A Short History of Liturgical Music – Hymns

Back after a bit of a break, to tell you a little about the hymns we sing at Newman. Saying that I will give you a short history of hymns is a bit of a misnomer, since a hymn is literally any “song of praise” – it doesn’t even have to be Christian or spiritual at all! But in our context at Newman, we know hymns as the songs we sing together during mass. Usually, there are four main hymns sung in the Catholic mass.


We start with an Opening or Processional Hymn. We try to make this a more upbeat and easy-to-follow song that everyone can sing together as we welcome the procession (including the lectors, acolytes and priest) up to the alter. Sometimes we pull from the Catholic Book of Worship, and other times from the Gather. There is usually a noticeable difference between these two hymnals. Catholic Book of Worship contains mostly traditional hymns. Many date back to the 19th century when modern Christian hymnody was at its peak. Did you know that many hymns are actually borrowed from Protestant composers? For example, one of the most prominent composer of Christian hymns is Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement in Protestantism. In some instances the lyrics have been slightly changed in our Catholic Book of Worship, but often they express the basic Christian message so well! Take a listen to one of his most popular hymns (that we sung during Advent):


The next hymn we sing is for Offertory. This is the period in between the two sections of the mass – The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We try to choose a hymn that is more meditative that reflects the readings from that day. So, for example, if the Gospel was about the Beatitudes, we may choose something like this: You will also notice that this piece comes from our Gather hymnal. It was written by a contemporary American composer, David Haas. It has a more modern/contemporary feel to it.


Next we sing a Communion hymn, which the congregation is receiving communion. We sing not just to ‘fill up the space’ but to put everyone in a reflective and meditative atmosphere. The choir won’t usually announce this hymn, but know that you are always welcome to sing along! We do a variety of music (such as the Chant or Polyphony mentioned in earlier posts) or hymns or praise and worship music. We try to pick something that makes sense with the liturgical season and something that may be a little too complicated for the entire congregation to sing (since most won’t sing anyway because they are receiving communion).


Finally, after all the announcements and the final blessing, we sing a Recessional Hymn as the priest, acolytes and lectors process to the back. Again, we try to make sure this is something everyone can join in, from either the Catholic Book of Worship or the Gather.


Now you know a little more about the structure of music at mass and the wide variety of hymns we sing!


By Newman Catholic Students' Society Executive

For more information about the Newman Catholic Students' Society executive, please consult the Executive Committee page under the About menu on this website.