by Father Michael Gilligan
The Second Vatican Council:
Doctrine, Bible, and Liturgy
In the Catholic Church, great authority is given to an ecumenical council, a
gathering of her bishops from all over the world. The Pope himself presides over
such a gathering, either in person or through a representative. Of the various
documents such a council might give us, a constitution would be especially important;
it would be a statement of principles, a blueprint for renewal. In 1963, such
a document was approved by the Second Vatican Council: the Constitution on the
In that document (#121), the Council fathers gave some norms for
the texts of hymns used in the liturgy. These texts, they said, should
be in conformity with Catholic doctrine and should be drawn primarily
from the Bible and from the “sources” of
the liturgy, the earliest documented records.
What is the Catholic doctrine of the Church today? “Catholic
not only to official dogmas, carefully defined,
but also to teachings
that are commonly acknowledged as true. Since 1963, almost all the
changes in doctrine are not in
terms of orthodoxy or heresy, right
or wrong, true or false. By and large, the documents of the Council
give us changes in emphasis, in theological method, and in ways of
thinking. Since the texts of hymns are to reflect this Catholic doctrine,
these texts will have the same kind of emphasis, the same theological
method, and the same ways of thinking. It will be a case, not
condemning the past, but of going to something better. As Pope John
XXIII put it, it is an aggiornamento, a gradual
updating, rather than a revolution. So, by studying theology and
the history of Church doctrine, musicians will be able to choose
good hymns. Without that knowledge, they will not.
Council said that the texts of hymns are to be drawn from the Bible.
Like Catholic doctrine, the teaching of the Bible is only well understood
with the help of theology and history. Bible texts should be interpreted
accurately; it is not just a question of quoting verses or phrases.
Allowance has to be made for the gradual development of certain Biblical
teachings. A given hymn, for example, does not have to express all
that needs to be said about a certain belief. In fact, it may well
be appropriate for a text to treat only one aspect of faith, and
even that according to only one aspect of revelation. Certainly,
however, it is good for hymn texts to use the idiom of Scripture
as Catholics know it. In hymns, for example, it is a help
to prayer to see God spoken of as “Father,” rather than “Yahweh.” It
is good to hear phrases from the Psalms in our hymns. It is good
to see Christ represented in our hymns as our mediator with the Father,
as the one through whom we pray. Finally, the Council said that hymn texts should primarily be derived
from the sources of the liturgy. Like the Bible, these sources are
well understood only through study. Musicians, reviewers, parish
priests, and all involved in choosing hymns need to be familiar with
such sources as the Apostolic Constitutions, the Didaché, the Didascalia, the
writings of St. Justin, and the early sacramentaries, as well as
their history and theology. It is not sufficient merely to cite these
sources; one has to understand them and use them rightly. Every pastoral
musician who chooses hymn texts needs to know why and how the sources
of the liturgy affect the choice of hymns.
What is most important in hymn texts?
Many principles affect hymn texts; there are all kinds of legitimate concerns.
Some people want texts that include both men and women. Some people want texts
that are familiar. Some people want texts that are poetic and beautiful. Some
want texts that are clear and contemporary. Some want to avoid archaic language.
They want the kind of English found in the Lectionary and the Sacramentary, not
the idiom of 18th and 19th century England. Although not every hymn will please
needs have been taken into consideration in this hymnbook. Each parish has available
to it the choice that is necessary.
But for Catholics, the important principles affecting hymns are the needs of
the faith, the principles of the liturgical renewal. The main ideas that influence
our texts are those that come from the Church herself, not the wider culture.
Renewal of hymnody is a question of discovering our own roots, our own origins
in faith, our most essential and central beliefs.
At the beginning of this article, we reviewed the teaching
of the Second Vatican Council: the texts of hymns should agree with
Catholic doctrine. These texts will have the same kind of emphasis,
the same theological method, and the same ways of thinking. Ultimately,
renewal of hymnody is a question of discovering our own roots, our
own origins in faith, our most essential and central beliefs. Here,
then, are some of the principles that form the basis for the hymn
texts found in the Leaflet Missal. There are three important
areas in which major shifts have occurred in liturgical theology:
the Trinity, the role of Christ in prayer, and the role of the Spirit.
The Trinity: A Dynamic Relationship
With regard to the Trinity, the documents of the Vatican Council regularly use
the idiom of Scripture and early tradition: we pray to the Father, through the
Son, in the Spirit. As the great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner, S.J.,
pointed out, the Trinity in the work of salvation and the Trinity who dwells
in our hearts is the same reality, the same God. So, we need to see ourselves
as sons and daughters in the Son, united in the Spirit. In the liturgy, the Trinity
is not an external reality but something immanent, present in our hearts by grace.
