Interview with Linda Schafer

How did your own experience in the Church cause you to become involved in creating the St. Michael Hymnal?

I was raised a Southern Baptist, and I was received into the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday of 1979 – it seems like only yesterday.

With what Evelyn Waugh has called the “raw enthusiasm of a new convert,” I started reading everything I could get my hands on, and I heard that there had been something that had happened not too long ago, in the 1960’s, called the Second Vatican Council. It seemed like the place to go to find out where the Church is now, was to those original documents. So I did.

I also remember thinking, even before I read anything, that the heart of the Catholic faith is surely the Liturgy, and so I began reading the document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, or the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

My impression of the document on the Liturgy was, first of all, that it was incredibly beautiful. My second impression was that there surely must be a lot that a convert could not understand, since what I was reading in the Constitution was not particularly what I was seeing happen at Mass.

Because I wanted to learn, I began to go to meetings and ask questions. When I would ask why something was or was not done a particular way, I was told that it was not the original document that we were concerned with, but the “spirit” of Vatican II. I supposed that it would take a convert a long time to figure out what that “spirit” was, but I began to suspect more and more, the more I read, that there was more here than met the eye, so to speak, particularly regarding music.

As I continued to read the great documents of the past concerning music and the liturgy – Tra Le Solicitudini, Mediator Dei, and others – I began to believe that something had gone off-track somewhere. It was with great delight that I read in the Ratzinger Report, published in 1985, that no less an expert than the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the future Benedict XVI) said the same thing.

However, it was not until Fr. Timothy Alkire became pastor of St. Boniface that I was able to take any positive and practical steps in moving the music of the parish in a more positive direction, which eventually produced the St. Michael Hymnal.

The hymn text language in the St. Michael Hymnal is quite traditional or classical. What is your philosophy of hymn text editing?

My background is in English Literature, with a strong emphasis on poetry, and so I believe in the importance of the text. While music and poetry are obviously closely related, intertwined really, poetry is able to verbalize what music can only evoke. Poetry can make doctrine not only beautiful, but articulate – I refer you to John Henry Cardinal Newman and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins as examples.

What we have happily been able to do for the new edition is to do more in-depth research on each hymn text. In looking at the text of each hymn, there are several important considerations. The first is always doctrinal faithfulness, and the second is the poetry. Also, we try to maintain the original words as much as possible. However, in searching for the original words, we have occasionally found that the altered version is actually an improvement, poetically, on the original version, sometimes altering the “purple prose” that was acceptable in the nineteenth century, but which seems overly sentimental and saccharine to the modern ear. More often, the altered version simply corrected awkward accents.

We typically retained the original “thee’s” and “thou’s” in most of the earlier hymns, adopting the modern language only in those cases where singability was affected. Most of the time, changing the pronouns to modern usage had resulted in a feeling of disconnect from the rest of the language of the poem, since the nineteenth century had its own particular idiom. One can almost always recognize an earlier hymn from its sentence structure and vocabulary, not just from its “thee’s” and “thou’s.”

Very rarely, but in one or two cases, we have done minimal editing of our own, where the hymn is too good to omit, but has one or two textual weaknesses.

How has the St. Michael Hymnal been received? What are your hopes for the new edition of the hymnal?

We have been surprised and pleased with the response to the St. Michael Hymnal, particularly since most people have learned of it through word of mouth. We have sold a surprising number of hymnals in the last twenty-plus years. Parishes across the country (and even in several other countries) have told us how delighted they are to find a permanent hymnal that is doctrinally orthodox, and that was created in a spirit of obedience to the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church.

They also are pleased with the selection of Gregorian chant, beautiful and reverent Mass settings in English and Latin, Entrance and Communion chants, and traditional hymnody. The feedback has been consistently positive.

Many people have noticed a certain shift in air regarding the celebration of the Mass in this country. I know that many of the seminarians that I am in contact with, and certainly many of the new young priests, have a joyful enthusiasm about the new Springtime in the Church, as inspired by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. These young men have a love for tradition, a genuine love for the Church, and a great and holy desire for obedience.

And so once again, we are placing this newest edition of the St. Michael Hymnal at the service of the Church, and we hope that it may be useful in promoting a restoration of the sacred in the Roman Catholic Liturgy.