Canadian Catholics are about to see the first new national hymnal in more than 20 years — a book that will bring long-cherished hymns into step with modern worship and introduce new works as well.
For Karen Koester, it’s the end of a long, necessary and fruitful process.
“One of the reasons we need an up-to-date hymnal, first of all, is that there’s great new music that has come out … that people are singing, and it helps them to pray,” says Koester, a member of the National Council for Liturgical Music.
The council, an advisory body to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has spent years reviewing hymns for the new book, Music for Catholic Worship.
Koester, a musician, song leader and former band teacher who coordinates religious education for Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, is one of three representatives from Western Canada on the council. The others are council chair, John Morgan — a conductor and organist from Calgary — and Father Geoffrey Angeles, rector of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Winnipeg and an accomplished composer whose work will be published in the new hymnal.
If approved by the Permanent Council of the CCCB, the songbook will replace the Catholic Book of Worship III, which was released in 1994 but became outdated with the revision of the Roman Missal and other liturgical texts. A release date has not yet been announced.
Packed with more than 400 hymns — some familiar and some brand-new — Music for Catholic Worship is the result of more than six years of planning and reviewing of hundreds of hymns by a team of clergy and laypeople. Koester anticipates that it will have an important place in contemporary Canadian liturgies.
“We learn from what we sing, so our theology is formed by what we sing at Mass,” she says. “There are always new things being written. We don’t want to stay fixed at one period in our history and never add on all the good things that the Holy Spirit is inspiring.”
The hymnal includes 10 Mass settings — the parts of the Mass that are sung — written by both Canadian and U.S. composers. The CBW 3, in contrast, had three.
The newest version of O Canada, revised with more inclusive language last February, is also included.
It was Koester’s first time working on a national hymnal, and she learned that the process is far from easy. She and other council members — all singers, organists or musicians themselves — regularly clocked in 12-hour shifts as they reviewed, vetted and debated hymns.
The new hymnal includes pieces from both the CBW 3 and new hymns from Canadian composers. Individual members also suggested hymns that they liked or had seen in hymnals from other Christian churches, and the council reviewed the theology behind each one.
“There’s a lot of negotiation and discussion that goes on, (and) it sometimes gets passionate a little bit,” Koester says. “If you have hymns that you love and you use, you want to see them in the hymnal.”
The process also involved lots — and lots — of singing.
“We sing through them, sometimes in harmony if it’s a piece that has more than one part. Sometimes we sing them in unison to see what the experience in the assembly would be like, especially if it’s a new one that we haven’t seen before.”
The work had its lighter moments as well.
“By the evening we get a little crazy. By the end we’re just giggling and having a really good time.”
Bishop John Boissonneau — an auxiliary bishop of Toronto and chair of the CCCB’s Episcopal Commission for Liturgy and Sacraments, English Sector — was another first-time hymnal-builder.
“We had some people like Monsignor (Murray) Kroetsch who were involved in the CBW 3, so they were helpful in pointing out the steps involved and have been very beneficial in the process,” says Boissonneau.
The Commission has overall responsibility for planning and preparing the book. It has also coordinated with the CCCB’s publication arm to print the new books, which will be released in hardcover for approximately $25, says Boissonneau. The CBW 3 currently sells between $15 and $20. A digital version of the hymnal for projectors is also in the works.
One factor affecting its release is customer demand. Publishing the hymnals will cost approximately $1-2 million and will only be greenlighted if enough parishes show interest in purchasing them.
“(Parishes) don’t have to take the CCCB publication; they can take one from the States or from anything they want, so we’re in a market that way, and that was our concern,” says Boissonneau.
Music for Catholic Worship faces competition from cheaper, annual-subscription hymnals used in Canadian parishes, such as Breaking Bread and Journeysongs, both U.S. publications.
The CCCB has sent surveys to all English-speaking dioceses in Canada, asking if their parishes would purchase the new hymnal.
Father Paul Kavanagh, director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Edmonton Archdiocese, says the response by local parishes has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve always been really of the mind that this will eventually be published,” says Kavanagh. “Just looking at the numbers, many of the parishes says they were certainly looking forward to buying it now or further down the road.”
As for Koester, she says she never thought she would help shape the future of liturgical music in Canada. “I was shocked really,” when asked to join the council. Koester was recommended for the NCLM by Leslie Steele, the late music director at St. Thomas More Parish in Edmonton and a former council member.
“I shouldn’t be shocked because I’ve spent a lot of my life in liturgical music. But you never think, ‘I’m going to be the one who gets the call.’ It’s kind of like Moses saying to God, ‘Don’t pick me!’”
And while Koester has enjoyed the experience, she doubts she’ll be around to help with the next edition.
“We probably won’t have another hymnal for another 20 years. By that time I’ll be retired!”
Fact sheet about the new hymnal
List of hymns in the new hymnal