The Greatest Hymns of All Time (as chosen by America readers)

The St. Louis Jesuits at their final concert, on Sept. 29 at Powell Hall in St. Louis. From left, Tim Manion, John Foley, S.J., Bob Dufford, S.J., Dan Schutte and Roc O'Connor, S.J. (Don Doll, S.J.)The St. Louis Jesuits at their final concert, on Sept. 29 at Powell Hall in St. Louis. From left, Tim Manion, John Foley, S.J., Bob Dufford, S.J., Dan Schutte and Roc O'Connor, S.J. (Don Doll, S.J.)

There’s no denying the influence that the St. Louis Jesuits have had on Catholic liturgical music. Responsible for liturgical hits such as “Be Not Afraid,” “One Bread, One Body” and “Earthen Vessels,” the composer-performers’ hymns have been sung at countless Masses since their formation in the 1970s. After 45 years of writing music together and recording 35 studio albums, the St. Louis Jesuits reunited on Sept. 29 at Powell Hall to perform their sold-out final concert, “Coming Home.”

[Read Kerry Weber’s report from the sold-out final concert by the St. Louis Jesuits.]

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In honor of the group’s farewell concert, we asked our readers to choose their favorite St. Louis Jesuits hymns. We also wanted to know how the St. Louis Jesuits’ songs ranked among Catholics’ favorite hymns. Nearly 500 people responded to a survey, picking their top 10 favorites of all time and their top five St. Louis Jesuit hymns, three of which also appeared on our top 10 list.

1. “Be Not Afraid” (1975)
Composed by Bob Dufford, S.J.
President Bill Clinton wrote in his autobiography “My Life” that the song was “one of my favorite hymns and a good lesson for the day.”

2. “Here I Am, Lord” (1981)
Composed by Dan Schutte
Schutte wrote the hymn in two days after being asked to compose a new song for a diaconate ordination Mass only four days before the service.

3. “On Eagle’s Wings” (1979)
Composed by Michael Joncas
The song was performed in Italian during the funeral of famed operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti—one of Father Joncas’s personal heroes—in 2007.

4. “Amazing Grace” (1779)
Composed by John Newton, E. O. Excell
Some historians believe that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin popularized the version of “Amazing Grace” that we sing today.

5. “Ave Maria” (1825)
Composed by Franz Schubert
Schubert did not actually title the song “Ave Maria” when he composed it. Originally called “Ellens dritter Gesang” (“Ellen’s Third Song”), the song was one of seven written for Schubert’s Opus 52, which is based on Walter Scott’s poem “Lady of the Lake.”

6. “Prayer of St. Francis” (1967)
Composed by Sebastian Temple
The prayer’s origins have been traced back to 1912 in a French spiritual magazine called La Clochette (“The Little Bell”), but the author’s identity remains unknown.

7. “You Are Mine” (1991)
Composed by David Haas
In 2006 “You Are Mine” placed fourth in a national survey conducted by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians on songs that made a difference in individuals’ faith lives.

8. “How Great Thou Art” (1885)
Composed by Carl Boberg
Boberg was inspired to compose the hymn after encountering a sudden storm on his walk home from church near Kronobäck, Sweden.

9. “One Bread, One Body” (1978)
Composed by John Foley, S.J.
This hymn’s memorable refrain draws upon Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

10. TIE “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” (1749) and “How Can I Keep from Singing?” (1869)
Composed by John Arnold (“Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”) and Robert Lowry (“How Can I Keep from Singing?”)
In 1740, Charles Wesley—the founder of Methodism—added an alternative fourth verse to “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” which was later integrated into the hymn.


Favorite 5 St. Louis Jesuit Hymns

1. “Be Not Afraid” (1975)
Composed by Bob Dufford, S.J.
Father Dufford composed “Be Not Afraid” while on a Jesuit retreat before his ordination to grapple with his anxieties about the future.

2. “Here I Am, Lord” (1981)
Composed by Dan Schutte
After consulting the St. Louis Jesuits, Schutte changed the lyrics from the confident “Here I am, Lord; here I stand, Lord” to the self-doubting final version: “Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord?”

