Amongst the Pagans a hymn meant a song or ode of praise in honor of their gods or heroes. In Christian language it means a poem in praise of God or His saints, or of some mystery of the Christian faith.
The chanting of hymns has at all times formed a part of divine worship. When the children of Israel saw the hosts of the Egyptians dead on the shore of Red Sea, and the mighty hand that the Lord had used against their enemies, they celebrated His triumph and expressed their gratitude in a magnificent canticle composed by their inspired leader, Moses. Let us sing to the Lord, for He is gloriously magnified. All the Psalms of David are hymns, as far surpassing in beauty and sublimity the poetry of earth as the words of God surpass the words of man. The mournful notes of supernatural sorrow, the exultation of unshaken faith, the breathings of hope, the aspirations of ecstatic love oommingle in the odes and lyrics of the Royal Psalmist to form a unity of heavenly music and poetry which masters the Christian soul with the power of Divinity.
The Canticle of Anna, the mother of Samuel, the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin, the hymn said by Jesus Christ and His Apostles, after participating of the Bread of Angels at the Last Supper, are Scriptural proofs of the propriety of sacred song as a mode of religious worship.
The Council of Braganza, held in 553, forbade any poetical composition to be sung in the churches, (with the exception of the Psalms and other parts of the Old and New Testament,) In the following century, however, the Council of Toledo removed due prohibition in favor of hymns composed by distinguished writers.
Still it is probable that hymns were not inserted in the Roman Breviary until the thirteenth century, as we find no authentic mention or existing monument of the fact until that period. Urban VIII., who reigned in the seventeenth century, appointed three members of the Society of Jesus to revise the hymns of the Breviary. The present forms of these sacred poems are due to their labors.
The ecclesiastical hymns are not compositions of the same author or of the same period. Some date from the third or fourth century, others from the seventeenth, and perhaps some even from the eighteenth century. St. Ambrose, Prudentius, Venerable Bede, Sedulius, Paulinus, Venantius Fortunatus, Rabanus, Strabo, Fulbertus of Chartres, John the Deacon, St. Bernard and St. Thomas of Aquin, have all contributed their flowers of poetry to the Anthology of the Church. These are unknown names to some of our readers, but those that bore them were true poets and faithful followers of the Cross of Christ, the ever-flowing fountain of high poetic inspiration. Were their lot cast in our days many a literary star would pale before their brighter splendors.
Some of our hymns have never been rivaled by ancient or modern uninspired bard. We would instance the Te Deum, the joint composition of St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, on the occasion of the baptism of the former by the latter, in the end of the fourth century; the Vexilla Regis of Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, towards the middle of the sixth century; the Ave Maris Stella and the Stabat Mater of Pope Innocent III., in the beginning of the thirteenth century; the Veni Creator Spiritus, which some authors have attributed to St. Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, and others to Charlemagne; and finally the glorious hymns of the Blessed Sacrament, the Pange Lingua, the Verbum Supernum, and the Lauda Sion, the compositions of the angelic doctor, St. Thomas of Aquin. There is a strain of unearthly majesty and triumph breathing through the last-mentioned, that, in our estimation, makes it the most sublime hymn in the Liturgy. It is said that the solemn music to which it is set is the same that was chanted in the triumphant processions of Rome’s conquering generals.
In the Decreta Authentica S. R. C., an abridgement of the great ritual work of Gardellini, we find under the word Cantiones the following decrees:
An conveniat cantare aliquas cantiones vulgari sermone, non tamen profanas, in festivitate SS. Sacramenti, etc?
Resp: Non convenire Die. 21 Martii 1609 in Abulem (258.)
Episcopus petiit: An sibi liceat. prohibere Regulartbus Suæ diœcesis, ne in ipsorum Ecclesiis canant laudes idiomate valgari compositas?
Resp: Episcopum posse auctoritate hujus Congregationis dictas laudes prohibere etiam Regularibus. Die 7 Aug. 1628 in Novarien (618.)
An in benedictione populo impertienda cum Augustissimo Eucharistæ Sacramento, permitti possit cantus alicajus versiculi vernacula lingua ooncepti: vel ante, vel post ipsam benedictionem?
Resp: Permitti posse post benedictionem. Die 3. Aug. 1839 in Bobien ad 2 (4711.)
These decrees apply, we think, only to public ecclesiastical functions, strictly so-called, and not to Sunday-schools, Sodalities, and Confraternities. If we are correct in our surmise, sacred canticles in the mother tongue may be sung by the members of such associations. The Holy Ghost tells us that praise is not seemly in the mouth of sinners; where then can it be more beautiful and touching than when it echoes from the lips of innocent children? We ought, by all means, to encourage a taste for singing amongst our young people. It will enable them to take an active part in divine worship and enhance its solemnity, and it will be a source of holy enjoyment to themselves and others.