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Roman Catholic Song Spectrum

While I am not personally Roman Catholic, I have spent and continue to spend a lot of my time in Roman Catholic spaces, with Roman Catholic musicians, and leading song within/from/of the Roman Catholic church. There are scholars and professionals within the Roman Catholic Church who have found their life’s calling studying and leading Roman Catholic song, and from them you can find much more thorough analyses than what I could ever hope to provide ( like Sister Judith Kubicki, CSSF or Father Anthony Ruff, OSB). However, over the last decade I’ve seen a spectrum play out that I thought would be helpful to name. At the heart of this spectrum of song is somewhat of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question. Do churches that have certain instrumentations tend towards certain song styles, or do churches that prefer certain song styles tend towards certain instrumentation? I’m not sure the answer matters.


The Spectrum

So here’s the spectrum.

The bottom of the timeline contains the various instrumentations I’m aware of being used in Roman Catholic churches. On the left is a band with plugged-in instruments. That means a guitar that requires a DI box (or a fully electric guitar), microphones for instrumentalists, an electronic keyboard with various synth abilities, an electric bass, etc…and in order to get this group to sound good it requires a sound system with a mixer. On the right of the spectrum is a cappella singing. Interestingly this spectrum also represents a historical timeline with the a cappella singing tradition being the oldest and the “plugged in” band instrumentation being the newest to find its way into the church’s song.

The top of the timeline contains two rows. There is an interesting parallel in Roman Catholic churches that is particularly pronounced and noticeable compared to Protestant spaces due to the Roman Catholic Church’s relatively recent arrival to regular and robust congregational singing and specifically congregational song composition. The top row is the non-Roman Catholic literature that is sung within Roman Catholic Masses, and the second row is the songs and hymns written specifically for or by Roman Catholics.



Here are some songs/composer examples you might see in each category. These are just examples and is certainly not a thorough or exhaustive list.

Non-Roman Catholic Songs & Hymns:

  • CCM/CCLI Top 100 – Chris Tomlin, Kari Jobe
  • 21st Century Indie/Folk/Pop –Switchfoot, Cardiphonia, Indelible Grace
  • Strophic & Verse/Refrain Hymnody – It Is Well With My Soul, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Amazing Grace

Roman Catholic Songs & Hymns:

  • Roman Catholic CCM – Matt Maher, John Michael Talbot, Audrey Assad
  • Local Folk Expressions – Coritos, Mariachi, Songs with Non-Western Scales/Tonalities/Instruments
  • Post Vatican II Folk/Pop – Marty Haugen, David Haas, St. Louis Jesuits, Tony Alonso
  • Strophic RC Hymnody – Hail Holy Queen, Holy God We Praise Thy Name
  • Chant – Regina Coeli, Alma Redemptoris Mater

Each category of song is originally conceptualized/designed for a certain type of instrumentation. In my experience, churches that use an organ are much more likely to sing a strophic hymn or chant than they are to sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” Likewise, churches that have plugged-in praise bands are less likely to sing songs by Haas/Haugen but even less likely than that to sing strophic hymnody like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” And then, of course, are the churches that sit in the middle with a folk ensemble of some kind (not plugged in or mic’d but with all acoustic instruments). These groups are much more likely to singing songs by Marty Haugen, David Haas, etc…than songs by Matt Maher or chant.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a particular song/hymn/chant can’t be done by other instrumentations, but the further away on the spectrum you cross, the more difficult it becomes to do that type of song successfully. To take a CCM song and do it successfully on organ, for instance, it takes much more planning, arranging, thoughtfulness, and skill than doing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on organ. Likewise, it takes much more time, effort, and skill to pull of singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with a praise band than leading it with an organ. That is why I’ve found the middle instrumentation has the greatest capacity to sing the widest variety of song styles because they don’t have as far to go to get to either extreme of the spectrum.



