Continuing the Conversation: The USCCB’s Guidance on Hymn Texts

This reflection by Karen Shadle is a response to the article by Michael Joncas, “Reflections on ‘Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.”

Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar church for Mass and, after the opening hymn, wished that you could retreat unnoticed?

In my visits to many different parishes over the years, I find that nothing so clearly indicates the strength of a church community as the state of its liturgical music. So when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently issued a letter to bishops on the topic of Catholic hymnody, my initial reaction was enthusiastic.


Nurturing high-quality liturgical music is one of the most effective things a parish can do to boost its profile – that is, to make it an attractive place to worship and one to which people wish to return week after week.  If there is a litmus test for parish vitality, it’s the music at Sunday Mass. This vitality, by the way, mostly transcends musical style. A great church music program stirs the hearts of the faithful and communicates reverence for the liturgy and attention to excellence in execution. After preaching, or perhaps even ahead of it, music is consistently the key to engaging liturgy. That’s virtually undisputed on the ground, so I am often frustrated that the Church doesn’t speak of music more frequently and more vigorously. The impact of liturgical music deserves more attention, and any attempt to improve its quality is most welcome to me.

Some readers encountered the letter differently. Their responses could be summed up as: “Doesn’t the Church have bigger problems?” “This is just a distraction.” “Micromanagement.” “Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” I get it. There are other important things. But because of its outsized impact on the liturgy, music deserves to be near the top of the list of concerns for the future of our beloved Church.


Many are familiar with the “Three Judgments” of liturgical music outlined in the USCCB’s 2007 guidance Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Music must be evaluated for its liturgical, musical, and pastoral appropriateness. One purpose of this recent letter, entitled “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church,” is to expand upon the liturgical judgment of Sing to the Lord by giving greater intention to the theological content of hymn texts. In this, it builds upon what Sing to the Lord says at nos. 83, 108, 115d, and 144b about the importance of doctrinally accurate expression of the Catholic faith.


Beyond theological elucidation, the letter also addresses the catechetical impact of liturgical music – a significant but often understated role. Neuroscience research indicates, for example, that language is more deeply imprinted in our memory when it is attached to melody. The effect is greater with singing as opposed to mere listening. Although I have not needed this information since high school, I recall the quadratic equation x = −b ± √(b2 − 4ac)/2a because I learned it to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” I’ll never forget that the function of “Conjunction Junction” is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses,” thanks to Schoolhouse Rock. And I’ll always need to sing a little song in my head to remember which months have thirty days. Music’s effects on memory are so powerful that it is often used as therapy for dementia patients.

Also consider the power of song to inscribe the truths of our faith indelibly on our hearts. I learned the nature of the Holy Trinity, the beatitudes, and the ranks of angels not from study of doctrine or scripture but from hymns. The psalms are written on my heart not in monotone but in melody. Recorded music is ubiquitous in our modern world, but music-making is not. For many people, singing at church is practically their only act of music-making. Singing stimulates more parts of the brain than most other human activities, simultaneously activating both the emotional, expressive “right brain” and the intellectual, analytical “left brain.” Is music, then, not the perfect vehicle for catechesis? As St. Paul puts it, we “sing with both the spirit and the understanding” – heart and mind together.

Knowing the power of the sung word, I applaud the intent of the committee’s letter and much of its content, but it is not without flaws. In his thoughtful and detailed response published in the journal of the Hymn Society, Fr. Jan Michael Joncas immediately identifies several confusing points of this letter.


First, it does not clearly define what it means by “hymn.” There are a number of textual and musical forms broadly characterized as “sacred music” or “liturgical music” that might fall under the “hymn” heading. Which of these are meant to be scrutinized here? Further, who ought to address these concerns about hymn texts? Bishops? Priests? Diocesan staff? Composers? Publishers? Musicians? There is a certain incompleteness and unclarity to the work of the committee.

