradicted the preface’s claim that the original intent of hymns would be kept intact.

The Christian musical tradition is over 1000 years old and contains some of the most beautiful music ever written. Our musical history includes hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chants, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn. It is for this reason that “Stewards of Earth” (written in 1984) is such an abysmal disappointment. The music is actually the national anthem of Finland and the words are worthy of a sappy Green-peace pamphlet. Not exactly the shining star of the Catholic legacy of music. Is this the best we have to offer? Using a movement from one of Beethoven’s symphonies for a hymn’s music (as in “God, Our God of Distant Ages”) is one thing, but stealing the anthem of a Scandinavian country is quite another.

Similar changes have been made in the prayers and invocations at various Masses I’ve attended. For example, at my senior class’s baccalaureate Mass prior to graduation, God was referred to only as “Our Creator” and “God”; no pronouns concerning Him were used. I was enraged to hear that someone involved in planning the Mass, probably bent on avoiding “archaic” religious terms, butchered the Nicene Creed beyond recognition. “Father,” “son,” “he,” “his,” “him,” “man,” “mankind,” and “Lord” were removed in favor of de-masculinizing feeble substitutes no one recognized, thus enabling none of the students, friends, parents, and relatives to follow along.

It seems unusually petty to change over a millennia of Catholic songs and prayers, which were in some cases translated directly from Latin, in response to the indignation of a minuscule but vocal faction in the Catholic Church. Oddly enough, hymnals such as the one cited are published by authority of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It should be made known that the average American Catholic sees no problem with the original forms of hymns and prayers and is merely aggravated by the new versions. Leave the baby—and the bathwater—alone.


  • Kimberly J. Gustin

    At the time this article was published, Kimberly J. Gustin was a student at Butler University.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...