“Amazing Grace” – Can You Sing It?


At this year’s Easter Vigil, I get to celebrate my 17th birthday as a Catholic Christian. Seventeen years ago I officially began my faith journey as a Catholic Christian, with the blessing of Cardinal Mahoney and my faith community at Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena, California. So every year at this time, I find myself reflecting on what I’ve learned so far. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mercy and grace of God.

Sarah was a little over two years old when my husband and I took her to the baptism of her cousin, whose family is Lutheran. We had arrived late, and managed to find two seats in the back by crawling over the laps of two pinch-lipped elderly matrons, who clearly disapproved of our being there at all.

The sermon that day went a little long, and Sarah grew bored. We passed her back and forth, feeding her Cheerios and turning pages of board-books. One of them contained a large picture of Jesus, and when we reached that page, Sarah found her voice.

“Ama-sing gwace, ah ee ah ah…” she began. I hushed her. Instead she grew louder.  As I hastily gathered our things to make a speedy retreat, Sarah let out a few more garbles, followed by a big finish. “Wah spine, hah ow I-meeeeeee!”

I thought the old ladies’ eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. I was just glad to get my daily dose of humiliation out of the way so early in the day. (Hah.)

“Amazing Grace”… for Catholics

 While some Catholics denounce singing songs like “Amazing Grace” in a Catholic Mass, calling them “unsingable” or “Protestant,” I disagree. In fact, such “Protestant” songs took on fresh meaning for me once the full light of faith shone upon them.

I grew up in a church in which hymn singing was a highly formative occupation, theologically speaking (that and “Bible drills” in Sunday school). These songs are an important part of my spiritual heritage; they express truths about life and faith in God that can enrich any community of faith. The question should be not whether the origins of particular songs are “Protestant,” but whether the ideas expressed are true. 

By virtue of baptism, all Christians are part of the Body of Christ (though some are united imperfectly). Consequently, even those who have not yet embraced the fullness of the faith are capable of teaching us something about the spiritual life. Because of their love for the Word of God, and their familiarity with it, Protestants have written hymns that are saturated with themes and metaphors from the Bible. For that reason alone, they can be sacramentals of grace for us.

Can be, that is, if we do not ourselves fall prey to the sin of that is at the root of all theological error: spiritual and intellectual pride. This pride prevented the Protestant Reformers from submitting to the authority of Rome and the teaching of the Fathers. This prideful spirit also produced spiritual “blinders” that initially made it very difficult for me to embrace the truths of the Catholic faith. I’ve since learned this is a problem for many believers “crossing the Tiber.”

Consequently, for many of us, conversion transpires only after this root of pride has been systematically weeded out.  How?  God in His mercy humbles us, forcing us to return to a childlike state of acceptance and humility as we journey toward the Vigil. One way or another, we learn that the gateway to the Kingdom is so low, we must enter on our knees.

From this childlike state, I found that the hymns of my childhood took on new meaning. 

“T’is grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace that fear relieved.”

Grace That Fuels the Leap of Faith

As I progressed through RCIA, I came to understand that grace is not dependent on feelings, or even on our awareness of it.

The graces of baptism operate in that young soul, and continue to operate into adulthood regardless of whether any change is apparent. As we grow older, it is this grace that enables us to mature in faith. As we continue to learn, it is grace that illuminates the intellect, and teaches us about God’s power and his mercy (fearful heart vs. relieved heart). Only in hindsight do we realize what a gift God’s grace has been.

“How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

I sang this line with even greater fervor as a Catholic than I did as an Evangelical Christian. It was God’s grace — nothing more, nothing less — that enlightened my mind and heart to receive the fullness of the truth, and caused me to believe that the Catholic Church was truly the Church founded by Christ. It took more than simple intellectual reflection. It required a paradigm shift of the will and the heart. It took a true leap of faith, which was only possible by “amazing grace.”

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, t’was blind but now I see.”

