The Search for English Catholic Hymnody

Catholics have praised God in song for the entirety of the faith’s history. Various expressions of devotion have given rise to countless compositions, and yet, there remains a shortage of Catholic hymns in English. While parishes today do sing hymns in English, many of these are Protestant in origin, often both in the music and text. This is not always entirely problematic, but it does beg the question: where are the authentic Catholic hymns? The greatest hymnodists of English come to us from the Congregation of the Oratory in 19th century, namely St. John Henry Newman, Fr. Frederick Faber, and Fr. Edward Caswall.

There have long been hymns in Latin in the Church, both in chant and metrical forms, but this vast repertoire is largely neglected today. Perhaps the most famous of these Latin hymns are those of St. Ambrose (c. 340 – 397), who wrote hymns against the Arians in a particular poetic metre, a style which would become a popular model for successive hymnodists. Catholics still sing some of Ambrose’s hymns, such as Veni Redemptor Gentium, sung as chant, but also as the metrical hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come.” As the following centuries unfurled, many others added to the repertoire, such as Aurelius Prudentius (c. 348 – c. 405, author of the Christmas hymn, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274, writer of the great Eucharistic hymns for Corpus Christi, such as “Pange Lingua,” as well as “Adoro Te Devote”), and many more. While the writing of Latin hymns did not cease after Aquinas, it is around the time of the Angelic Doctor that the first well-known vernacular hymn arises.

Christ ist Erstanden, is an 12th-century vernacular hymn, written in German. Based on the Easter sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes, this Easter hymn is still sung today, normally to Catherine Winkworth’s translation, “Jesus Christ in Risen Again.” This, perhaps one of the very first vernacular hymns, was immensely popular in pre-Reformation times. One 13th-century manuscript from the Benedictine abbey of St. Lambrecht in Styria has this hymn interspersed within the Latin sequence for Easter, and written above the music, there is the statement, “populo suo more acclamante,” directing that the people should sing their part, as was customary.[i] While it is often claimed that Martin Luther was the creator of vernacular hymnody, this is not the case, as even the single example of Christ ist Erstanden, among others, illustrates the existence of vernacular hymns in German-speaking lands long before the first flickering of the Reformation. Furthermore, Luther used the melody of Christ ist Erstanden as the basis for his own paschal hymn, Christ lag in Todesbanden. While there is certainly an uptick in the composition of vernacular hymns after the Reformation, this rupture was clearly not the beginning of hymns in the common language.


With vernacular hymns being written in the thousands following the Reformation, most of them were Protestant in origin, and to this day, many Catholic parishes use hymns written by Protestants, and while this can be problematic, it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Regardless, there indeed seems to be a continued lack of truly Catholic hymnody, although groups such as Corpus Christi Watershed are working hard to change this. In some ways, the strongest Catholic hymnodists in English appeared in the 19th century, in the Congregation of the Oratory.

The first and most famous of the trio of English Oratorian hymnodists is St. John Henry Newman (1801–1890). A convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, Newman was a prolific writer, both before and after his conversion of 1845. “Lead, Kindly Light,” one of his most enduring hymns, was written in 1833, during a time when he was ill and at sea, having just left Italy during a pandemic. His body was weakened, and his faith shaken. In this time of doubt, he penned this poem, which has been set to music numerous times. It reads:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home—

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene—one step enough for me.


I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that Thou

Shouldst lead me on.

I loved to choose and see my path, but now

Lead Thou me on!

I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,

Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.


So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still

Wilt lead me on,

O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till

The night is gone;

And with the morn those angel faces smile

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.[ii]

While this is one of Newman’s most popular hymns (with 1558 instances in hymnals according to the database),[iii] it is certainly not his only one. He was also a brilliant translator, and translated many Latin hymns, such as those of St. Ambrose. One example is the Compline hymn, Te lucis ante terminum, or “Now that the Day-Light Dies Away.” Sadly, I was unable to find a musical setting for this hymn.

Now that the day-light dies away,

By all Thy grace and love,

Thee, Maker of the world, we pray

To watch our bed above.


Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,

The offspring of the night,

Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,

Pure in our foe’s despite.


