“They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like Bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights-mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer.”
Yesterday’s Sunday reflection by Fr. Alex Roche, in which he mentions the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” by Fr. Michael Joncas, spurred an interesting discussion on social media. Fr. Roche noted that the lyrics of the 1979 song, which Joncas composed following the sudden death of a friend’s father, are taken directly from scripture. The verses are from Psalm 91, and the refrain is an amalgam of scripture references. The image of eagles’ wings comes from Exodus 19:4 (which was read in yesterday’s first reading), and Isaiah 40:31. The refrain also draws from Matthew 13:43, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The image of “the palm of his hand” is reminiscent of Isaiah 49:16, “Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.”
Since its debut, “On Eagle’s Wings” has become a well-known standard for US Catholics, and it has been translated into many languages. It can be found in the hymnals of many different Christian denominations. In the US Church, it is perhaps the most-sung hymn at funerals — the setting for which it was originally composed. In 2006, “On Eagle’s Wings” placed first in a survey entitled, “Songs That Make a Difference.” Conducted by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the poll sought to determine “which liturgical song most fostered and nourished the respondent’s life.” Each of the 3,000 respondents could only name one song. They were not offered a list of songs from which to choose — they had to type their answers into an empty field. The methodology wasn’t totally scientific, the poll was advertised in diocesan newspapers and the self-selected respondents were directed to a website to give their answers. 670 different songs were named by the respondents and no song received more than 8% of the vote. Nevertheless, “On Eagles Wings,” with 240 votes, received 90 more than the second-place song, Dan Schutte’s “Here I am Lord.”
“On Eagle’s Wings” is not without its detractors. Its modern style is quite different than that of the traditional Catholic sacred music we have preserved over the centuries. It was composed for the guitar, and that shows. There is no doubt that much of its popular appeal can be attributed to the emotions evoked by its unique and sometimes jarring lyrics and melody (“Lest you dash your foot against a stone!”). Because the song’s lyrics and melody present an extremely clear and emotional message about God’s love breaking through hopelessness and despair (repeatedly), many Catholics associate it with the funeral of a loved one or with the memory of a treasured moment of grace at Mass. For example, President Joe Biden has repeatedly spoken of his love for the song, which was a favorite of his late son Beau and was sung at his funeral.
And this seems to be precisely why many Catholics scoff at “On Eagle’s Wings” and similar hymns. As Catholic composer Mark Haas has written, “Sunday worshippers don’t need a ‘pat on the head’ through sappy songs. The emotional response of the faithful should come about naturally through an encounter with the Risen Lord who is re-presented on the Altar as the One, perfect Sacrifice once for all.” This line of thinking is echoed by Oblate of Mary Immaculate Bevil Bramwell, who wrote, “Our emotions should find a place in the liturgy, but they are at their best when they are tied to grasping the intellectual wonder of what the Spirit of God is doing.”
A former pastor of mine once refused to allow “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Here I am Lord” to be played at the funeral of a longtime parishioner. She had spoken for years with her family about how much she wanted those songs played at her funeral Mass, but the priest was unbending. Luckily, her family was able to find another parish and another priest who was more welcoming. But it is tragic that this woman’s pastor refused to accommodate a request that would likely be granted at 90% of the Catholic Churches in the US. And over what?
This attitude is certainly not new. Plato spoke fondly of the Ancient Greek equivalent of the good old days, when order was maintained during musical performances and those in authority kept the unwashed masses in line:
“The directors of public instruction insisted that the spectators should listen in silence to the end; and boys and their tutors, and the multitude in general, were kept quiet by a hint from a stick. Such was the good order which the multitude were willing to observe; they would never have dared to give judgment by noisy cries.” Plato, Laws, Book III
Plato, like many anti-sentimentalists throughout history, recoiled at the type of music that evoked strong emotions in the common people, even stirring them to applaud or shout or stand up. This attitude remained prevalent among cultural and intellectual elites in Europe over the centuries. Exceptions were so remarkable that when the first London performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1743 roused King George II to his feet, the rest of the audience stood up as well, and standing through the Hallelujah Chorus has remained the tradition ever since. (Although some, such as Stephen Rombouts in the New Oxford Review, reject standing during the Messiah in principle.)
The rejection of what is often described as “sentimentalism” is an all-encompassing theme among many Catholics of a certain stripe. It is not just limited to liturgy and music but with the experience of faith as a whole. Sentimentalism is seen at the roots of the degradation of right order, good morals, and society itself. For example, Cardinal Burke, one of the most outspoken proselytizers of this ideologically-charged notion, has said, “Today, many in the Church, moved by emotions and sentimentalism, confuse love of the sinner with permissiveness or even approval of sin. Even as Christ exemplifies so clearly for us in the Gospel and as Saint Augustine teaches us, we must love the sinner, while, at the same time, we must hate sin.”
What is missing from such assessments, however, is an apparent inability to distinguish in others the love of neighbor and respect for human dignity from emotional manipulation and compromising with the devil. Furthermore, a sterile and strict worldview that sorts moral precepts and categorizes principles into neat rows with clear lines and sharp corners is not made for people whose hearts cry out to God for comfort and mercy in moments of desperate sadness and pain. (That’s all of us, by the way.)
