Friday, November 02, 2007

And to Think We Were Almost Spared ...

From Catholic News Service (via National Catholic Reporter):
It was 1966 and Mercy Sr. Suzanne Toolan had been asked to write a song for an event in the San Francisco archdiocese. With the deadline looming, she worked on a song in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in the Catholic girls’ high school where she taught.

“I worked on it, and I tore it up. I thought, ‘This will not do,’ ” Toolan said. “And this little girl came out of the infirmary and said, ‘What was that? That was beautiful!’ I went right back and Scotch-taped it up.”

That schoolgirl saved “I Am the Bread of Life,” one of the most popular hymns of the Second Vatican Council era...
Fr. Longenecker has an interesting take on the sad state of modern Catholic hymnody, and actually mentions the "Bread of Life" song:
... Another problem are hymns that simply put Scripture verses to music. "I am the bread of life...he who comes to me shall not hunger...etc" Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn't a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God...

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16 Comments:

At 11/03/2007 6:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Again, the music may be pleasant and the words of Scripture are undeniably wonderful and true, but it simply isn't a hymn. The words are the words of Jesus about himself. They are not words of praise, worship and adoration addressed to God."

This is ridiculous. The Church NEVER has taught that a hymn must be "words of praise, worship, and adoration addressed to God." For almost two millennia, the foremost "hymns" of the Church have been the Psalms, which (like "I Am the Bread of Life") sometimes are in the words of God speaking about Himself.

I will not look to a recent, and semi-ignorant, convert (Fr. Longenecker) -- a former Bob Jones University, anti-Catholic yahoo -- for guidance of the Church to which I have belonged for over fifty years.

Sister Suzanne's hymn has a beautiful melody and is pure quotation of the Bible. It puts a person in the proper frame of mind for worship and reception of Holy Communion. The claim of some (that we singers are declaring ourselves to be God by using the first person pronoun, "I") is sheer idiocy. It is childish nonsense, parroted from some turn-back-the-clock morons who invented it several years ago.

 
At 11/03/2007 8:47 AM, Blogger Lynne said...

You cannot help, when singing "I am..." to not visualize yourself.

Liberals = ad hominem attacks

 
At 11/03/2007 9:54 AM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

Why are anonymous commenters almost always the most virulent? I guess it's easier to attack another human being behind the cowardly cloak of anonymity.

 
At 11/03/2007 2:45 PM, Blogger Histor the Wise said...

Anonymous,

First thing, be fair to Fr. Longnecker. Sure, he's a recent convert, but that doesn't make him a "yahoo" or "semi-ignorant." Furthermore, most converts are quite good Catholics with a firm grasp of Catholic doctrine, if not Catholic culture.

Secondly, Fr. Longnecker isn't laying down the Church's doctrine on hymns. He's just analyzing hymns - asking questions like "What makes a song suitable for Mass" and "What would make a song unacceptable for Mass?" He's not trying to "guide" the Church anywhere. He's just thinking aloud.

Now, on to the song. "I Am the Bread of Life" has lyrics that simply do not combine properly with the tune. The lyrics lack a meter - a repeating order of stressed and unstressed syllables - and therefore the lyrics speed up and slow down throughout the song, in an attempt to keep up with the tune. Sing "I Am the Bread of Life" and you will see what I mean.

That, at least, is my opinion of the song as a song.

Histor

P.S. Please don't call me a moron, parrot, or an anti-Catholic yahoo. But if you want to call me a convert, that's OK.

 
At 11/03/2007 2:51 PM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

/opinion/
I like "I am the Bread of Life." It's fun to sing, and it suits my voice well, and it's based on my favorite scripture verses.

It's possible that it's not appropriate to the mass, but I like the song."
//opinion/"

 
At 11/03/2007 2:56 PM, Blogger Histor the Wise said...

Now that it's just opinion...

I don't find it fun to sing, mainly because the lyrics and tune don't mesh. Singing it, for me, is like trying to put a baseball glove on my foot.

Histor

 
At 11/04/2007 5:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Lynne, Histor the (other)wise, and Paul,
All of you good people are wrong about me and/or about the hymn. Let me explain.

Lynne, when I sing "I Am the Bread of Life," I visualize Jesus saying those words -- as I suspect the vast majority of people do. I think that people who visualize themselves, in the context of singing a Communion hymn, are either having psychological problems or have not been trained to think properly about what they are reading/saying. I pointed out that churchmen have sung the Psalms for almost 2,000 years, without anyone getting confused as to whether they were human or divine when they read the (first-person) words of God.