While I have no doubt that the committee consulted with experts in sacred music, it feels like the authors don’t entirely know the terrain into which they travel.

This reminds me of the first meeting I had with the pastor at my first ministry job, fresh out of graduate school. I asked Father what his goals were for the parish liturgical music program. His response: “Make it better.”

Very few dioceses and parishes are blessed with bishops and priests who intimately understand the world of sacred music. Otherwise, everyone knows who is responsible to “make it better”: the parish director of music. In a way, that is right and just, since they have the most direct influence on what is played and sung at church.


Here is the elephant: while the burden falls to parish music directors make theological judgments on the content of hymns, many lack the formation and expertise necessary to make such judgments.

Music ministers are often surprised to learn that not everything in their hymnal is intended or suitable for Mass. Hymnals include content intended for other liturgical or para-liturgical celebrations or even domestic use. For music ministers, especially if they work part-time or volunteer, selecting the music for Mass is often a hasty exercise in picking the “ones we know” from a planning resource produced by publishing companies, who certainly seek to provide appropriate resources but also have a profit motive.

This is a realistic picture of most parish music programs. As a diocesan director who consults on numerous job searches per year, I can attest that music ministry positions are hard to fill. Parishes often opt for skilled musicians with little if any formation in Catholic liturgy or theology. To ask them to make judgments on such things is unfair. Here is where dioceses could step in and be of tremendous help: to offer such formation to music ministers, either through the diocese itself or via financial support for continuing education through other institutions. This letter should be a jumping-off point for more robust theological formation for music ministers at all levels. The Church can certainly do better in this regard, and I’m grateful to the committee for pointing us in the right direction.


One of the most appealing things about “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church” is also one of the most challenging: it names names. The committee gives specific and well-known examples to demonstrate the listed offenses. It’s a mistake, however, to reduce this document to a list of “cancelled” songs. Some parish directors of music, who wish to be faithful and attentive to such instruction, will simply take a red pen to their repertoire lists, cutting out the offending pieces. Perhaps that is all they have the time to do, given the complex nature of their roles. But this letter sounds a call to do much more – to give attentiveness to the theological content of hymns and songs.

Before closing, I would be remiss without observing that there are a few songs that mysteriously defy Sing to the Lord’s judgment matrix. I call to mind a “certain hymn.” It is paradoxically both too low and too high for assembly singing. There are wild melodic leaps and contrapuntal errors aplenty. The narrative voice switches confusingly between speaking to God and speaking as God. The truths it delineates are not profound but simple. A skilled theologian-musician would reject it in haste. Nevertheless, it persists in our repertoire because it undeniably stirs many hearts and is sung with near-Lutheran vigor. Maybe songs such as this should go, but I am ambivalent.


It’s a good practice, I think, to imagine placing a song on trial. “Is it beautiful?” “Is it worthy?” “Does it confuse the faithful rather than edify them?” After this prosecutorial interrogation, a song is also entitled to a competent defense. (For a fine example, see Fr. Joncas’s credible plea for “Sing a New Church” in a footnote.) It seems that many hymns might earn an acquittal with the help of a good defense attorney. After all, one of the beautiful things about the language of poetry and music is that it is multivalent – open to several interpretations.

Good liturgical music nourishes our faith; poor music weakens it. Nothing can tank a liturgy more quickly than poor music – whether its poverty is theological, liturgical, musical, pastoral, or a combination of the above. It’s messy work to “make it better,” but unquestionably worth the effort.

Dr. Karen Shadle is Director of the Office of Worship of the Archdiocese of Louisville.









14 responses to “Continuing the Conversation: The USCCB’s Guidance on Hymn Texts”

  1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    Your “make it better” comment is the most apt. Our bishops likely have a sense of good-music-when-they-see-it, but doctrine is but one small piece of the puzzle. Especially when they, you, or I leave liturgy satisfied I didn’t want to run out the door at the drop of an introduction. It’s not usually because of intellectual insight, but positively, that a hymn text made us ponder, or the ministry witness of a singer was engaging in a good psalm setting, or the conductor managed to get a great sound from a choir that’s been struggling lately.