Unfortunately, this spiritual blindness and intellectual pride afflicts Christians on both sides of the church divide, preventing some of us from experiencing all the joy and life God wants to give us, a joy rooted in truth, and watered with humility and faith.

So next time you hear the song, go ahead and sing about that Amazing Grace!

Heidi Hess Saxton entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 1994, and will always be grateful to her faith family at Holy Family Catholic Church in South Pasadena, California, who helped her along the journey.

To write this article, Heidi took a break from thesis writing, after which she will have a Master of Theology degree at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She and her husband Craig live in southern Michigan with their two children. Her blog is the Extraordinary Moms Network.


About Author

Heidi Saxton is an author of several books and columns. She and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children. Her "Extraordinary Moms Network" has special relevance to families of adopted, foster, or special-needs children. Heidi is currently writing her thesis for a Masters in Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

  • kansascatholic

    I would say that Amazing grace should not be sung, not because it’s too protestant (actually, yes that is the reason, but let me explain) or that it’s unsingable. The reason I don’t think it should be sung is the fact that it has strong theological errors in it. We are not wretches. This is a Calvinist error that stems from the heretical doctrine of total depravity. According to Calvin, humans are totally depraved and completely unable to do anything good.

    The Church rejects this notion entirely. We are fallen, and our nature is crippled, but we are not completely bad. We can still do good, though not perfectly or in the way that we could have before the fall. To say that we are totally depraved is to put us on the same plane as Satan. So please, do NOT sing this hymn. The less heresy have floating around the Church the better.

  • Mary Kochan

    St. Paul: “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…” (Romans 7: 24-25 RSV).

    If being a wretch was good enough for St. Paul, it is good enough for me. Besides, this hymn was not written by a Calvinist; it was written by an Anglican. There is no reason to impose a Calvinist interpretation on it.

    • Daniel Latinus

      Just because the author of “Amazing Grace” was an Anglican, doesn’t mean he wasn’t a Calvinist, or that his personal theology wasn’t heavily influenced by Calvinism. IIRC, the author of the hymn converted at a time when the more Protestant interpretation was the dominant theology in the Church of England.

      Calvinism had a deep influence on the more Protestant shades of Anglicanism, and some Anglicans are devoted followers of Jean Calvin. Some of the more Protestant-minded Anglicans have been described as “Presbyterians with prayer books.”

      An Anglo-Catholic (i.e. an Anglican with very Catholic tendencies) priest of my acquaintance once criticized “Amazing Grace” as being “patient of an heretical interpretation.” Given the hymn’s emphasis on salvation as a completed act, I have to agree with the A-C priest.

      So a Calvinist interpretation of “Amazing Grace” is not unreasonable.

      • Hi Daniel:

        That a Calvinist interpretation is not unreasonable, does not mean that need be interpreted as such. Even if the author meant it as such, does not mean that the song, in se, must admit of a Calvinist interpretation.

        Certainly the word “wretch” is not infralapsarian or supralapsarian in either implication or inference. Neither does the idea of having been saved mean that the Catholics must interpret the song as explaining the doctrine of salvation, justification, predestination, or reprobation. While not as crisp in doctrine as a Catholic might like, one cannot say that it is worse that some of the self-centered, over-earnest, poorly scored music that passes for liturgical today – or even the English translation of the mass through which the faithful have suffered for the last few decades.

        All that aside, I’m still against singing it; not only because it’s just bad music, but because there is so much better from which to choose. But that’s only my opinion…the author of the article clearly differs and has expressed her opinion in a meditation worth reflecting on (also, my opinion).

        In Christ,

  • Tarheel

    I disagree that it should not be sung. The dictionary has this definition for wretch; “a deplorably unfortunate or unhappy person.” Is that not a description of someone that has not welcomed the love of Christ into their lives?

    I myself am a convert to the faith. In mine was more of a real conversion than just going from a Protestant to being a Catholic. So in many ways this song although I remember it as a child has more meaning to me now than it did then.