So why am I pointing all this out? Well, first of all it’s helpful to name things. I wanted to name this reality to see what wisdom or new information we can glean from something that may seem obvious but I haven’t seen specifically identified. Second, I hope that this will help clarify your song choices for your parish. Do you have a rock-star organist and a well-made pipe organ? Then it makes sense to play lots of strophic hymnody, maybe a little bit of the Haas/Haugen style literature, and a sparing amount of CCM music. To ask the organist to do otherwise will create a lot of problems for a lot of reasons. Likewise, if you have a talented praise band, it makes sense that the primarily literature your congregation sings be written by folks writing for band, a bit of the Haas/Haugen style literature, and only a sparing amount of strophic hymnody. To ask the band to do otherwise will create a lot of problems for a lot of reasons.

There’s room at the table for a huge variety of song and instrumentations. Let’s embrace variety but do it smartly. Play to your congregation’s strengths and form your identity. Don’t shy away from what you’re good at or called to sing, live into it. And for those of you who are lucky enough to have a band who can rock strophic hymns, an organist who can play CCM, or any other talented musician who can adeptly cross genre & instrumentation boundaries, I say congratulations, you’re in the minority. For those who are training the next generation of parish musicians, your goal should be to produce musicians who can function on the spectrum as widely as possible.


Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.



This episode is with Dr. Tony Alonso of Emory University. This episode was recorded by Ben Brody at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium.


Season 2 – Episode 3

In this interview with Roman Catholic composer and liturgical scholar Tony Alonso, we hear the story of God’s unexpected plans for Tony that he continues to journey into as a liturgical leader and composer. Themes of participation, community, and service of the people of God run throughout.



Listening time: 32 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio


Guest Blogger Stephanie A. Budwey is the Luce Dean’s Faculty Fellow Assistant Professor of the History and Practice of Christian Worship and the Arts and Director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture Program at Vanderbilt Divinity School.





As we approach the month of May, for many of us this brings up memories of May processions, crowning statues of Mary, and singing songs such as “Bring flowers of the rarest.”[1] In one parish that I served in Boston, they kept a tradition of singing one Marian congregational each week during May (Mary’s month) and October (the month of the Rosary). We would sing songs such as “Mother dear, O pray for me,”[2] “On this day O beautiful mother,”[3] and “Tis the month of our mother”[4] as well as many other hymns to Mary that I found to be some of the most commonly sung in Roman Catholic Churches in the United States from the nineteenth century up to today.[5] How did this tradition of May being Mary’s month come about?


May Devotions

What became known as “May devotions,” decorating maypoles, crowning Mary with flowers, and singing hymns to her, were made popular by Philip Neri in the sixteenth century and Jesuit priest Annibale Dionisi in the eighteenth century. They seem to have been an attempt to transform popular pagan celebrations that also occurred during the month of May, including the May 1 festival of Flora in Rome which included processions with the statute, putting a wreath on her statue, and many floral decorations.[6] These festivals spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, including celebrations around a May pole, a tradition which continues in many parts of Europe today.

While these pre-Vatican II songs to Mary remain meaningful to the many people who continue to sing them, the celebration of May devotions with flowers and crowning of statues of Mary is not as common as it was before Vatican II. Perhaps this month of May might be a time to introduce some new Marian congregational songs to your community in addition to such classics as “Hail, holy Queen”[7] and “Immaculate Mary.”[8] Many of the older Marian songs reflect a “christotypical” (maximalist) Mariology that aligns Mary with Christ as she “stands alongside Christ . . . facing the church, so that it is quite natural to think of Mary as having a role in redemption.”[9] Following the placement of the discussion of Mary in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium rather than writing a separate document about her,[10] the Roman Catholic Church shifted to an “ecclesiotypical” (minimalist) Mariology which “understands Mary as standing with the church and facing Christ as one in need of redemption alongside the remainder of humanity.”[11]

In other words, before Vatican II, Mary was often put on a pedestal, almost at the level of Christ, making her a model for women that was difficult to obtain (no other woman could be sinless and both virgin and mother) and at times harmful and oppressive. After Vatican II, an attempt has been made to bring Mary down from this pedestal to make her a more approachable model, someone who had doubts and fears and suffered just like us.


4 Criteria

I encourage you to consider teaching your community some of these newer Marian congregational songs that lift up Mary in this post-Vatican II understanding by reflecting the four criteria that I believe are helpful as we work to ecumenically reclaim Mary for all Christians today.[12] The first of these four criteria is a strong biblical foundation. One example is Delores Dufner’s “Mary, first among believers”[13] which refers to Mary’s role in the biblical stories of the Annunciation, exile into Egypt, and crucifixion, among others. In addition, Dufner links these biblical stories to those currently in similar situations (e.g., refugees and those who have lost loved ones in acts of injustice).