    I remain a skeptic on the Doctrine Committee. I am sure they are earnest, well-meaning fellows who probably didn’t sign on to that infamous moratorium the other decade. But they are out of their depth. If they got Elizabeth Johnson all wrong, why would I listen to their judgment on something farther afield from theology–like music?

    And the bishops to whom they write are generally not training lay people for ministry. Two of my last three dioceses had long-standing ministry programs shut down this century. When you’re the unpaid leader of a suburban ensemble or a weekend organist in a rural church working for a donut and a cuppa after Mass, you appreciate that someone in an OCP or GIA office has sifted through a thousand song titles to give you a dozen starter choices.

    Maybe a better practice than naming names in a negative way, would be to gather non-publisher music directors to list their choices and why they made them. Maybe that would open up a methodology that suggests we make choices for positive reasons. Not by default.

    Possible examples:

    – I don’t have a known setting of Psalm 5–something that came up in the antiphonary. But studying that text, I see the importance of God’s house and the desire for union there well-expressed also in Psalm 84 or 100–and I do have settings of those in responsorial or hymn format.

    – It’s my parish’s first weekend “opening up” after the pandemic, so maybe I want a good gathering song that the people like and will sing well. Maybe something a parishioner said once about that song stuck with me.

    – I got stumped that odd weekend at the end of the summer, and maybe those Eucharistic songs are getting tedious after the Bread of Life Sundays. So I just programmed a setting of the Magnificat–Chepponis or Alstott or Alonso–just to freshen things up.

    Bottom line: if we want leaders to make thoughtful decisions, we have to form them to do so. Or invest in people who can “make it better” and tell us how they did it.

    1. Karen Shadle Avatar
      Karen Shadle

      Todd – I hear your comments about the Doctrine Committee. I think my optimism stems from their recognition of the impact of sacred music – and I think they are correct to take it up even if the execution of this particular guidance is thorny. I like your suggestion about gathering selections from experts. St. Louis U. Liturgy webpage has a nice feature called “Sunday’s Music in Parishes” which I always enjoy browsing: It is basically that: the real selections that real music directors came up with for a particular Sunday. Very helpful.

      1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        Also, while the USCCB bench has not had as much turnover as some may have wished, membership on its committees is not typically static over a decade.

  2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Apt reflections.

    I confess, when I must participate in Mass in my local area, instead of driving 12 miles to the cathedral, I usually strain to go to a Mass with no instrumentally accompanied music. This past weekend, I made the mistake of not doing so. I didn’t leave, but the music/musicians made it harder for me to ignore them. They are not untypical in the local area, hence why I make extra effort when I am able to travel farther afield. They are not unskilled, but unfocused and content with doing what’s been familiar from the large commercial publishers from around, say, 1992 (even if the song leader wasn’t yet born then) in a perfunctory and somewhat distracted way. (I did many years of choral service with that repertoire, and don’t miss it, unlike other repertoire that I also did many years of service with and do miss rather keenly.) I was easily in the lowest age quintile of those in the pews, and I am retiring next month.

  3. Paul Fell Avatar
    Paul Fell

    Lots of good comments here and lots of good content to ponder.

    At the same time, while we can discuss the finer points of aesthetics and theology and Christology in the lyrics, the unfortunate reality is that many parishioners (and clergy, for that matter) have totally different criteria regarding what should be used.

    Based on discussions with and feedback from other liturgical musician friends, parents are known to say something like, “I don’t care what you play as long as it MAKES (emphasis mine) my kid want to go to Mass.” Teens may ask, “Why can’t we do all the music that my friends at Baptist youth group sing?” These may not be the correct theological / aesthetic questions to ask, but these are what liturgists / music directors “on the ground” are encountering from the People in the Pews.