    And yes we have sung this song at our parish.

  • I like the song as a poem (and don’t find it particularly heretical), but find the music wretched – especially when played on teh bagpipes.


    In Christ,

  • Mary Kochan

    You are correct, Daniel. I looked some info up about John Newton and he was a Calvinist.

  • tsunamimommy

    I find it sad that we are reduced to attacking hymns, regardless of ‘who they belong to’. I for one believe they were written to to Glory and Praise of God and that is enough for me. Yes, sing Amazing Grace, for indeed Grace is Amazing. I could go on, but I’d probably say something like, how can anyone say that the hootenanny, guitar, drum, tamborine stuff that they play at my church is music and I can promise you that all the camp fire guitar players, etc. will climb out of the woodwork and take me to task. We all have music, a particular hymn or two that speaks to our soul. I will listen to it all, and through some I will say the Divine Mercy Chaplet and smile the whole time.

    • Certainly not for Church, but the song can be sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” (covered and made famous by The Animals, but probably predating Amazing Grace by a century or so).

      Fun to do on retreats for a change of pace – with guitar.

      In Christ,

  • What’s all the fuss about? I love Amazing Grace! Sometimes with non-Catholic prayers and songs, you need to do a little translating, but the heart of the song is praise for and amazement toward God.

  • goral

    If being a wretch is good enough for the Lady, it is good enough for me, too.

    I always sing the song when it’s being sung even though I know it’s history. I wasn’t aware of the Calvinist connection. Maybe now I’ll ponder this instead of singing.
    I actually don’t sing Morning Has Broken, because my mornings are not broken and I don’t care for the sitting god of Cat Stevens.

    I think we Catholics can be somewhat naive regarding the origins of songs. We just take the approach that the Church baptizes these things and assimilates them.
    Some have even sung My Sweet Lord by Ringo assuming it to be uplifting and spiritual. I’ve never heard that one in any church, though.

    Two points of interest from our knowledgeable commentators.
    Which Catholic song has been adopted and used by, you know, that church diagonally across the intersection?
    Secondly, what is the official stance of our Church, if any, on just such matters.

    Michael, don’t ruin both songs by using the lyrics of one to the tune of the other. I tend to be partial to Eric Burton’s classic.

    • Daniel Latinus

      The expression “morning has broken” refers to that moment when the skies begin to fill with daylight, i.e., the dawn. I don’t think anyone wants to live in a place where morning never breaks.

      Second, Cat Stevens didn’t write “Morning Has Broken.” It was written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon, and the melody is based on an old Gaelic tune, which had been used for a Christmas carol. Although the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention it, I do remember reading somewhere the lyrics were based on a hymn written by a Medieval bishop, but I can’t verify this.

      Having said that, I don’t like “Morning Has Broken” as a hymn. The lyric seems to praise the morning more than God, whose name seems to be invoked as an afterthought. The music seems to lack the gravity for a good hymn. And the fact I first encountered this song as a pop tune doesn’t help.

      Also, George Harrison, not Ringo Starr, gave us “My Sweet Lord”, although the tune was lifted (subconsciously, it is alleged) from “He’s So Fine,” a pop song by Lonnie Mack and popularized by The Chiffons.

      However, I would argue that both the fact that the music is based on a still somewhat current pop tune, and the words were written as a hymn to the Hindu god Krishna, make “My Sweet Lord” inappropriate for Christian worship.

      Actually, in addition to the tune “The House of the Rising Sun”, “Amazing Grace” can be sung to the following tunes:

      -“The Theme from ‘Gilligan’s Island'”
      -“The Mickey Mouse Club” song
      -“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“Wimoweh”)

      • Amazing Grace has great meaning for me and my journey from being raised a Jehovah’s Witness to becoming Catholic. Yes, baptism saves us, but my eyes were opened to see Our Lord and His Church before the water hit me. I experienced a great many graces during my conversion, and clearly remember the hour “I first believed”. It was when I was blessed at my first Mass by a dear African priest (who, incidentally, loves the song Amazing Grace).