Adam Tice’s “Come, join in Mary’s prophet-song”[14] exemplifies the second criteria, the ability to speak to the problems of today. He challenges assumptions around gender norms by describing Mary as “the maiden Mary, not so mild,” turning the usual description of Mary as meek and mild on its head. Tice also forces “Us” to see that we are not the only ones made in the image of God; those we consider to be “Other” or “Them” are made in God’s image too.

The third criteria, to find new and creative ways to understand Mary as opposed to previous ones that have been harmful, is found in Mary Frances Fleischaker’s text, “Mary, woman of the promise.”[15] She uses many beautiful titles to describe Mary such as “song of holy wisdom,” “morning star of justice,” “model of compassion,” and other positive images to help make Mary relatable to us.

The final criteria is an active (rather than passive and spiritual) understanding of the message of the Magnificat to work for social justice. There are many excellent paraphrases of the Magnificat, but I will highlight two that emphasize its call to turn the world right-side up, in the words of Bishop Michael Curry. The first is Fred Kaan’s “Sing we a song of high revolt (Magnificat now!)”[16] His passionate call to action is just as powerful today as it was when he wrote it in 1968, calling us to “revolt and fight / with him for what is just and right, / to sing and live Magnificat / in crowded street and council flat.” The second is Rory Cooney’s “Canticle of the Turning,”[17] which speaks of a world that is on the verge of turning right-side up: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. / Let the fires of your justice burn. / Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, / And the world is about to turn!”

Inspired by the prophetic call of “the maiden Mary, not so mild,” let us go forth and turn the world right-side up!







[5] Stephanie A. Budwey, “Mary, Star of Hope: Marian Congregational Song as an Expression of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the United States from 1854 to 2010,” The Hymn 63, no. 2 (Spring 2012): 7–17.

[6] Stephanie A. Budwey, Sing of Mary: Giving Voice to Marian Theology and Devotion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 149.



[9] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 13.

[10] For more information see Budwey, Sing of Mary, 195–210.

[11] Gaventa, Mary, 13.

[12] Budwey, Sing of Mary, 274–88.


[14] Adam M. L. Tice, Woven Into Harmony: 50 Hymn Texts (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009), 28–29.

[15] The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, “New Hymn and Tune,” The Hymn 41, no. 1 (January 1990): 36.





This episode is with hymn text writer Sister Delores Dufner. Sister Delores is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, a Benedictine women’s community of about 200 members. She holds Master’s Degrees in Liturgical Music and Liturgical Studies. She is currently a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, the National Pastoral Musicians (NPM), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and the Monastic Worship Forum.

Sister Delores was a school music teacher, private piano and organ instructor, and parish organist/choir director for twelve years. She served as liturgy coordinator for her religious community for six years, Director of the St. Cloud Diocesan Office of Worship for fifteen years, and a liturgical music consultant in the Diocese of Ballarat, Australia, for fifteen months. Since then, she has been writing liturgical, scripture-based hymn and song texts which are found in many Christian hymnals.  Her hymns have been published in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and China.

Sister Delores has received sixty-one commissions to write hymn texts for special occasions or needs, and her lyrics are the basis of over eighty choral octavos. She has four published hymn collections:

  • Sing a New Church (Oregon Catholic Press, 1994)
  • The Glimmer of Glory in Song (GIA Publications, 2004)
  • And Every Breath, a Song (GIA Publications, 2011)
  • Criers of Splendor (GIA Publications, 2016)

Sister Delores was named a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 2013. In 2014 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from NPM, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. In 2017 she received the Christus Rex award from Valparaiso University’s Institute of Liturgical Studies for her lifelong commitment to liturgical renewal.


Season 1 – Episode 4

An interview with hymn writer Delores Dufner, OSB, focusing on the craft and art of writing hymn texts.



Listening time: 32 minutes


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Vatican II really motivated me and gave me materials with which to work.  That return to the sources was essentially a turning point in my faith life, especially the emphasis on Jesus’ ministry and his life…Seeing and paying attention to what Jesus taught gave me a whole new insight into what I wanted to teach and live.