    Further, if the music selections discussed by the OP are to have the desired impact, then the clergy must provide a heavy dose of support, as they have the ability to either elegantly tie the music to the Readings and prayers directly or to undermine the entire repertoire by a few poorly-chosen words. One priest I know checks the Processional Hymn prior to Mass. He then uses his greeting comments to tie the lyrics of that hymn to the theme of the liturgical season, the Feast, the Readings, the Collect, or some other prominent part of the Mass, thereby emphasizing the integrated nature of the music with the liturgy. In contrast, I also know of priests who will “call an audible” before a hymn is announced and say, without prior warning, “And now, the musicians will sing X.” At which point the musicians either have to scramble to find music, change books, etc. or bluntly say, “No, Father. We won’t.” One priest I know went so far as to state that parishes should use whatever is leading the Christian top 40 chart, as that’s what gets butts in pews and money in collection baskets.

    How does the music at Mass not appear capricious and arbitrary when this is the approach taken toward the music?

  4. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    Often the choice of music is severely limited by the need to tie in with the readings, and other matters take second place.

    1. Todd Flowerday Avatar

      I think there is a misconception on the “need” to tie music to the Lectionary. There is no such impulse, nor a reason to indulge it to extreme. If it comes down to programming a musical setting of the Beatitudes on cycle A’s 4th Sunday, I’d have to ask why. Liturgical music doesn’t echo the Biblical texts in my view. Ideally, it should provide a space to amplify or complement it as people sing it. Maybe I would program a musical setting of Matt 5:13-16 that week. Or use a Beatitude setting the previous week or after it.

      While I reserve serious doubts about the texts for Entrance and Communion propers for Ordinary Time, I certainly don’t neglect psalms or psalm paraphrases as my go-to for assembly singing. A competent planner needs a background in Scripture scholarship to identify the types of Psalms, and what the liturgy (or the pastoral situation in a parish) might call for in those complementary texts. I suspect my standards might surpass the musical training of some directors. But this is exactly the type of formation needed for a positive construction of a repertoire. I think doctrine takes a back seat to this. But I’m sure others will disagree with that. However, there’s a reason we don’t ask people to open their books to number 1055 and sing the canons on sacramental marriage, no matter how much some may think we need it.

      1. Paul Fell Avatar
        Paul Fell


        I agree that “…indulge it to extreme”, as you put it, is not helpful and may miss important aspects of a particular celebration, especially if that celebration is specific to the local church (parish feast day or jubilee Mass for priest, just for quick examples). “Prepping” the congregation for an upcoming liturgical theme or reinforcing content after a major point has been emphasized seems completely reasonable, as it continues the conversation and prevents Masses from feeling too episodic.

        Per my original post, however, I’m not sure some parishes are even reaching this point. In some churches I’ve visited, the music is viewed in such a utilitarian fashion that is doesn’t serve any liturgical purpose which dovetails with the Mass itself. Parishioners may see it as a non-essential add-on, (“it makes people get out of Mass later”), as “walking music” that fills gaps in between things, or purely entertainment designed to make the congregation “feel good”. If this is how music is viewed and this is reflected in the types of ongoing comments/requests/demands parishioners make to music directors, liturgists, and/or pastors, then we need to back the ship up a bit, as we have a larger problem. The most well-informed and elegant repertoire selection won’t do much good if the utilitarian mindset prevalent in some places is not addressed and an understanding of the role of music in the liturgy is not repeatedly cultivated. How is this achieved? That’s the real starter question for parishes to answer, I think.

      2. Todd Flowerday Avatar

        “I’m not sure some parishes are even reaching this point.”

        I think you are correct. Your other comments are spot on, part of a widespread US indulgence for the pragmatic above and against the artistic. Pastors are part of the problem, and I think the reform2 movement of earlier this century did little to move past that. It was all a little too intellectual/magic cookbook for me. Much liturgical music in churches doesn’t even rise to the quality of entertainment. So that’s mostly out the window, I think.