This grace on Thy redeem’d confer,

Father, Co-equal Son,

And Holy Ghost, the Comforter,

Eternal Three in One.[iv]

A last example from Newman comes from his epic poem, “The Dream of Gerontius.” “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” is sung in different iterations by the choirs of angels who welcome Gerontius into heaven. It is sung to a few melodies, but my personal favourite is the tune BILLINGS (also known as NEWMAN), written by Sir Richard Runciman Terry (1864–1938), a Catholic musicologist, composer and organist, and most notably the music director of Westminster Cathedral. This glorious hymn of praise is one of my favourites, especially paired with Terry’s triumphant setting.

Praise to the Holiest in the height,

and in the depth be praise:

in all his words most wonderful,

most sure in all his ways.


O loving wisdom of our God!

When all was sin and shame,

a second Adam to the fight

and to the rescue came.


O wisest love! that flesh and blood,

which did in Adam fail,

should strive afresh against the foe,

should strive and should prevail;


And that a higher gift than grace

should flesh and blood refine,

God’s presence and his very self,

and essence all-divine.


O generous love! that he, who smote

in Man for man the foe,

the double agony in Man

for man should undergo;


And in the garden secretly,

and on the cross on high,

should teach his brethren, and inspire

to suffer and to die.


Praise to the Holiest in the height,

and in the depth be praise:

in all his words most wonderful,

most sure in all his ways.[v]

Fr. Frederick Faber (1814–1863) is the second hymnodist in this Oratorian trio. Raised in the Church of England, but with a Huguenot family background, he eventually embraced the Tractarian Movement, which aimed to bring Anglicanism closer to Catholicism. Faber followed closely in Newman’s footsteps, the former being received into the Catholic Church in the same year as the latter. It should be mentioned that the entirety of Fr. Faber’s Anglican parish became Catholic along with him, except “the parson, the pew-opener, and two drunken men.”[vi] The two were both members of the Congregation of the Oratory, and in 1849, Newman sent Faber to London to found an oratory there, which is commonly referred to as the Brompton Oratory. Fr. Faber, like Newman, was a prolific writer, and penned many hymns, although few are well known today. His most famous, and certainly most widely sung, is “Faith of our Fathers,” written in 1849. Although it has been variously altered in many recent hymnals, its original text is as follows:

Faith of our fathers, living still,

In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;

Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy

Whene’er we hear that glorious Word!


Faith of our fathers, holy faith!

We will be true to thee till death.


Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,

Were still in heart and conscience free;

How sweet would be their children’s fate,

If they, like them, could die for thee!


Faith of our fathers, Mary’s prayers

Shall win all nations all to thee;

And through the truth that comes from God,

Our land shall then indeed be free.


Faith of our fathers, we will love

Both friend and foe in all our strife;

And preach thee, too, as love knows how

By kindly words and virtuous life.


This hymn has been changed significantly at times, such as in the Catholic Book of Worship III. It gives a three-verse version that is somewhat close to the original text, but these words are not with the musical notation. Instead, the version that has music only retains the first verse, and after that, it has three new verses, written in 1981. Since these are still under copyright, I will not quote them here. Regardless, the meaning that Faber’s original text carries is that of the martyrs of the English Reformation, who gave up everything for the One True Faith. This newer text loses that message, supplanting it with something that is at best vague.

Fr. Faber’s hymns are rarely translations and are in some ways what could be called “devotional hymns.” They often come at a more subjective angle and aim more at the common parishioner than an objective lens of praise. While there is nothing wrong with this, it does lend a different atmosphere to his hymns. They have remained quite popular regardless, with many being in 500 or more hymnals, both in use by Catholics and Protestants. “Faith of our Fathers,” which appears in 736 hymnals, is not even his most popular by this measure, for “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” is in recorded on as being in 818 such books.[viii] An example of one of his Eucharistic hymns is “Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All!” It has a refrain that will likely be familiar to Catholics. Seeing as the original text has nine verses, I will only quote two at this time. (See the link in the endnotes to view the text from the 1851 Lyra Catholica.)

Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All,

How can I love thee as I ought?

And how revere this wondrous gift,

So far surpassing hope or thought?

Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore;

Oh, make us love thee more and more.

Oh, make us love thee more and more.


Had I but Mary’s sinless heart

To love thee with, my dearest King,

Oh, with what bursts of fervent praise

Thy goodness, Jesus, would I sing.

Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore;

Oh, make us love thee more and more.