Moreover, I am no "liberal," neither politically nor spiritually. I am a 100% orthodox Catholic, believing everything in the Catechism, and desiring to obey every disclipinary document of the Church. I think that the real problem is that you are a pseudo-trad dissenter, since you reject even harmless hymns. I reject the bad hymns written after Vatican II, but not the good ones. You are part of the misguided bunch that rejects them all, simply because of some kind of warped attachment to what is old.

Finally, when someone tosses out the "ad hominem attacks" charge, it is sometimes (as in this case) a tool to deflect attention from the persons SUBSTANTIVE comments, which have put the misguided person on the defensive. I have presented solid evidence for my case, and I will not allow anyone to ignore it with a wimpy charge of "ad hominem!" Everyone with any sense sees how NONE of you addressed my key comment about the Psalms, because you have NO response to that convincing truth.

Paul, you have used another tactic that is frequently employed by wimps who are unable to respond to substantive arguments. You are hiding behind the "anonymous commenter" charge. It matters not who I am. What matter is WHAT I WRITE. My post was not to "attack another human being," but to show that HE was wrong in attacking the hymn and its writer (and most other post-Vatican-II hymns and their writers). Stick to the SUBSTANCE of my comments, not to my identity, if you have any guts and brains, please.

Histor, by now, I hope that you realize that I was being fair to Fr. Longenecker. In general, I like him a lot -- and I know that he is familiar with Catholic doctrine -- having seen him at a converts' conference and on EWTN several times. But here he has stepped outside his area of expertise -- into MY area of expertise. I was born in 1951. I was a (Latin-speaking) altar boy and choir member. I was a church organist. In the area of music and hymns, I have the training to know what is good and what is bad from both the past and present eras. Fr. L should keep to himself his private opinions of hymns. He has the power to control what is sung in his parish church, but he is just parroting what some pseudo-trads have been saying, in recent years, even about solid, post-Vatican-II hymns.

Moreover, you are simply wrong to say that "'I Am the Bread of Life' has lyrics that simply do not combine properly with the tune." As you realize by now, I am very well aware of the existence of "meter - a repeating order of stressed and unstressed syllables." It is wrong for you to say that "I Am ..." lacks a meter. You are even more wrong to say that "the lyrics speed up and slow down throughout the song, in an attempt to keep up with the tune." The ACTUAL FACT is that this hymn, like so many others, has an "irregular meter." It has a basic metric pattern, but, in order to fit the actual words of scripture to the melody, it was sometimes necessary to use two eighth notes in place of a quarter note (or a half note in place of two quarter notes, etc.). What you need to do is to "put your thinking cap on" and LEARN how the several verses' words are fit to the melody. MEMORIZE it.

There is NO SHAME in a hymn having an irregular meter! Even some very old Gregorian chant hymns have the same. This does not merit criticism. The melody of "I Am ..." flows at a consistent speed, never "speed[ing] up and slow[ing] down."

Paul, I'm glad that you like, "I Am the Bread of Life." However, I'm disappointed that you like it because it is "fun to sing." It is not intended to be "fun," but very mysterious and serious. Moreover, it is religious music -- a "hymn" (as Sister Suzanne calls it) -- not a "song" (which is a word that we use to refer to secular music, such as a Pop-40 tune). And it most certainly IS "appropriate to the Mass." Finally, you are not "just this guy." You are an important human being who should not berate himself.

J. Francis

 
At 11/04/2007 5:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS: I didn't say that Fr. Longenecker IS a "yahoo," but that he WAS one during his (Bob Jones) anti-Catholic years. JF

 
At 11/04/2007 8:19 AM, Blogger Rich Leonardi said...

J. Francis,

I think a charitable reading of Fr. Longenecker's post is that hymns such as this are alien to tradition and have no real place in authentic liturgy, an observation supported by a wealth of magisterial documents.

 
At 11/04/2007 9:30 AM, Blogger Dale Price said...

Everyone with any sense sees how NONE of you addressed my key comment about the Psalms, because you have NO response to that convincing truth.

Actually, the monks singing the psalms made notations in the text indicating hesitation about the singing of the "I" parts.

Moreover, the Psalms are a clearly delineated and established exception. The Psalms are not hymns. Period. They fulfill an entirely different role.

Hymnody did not play the first person God prior to the late 20th Century. Your proper frame of mind aside, it is an innovation. And often a horribly executed and false one--Rory Cooney's "Bread of Life," for example.

And yes, you are engaging in ad hominem. "Moron," "yahoo," "if you have the guts and brains," etc. is ad hominem.

Not to mention the behavior of a consummate jerk.