God himself dwells within us in the person of his Spirit.
Many Christians need a richer understanding of their faith in the Trinity. Some
think of God as three separate, individual beings, more or less a divine “committee.” Some
see God simply as one, without differentiation. People need to celebrate in the
liturgy the fullness of their faith. This theology is important not only in our
prayer, especially our hymns, but also in the very way in which we experience
God’s grace. God’s love
is made known to us through the Son, through the mediation of a Word that itself
is a personal experience for us of divinity and transcendence. That love is also
made known in the Spirit, in the community of the Church, the gathered congregation.
Implicitly and experientially, we share the life of God within the family, within
the household of the faith, within the unity of the Spirit.
Trinity and Liturgy
There are three significant ways in which the theology of the Trinity affects
the liturgy: in the reform of the Mass, in the wording of the doxology (Glory
to the Father...), and in the wording of our hymn texts.
In the 1969 Order of Mass, two prayers to the Trinity were omitted: Accept,
Holy Trinity, during the preparation of the gifts, and May it please
you, Holy Trinity, at the end of Mass.
In this reform, the traditional orientation of prayer to the Father was more
fully restored. We do not pray to the Trinity as such, but to God. We pray to
him through the Son, in the Spirit. This perspective was always present in the
Roman Canon and its prefaces, as well as almost all the public prayers of the
The ancient form of the doxology was worded in exactly this way: through the
Son, in the Spirit. A change was needed in the fourth century, because of the
violent, prolonged struggle against the Arian heretics, who denied the divinity
of Christ At that time, people began to use another form of doxology:
to the Son and to the Spirit. Through exhaustive study, the liturgical scholar
Joseph Jungmann, S.J., showed that the liturgy was substantially distorted, in
its reaction to heresy. Now that the danger is long past, he says, the Church
can return to the original perspective of the sources of the liturgy. Especially
in the liturgy of the hours, in morning and evening prayer, the ancient tradition
should be restored. As in the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, we give God glory through
the Son, in the Spirit.
By the same token, hymns about the Trinity should reflect the tradition of the
ancient, undivided Church. Hymns that are directed to the Trinity as such or
to each person successively should not be used, no matter how familiar they may
be; they are not in accord with the spirit of the liturgy. Instead, all Trinitarian
hymns should truly accord with the nature of the Eucharist, morning and evening
prayer, and the sacraments.
Jesus Christ: Our Mediator with God
With regard to Jesus Christ, many Catholics still see him one-sidedly
in his divinity, as the eternal Son of God. Yet, by and large,
the liturgy rescinds from his divinity. Instead, both Scripture
and early tradition emphasize the humanity of Jesus Christ. In
fact, he is our mediator with the Father precisely in his humanity.
This is why we pray in the Mass through Christ our Lord.
The liturgy is not so much prayer to Christ as it is the prayer
This is how Jesus taught us to pray: to his Father, through him.
This is how the Bible and the sources of the liturgy teach us to
pray. This is how the Church herself has always prayed, in the Eucharistic
Prayer, age after age. This way of thinking helps us understand the
Resurrection as part of the whole mystery of Easter, the Passover
of the man Jesus to glory with the Father. In some hymns in the past,
the Resurrection and other miracles were thought of as evidence of
the divinity of Christ. Yet the disciples themselves did not have
this understanding! Instead, the Bible and the sources of the liturgy
teach us that the Resurrection is a victory for Jesus in his humanity
and therefore in our humanity. Because he is risen, we too will rise.
Because he could conquer, we too will conquer. Because he is Lord,
we too will come to glory.
Similarly, in this theology, we can understand better how Jesus
is a priest for us. In some
he was once described as a sacred
person to be worshipped, to be our benefactor,
to consecrate the
bread and wine, to descend among us. Instead, as a priest, Jesus
in the sources of the liturgy to be primarily a mediator,
an intercessor before God. As in
the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus
prays on our behalf and helps us to pray;
we pray to God through
him. The priesthood of Christ has taken the place of all the
who came before him:
Under the old covenant, there were many of those other
priests, because they died and could not continue their work. But
Jesus lives on forever, and his .work as priest does not pass on
to someone else. And so he is able, now and always, to save those
who come to God through him, because he lives forever to plead
for them. Jesus, then, is the High Priest that meets our needs.