3. “One Bread, One Body” (1978)
Composed by John Foley, S.J.
The hymn works to shift our focus on Christ’s suffering to thanksgiving through the Eucharist.

4. “City of God” (1981)
Composed by Dan Schutte
The hymn refers to St. Augustine of Hippo’s famous work “The City of God,” which is considered a cornerstone of Western thought.

5. “Sing to the Mountains” (1975)
Composed by Bob Dufford, S.J.
Father Dufford based this hymn on Psalm 118, which is noted for its joyous tone and praise to God for delivering his people to salvation.

Methodology: These results are based on 475 responses to a poll promoted to our America Today newsletter subscribers and to America Media followers on social media.

Read more about “Be Not Afraid,” “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Here I Am, Lord” in a series of essays by America’s Colleen Dulle.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Michael Caggiano
3 months 2 weeks ago

One can guess the average age of an America reader just by this sampling.

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

Almost guaranteed to all be over 50.

Joan Roccasalvo
3 months 2 weeks ago

The title of Ms Senechal's essay, her second, should be "The Greatest Hymns of All Time chosen by those under 30 years of age." Apparently, this young lady has no experience of the great Gregorian Masaes, the even greater antiphon chants to Our Lady. Has she not had even one experience of these? How sad! Her musical church repertoire consists in mostly the St. Louis Jesuits. She has no experience of the great musical tradition into which she was born. Has she heard of Solesmes? What of the strong and courageous Anglican hymnody, e.g., "The Living God My Shepherd Is?" And what of the popular chant hymnody of the French Jesuit, Joseph Gelineau? It's almost like saying you're an American and yet you don't know the "Star-Spangled Banner" or "America, the Beautiful" and their histories. It's not her fault but ours. We educators bear the blame for the choice of her essay(s)! Is a third essay coming?

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

Uh, one can only hope that God called you to a work other than hymnody and/or sacred music studies. Your comments are misinformed and misguided. In every sentence you assume far more than merited and project your obvious biases.

While I share your horror at this list, with few exceptions, the "contemporary" music enumerated by Ms. Senechal is all more than 30 years old. Only contemporary in the sense that every song in the list was composed in the last century,. As with everything “boomer” (personified by the current squatter in the White House), their music (and Pope) is “the greatest ever,” the “best that ever was," blah, blah, blah.

Denise Delurgio
3 months 2 weeks ago

Franklyn Busby Apparently you read poorly when you missed that there were two parts to the survey. One to choose 5 contemporary Jesuit hymns, and the other to choose 10 all-time favorite liturgical hymns from a list provided by the writer. Your need to insert a political insult into a discussion of church music is revealing. It was interesting to read these columns and the outcome of the surveys. They illustrate how important great music is to the celebration of Holy Mass.

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you. You are correct and I was not. With few exceptions, do you believe that most of the songs on this list will qualify as "great music" in 100 years? Me thinks not.

Joan Roccasalvo
3 months 2 weeks ago

Franklin, Yes, I should have been more precise. In haste, I should have cited other religious songs of the 60's and beyond that can be considered 'in the style" of the St. Louis Jesuits. The issue is quality, quality, quality. Ed con molto expressivo. Finally, the person who offered me mean wishes should find a school of etiquette end enroll there..

lynne miller
3 months 2 weeks ago

Perhaps not - I, too, am a lover of Gregorian Chant, but these hymns are simple, sincere, and speak to people in their own language. That means a lot to the average churchgoer.

Sha'Pearl Jones
3 months 2 weeks ago

Correct. The "modern" hymns are typically popular with people today who would be considered old. I am under 40 and find these folk songy hymns to be uninspiring in terms of lyrics and insipid in terms of melody. Be Not Afraid or the song about the eagles can't compare to the timelessness of Holy God We Praise Thy Name or On This Day O Beautiful Mother.

J. Calpezzo
3 months 2 weeks ago

Don’t snap your garter belt

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

Seriously? That's all you've got?!

