26 September 2022

English Hymns at the Latin Mass: Traditional? Permissible? Desired?

A look at some of the forgotten (and often very surprising!) customs of the Traditional Latin Mass in the 20th century before the Council.

From One Peter Five

By Jeffrey M. Ostrowski, BM

Readers surely know this adage: “The truth is stranger than fiction.” Mussolini began his career as an elementary school teacher; can you imagine sending your kindergartner to spend each day with Mussolini? Santa Anna—the enemy of the Republic of Texas at the Battle of the Alamo—later in life spent his time trying to sell rubber (for buggy tires) in New York. Can you imagine being a United States citizen in the 1850s and purchasing rubber from the guy who killed Davy Crockett? In the 1780s, Benedict Arnold’s wife lived briefly in Philadelphia with their son; can you imagine being a next-door neighbor to the wife of America’s most infamous traitor? The truth is stranger than fiction.

A ‘Trap’ For Experts

Most Catholics believe Mass used to be entirely in Latin (except Kyrie Eleison, which is Greek). Ask somebody who considers himself an expert on the Roman Rite: “What is the traditional practice for Communion at High Mass?” He will most likely reply: “It is forbidden to sing hymns in English during a High Mass; Latin alone is permitted.” Technically, this is false: cf. §14a in the document issued under Pope Pius XII on 3 September 1958. (By the way, Pius XII died a month later, on 9 October 1958, and John XXIII announced his plans to convoke Vatican II on 25 January 1959.)

But suppose your friend—while conceding that English hymns were technically allowed at High Mass—makes this assertion: “Forget what was technically allowed; I’m telling you what actually happened in the olden days.” The vexing question, therefore, would be: “What was the actual practice at High Masses during the distribution of Communion? Was it English or Latin?” The answer may surprise you. It turns out, it’s impossible to adopt the ‘traditional’ practice, because Holy Communion was seldom distributed to the faithful during Mass (roughly speaking) before the 1950s. Before your head explodes, remember: The truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes elderly people—attempting to disparage the Missale Vetustum—declare: “I remember Low Masses so rushed they lasted 25 minutes…” But when Low Mass had no sermon and no distribution of Communion to the faithful, this is hardly the ‘death blow’ they think it is!

I could provide extensive proof—but it might cause readers to fall asleep from boredom! Therefore, I’ll keep things brief. Father Fortescue wrote in 1917: “On Maundy Thursday there is a distribution of Holy Communion at High Mass. This does not often occur on other days; but any Catholic has normally a right to present himself for Communion at any Mass, on condition that he is in a state of grace and fasting from midnight.”[1] So when exactly did Catholics receive Communion, if doing so along with the Celebrant was rare? They frequently received outside of Mass—very early in the morning—since Catholics in the olden days had to observe the “midnight fast.” For example, a 1943 parish bulletin shows that Saint Agatha’s Church (St. Louis, MO) had the distribution of Communion at 6:15am on Holy Thursday (22 April 1943) followed by a High Mass at 8:30am. The earliness of Mass times would shock many alive today—e.g. at Saint Agatha’s in 1943 the Solemn High Mass on Easter Sunday started at 5:30am! On the other hand, modern practices such as Saturday afternoon “anticipated” Masses which fulfill one’s Sunday obligation would be unthinkable to our grandparents.

Peculiar Practices

In addition to Communion being distributed outside of Mass, the American Ecclesiastical Review,[2] describes yet another practice—common then, but astonishing to us in the year 2022—in which an assistant priest would begin distribution of Communion immediately after the Consecration. Speaking of practices which might strike us as ‘bonkers,’ we should remember that during Low Mass, the congregation often sang English hymns the entire time (even while the Celebrant was quietly reading the Gospel, Creed, Canon, and Last Gospel). This is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by old Catholic hymnals: “Mass Hymns” (Fr. Thomas Seed, 1906); “Book of Catholic Hymns” (Fr. Gregory Ould, 1910); “Holy Cross Hymnal” (Cardinal O’Connell, 1915); the 1958 “New Saint Basil Hymnal” (cf. numbers 203-210); and so forth.

“Altogether Unbecoming”

A significant change happened when the Code of Rubrics was issued in 1961. Specifically, §502 declared: “The proper time to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful is during Mass, after the Communion of the Celebrant… It is altogether unbecoming for another priest to distribute Holy Communion—other than at the proper time for Communion—at the same altar at which Mass is actually being celebrated.” But Communion outside of Mass was still permitted “for a reasonable cause,” and Father Henry Dziadosz suggested (15 December 1960) that “relieving the congestion” might justify this.

We can see that it’s fallacious to ask whether it was ‘traditional’ to sing English hymns during Communion at High Mass in the olden days. That would be like asking how farmers in the 1700s charged their iPhones. The reality is, smart phones did not exist in the 1700s. Similarly, Communion was not—broadly speaking—given to the faithful at High Mass before the 1950s (the decade in which Pius XII eliminated the “midnight Eucharistic fast”). Indeed, throughout history we observe a variety of customs vis-à-vis the distribution of Holy Communion; e.g. Bishop Urban Sagstetter (d. 1573) mandated Communion songs in the vernacular in his diocese. Particularly in German-speaking countries, vernacular hymnody at the High Mass was routine, including items Americans would find peculiar (e.g. the “sermon hymn”).

Nothing forbids the singing of vernacular hymnody during Communion for the Latin Mass. Those who desire authentic, orthodox, superb hymns for Holy Communion should pick up a copy of The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. This new pew book contains wonderful ‘traditional’ hymns such as the following (“Rex Sempiterne” translated to English by Archbishop Bagshawe):

It also contains newly-composed hymns, such as the following (by Father Dominic Popplewell, FSSP):

I could not run my musical program without the magnificent hymns in the Brébeuf Hymnal. Of course, we also sing Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian Chant, Baroque compositions, and medieval music. My organization produced a Gregorian Chant website which have received more than 12 million visitors: Saint René Goupil Chant. We have also produced an impressive polyphony page: Lalemant Polyphonic. We promote elegant compositions by living composers, and choir members love to sing these contemporary pieces over and over. Nevertheless, Catholic hymnody continues to be an essential part of our repertoire, and the Brébeuf hymnal does not mimic or ‘build upon’ Protestant models. One of the main authors for the Church Music Association of America weblog said recently (10 June 2022) that when it comes to Catholic hymns, the Brébeuf Hymnal “has no parallel and not even any close competitor.”


[1] Father Adrian Fortescue, Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described (London: Burns & Oates, 1918), 130.

[2]  American Ecclesiastical Review (1955), vol. CXXV, 66.

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