The new Gather hymnal is just good enough — and that’s perfect
The Gather hymnal, whose ubiquitous 2004 2nd edition still guides countless Catholic parishes in song, is now in its 4th edition. Released earlier this year, this newest edition is advertised as being “Rooted in tradition, Engaged with the present, Focused on the future.” With this, Gather is likely to cement its status as the normative hymnal, and the most familiar repertoire of sacred music, for the average American Catholic. Since its inception in 1994, Gather has boasted a mix of traditional and contemporary hymns and styles, a carefully engineered whole that shapes and reflects musical preferences in the American church.
Gather might take some heat from those with more traditional preferences—which I happen to generally hold myself—if only because it is so commonly used, but it is far from the most contemporary hymnal. That dubious honor might go to Glory & Praise, whose 2015 3rd edition’s introduction approvingly notes that its original 1970s edition popularized folk and guitar music at Mass. At the other end of the scale, there is the almost exclusively traditional St. Michael Hymnal, a niche choice for parishes with no love for contemporary hymns. (My own childhood parish has used both of these collections, and as you might expect, the whiplash did not go unnoticed.) Gather is a more diverse, and in some ways more sophisticated, mix.
Gather’s new 4th edition covers all the bases for a diverse, growing, rooted church.
You might call it the Walmart of hymnals. It doesn’t drill down into any one category. It doesn’t specialize. But it covers most of the bases that most parishes and parishioners would expect.
It is, however, well curated. Any given compendium is only a tiny slice of all the possible sacred music that could have been included, and even then many of these winnowed down entries will remain unfamiliar to many people.
One takeaway here, then, is the evolution of post–Vatican II Catholic music. Catholics of all musical preferences still have a tendency to refer to this vast body of hymnody as “contemporary,” as if there was a sharp breaking point. But the oldest and most used of the contemporary hymns are now nearing 60 years old. They are no longer, if they ever were, a modernist imposition. Entire generations of Catholics have grown up with this music as a spiritual backdrop, and it is a part of the church’s life. Consider that American Catholics in 1850 had never heard “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” “Alleluia Sing to Jesus,” or even the English version of “Hail, Holy Queen/Salve Regina.” One day, it will be impossible to imagine a Catholicism without “Here I Am, Lord” and “Gather Us In.”
You might call it the Walmart of hymnals. It doesn’t drill down into any one category. It doesn’t specialize.
With use comes familiarity, and that evolution of contemporary Catholic sacred music is visible in this latest Gather edition. If too wide a net was once cast, now the work of refining has begun.
“Each Winter as the Year Grow Older,” with only a single reference to Christ in the final line of the final stanza, is no longer included in the Advent section. “You Are Our Center,” with the line “when dreams are shattered by nameless pow’rs,” has also fallen out of the hymnal. The foot-tapping, jazz-inflected “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” is nowhere to be found. “Look Beyond,” with its questionable eucharistic theology (“look beyond the bread you eat”), is also out. Likewise with “Anthem” (a “we” song that also dubs Jesus the “rage against the night”), and “World Peace Prayer,” whose scriptural inspiration is the Hindu Upanishads.
Catholicism is living, and its aesthetics and music do not end at any single point in time.
Most dramatically, GIA, the publisher of Gather, has dropped the entire body of work of David Haas, who in 2020 was accused by many women of sexual assault. As one of the most prolific contemporary hymnists, his absence will make space for even newer music; indeed, the 4th edition includes nearly 100 more hymns than that ubiquitous 2nd edition.
There are now tunes and texts from the 2000s; even as the older body of “contemporary” music is refined, new material is coming in. Marty Haugen’s somber “Tree of Life,” for example, is now joined by Aaron Thompson’s “Tree of Life,” from 2006. (My wife and I requested this song at our wedding. At the time it needed to be licensed, and she contacted the author himself to get permission to use it. Now it’s just in the hymnal.) There are also old melodies with new lyrics, a pleasant compromise between tradition and modernity.
The fact that Catholicism has a long tradition and a centuries-long storehouse of music and liturgy should not be ignored or forgotten. It is more than a collection of old favorites; it is a living part of the church’s history. But Catholicism is living, and its aesthetics and music and particular expressions do not end at any single point in time. We can argue over the merits of particular additions. But that process is underway and visible in this hymnal. This sorting will produce, over time, a new set of standards and classics. This has occurred throughout the life of the hymnal as a concept—itself once a Protestant innovation—as perusal of a hymnal from 100 or 200 years ago will quickly make obvious.
Gatheris a careful compromise; it will not fully please everyone. But it is nonetheless a solid hymnal. It is good enough. And for a diverse and sometimes fractious church, good enough might just be perfect.