I need to create space in order to write… When I actually sit down to write, I lock my office door, put the phone on automatic, and isolate myself until I have a first draft.


Pope John the XXIII was a huge influence.  He gave a new idea of what the church could be and should be.  There was a real freedom in that and a vocational call.


It has to be good news – not just true, but it has to be good news and it has to sound good!


My big goal right now is to try to connect science and faith, because so many of the prayers of the liturgy come from an antiquated view of the universe…I want to do more with writing about the cosmos.


Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Denominationally Promiscuous

Although not verified through any written text, it is common for hymnologists and church musicians to quote the 20th century hymnological giant Eric Routley as saying that church musicians are “denominationally promiscuous.” I must confess that I fall into that category. Raised in South Georgia, my father was a former Roman Catholic and my mother a former Southern Baptist. So when it was time to raise us in a church family, they found a liturgical compromise by attending a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation with solid children’s and youth programs. Upon entering college, I found myself attending and eventually serving as a music intern for a Cooperative Baptist church. After four years there, I entered a United Methodist School of Theology and served United Methodist Churches as director of music for over seven years. Finally, my last two posts as associate director of music have been in a suburban Roman Catholic parish followed by a Roman Catholic Cathedral, where I currently serve. I should mention there was a 1-year period in there when I attended an ELCA Lutheran congregation with my family on Sunday mornings when my primary leadership role was for Sunday afternoon Catholic masses. While serving churches as a church musician has always been a part of my professional life, the other part has consisted of serving ecumenical non-profits and doing conferences/workshops for a variety of churches and organizations.

After working for and worshiping with so many different denominations, I have often asked myself questions like, “wouldn’t it be better to work for the denomination I actually resonate most closely with?” and “is it authentic for me to lead worship in a denomination with which I have some clear-cut theological and/or social disagreements?” These are important questions. But, for me, there’s just nowhere to serve that wouldn’t put me in the same position I’ve been at in every church/denomination I’ve served so far. Every denomination and/or tradition gets some things right and gets some things wrong. Every denomination and church has members that are closer to sinner and closer to saint at any given time. But what I have found in every context so far is that every denomination is full of clergy who have given their lives to try and lead God’s people, every church has staff who are trying their best to lead worship in spirit and in truth, and every worship service has congregants who are trying their best to find the Holy somewhere in this world and in themselves.

I’m grateful for my ecumenical journey, and I’ve learned a lot about my faith and the church universal by spending time with those who think and worship differently than I do. So here are the top three things I’ve learned from each denomination/church I’ve served so far, and the one thing I wish I could tell them.

Testimony is powerful.

Presbyterians (PCUSA)

What I Learned:

  1. The tradition of strophic hymns and hymn-tunes from the 17th to the early 20th century is rich and important. A particular example that sticks out the most from my childhood is “God of Grace and God of Glory” set to CWM RHONDDA. It’s glorious.
  2. The reliance on God because of God’s eternal nature and providence. Our long-time pastor started every service for years by reading Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” This simple truth about God’s nature is ingrained in me, giving me a perspective that helps see me through times when the church, other people, or I mess up. God is bigger than our mistakes, always.
  3. The organ’s primary role in worship is to lead the people’s song. I was blessed with two dedicated and talented organists during my time growing up who understood this and put it into practice week in and week out.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. It’s okay to use your body in worship…really…it’s ok. In fact, it’s a good thing. Loosen up a little bit for goodness sake!


Baptists (Cooperative and otherwise)

What I Learned:

  1. Having a different theological or social stance on issues is okay, and you can deal with those disagreements in a healthy way. The first Sunday I attended my Cooperative Baptist Church involved a congregational meeting where folks were testifying about what they did and didn’t believe about God, the church, and certain social stances…and they all listened and respected each other’s thoughts and finally voted on a decision. They moved on as a cohesive congregation who believed in each other’s sincere desire to follow God’s will.
  2. Testimony is powerful. The number of testimonies I heard over those four years was amazing, and they held power and spoke truth because they were rooted in that community and their collective faith story. The hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” finally became meaningful to me because of their constant witness and testimonies.
  3. The Holy Spirit is a real thing that moves in ways that can often be surprising! Trusting that the Spirit is actively working and moving is important and powerful.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. Stop identifying yourselves through denominational structures (American Baptists, Cooperative Baptists, Southern Baptists, etc…). It’s undermining the beautiful congregational system that you all have and is a PR nightmare in the 21st Century.