        Having come from a very divisive religious background, I find quibbling over writer’s intent to be quite tiresome. As a writer (poet), I know that once my poem leaves my pen and enters the world, my original INTENT for that poem becomes irrelevant. The reader interprets, and for each reader their own interpretation is correct even if it is diametrically opposed to my original intent.

        Sure, when dealing with Holy Scripture our theologians must investigate intent of the writers. But a song? Unless that song contains a direct heresy, why do we need to examine the writer’s intent?

        The Catholic Church definitely teaches sola gracia, a fact that many Protestants do not realize. Maybe Catholics singing Amazing Grace with their own intent will help teach the lesson both to visiting Protestants and to the faithful in the pews.

        We are saved at baptism through grace, we are saved anew every day through grace, we ultimately will be saved only through grace. That’s a Catholic both/and doctrine and Amazing Grace does not contradict it as far as I can see.

      • The words would certainly improve the Gilligan’s Island theme. I don’t quite get The Lion Sleeps Tonight unless one retains the Imbube chorus.

        In Christ,

  • Morning has Broken is one of my absolute favorites and, honestly, it would never have occurred to me to question whether it is about praising God. Cat Stevens popularized it, but as Daniel notes, the song was written by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon was a lifelong Anglican who converted to the Catholic faith in 1951 at the age of 70. Sounds like pretty solid credentials to me.

    The stanza “Praise for them springing/Fresh from the Word” can refer to nothing other than praising God for the creatures He has created through his Word, Jesus. How Catholic is that?

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    I love “Amazing Grace,” song story and all. I don’t even mind some of the modern Christian hymns. I call them “KSBJ songs” because they’re the music that the local Christian music station plays (http://www.ksbj.org/). There are a few I don’t like. I once rejected “I Can Only Imagine” from inclusion in a retreat songbook because, well, we’re Catholics. We don’t need to imagine. We can go to Mass or Adoration.

    Still, if you can yourself over a few humps in the learning curve, there are several hymns from our tradition, almost never heard anymore, that make “Amazing Grace” sound a little less graceful:

    o Salve Regina
    o Panis Angelicus (any version)
    o Victime Paschali Laudes
    o Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above. Be sure to get a version that follows the course of the Sail Holy Queen prayer. There are versions where an author has appropriated the music and substituted his own lyrics. These also might be good, but since they are not the original, they can be unknown quantities.
    o O Salutaris Hostia
    o Tangum Ergo
    o Pange Lingua
    o El trece de mayo (sung to melody of Immaculate Mary, it recounts the tale of the Virgin of Fatima)
    o Veni Creator Spiritus
    o Come Holy Ghost

    Many others, too, but I gotta go, leaving you with the author’s own argument that tilts both ways:

    “Unfortunately, this spiritual blindness and intellectual pride afflicts Christians on both sides of the church divide, preventing some of us from experiencing all the joy and life God wants to give us, a joy rooted in truth, and watered with humility and faith.”

    • Sorry I’m so late responding. I was away from my computer all day yesterday!

      Well said! I completely agree, the argument about spiritual pride tilts both ways, blinding and dividing us. I also agree that there are many hymns within the Catholic tradition that are both beautiful and shamefully neglected. As much as I love “Amazing Grace,” I wouldn’t want to hear it every week.

      On the other hand, to the extent that this song reflects authentic Christian faith (revealed to the apostles and preserved through the Catholic Church), it can serve as a “bridge” between Catholics and other Christians. This is no small consideration, especially for those of us who still have friends and family on the far side of the Tiber.

      As Catholics, we believe salvation is an ongoing process in the life of a believer. It was accomplished by Christ at a particular point in history (on Calvary, “amazing grace… that saved a wretch like me.”)