 
At 11/04/2007 9:39 AM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

Paul, you have used another tactic that is frequently employed by wimps who are unable to respond to substantive arguments. You are hiding behind the "anonymous commenter" charge. It matters not who I am. What matter is WHAT I WRITE.

And what you wrote was an ad hominem attack devoid of any substance, and your second comment was along the same lines. There's no point in arguing with an individual who has bigoted attitudes towards converts.

 
At 11/04/2007 9:52 AM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

J. Francis -
Paul, I'm glad that you like, "I Am the Bread of Life." However, I'm disappointed that you like it because it is "fun to sing." It is not intended to be "fun," but very mysterious and serious. Moreover, it is religious music -- a "hymn" (as Sister Suzanne calls it) -- not a "song" (which is a word that we use to refer to secular music, such as a Pop-40 tune). And it most certainly IS "appropriate to the Mass." Finally, you are not "just this guy." You are an important human being who should not berate himself.

Perhaps it is not intended to be "fun," but I still enjoy singing it. Not least because it is, as you say, mysterious, serious, and religious.

The Bread of Life discourse is my very favorite part of scripture, and I believe that the song expresses that teaching as well as a song can.

Whether it is truly a "hymn" and appropriate to the liturgy is a matter quite outside my area of expertise. When those of you who claim expertise on this question get it settled, let me know. Silly me, I thought that "hymn" was a subset of "song", not a different category altogether.

As for the genesis of the "just this guy, you know?" handle, that's a question quite outside the scope of this discussion, but the short version is, never fear, I don't berate myself at all. Thanks for your concern.

 
At 11/05/2007 8:35 AM, Blogger Histor the Wise said...

J. Francis,

When you say "I Am the Bread of Life" has an irregular meter, all I can say is: that's my complaint about the lyrics of the hymn. The melody is perfectly fine, in fact quite pleasing to the ear. The lyrics just don't combine well with the melody.

Rather than putting words of Scripture to a hymn's melody, Sister Suzanne should have written a completely original set of lyrics that properly fitted the music. That, after all, is what hymn-writers have always done.

As for Gregorian Chant...chant and hymns are not really comparable. Since chants are by definition not sung, they don't need a regular meter.

Histor

P.S. I respect your experience and knowledge of music, but I would point out that all one needs to be qualified to criticize - or praise - "I Am the Bread of Life" is the experience of singing the hymn.

P.P.S. The "the Wise" in my name is an intentional joke, a pun in fact. Of course, anyone with the chutzpah to call himself wise shouldn't expect anyone to respect his claim...

P.P.P.S. If Fr. Longnecker is no longer an "anti-Catholic yahoo", then why bring it up in the first place?

 
At 11/05/2007 9:48 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

Gee whiz, I step away from blogging for a weekend and miss all the fun!

;-)

Thanks to all of you who stepped in to defend Fr. Longenecker in my absence. I really don't have anything to add to what you've all said in that regard.

I do want to clarify the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the title of this post "And to Think We Were Almost Spared ..." I am well aware that this hymn is not a favorite of many people. And, while I have no expertise in what constitutes proper hymnody for the Mass, and will not risk venturing a judgment in that regard to this particular song, I will say that it is NOT one of my favorites for the reason some here have mentioned - as songs go, it's very awkward and hard to sing.

As with Regular Guy Paul, one of my favorite pieces of scripture - the one, in fact, that played an integral role in my decision to become Catholic (yep, I'm one of those moronic yokel converts myself) - is the subject matter of this song. However, unlike Regular Guy Paul, I think this song is a poor representative of the mystery that Our Lord propounded during his Bread of Life discourse. I don't question whether "I Am the Bread of Life" is theologically sound or appropriate as Mass hymnody (I'm not qualified), but I do call its quality as music in and of itself into question.

 
At 11/05/2007 10:06 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

As for whether I'm qualified to judge the merit of "I Am the Bread of Life" as a piece of music, I am not a church musician. But I do have some background in this area.

I've been around church music all my life. My father has a Masters of Divinity in church music, and was a director of music for many churches before he retired. My mother also has a degree in music, and was herself a music director at a church for a few years. I've been in church choirs for most of my life. I also spent 4 years as a member of the Baylor University Men's Glee Club (in this capacity, I've actually performed before a live audience on the stage of Carnegie Hall). So, I have some background in music, and feel confident in expressing my opinion that this particular hymn is just not very good.

 
At 11/06/2007 1:09 PM, Blogger Cathy said...

"I am the Bread of Life" is characteristic of what is awful with much of contemporary Catholic Church music. It's a song, not a hymn. If bishops were more vigilant it would, like much else, be banned from use within the Mass. Sadly, there is so much that is worse than it.

 

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