Hymns out of tune

Question: Our parish priest won’t allow two songs to be sung in church anymore: “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art.” They’re beautiful and very well-loved by the parishioners! What’s going on?

Sandy Vignali, Upper Michigan

Answer: Since I cannot speak directly to the priest involved, I am going to presume he has some doctrinal concerns with the words of these songs rather than a mere dislike of them.

Certain songs in the Catholic hymnal — some from Protestant tradition and others newly composed in Catholic circles — have doctrinal imprecision that seem to persist even when critiqued. For example, songs of certain Catholic composers from recent decades exhort: “Let us build the city of God,” or they bid us to, “Sing a new church into being” and “create ourselves anew.” We do no such things. God builds his city, there is no “new” Church, and the act of creating pertains to God alone.

Protestant hymns, even though edited by certain Catholic hymnals, also contain imprecisions that can mislead. And thus, in Amazing Grace, we are referred to as a “wretch.” And this is a classically Protestant view that spoke of man as totally depraved. But Catholicism does not use such language and teaches that, even in our fallen state, we retain dignity and the image of God. We are wounded but not totally depraved.

Another line in the hymn speaks of grace coming to us “the hour I first believed.” But here, too, there is imprecision, because grace comes not from the act of believing but solely from Christ. Further, although we can speak of certain prevenient graces prior to baptism that draw us to Christ, it is really at baptism, the act whereby Christ sanctifies us and makes us members of his Body, that grace “appears.” Further, it does not simply appear, it actually changes us.

I am unaware of any doctrinal problems with the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” so I cannot surmise your pastor’s objection there.

In all these matters, a balance must be found. At times the “imprecisions” of hymns (which speak poetically more than academically), can be understood in a Catholic, orthodox way.

Prudentially, however, priests and liturgists differ on what to do. Some tolerate the imprecisions, others use them as a preaching opportunity to clarify. Still others seek to remove the songs altogether. Your pastor seems to have chosen the latter approach. Talk with him and find out more; ask him to teach and clarify.

Levels of the heavens

Question: Jesus says that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words remain forever. But how can heaven pass away?

Ted Kochanski, Washington, D.C.

Answer: Ancient Jewish cosmology distinguished three levels to the heavens. The first heaven has the clouds. The second heaven contains the stars and planets. The third heaven is where God dwells.

It is the first and second heavens to which Jesus refers. Though the first and second heavens will vanish with a roar and give way to a newer and greater reality of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1), the third heaven, where God lives, will endure and does not change.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.