This is not an isolated paragraph, taken out of context;
it is the main point of the whole Epistle to the Hebrews. The priesthood
of Christ is not so much the descent of God among us as it is the
prayer and offering of Christ, bringing us to God. It is an upwards
movement, directed to heaven: This is why the liturgy does not emphasize
adoration of Christ; instead, it is to God the liturgy directs our
prayers, our offering, and our adoration. The liturgy is not so much
prayer to Christ as it is the prayer of Christ. Our hymns, then,
should express this theology. Because Christ is our mediator, we
need many Easter hymns. They will be sung for eight Sundays, up to
and including Pentecost, the last Sunday of Easter. The celebration
lasts, not for one day or one week, but for 50 days. In fact, some
Easter hymns will be appropriate in any season, because every Sunday
celebrates the death and Resurrection of Christ. Jesus is Lord, all
during the year.
Again, because of the role of Christ, we need many hymns about
the Second Coming. This theme of the liturgy is not limited to
Advent; it is also found especially in the month of November. To
pray for the return of Christ is to pray for the fulfillment of
his victory, for the completion of the mystery of Easter. “Christ
has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
The Church in Our Hymns
There is another theme that is needed in our hymns:
the reality of the Church as God’s People. This teaching has many dimensions,
among them, the universal call to holiness, the Church as God’s
creation (that is, the Body of Christ, the People of the Covenant,
and God’s vineyard), the Church as a Servant, the Church as a
sign of the kingdom, and the Church as a Mother, like Mary. We find
these images in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the New. Again
and again, we use these images in liturgy. God’s Word determines
the way we pray, the theology and language of our prayer. So, the
hymns we sing should reflect the great themes of the Bible. When
we sing of the Church, we express what we believe about her, in
all the fullness of our faith.
The Universal Call of God
There are many misconceptions about the nature of the Church.
Perhaps one of the greatest is that found in the media. It is often
the case that movies and television identify the Church with the
clergy and with people in religious orders, that is, monks, nuns,
brothers, and sisters. When someone on television is portrayed as
leaving religious life, becoming a lay person again, that person
is said to be “leaving the Church,” as though lay people do not belong
to the Church.
For centuries, many lay people felt that they were less a part of the Church
than priests or nuns. Celibacy, in particular, was thought to be a means of being
a “first-class” member. In part, such a feeling was a cultural tendency,
a world-view. In some ways, however, that feeling was based in fact.
Hand missals in vernacular languages were once condemned by bishops, because
lay people were not considered worthy to read the sacred text. Catholic school
children of Eastern Rite priests suffered discrimination, because their fathers
were married. Male choirs were considered preferable to mixed choirs. And when
women were permitted to take on the role of lector, they were required to read
outside the sanctuary, forbidden to read from the pulpit.
In opposition to this kind of thinking, the Second Vatican Council stresses unequivocally
the traditional doctrine that there is one, universal call to holiness. All the
baptized, whatever their state in life, are equally called to be holy. So, in
our hymns about the Church, it is appropriate to use the Scriptural idiom in
which all the baptized are spoken of as “saints.” It is appropriate
to use the powerful theology of baptism, by which all members of the Church are
saved through water and faith. It is appropriate to sing of the leaders of the
Church as servants and members of the Church, not as individuals endowed with
greater grace than other baptized people. Above all, it is appropriate to sing
of the Church as God’s People, as one family of faith. Baptism is more
important than any distinction of class or culture, race or nation, rite or language,
age or sex.
The universal call of all nations and races is found, for example, in such hymns
as “From All Who Dwell,” “Just as the Grain,” and “Where
Love Is Living.” The universal call of all the baptized is found in “Come,
You Faithful” and “Father, Make Us One.”
The Church as God’s Creation
There is another common misunderstanding of the concept of the Church.
In the United States, people are said to attend the “church
of their choice.” Many Americans think of their membership
as the result of personal preference. They consider faith as primarily
an individual gift, prior to the liturgy, apart from the Church.
They think that faith is found in the individual’s personal
acceptance of Christ, in the individual’s free choice, in
the individual’s private decision. What is really important,
say many Americans, is doing good, following your conscience, and
tolerating your neighbor. After all, that neighbor may have religious
preferences that are different from your own. Religion is essentially
a private matter, a question of individual choice. The Church,
such people say, is primarily a gathering of individuals who come
together to express in common their religious traditions and to
strengthen their faith.
In contrast to this viewpoint, the Vatican Council emphasizes the
ancient understanding of the Church as God’s creation. People
who belong to the Church do so not because of their choice but because
of God’s. For this reason, babies—without mature faith—are
baptized. For this reason, imperfect people and even sinners remain
members of the Church. There will be bad people who are part of the
Church and good people who are not. The classic statement of this
perspective is that salvation is by faith, not human deeds. And that
faith is found and expressed in the Church. Faith comes from the
liturgy itself, not beforehand; faith comes from sharing in the life
of the Church, from something we do in common.