      God’s grace is also applied in the present when we avail ourselves of sanctifying grace through the sacraments (“I once was lost but now am found, blind but now I see.”)

      Finally, that grace is our sole hope for the future (“’tis grace that’s brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”)

      Although others have already addressed the “wretch” issue, I have to say that it surprised me that this was an issue for some people. Two prayers associated with the Rosary convey this sense of wretchedness:

      Hail, Holy Queen: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sorrows, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…”

      Fatima prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.”

      It is only by looking our own wretchedness squarely that we catch a glimpse of the boundless mercy of God. Especially this week, that would seem to be an appropriate meditation.

      God bless! Heidi Saxton

  • Wonderer

    In my mind there is a need to have liturgically meaningful songs at Mass. It is not reasonable, and in fact diverts focus, to have music and song that are disjointed from the Mass! Many songs we use during our Masses show that we do not have interest in the themes of the Masses we attend and so we are usually satisfied with just listening, observing and singing. This, of course, means that in the end while some benefits of attending Mass are attained a large aspect of it is lost. It is that ‘lost’ part of Mass that makes us less Christians than we should be.

    An important element is knowing what makes music liturgical and what makes music outside use. Personally ‘Amazing Grace’ is not for liturgical purposes and should be recognized and left as so. I don’t also find it particularly deep in mystery and reflects a lot of the shallowness of protestantism. It’s okay if one uses it for some personal enjoyment but then that’s it.

    • “An important element is knowing what makes music liturgical and what makes music outside use.” Agreed — but what is it, precisely, that makes a composition “liturgical”?

      In Sacrosanctum Concilium (#37), we read:
      “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.”

      Is a hymn of praise to God for his “amazing grace” an example of something “indissolubly bound up with superstition and error”? Not at all. Rather — especially for those of us who converted from other Christian traditions — the Church in her wisdom acknowledges that the music (especially the hymns) of our tradition may be incorporated into the liturgy: par 119:

      In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius …(Art. 39 and 40).

      To equate “Protestant” with “shallowness” is disrespectful. To contend that the song is not “liturgically appropriate” based solely on one’s personal opinion and preference is not constructive.

      The Catechism (#1157) offers three criteria o assess the suitability of liturgical music:
      — “beauty expressive of prayer”
      — “unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments”
      — “solemn character of the celebration.”

      In other words, there is quite a bit of latitude here for a variety of musical compositions. We may not like them all equally, but we must be willing to participate fully (offering it up, as needed) regardless of our personal preferences.

      • HomeschoolNfpDad

        I agree with everything you say here, especially the part which indicates, “We may not like them all equally, but we must be willing to participate fully (offering it up, as needed) regardless of our personal preferences.”

        However, it is quite worth observing that the discontent expressed by Wonderer seems to fall into the realm almost of passive frustration. Let me explain. In his Chirograph of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio “Tra Le Sollecitudini’ on Sacred Music, John Paul makes several observations, many with reference to Sacrosanctum Concilium ( http://tinyurl.com/apxk9 ):

        o “[I]t is necessary to refer to those principles of conciliar inspiration to encourage a development in conformity with the requirements of liturgical reform and which will measure up to the liturgical and musical tradition of the Church” (No. 2).

        o “[M]usic destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point” (No. 4).

        o “Today, moreover, the meaning of the category “sacred music” has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself” (No. 4).

        o “Indeed, liturgical music must meet the specific prerequisites of the Liturgy: full adherence to the text it presents, synchronization with the time and moment in the Liturgy for which it is intended, appropriately reflecting the gestures proposed by the rite” (No. 5).

        o Quoting “Tra Le Sollecitudini,” John Paul asserts the view of St. Pius X: “…while every nation”, he noted, “is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinate in such a manner to the general character of sacred music, that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them” (No. 6).

        o The biggest point, perhaps, is this, taken from No. 10 (and reiterated in No. 12): “Since the Church has always recognized and fostered progress in the arts, it should not come as a surprise that in addition to Gregorian chant and polyphony she admits into celebrations even the most modern music, as long as it respects both the liturgical spirit and the true values of this art form.”

