Should Catholics sing hymns at Mass? Given the state of Catholic liturgical music, it’s a fair question. In the last century, Catholics exchanged their musical solid food for milk—usually skim and on the edge of going sour. Hymns at Mass are a recent addition to the liturgy. Hymns were used in the daily office, rotating by day or by season, but the Tridentine Mass had chants for particular days—the propers of the Mass—not hymns. Protestant congregations who were departing from medieval practice in other ways introduced hymns into the liturgy itself, and, as many Christians of all kinds acknowledge, Catholic attempts to appropriate and improve on this Protestant modification have not turned out well.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that some Catholics who want to fix church music focus on Gregorian chant and move away from hymns altogether. Others lean more favorably toward hymns, but seek to make sure that they are Catholic hymns. But there are good reasons for Catholics to sing hymns—and Protestant hymns, at that. Even as they strive for excellence in Gregorian chant and other areas of musical renewal, Catholics would do well to remember what good hymns can do and why excellence in hymn-singing should be part of the Catholic liturgical renewal.