        It is probably worth asking parishioners at parishes that do liturgy well to comment on *why* music made them feel whatever way they did. If clergy struggle to exactitude on what constitutes “better,” maybe pewfolk saying “good” isn’t all that bad.

        A parishioner I don’t know well came back to Mass recently and commented that she felt “relief” and “nourished” and “at home” with the music at Mass the other week. If I knew her better, maybe I’d engage that conversation which tilted to the personal. If she were anxious for her family, hungry for spiritual nourishment, or longing for the pre-pandemic parish she knew, maybe I’d probe about which songs and hymns did what. Perhaps that is a conversation our more skilled parish musicians can begin in their communities as we move ahead.

        I noticed all this is getting us really far afield from theology and doctrine. I suspect people are wanting something different than correct information when they come to liturgy. They certainly don’t want lies and deceptions. (They’ve had enough of that with abuse cover-up, eh?) They seem to want nourishment (meal) and they want an encounter (sacrifice). Hopefully we can facilitate that more often than not.

    2. Paul Fell Avatar
      Paul Fell


      While I’m not disagreeing with what you said, to what “other matters” are you referring? I have some ideas, but I’m curious what you include in that category.

      1. Alan Johnson Avatar
        Alan Johnson

        I was thinking of theological precision as that seems to be the bishops’ main criterion when judging hymns.
        Some might include taste, but that isnt a bear-pit I want to enter.

  5. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    “While I have no doubt that the committee consulted with experts in sacred music, it feels like the authors don’t entirely know the terrain into which they travel.”

    Your presumption is much broader and more charitable than mine. To me, it seemed far more likely that an attitude of “it’s just music” (though prompted by an awareness of music’s power) prevailed. I don’t find myself able to understand how, for example, a group that consulted experts in sacred music could end up with a document in which “hymn” is used so imprecisely.

  6. Jenny Porter Avatar
    Jenny Porter

    Catechesis and leadership is needed, and both need to come, ideally, from the pastor. He is to take direction from the GIRM and the documents of the Church, which, one would expect him to know, and instruct the musicians. That being said…

    I have personally witnessed, year after year, volunteer cantors who, while often can sing well, are allowed to choose their own music based on their personal taste and subsequently do not make liturgically appropriate choices. They are completely oblivious to what their actual function is. The choir/music director is similar- a volunteer (or very low-paid ‘song leader’) who lacks the necessary skills/ knowledge to develop and foster love of liturgical music. This incompetence is rife and becomes reinforced over the years, especially when the pastor doesn’t take charge, or wants to save money by not hiring quality musicians formed in the liturgy. Eventually, the parish becomes emotionally attached to a small, less-than-sacred repertoire of (outdated) favorites. Until these basic issues can be addressed and resolved, it becomes a vicious cycle.

    This permeates an entire parish. The catechetical training is sorely lacking in faith formation programs and has been for many years, so naturally, parents are requesting music that will attract their teens to Mass, or people are asking for the latest “Christian top 40” (as if the latest and greatest makes it sacred and worthy of Mass). It’s as if nobody in the parish is aware of what sacred music actually is, or what the heck the Mass is all about, nor how to integrate the two into true Catholic worship. The ignorance of these basic matters is astounding. And when the pastor is the part of the problem, where does one look for a solution? And then they wonder why folks (who remain) deny the True Presence.

    1. Alan Johnson Avatar
      Alan Johnson

      Here in the UK there is a desperate lack of adult formation in the faith or liturgy. Many (most) parish musicians are there simply because they are the ones who can play a bit of piano/guitar or can sing a bit and have enough nerve to lead.
      People are doing their best from the best of intentions, but with little training. Formation seems to be disappearing low on the bishops’ list of priorities. I am astonished that things have been as good as they have been.

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