Oh, make us love thee more and more.[ix]

The last of the three Oratorian hymnodists is Fr. Edward Caswall (1814–1878). As was also the case with Newman and Faber, Caswall was raised in the Church of England, and was an Anglican priest before his conversion to Catholicism. He was undoubtedly close to both Faber and Newman, with the latter writing a poem to Fr. Caswall, as “a gift for the new year in return for his volume of Poems.”[x] While he is the least well-known of the three, in some ways, he is in some ways foremost in his skill as a translator. “Caswall’s translations of Latin hymns from the Roman Breviary and other sources have a wider circulation in modern hymnals than those of any other translator, Dr. [John Mason] Neale alone excepted. This is owing to his general faithfulness to the originals…”[xi] Catholics have unknowingly sung many of Fr. Caswall’s hymn translations, such as “At the Cross her Station Keeping” (a translation of the Stabat Mater), “Come Holy Ghost, Creator Blest,” and “O Saving Victim, Opening Wide,” among others. The last of these three is as follows (although often varied in modern hymnals):

O saving Victim, opening wide

The gate of heaven to man below,

Our foes press on from ev’ry side,

Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.


All praise and thanks to Thee ascend

For evermore, blest One in Three;

O grant us life that shall not end,

In our true native land with Thee.



One of Caswall’s lesser known translations is that of the Latin hymn “Conditor Alme Siderum.” It is a beautiful little text, and, as is typical of this hymnodist, he stays true to the original metre of the hymn.

Dear Maker of the starry skies!

Light of believers evermore!

Jesu, Redeemer of mankind

An ear to thy poor suppliants give.


When man was sunk in sin and death,

Lost in the depth of Satan’s snare,

Love brought Thee down to cure our ills,

By taking of those ills a share.


Thou, for the sake of guilty men,

Permitting thy pure blood to flow

Didst issue from thy Virgin shrine,

And to the Cross a Victim go.


So great the glory of thy might,

If we but chance thy name to sound,

At once all Heav’n and Hell unite

In bending low with awe profound.


Great Judge of all! in that last day,

When friends shall fail, and foes combine,

Be present then with us, we pray,

To guard us with thy arm divine.


To God the Father, with the Son,

With Holy Spirit, One and Three,

Be honour, glory, blessing, praise,

All through the long eternity.[xiii]

Note the deep theology of salvation and the beautiful imagery. This is not a cheap translation and is far more profound than even the best of the vernacular “folk hymns” of the last fifty years. Sadly, it has only made it into a handful of hymnals, even though Caswall’s translation perfectly fits the chant melody.

These three Oratorians contributed greatly to the repertoire of English Catholic hymnody. Whether St. John Henry Newman’s exultant hymns of praise, Fr. Frederick Faber’s devotional works, or Fr. Edward Caswall’s exceptional translations, together they enriched the Church’s musical patrimony. Their hymns provide evidence for the use of vernacular hymnody long before the reforms of Vatican II, a tradition that goes back as early as the 12th century, with the German hymn Christ ist Erstanden. I highly recommend all Catholics explore the writings of these aforementioned hymnodists, for our own benefit, and for the benefit of the Church everywhere.


[i] Lamport, Forrest, and Whaley, eds., Hymns and Hymnody, vol. 1, “Pre-Reformation German Vernacular Hymnody – Anthony Ruff,” 225.

[ii] John Henry Newman: Prayers, Verses and Devotions. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000, 572.

[iii] “John Henry Newman.”

[iv] John Henry Newman: Prayers, Verses and Devotions. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000, 646.

[v] Newman, John Henry. “Praise to the Holiest in the Height.”

[vi] “Frederick William Faber.” Catholic Encyclopedia.

[vii] Faber, Frederick William. “Lyra Catholica (1851): 510. Faith of our Fathers, Living Still.” Hymnary.

[viii] Faber, Frederick William. “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” Hymnary.

[ix] Faber, Frederick William. “Lyra Catholica (1851): 363. Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.” Hymnary.

[x] John Henry Newman: Prayers, Verses and Devotions. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000, 686.

[xi] “Edward Caswall.” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

[xii] Caswall, Edward. “Lyra Catholica (1851): 161a. O Saving Victim! Opening Wide.” Hymnary.

[xiii] “Dear Maker of the Starry Skies.” The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.