Songs to Saints

A Lutheran friend of mine once quipped, when I was telling her about music in the Catholic Charismatic movement, “Does that mean that instead of ‘Jesus I just love you I just want to hug you’ they sing ‘Mary I just love you I just want to hug you’?” Chortle, chortle.

The Age this morning had a news item about a new song written to honour our upcoming Saint, Mary MacKillop, written by Gary Pinto, which it said was available on YouTube. I went searching for it, and I think this is the one they mean:

Nice enough, but it got me wondering about that chorus:

“And the grace of your spirit gives hope to our lives,
the grace of your spirit gives peace to our hearts,
Mary of the Cross, woman for our times, Blessed of God.”

It reminded me of a song by Brother Michael Herry (whose music I rather like, even though not all of it is appropriate for singing at mass) in honour of the founding saint of his Marist Order, St Marcellin “You are the One” in which the chorus is:

“You are the one
on fire with the Gospel,
you are the one
who saw with new eyes.
You are the one
we name as our Founder,
You are the one we claim,
claim as our saint.

Neither song actually says much about Christ or about God, but is (perhaps understandably) rather focused on the particular graces of the Saint to whom the song is being sung.

You could probably find quite a few songs to saints in the past that are similar, but the traditional “saint song” (eg. “Great St Joseph, Son of David“, “Hail Glorious St Patrick“, “St Theresa Flower of Grace” (not online)) do tend to refer us to the mystery of the Divine in some manner or other (eg. their role in salvation history or their intercession for God’s graces) rather than simply extol their particular virtues.

I am particularly uncomfortable about singing to Mary of the Cross about her “spirit” rather than God’s Spirit, or the repeated “you are the one” in the hymn to St Marcellin rather Christ who is “the One” who reveals God to us.

Perhaps it is just my latent Lutheranism showing through…

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Songs to Saints

  1. Matthias

    quite agree David . The problems with these hymns is as you say- they leave out God and Christ a form of humanism but ,in the UCA in the old AHB there was a song about the creed and the colour really do not matter- humanistic syncretism. Hopefully it has been tossed out

  2. Peregrinus

    Well, I don’t know that the old hymns were necessarily much better. After all, Hail Glorious St Patrick, which David mentions, names only one person apart from Patrick – and that’s Satan. Not all that Christocentric, eally.

    You’re right, David – this is your inner Lutheran demanding to be heard. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem here is not really humnody, but the cult of sanctity. However edifying it may be in principle and in general practice, we would be foolish to deny that the cult of sanctity also has within it a potential for error, and it’s an error into which Catholic culture, if not actually Catholicism, does fall from time to time. I think we can find plenty of hymns and prayers to various saints which are not terribly Christocentric – and they won’t all be modern ones.

    • Well, HGStP does have this verse:

      “In the war agaisnt sin, in the fight for the faith,
      Dear Saint, may thy children resist to the death;
      May their strength be in meekness, in penance, and prayer,
      Their banner the Cross, which they glory to bear.”

      That bit about the Cross is something that doesn’t appear in either the hymn to Marcellin or the hymn to Mary of the Cross.

      • Peregrinus

        I have to say that’s still pretty weak, David. The Cross features simply as a banner, a flag around which the troops can rally, which emphatically is not the significance of the cross in Christian theology.

        (It’s very Constantinian, though!)

        Don’t get me wrong. I like the song; you can belt it out with gusto, and as an anthem to rally the troops it has all the qualities you could want. In terms of having the musical and emotional qualities to inspire communal participation, it’s pretty good.

        As a hymn, though, as a theological expression, I think it’s an Awful Example of How You Can Go Wrong.

        • Well, yes, I admit that too. But as you say, the tune is pretty powerful as a sort of “battle cry”. The first line still often comes into my mind as I approach my place of work each morning: the spires come into view and “Hail, Glorious St Patrick” comes into my heart and mind… 🙂

          These new songs lack that sort of power entirely.