United Methodists

What I Learned:

  1. The importance of Chuck. Charles Wesley’s hymn texts are one of the greatest gifts to the church universal in the last 300 years. They are beloved by Methodists, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, ELCA Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians alike.
  2. New and/or radical theological stances by a denomination can/does spur a flurry of musical output. The open table in United Methodist Worship has inspired a significant number of composers and authors to create new texts and tunes to sing. Some of these hymns and songs have already been picked up by many other denominations and traditions for frequent use…including those who do not profess an open table officially but are doing so in practice.
  3. Liturgical flexibility can be empowering. When used well, the willingness to be flexible liturgically can allow for powerful worship moments that address modern issues head on and challenge the way congregants think, pray, and act. The United Methodists I’ve hung around with tend to do a good job of honoring inherited worship patterns, while allowing space and time to explore new ideas.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. You’re not as big and important as you think you are. While most (all?) denominations seem to suffer from this in some way, my experience has been that United Methodists are particularly keen on believing that they are one of the “big dogs” in world-wide Christianity. In reality, you are just one of the many pieces of the pie. Important, yes. More or less influential than many other Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations…probably not.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song


Lutherans (ELCA)

What I Learned:

  1. There was wisdom in maintaining the order of the Mass during and after the Reformation. To pull vocabulary from the prominent Evangelical worship theologian Robert Webber, there is something “Ancient Modern” about Lutheran Worship because they’ve maintained the Mass structure but have spent the last 500 years contextualizing it to the modern world.
  2. Taking pride in your denominational identity can be a powerful way to motivate people to study church history and dig into theology. I happened to be attending a Lutheran congregation during the “Reformation 500” year. This celebration was a wonderful exploration not only into what it means to be a Lutheran, but also what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
  3. The “Lutheran Chorale” is a rich legacy of hymn singing. Like the hymns of Charles Wesley, this tradition of congregational song has become an ecumenical unifier. They are a gift to the church and are used well beyond churches that call themselves Lutheran.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. Stop pretending that Luther sang Bach harmonies…he didn’t. Dig further into your own history of performance practice to inspire yourselves on how innovative you could be in the 21st century by following in the footsteps of all those great Lutheran musicians of the past who innovated and connected your tradition of singing together to the world around them.

People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going.


Roman Catholics

What I Learned:

  1. There is a timelessness to what we do. Singing chant that is over 1000 years old during a Mass whose structure is equally ancient in a building that contains pictures of the saints from the ages reinforces the timelessness of God and of worship.
  2. A wonderful term for what we (clergy and other worship leaders) do is a “leader of prayer.” If your primary question as a leader is, “how can I lead the people in prayer,” then you’re off to a good pastoral start.
  3. Even a denomination that prides itself on being the “first church” is often (and usually unintentionally) ecumenical through its congregational song. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Roman Catholics since Vatican II have been relying on other traditions to help them sing, and they are the better for it.


What I Wish I Could Tell Them:

  1. You will soon no longer represent the majority of Christians around the world, and you’re already more ecumenical than you realize…just name it, own it, and lead the way into the age of ecumenism.

Brian Hehn, Congregational Song, The Center for Congregational Song

*This chart taken from:


The Future of Congregational Singing

People often ask me where I see the future of congregational singing going. Like the general world-wide trend of Christian denominations and the general population trend of the U.S., I think that we are shifting (or possibly have already shifted) away from a culture of majorities to a culture of pluralities. There won’t be songs that we can identify that the majority of Christians sing. There won’t be genres that the majority of Christians sing. There will be many identifiable trends that are equally interesting, useful, problematic, and complex within the church’s song. And, to me, that means we’re getting that much closer to singing what God sounds like: an intermingling of different pitches, rhythms, and timbres from all times and places that create something beautiful and unexpected.


A future post will deal with the pedagogical implications of working in the church when pluralities are realities.