Monday, January 11, 2021

What Vernacular Hymns Can Be: The Case of Old Polish Songs

Many Catholics suffer week after week from a repetitious diet of Four-Hymn Sandwiches, first imported decades before the Council by well-meaning liturgists who thought it would be a nice way to add calories to the Low Mass and give the folks mandibular exercise. When Fr. Longenecker once claimed that good hymns “lift hearts in worship, express faith, and help to catechize,” it made me wish that the U.S. bishops had appointed him a one-man censor librorum over all hymnals to be produced in the country. The number of trees destroyed would dramatically decline, and the catchy but scratchy catechesis of our modern-day Arianizers would suffer a major blow. Yet we mustn’t be narrow-minded about what vernacular hymnody might sound like if it emerged within a real Catholic culture, rather than being fabricated by ecumenists with John Denver envy.

A friend contacted me some time ago to tell me about the so-called “Polish Mass.” This refers not to a vernacular Novus Ordo, but to a Low Mass in the usus antiquior where the dialogue is done between a priest and a server while the congregation is occupied in singing a Mass-long hymn in Polish. There are many such hymns in Poland; they are sung in a special style, mostly in minor tonality, meditative, slow and sober. Their theologically sound lyrics are designed to bring the minds into meditation on the life and especially the Passion of Christ. The hymn starts at the beginning and continues throughout Mass, pausing only at the Sanctus (for which the Sanctus bells are quite useful!), and picking up again after the consecration. This “Polish Mass” is said to have been the standard way of celebrating Mass in Poland before the Second Vatican Council (and before the Soviet times, most probably).

Although it would not meet the demands of the Liturgical Movement for “participatio actuosa” (and it’s a bit too close for comfort to the German Schubert Masses), one could maintain that this deep and rich folk tradition is not incompatible with the liturgy, but rather harmonizes with it and enhances the faithful’s access to the mysteries. It’s hard to describe these hymns adequately in English (a rhymed translation would be a great challenge), but we have, thanks to Justyna Krukowska, an accurate translation of a 23-stanza Polish Mass hymn, from which a popular Christmas song has subsequently been derived. This is probably one of the most famous Christmas carols in Poland, and is often used as the entrance hymn at Mass. It may be worth noting that in Poland everyone has a number of Christmas carols committed to memory, so if you got a random group of Poles together and started singing it, the odds are that most, if not all, would be able to join in.

Here is how it looks, with the corresponding parts of the Mass indicated. In stanza 10 one can even see the “rubric” which says “kneeling,” because the words are the paraphrase of “et incarnatus est.”


1. In the silence of the night, a voice emanates:
“Rise, shepherds, God is being born unto you:
Go as fast as you can,
Rush to Bethlehem to greet the Lord.”

2. They went and found the Child in the manger,
With all the signs that had been given to them.
They honored him as God, and greeting him,
They called out with great joy.

3. Welcome, O Savior, desired for so long,
Expected for four thousand years.
Kings and prophets have been waiting for You,
And this night You have revealed Yourself to us.

4. We are also waiting for You, O Lord,
And as soon as You come at the voice of the priest,
We will fall down on our faces before You,
Believing that You are under the veil of bread and wine.


5. The singing of the angels
resounds all the way to heaven.
Let us sing along with them:
“Glory to God in the highest
And peace to men here below.”

6. Eternal Father, heavenly King
Who gave us the Son, we adore You.
“Glory to God…”

7. O Son of God, accept our thanksgiving
For Your birth to us today.
“Glory to God…”

8. You, in the glory of the Father, are Yourself holy,
Together with the Holy Spirit, God inconceivable.
“Glory to God…”


9. I believe in one God in heaven,
The Father, who created this world for Himself,
And in Jesus, his Son,
In all things equal to the Father, Our Lord.

10. Who in order to save us, the human race,
Descended down to earth from upper heavens, [kneeling]
Conceived of the Holy Spirit,
Is born among the beasts, of the Virgin Mary.

11. He died, and then when he rose alive
He went up to heaven, God and true man,
Whence, when the trumpet will wake us up for the judgment
He will come to judge all men on judgment day.

12. I equally believe in the Holy Spirit,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
I believe in the Church: in her there is salvation.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.


13. Let us hurry to the manger with our gifts;
Let us give to the Child the sacrifices of our hearts.
Along with the offering of wine and bread,
May the Divine Child accept them as his property.

14. May he deign to make these hearts holy
And may he forgive us all our trespasses.
After all, this Jesus, for love of us,
Came down to save us.


15. Sing together with your voices
Angels in heaven, and we on earth:
Holy, Holy, always Holy God of hosts,
Incomprehensible in his majesty!

16. The heavens are full of Your glory, O God,
The earth is full and the whole world.
May they all be amazed,
May they all sing: Holy to our God.


17. Welcome, Jesus, born today
And hidden in this Sacrament!
We fall down on our faces before You,
Believing that You are under these veils.

18. Blessed are You, who came for us,
Came out of the pure Virgin womb.
We sing Hosanna to You,
Who were born of the Virgin Immaculate.


19. Lamb of God, Who came to take away
Human faults, O One and only God,
And immediately from birth
You commence Your sufferings:
Forgive us, O Lord.

20. Lamb of God, Who took upon You
The debts of the world in the form of a servant,
And Who pay out superabundantly,
Sacrificing Your life for us:
Forgive us, O Lord.

21. O Lamb of God, Immaculate,
Who bore wounds on the Cross for us,
To You we sinners call out,
Your mercy we seek:
Forgive us, o Lord.


22. O dear Jesus, we desire You so!
Through You we will reach heaven.
Even though we are poor, we are dear to Your heart.
Come and console us!


23. Through the Mass they brought You gifts,
Gifts greater than the royal gifts [of the Magi],
Since we gave to the Almighty—
Even though we are all small before You—
Infinite honor.

(I’ve placed the original Polish text at the end of the article.)

Such were the old Polish hymns: they were a catechism and, even more, a “lifting of the hearts up to the Lord.” There were plenty of hymns and chants for any occasion and liturgical season.

In this video of a Dominican-rite Low Mass at Ars Celebrandi in 2017, notice how the chanting goes on throughout the entire liturgy, not even stopping for the Gospel or the Canon! It is the purest example of “parallel liturgy” I have ever seen. Showing it to a Western liturgy professor might earn you a sentence for first-degree manslaughter. As beautiful as the modal chanting is, it cannot be ideal, from a liturgical point of view, to superimpose one gigantic hymn onto the entirety of the liturgy. Not even the German “paraphase Masses” are quite so continuous and monotonous (in the literal, not pejorative, meaning of the word):

Another type of traditional Polish Mass music is mediaeval vernacular music based on Gregorian chant tones, as well as rhymed offices for Polish saints like St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr. Here are two videos of Bartosz Izbicki, a musicologist, organist, and choir director, conducting such music:

The Poles also had their own interesting variants of Roman chant in liturgical books revised after the Council of Trent, as well as excellent Baroque composers who contributed richly to both Latin and vernacular repertoire.

So, before we complain about vernacular hymns, we should pause and ask: Which vernacular hymnody are we referring to, and why is ours today, in the modern West, so singularly rotten? Well, that is a question for another day. 

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website, SoundCloud page, and YouTube channel.

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