  3. Marcel

    The argument that hymns about the Saints are not Christocentric is a little shallow and resonates with those who have an underlying problem with the idea of sainthood and their cults to begin with. The only reason these Saints were raised to the altars is precisely because their whole life was Christocentric and we can therefore reject the notion that a hymn must expressly mention the name of Jesus Christ to be a real hymn. Genuine and devout souls who honor the saints are always brought closer to the Trinity (because the greatest honor is imitation).

    The problem for the Bl. Mary MacKillop hymn is that it is just not very good (lyrically or musically).

    • The only reason these Saints were raised to the altars is precisely because their whole life was Christocentric

      Yes, of course. What I am bemoaning is that often this Christocentricity of their faith and life is not very evident in the new songs, which are ALSO, as you say, “not very good lyrically or musically”. In my mind I am not quite sure which is the greatest shortcoming!

  4. Louise

    “Does that mean that instead of ‘Jesus I just love you I just want to hug you’ they sing ‘Mary I just love you I just want to hug you’?”

    LOL!

    But I’d like to point out that most of the songs our (charismatic) community sings are very Christocentric and are often simply psalms or other passages from scripture. I find them generally more edifying than most songs one hears at Mass. These are the older Charismatic songs, however. The newer ones are often rather “blech.” And have crappy grammar.

    As a side note, our new baby is due to be born in the coming week. If anyone would like to pray for a safe delivery and quick recovery, I would be very grateful.

    • Our prayers are with you for a safe and happy delivery, Louise! What number is this?

      • Louise

        Number six. Hence “Sixtus”!

        • Peregrinus

          “Sextus”, if we’re being strict. I’ll join David in his prayers, and add my own prayer that the child gets a name that won’t be an embarrassment to him in the playground!

          • Louise

            Yes, but “Sixtus” after the saint and pope.

            add my own prayer that the child gets a name that won’t be an embarrassment to him in the playground

            Not sure just how insenstive you think I actually am, Pere! Thanks for the prayers, however.

            • Peregrinus

              Relax! I was joking. I’m sure your child will be blessed with every advantage you can bestow, including a fitting name.

              The pedant in me was pointing out that the Roman name Sixtus/Xystus doesn’t mean “sixth son” or “sixth child”. It comes from the Greek and it means “polished” in the sense of refined, civilised, educated. The (much more common) Roman name Sextus (or Sexta, for a girl) means “sixth”, but it seems to have fallen out of favour with the advent of Christianity, which no doubt is why there are five popes named either Xystus or Sixtus, and none at all named Sextus.

              • Louise

                Well, nothing wrong with a bit of pedantry. 🙂

                I couldn’t bring myself to refer to him/her as Sextus, so Sixtus seemed more fitting and closer to the English “sixth.” Plus, I was probably somwhat led astray by the old French ordinals used in Fencing: prime, secunde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte etc.

                Relax! I was joking. I’m sure your child will be blessed with every advantage you can bestow, including a fitting name.

                Thanks. A gentleman I recently had on online run-in with described me as an overwrought housewife, which I thought was hilarious (b/c partly accurate). It would be a tolerably fair description of me leading up to childbirth! It would be fair to say also, that in various matters I often feel misunderstood. IRL, as well as online.

    • I’ll be praying for you and your baby, Louise.

  5. Peter

    I too find that sometimes Catholic hymns about saints, especially those of recent origin (the saints and the hymns) perhaps emphasise the saint a little too much rather than the light they shed on Christ and his all sufficient merits, which is very Catholic. Lutherans do not have the market cornered on trumpeting the all sufficient merits of Christ. Maybe it is you inner Catholic that is shining through David.

  6. Matthias

    Louise all the best to you and your family. When i was a midwifery student and graduate I thought the miracle of birth ,is not attributable to time plus chance but to God.

    Peter yes lutherans (and my mob-) baptists are not the only ones who have cornered the market on the Triumph of Christ