J. Calpezzo
3 months 2 weeks ago

What about Al Di La?

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

This list is terrifying. Largely Roman Catholic musical detritus from the 60’s and 70’s with a little evangelical protestant pablum thrown in for good measure, there is but a single entry (and a tie) representing anything from the sacred music/hymnodic tradition.

To ascribe this list to choices made by young people is absurd. Unlike the octogenarian respondents to this survey, most younger people (those under 30) are truly catholic (small “c”) in their secular and sacred music choices.

For almost 40 years, I have been honored to provide musical support to (largely under 30) active-duty military personnel and their families at home and abroad: for more than 10 years as worship and music leader at a military recruit training center where more than 35,000 eighteen to twenty-five year old recruits per year came through our doors. Protestant, Roman Catholic, or “other,” the only response that most of the songs on this list would elicit will be an eye-roll and stone-faced silence.

For the record, the term “hymn” is a quite specific literary/musical construct: most St. Louis Jesuits’ music would be more accurately described as “gospel songs.” Franz Schubert’s ditty had its genesis in the operatic tradition. With few exceptions (Michael Joncas, David Hass), when the current crop of geezers’ stumble through the pearly gates this music will (thankfully) find itself in the dustbin of musical history. If you have any doubt, go back and look at the People's Mass Book from the early 60's. Fewer than five-percent of the songs in that "hymnal" are still in common use.

No matter the genre, when a song contains more personal pronouns than references to the Divine, the People of God are ill-served.

J. Calpezzo
3 months 2 weeks ago

Ageism!

Franklyn BUSBY
3 months 2 weeks ago

I'm 62. Ass-u-me

J. Calpezzo
3 months 2 weeks ago

Don't snap your garter belt young man.

Vince Killoran
3 months 2 weeks ago

I'm a liberal Catholic and I agree with your assessment. Thomas Day nailed it many years ago in his incisive book, WHY CATHOLICS CAN'T SING.

Maxwell Anderson
3 months 2 weeks ago

Franklyn Busby, is there a published list somewhere of hymns that DID appeal to "eighteen to twenty-five year old recruits"?

lynne miller
3 months 2 weeks ago

Oh, but how about In Earthen Vessels? One of my favorites, along with Be Not Afraid. Does show my age, I guess!

M H
3 months 2 weeks ago

Maybe this list would be less dominated by the mid 20th century if Catholic Churches played hymns that weren’t from that time period. The list reflects what is most often played. And these 70ssongs are …fine? But Mozart and Bach wrote sacred music and we are always listening to Bob Dufford? and we are listening, not singing, because most don’t sing along.

I suggest reading May’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. The song that has the highest percentage of participation is most certainly the chant version of the Our Father. That very little of other music sounds like that is a strange choice.

Think about music around Christmas. Hark the Heralds Angels Sing. Away in a Manger. O Holy Night. These are older hymns that are beloved. Why don’t we sing more non-Christmas songs that sound more like this? How did thousands of years of sacred music tradition get replaced and dominated by the St Louis jesuits?

Christopher Minch
3 months 2 weeks ago

I especially like congregational music and what Vatican II and the new rubrics have to say about religious and congregational singing. I much prefer contemporary music that uses scripture either the psalms or new testament themes, especially the gospels or st. paul's epistles. I do like some of the older music especially if they have a scriptural or Jesus based sentiments of love of God and neighbor. Pure theological hymns I don't care for so much because they are usually about God only and sometimes don't lead us back to neighbor. I also don't care for contemporary hymns that talk about ourselves and our issues and only relate a little to our greater need for God in our lives. Music means a lot to us in our too messy human lives and spiritual development. I like the choices that were made above. Will they continue to be great or relevant in our catholic/spiritual lives?--only the passage of time will tell.

Michael G
3 months 2 weeks ago

Lively discussion banter about church music for an institution that is in rapid decline. However, since Vatican II, much of the St. Louis Jesuit's music continues to be in wide use within the Catholic and Protestant English speaking world.

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