Our hymns sing of God’s People crossing the Red Sea (“Come,
You Faithful”), the desert (“Give Thanks to God, for
God is Good”), or the Jordan River (“Dayenu”).
When we sing these hymns, we think of the Church. God’s People
from their beginning were chosen, singled out, and favored by God
directly. The meaning of the Exodus is that God intervened in history,
on behalf of his chosen faithful. The history of God’s People
is the history of the Church. Our hymns, then, should call to mind
our Jewish origins, our biblical roots, and our long struggle to
follow God, down through the ages.
Good hymns about the Church will
be more Hebrew than Roman, more universal than Latin, more involved
with God's great deeds than our own wants and desires. It in not
that we have chosen him but that he has chosen us. What counts is
God's choice, not ours; God's decision, not our preference; God's
grace, not our sin.
We celebrate this teaching, about the Church as God's creation,
when our hymns describe the Church as the Body of Christ, a living,
organic union with Christ himself, as in "See Us, Lord, around Your
Altar" and "To Christ the King." We sing of the Church as God's Chosen
People, as in "The Church's One Foundation" and "The Lord of Light
Is Near." We sing of the Church as the result of God's Covenant,
as in "How Great and Good Is He" and "The Bread We Hold in Our Hands."
We sing of the Church as gathered by God, formed by his will, as
in "Shepherd of Life." Finally, we sing of the Church as a vineyard,
a garden that God himself has planted and nourished, as in "We Are
There is another theology of the Church, which has today been largely abandoned.
In recent generations, people spoke of the Church as a “perfect society,” like
the State with all it needs to endure.
acknowledged that individuals sinned, even individual Church leaders.
But the Church herself was seen as the New Jerusalem, perfect and
blameless, strongly identified with the Bride of Christ (or with
Christ himself). No matter how serious sin might be, it was not attributed
to the Church as such. Seeing the Church as she will be in heaven
is a legitimate theme of the liturgy, as in “Jerusalem,
My Happy Home.” That theme, however, refers to the end of time,
not the present; it needs to be balanced by other, equally important,
In the doctrine of the Vatican Council, certain Scriptural themes
are brought to the fore, to help us understand the Church more accurately.
The Church is described as a “pilgrim Church,” a people who are “on the
way,” who have not yet arrived at their destination, as in the hymn, “On
Our Journey Home.” The Church is also described as a “Servant Church,” following
the example of her Lord, as in the “Ecumenical Hymn to God,” where
the Church is said to ‘serve and guide.”
According to this teaching, the Church serves the whole community,
in fact, the whole world, by promoting whatever is authentically
human, just, and equitable. Although her members take pride in her,
as in “God’s Plan Is Crystal
Clear,” the Church does not rule; she serves.
The Church as A Sign of the Kingdom
There is yet another false viewpoint, primarily secular in its origins,
that sees the Church as something like a giant corporation, existing
for her own benefit or perhaps for the benefit of her members. From
this viewpoint, often represented in the media, the Pope is portrayed
as someone who runs the Church, issuing moral edicts now and again,
so that he retains control over the masses and keeps the organization
strong.Yet the Church is not a corporation. Her origins
are in God; her destiny is divine. Through her celibate monks and
nuns, through her humility and service, through her poverty and charity,
the Church is a sign of God’s kingdom. She knows that the reign of God is
near; to that future, she bears witness. She works for the liberation
of the oppressed, the relief of the anguished, and the salvation of
the poor. By her sacrifices in the present, the Church testifies that
what is to come has eternal value. This theme is found in many Advent
songs, such as “Give the King” and “Rise Up, 0
Lord Our God.”
The Church as A Mother
Here is one last observation. In recent .generations, some spoke
of the Church as a Mother who “knows best,” who corrects
and reproves. At that time, Church leaders emphasized authority
and obedience. Today, we return to the teaching of the Fathers
of the Church. If we sing of her as a Mother, we do so because
the Church is the source of our life. She brings us to birth, she
nourishes us, and she watches over us. Hymns about Mary, the Mother
of Christ, will naturally be associated with the Church, as in “Immaculate
Mary” and “Sing of Mary.” The association is
Scriptural and patristic.
These then, are the themes that should predominate in hymns about
the Church. Just as there are new theological emphases in our prayers
about God, Christ, and the Spirit, so too the Church is understood
in a new way, whenever we sing in the liturgy. The Church is God’s
People, with all the rich meaning found in that concept.