        The real problem isn’t the admission to the liturgy of genuinely songs like “Amazing Grace.” It’s not even the problem of the collective trash heap that sometimes passes for liturgical music in a modern American Mass. All those songs – even the trash heap – could actually be admitted without creating much difficulty if it weren’t for the true problem.

        And the true problem is this: increasingly the Church does not, for all practical purposes, admit Gregorian chant or traditional polyphony into her liturgical celebration. The point of departure from which the admission of songs like Amazing Grace is supposed to grow, has been all but abandoned. There is no longer a rock sitting underneath song choice for the liturgy which, when it was present, acted as a sound basis from which decisions about appropriateness for the liturgy could be made.

        Put another way, it would be safe to say, I think, that the admission of Amazing Grace and songs like it would be quite acceptable even when judged against Gregorian chant and polyphony. Against such a back drop, the trash heap would never for survive very long. But Gregorian chant and polyphony are, in fact, excluded from the liturgy as a practical matter, with only a few exceptions here and there. Thus, we no longer have ready access to an objective basis of comparison when judging music from other traditions.

        And the most often-cited reason for the exclusion of Gregorian chant and polyphony, in my experience, amounts personal preference. People don’t like it. But people don’t know it, and I have never in my life come face-to-face with even a “Reform of the Reform” group that actively promotes it. I know such groups exist; I read their web sites extensively. But their actual penetration into parish life is very small.

        That is what is sad.

        • I think you may be right about the source of the problem … I thought it was interesting that Gregorian chant is to be given “pride of place,” an expression also used for the organ. These things provide a distinctive focal point — the North Star that guides us, if you will.

          The challenge, then, is finding a way to introduce this form into parishes where it has disappeared. But how?

          First, the music ministers — they cannot lead if they are not taught. GIA quarterly recently had an article on Gregorian chant that was an invaluable introduction. But there must be other opportunities for professional development as well.

          Another obvious place would be with our children, whose preferences and tastes are often more readily influenced than those of their parents. Imagine, however, how that could change if we get the children singing … “and a child shall lead them.”

      • Wonderer

        Hello Heidi, to start with I’ll apologize if you find it disrespectful to equate “Protestant” to “shallowness” but then I would ask if that is not why you are in the Catholic Church in the first place, precisely because of its deeper completeness. It may sound disrespectful to the protestant but that doesn’t make it any less true.

        There is an essence that I am trying to reach here and it doesn’t really have anything to do with whether “Amazing Grace” is protestant in origin or not. It has more to do with whether the words and the tune of music are appropriate in a particular event. For instance, it wouldn’t be appropriate to, in the middle of Good Friday celebrations when the passion is at the centre of the liturgy to start singing ‘Alleluia’ or have songs that are of some dancing nature or joyous rhythm. Both the words and tune would be hopelessly out of place, i am sure you would agree. While these things have their places they may not be appropriate. To now say ‘what is wrong with a song of praise like “alleluia”?’ because we are talking about the Mass or something liturgical would certainly be out of place in certain contexts as shown.

        This phenomenon does not affect only songs from protestantism, they affect songs from Catholic culture and these days innovations that come from confusions brought about by the influence of christian traditions outside the Catholic faith through the media or popular understanding. I live in Africa and I can tell you that the issue local genre of music is not so much the problem as it is its use as explained above. There are wonderful local ‘liturgical’ music here which are culturally very rich and good but when used inappropriately become detraction.