The funny thing is that anti-sentimentalists (you might also know them as traditionalists or backwardists or neo-Pelagians) don’t lack emotion and sentimentality when their own hearts are broken. They might coldly explain to you why your miscarried baby is in hell, or why the death penalty is morally necessary. But when the Tridentine Mass was restricted, even Cardinal Burke expressed his own “sentiments of profound sorrow.” The traditionalist movement as a whole has resorted to sentimentality in its opposition to Francis’s motu proprio, even propping up distraught young widows and families in order to elicit sympathy for their resistance.
Even more extreme is when dissenting bishops like Burke and his ideological ally, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, decry sentimentalism but resort to conspiracy theories and moral panic in their campaign to reject Pope Francis’s leadership and magisterial teachings. What could possibly be a more dangerous form of sentimentalism than abandoning critical thinking and taking up fantastical crusades rooted in paranoia? In this worldview, other people (past and present, popes and paupers) become archetypes with one-dimensional attributes, morals, and motives.
With this outlook, every belief seems to be of utmost importance at all times. We can’t smile and be polite when we hear our aunt’s favorite hymn, we must abolish vulgar songs and restore sacred music to its proper dignity. We can’t consider the possible merits of changes in the Church, we must decry such “modernism” wherever we see it and stamp it out.
Developments in doctrine, discipline, and practice since the Second Vatican Council are intolerable to so many traditionalists because they disturb the order they seek to maintain. They didn’t like it when St. John XXIII said to “open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air” and called them “prophets of doom,” and they really hated it when Pope Francis said to “make a mess” and called them “self-absorbed Promethean Neo-Pelagians.”
The Church’s approach to the world has indeed softened in the last century, not only by practical necessity, but because our increasing awareness of the dignity of the person has led us to consider more deeply each person’s experiences, hardships, and situations individually. A century ago, most Catholics who died by suicide, much to their families’ shame, were denied Christian burial and presumed to be in hell because their final act was gravely evil. Thanks to a better understanding of the psychology of those with depression and mental illness, the Church now teaches, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC 2283). Suicide is a profoundly evil and tragic act, for everyone touched by it, but today we recognize with compassion that suicide is rarely chosen freely.
The Church’s collective increase in compassion and empathy towards many groups — non-Catholics, non-Christians, women, survivors of abuse, the divorced and remarried, criminals, LGBT people, unmarried mothers, the disabled, the poor, those of indigenous and non-European cultures — is not the result of weakness or capitulation. It is the recognition of our shared humanity and the result of prayerful discernment. It’s the hard lesson learned after the collapse of the Church in the West, caused by centuries of triumphalism and authoritarianism. It’s where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church in this time. And we have much further to go.
And frankly, despite the claims of radical traditionalists about their growth, appealing to human emotions seems to be the route to successful evangelization. The traditionalist movement, after all these years, can claim perhaps a million massgoers per week around the world. By comparison, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (which started around the same time) has grown from an estimated 2 million members in 1970 to 160 million worldwide in 2013. This is indicative that charismatics might have something to teach the rest of the Church about both liturgical music and reaching people.
Pope Francis has taught about the importance of feelings and sentiments to the Christian life. Our emotions are integral to who we are, and thus are an integral part of our faith. Last year he taught, “A perfect but ‘aseptic’ serenity, without feeling, makes us inhuman when it becomes the criterion for decisions and behaviour. We cannot ignore our feelings: we are human and feelings are part of our humanity. And without understanding feelings, we would be inhuman. Without experiencing our sentiments, we would also be indifferent to the sufferings of others and incapable of accepting our own.”
When Catholics say that Pope Francis “gets it,” they mean that he understands the needs and desires of ordinary people today, and he knows what motivates spiritual renewal in our hearts. Although we should not be slaves to our feelings, the first spark of true conversion is often a deeply felt experience. St. Paul’s conversion was prompted by the dramatic event of seeing a flash of light and hearing the voice of the Lord, followed by three days of blindness. The sudden earthquake after the trauma of witnessing Christ’s crucifixion caused the centurion to cry out, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
It is a very rare bird whose personal conversion experience begins with “grasping the intellectual wonder of what the Spirit of God is doing” at Mass.
Speaking of birds — back to “On Eagle’s Wings.” Maybe you don’t like it. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea. Personally, I think it’s sweet. Granted, my own opinions about music are middlebrow at best. As are the two most deeply moving musical moments of my own life.
One of them was an evening Mass on a cold winter night when I was 19. I was going through what in retrospect was a bout with untreated major depression. The communion hymn was “Christ be Our Light” by Bernadette Farrell. It was sung by a longtime cantor at our parish named Sally, and the scene would likely invite the open scorn and mockery of traditionalist trolls on Twitter. But what I remember was looking at the stained glass windows, blacked out by the dark, and hearing Sally sing those words, which brought me hope that the light of Christ would shine through the darkness I felt inside. And it did.
The other experience was when I was in sixth grade. That morning, my classmate Joseph and his brother John were killed in a car crash on the way to school. I was shocked and hurting and angry and stunned and sad. They filed us into the Church a couple of hours after it happened. The 8th grade girls’ choir sang Carey Landry’s “Only a Shadow” as part of an impromptu prayer service. The bridge (“My life is in your hands”) and the melody have remained with me like no piece of music has before or since.
Schlocky and pedestrian, you say?
Those songs brought me closer to God. As “On Eagle’s Wings” has done for so many.
Image: Adobe Stock. By rossycats.