        This has a lot to do with understanding the phrase “so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.” There are songs that are always inappropriate in the Mass, though they may be of some spiritual nature. I personally enjoy “Amazing Grace” in folk terms but in terms of the liturgy wouldn’t fit nicely somewhere. Certainly the church will not impose on the faithful to sing this or that song in this or that Mass but the songs and music we use could be likened to the liturgy in itself where innovation is hardly ever relevant during Mass. For instance, there is a common practice here where during the eucharist celebration the faithful are asked to recount the mystery of faith… Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! or variants. What do some priests do? They start singing ‘he’s alive, amen, he’s alive, amen, Jesus is alive forever, he’s alive, amen. Now, is that the mystery of faith? Even though song and music are left open doesn’t mean that anything we sing goes. We should always remember that the praise and glory of God is not in the songs themselves, or in our enjoyment of them, not even in the elation that we may feel but rather in the degree of conversion that we attain. That is the very purpose of the Mass, the very purpose of the songs and music we use at Mass and so must as much as possible be aligned to the direction of the Mass. The liturgy in full. All these are means and not ends in themselves.

        I would encourage you to go through your Sunday missal, read through the introduction to the Mass of the day to get its focus, go through the prayers, antiphons and readings carrying the focus in mind, of course, and then go to Mass, maybe one after the Easter Sunday, listen to the music and song used during the Mass and you will find the tension between where the Mass is going and where the music is taking one to. What you will find, I assure you, will most likely be heart-breaking.

        I hope I am not doing injustice to the ‘essence’ I am fishing at here. Wishing you a solemn and deep Easter celebration.

        • Thank you for taking time to form such a thoughtful response.

          I thought HomeschoolDad’s remarks were most constructive in terms of identifying the underlying problem.

          The only remaining point I would want to make to you is that there is a difference between “shallowness” and “simplicity.” This hymn — and others like it — were the “milk” that introduced me to the faith, and sustained me until I began to hunger for something more substantive … which I found in the Catholic Church.

          Every parish is a family, representing people at every stage of development. We must never lose focus on the “source and summit” (as Homeschool Dad pointed out) that feeds us all. Yet we must also recognize that some are further along the path than others, and meet their needs as well.

          After seventeen years in the pew and several years at seminary, I have matured enough that I am capable of contemplating the mysteries of the liturgy (and participaing in the music traditionally used to express them). And yet the attachment to the earlier times remain, reminding me of how far I’ve come — and of the brothers and sisters who are still on their way across the river and up the mountain.

          In that moment, I am grateful for the loving embrace of Mother Church, who makes room for all her children.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    One of the things that is refreshing to see in this forum is a proper understanding of what is, I think, most important about Gregorian chant and traditional polyphony. The primary thing which makes a song more like these two forms is theological orthodoxy. Gregorian chant and traditional polyphony are harmonious with Sacred Tradition because they are part of Sacred Tradition. There’s nothing in “Salve Regina,” for example, which contradicts the teachings of the Church. Indeed, much of what the Church teaches about Mary is actually captured there. Contrast that with a trash heap song, “City of God.” I actually like this song quite a bit, but its refrain gets the teaching of the Church exactly wrong. It is not up to any of us to build the City of God. Indeed, the Church observes in human history that most attempts to construct a paradise on earth devolve eventually into tyranny. The reason should be obvious. To even assert that we can construct that which is heavenly – for that is, after all, what Augustine means by City of God – we must de-emphasize the reality of the Fall. Fallen humankind could not possibly construct Paradise because fallen humankind eventually, and despite our best efforts, always fails. If we learn no other lesson this Good Friday, then we should learn that the foundation of the Temple at Jerusalem – a building constructed with the real and direct help of God Himself – cracked. Not even with God’s help can we hope to build heaven, for if the Temple at Jerusalem breaks at the death of Jesus, what can any of our own faulty construction projects do in the face of such sorrow? Thus, only God in His glory can actually build the City of God. The Wonder beyond all wonders, moreover, is that He actually has! Ours, therefore is to seek the City of God, not to build it. The simple change of one word twists theological nonsense into orthodox instruction. Seek, and you shall find, after all.

    Of secondary importance is aesthetics – but this is still important! “Salve Regina” walks through an entire song with a melody that fits within a single octave. This is also true of “Amazing Grace,” by the way. Not all the chants I mentioned previously do this. The version of “Panis Angelicus” played at the assault on Paris in the TV mini-series, Joan of Arc has a melody that jumps up and down the scale, well beyond the range of a single octave. This is a critical aesthetic. Chant is technically simpler – often by far – than much of what passes for modern liturgical music. This is not a knock on complex music. My son is about to embarck upon learning a modern piece for piano by Aram Khachaturian, called “Toccata.” It is quite complex – and beautiful. Listen for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bfo4-CnJZQQ . However, even if it had orthodox words, its aesthetics alone should probably exclude it from liturgy because, well, the liturgy is meant to be sung by both the priest and the people. The priest can, of course, dedicate time to learning complex music, if such were called for. Mass and the sacraments are (or should be) the most important thing for him. But the people in the pews have to work 60-hour weeks or chase after a bunch of kids – or both. Developing a sense for complex music might be an unreasonable request. This is where the aesthetics of polyphony come in because with traditional polyphony, at least, there is always a singable note for a given person to land on, regardless of range.

    There is more, of course. The pipe organ is a preferred instrument at least in part because its wind-fired pipes closely simulate human vocal chords. The same is true, in large part, of many – perhaps most – of the instruments used in a Mass sung with an orchestra (which, by the way, is one of Pope Benedict’s favorite traditions from the German liturgy).

    Still, I hope this discussion offers an idea of what is possible and, it is to be hoped, reasonable.

  • Tarheel

    After reading all this, I think it is safe to say that the song “Amazing Grace” is now a little bit black and blue.

    Personally I really didn’t “feel” the words of this song until I was a Catholic.

    God’s grace is amazing.

  • Jason Winchester
  • KG

    I loved your article. After 14 years of resisting I converted from Protestantism to Catholicism 2 years ago, and it was an extremely profound experience because it was me bowing my knee to the Lord as I should have done several years ago when I married my husband. I love the compassion, mercy and love in what you write.

    I love my Catholic faith, and I do feel strongly connected to my church community. On the same hand, I feel that we Christians need to spend less time de-constructing each other and start building each other and the church back up.

    Judging a song is like judging art. Everyone can hear a song and the words and it will have a completely different meaning in their heart, soul and mind, and it can reach them in different ways. Reading some of the comments I see that. If we tell our kids for example the history of a song, and why it was made, and what the words were intended, then we take the “meaning” away that our kids or ourselves could take away from a song. In a lot of ways, I think that’s what we spend our time in the world and humanity doing — judging and putting people in compartments, which leaves so many on the fringes on the outside looking in. I will be honest Amazing Grace meant something completely different until I had a true Conversion of my heart, and after becoming Catholic it has a deeper, richer meaning . I was a “wretch” in that I felt low, disobedient, and rebellious in my heart…and I was unhappy, I just didn’t realize what I was truly searching for. I was searching for God and meaning. I think we can all relate, no matter the belief system. I learned that God loves me, that I am precious, that I was made in His image.

    Universal, that is what Catholic means. Allowing someone through God’s power and grace, not our own will, come to the full understanding of the faith will make the conversion deeper, more meaningful and precious….more universal in its impact on the world.

    Rather than having someone harp on me that Protestants are not the true faith, that what i believed is fundamentally wrong and against the true faith…all that type of rhetoric kept me away for years. Love. Jesus didn’t use that type of rhetoric against those who were broken. In fact, he used that type of rhetoric with the Pharisees who felt self-righteous, holy and perfect in God’s eyes…perfect enough to judge and analyze others.

    If singing Amazing Grace, and seeing it through the eyes of the journey of true conversion and humility to become Catholic, will give my Protestant family and friends pause to think…we are not that far away from each other…then I see that as an outpouring of what God has given me. Grace. And it IS amazing!