What’s Changed?

A Comparison of Self- and Divine-Referential Pronoun Usage in Hymns Written Pre- and Post-Vatican II

Mystic Lamb (detail, angels), by Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441).

“He that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings.”—St. Augustine

Noticeable Change in Pre- & Post-Vatican II Hymns

Some HPR readers may be unaware that people have been arguing about the language of Church hymns since at least the 18th century. Dovring describes one side to a mid-18th-century Swedish Protestant hymnal controversy as arguing that “the whole dispute {surrounding a new hymnal} was essentially not about doctrine, but simply about the manner of presentation,” whereas the other side insisted that “the public was not aware that they were being exposed to a new way of thinking because of the familiarity of the words and phrases {being} used.”1 To Catholics active on the music front of the postconciliar “liturgy wars,”2 these 250-year-old Swedish battle cries probably sound pretty familiar.

They are certainly familiar to me. As both a faithful Catholic and a doctoral student in communication, I pay close attention to communication within the Church. In fact, almost all my previous research has centered on Church communication. So, even before Brummond’s March 2015 HPR article on the Sanctus, I was planning to study the Council’s effect on Church music. But Brummond’s article summed up my inspiration for the study exceptionally well:

Certainly we can point to tendencies in the postconciliar Church toward a more anthropocentric liturgy. Consider the popular hymn, Anthem, as an example of this trend:

We are called, we are chosen.
We are Christ for one another.
We are promised to tomorrow,
{W}hile we are for him today.
We are sign, we are wonder.
We are sower, we are seed.
We are harvest, we are hunger.
We are question, we are creed.

That’s 13 uses of the pronoun “we” just in the chorus. The focus on the community is primary. That’s a far cry from the angelic cry of the “Sanctus,” which is wholly focused on God.3

As a convert to the Faith from Orthodox Judaism—where hymns aren’t exactly central to worship—I had felt a weird disconnect in the hymns I’d been singing at Mass for the last three years. Some of them seemed really centered on God; others, not so much. I had worked in publishing before returning to grad school, so I started paying attention to those “publisher’s notes” in the footer of every hymn, which most people just ignore. Very quickly, I developed an ability to predict what I’d see there: specifically, when a hymn was written. I couldn’t predict the precise year, or even decade, but about 98 percent of the time, I could predict whether it was a pre- or post- conciliar hymn. So I determined to study this difference more methodically, and to do it as simply and neatly as possible: using pronouns.

An Empirical Study of Change in Catholic Hymnary

Together with a non-Catholic colleague, Max Renner, I selected two hymnals: one more “traditional” (the 2015 Ignatius Pew Missal), one more “modern” (the 2015 Breaking Bread pew missal0.4 From all of the English-language hymns in these two hymnals, Max and I randomly selected 25%, yielding a total of 196 hymns (with 855 stanzas) for analysis.5 Once we had the hymns, we developed three categories—“Self,” “Divine,” and “Angels & Saints”—and drew up a list of rules for assigning pronouns to each category. To a Catholic, these rules would be obvious (“all of the Apostles and biblical prophets are saints, so any pronouns referring to them should be categorized in ‘Angels & Saints,’” etc.), but Max is not Catholic (yet?), so the rules were necessary.6

By the end of our category development, we had a coding scheme that yielded the following examples:

God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people/Come now to share the banquet of Christ./Feed on his love with faith and thanksgiving./Know in your heart that he died for you
= 1 Divine “his”; 1 Self “your” singular; 1 Divine “he”; 1 Self “you” singular.

only are the maker of all things, near and far

= 1 Divine “you” singular

Hail, O star that pointest/T’wards the port of Heaven,/Thou to whom as maiden/God for Son was given
= 1 Angels & Saints “thou” singular

Within these three categories, we recorded all first-, second-, and third-person singular and plural pronouns that one could reasonably expect to appear in Catholic hymns (so, no feminine references to God, but you’d be surprised how often sung variations on the doxology refer to God as “them”). We counted pronouns each time they occurred, keeping a tally in a very, very large Excel file organized by hymnal, hymn number, stanza number, and the year the lyrics were either written or translated to English. Once all the coding of pronouns was finished, we uploaded the Excel file into a sophisticated statistical software program and ran analyses.

What we found did not surprise us—until it did.

Self-Referential Pronoun Results

Using 1965 as our cut-off point for “pre-/post-conciliar,” there was a statistically significant rise in self-referential pronouns post-Vatican II: Hymns written after the Council used 66 percent more self-referential pronouns than hymns written before the Council, rising from an average of 200 self-referential pronouns per 100 stanzas to 333 per 100 stanzas. However, within the “Self” category, the rise was not equally distributed: First-person singular pronouns (I, me, myself, my, mine) showed little difference between the two periods. Second-person singular pronouns (you, thou, thee, yourself, thyself, your, yours, thy, thine) rose 555 percent, from an average of 5 per 100 stanzas to an average of 33 per 100 stanzas. Third-person singular pronouns (he/she, him/her, himself/herself, his/her/hers) remained roughly the same. First-person plural pronouns (we, us, our, ours, ourself, ourselves) rose 78 percent, from 112 to 199 per 100 stanzas. Second-person plural pronouns (you, ye, yourself, yourselves, your, yours) rose 164 percent, from 11 to 28 per 100 stanzas. And third-person plural pronouns (they, them, themself, themselves, their, theirs) rose 580 percent, from 2 to 14 per 100 stanzas. Figure 1 breaks down the statistically significant findings from the self-referential pronouns category.

Divine-Referential Pronoun Results

With all these new self-referential pronouns floating about in post-Vatican II hymns, you’d think there wouldn’t be much room left for talk of God. So we expected a significant decrease in divine-referential pronouns—but that’s where we were surprised. The only significant decline in pronouns referring to God was in the pronoun “Him, Himself,”which decreased 68%, from an average of 29 occurrences per 100 stanzas to an average of 9. In the first-person singular divine pronouns (I, me, myself, my, mine), there was actually a 1,664 percent increase post-Vatican II: “I” increased 1,373 percent, from 1 to 16 occurrences per 100 stanzas, and “my” and “mine” increased 1,300 percent, from less than 1 to 8 occurrences per 100 stanzas. “Me” and “myself” also increased, but not significantly. Figure 2 breaks down the statistically significant findings from the divine-referential pronouns category.

Angels & Saints-Referential Pronoun Results

We were flummoxed by this result in the “Divine” category, until we analyzed the pronouns in the “Angels & Saints” category. There, post-Vatican II hymns showed 48 percent fewer pronouns overall (a drop from 22 to 11 occurrences per 100 stanzas), and 92 percent fewer pronouns in the third-person plural grouping (they, them, themself, themselves, their, theirs): “Them” and its variations stayed the same, but “they” decreased 100 percent post-Vatican II (from 3 to 0 occurrences per 100 stanzas), and “their” and “theirs” decreased 89 percent (from 4 to less than 1 occurrences per 100 stanzas). Figure 3 breaks down the statistically significant findings from the angels and saints-referential pronouns category.

Table 1 presents a complete summary of our findings.7 Yellow-highlighted rows show statistically significant increases/decreases; unhighlighted rows show changes that failed to reach statistical significance.

Self-Referential Pronouns
Pronoun Pre-VII
Per 100 Stanzas
Per 100 Stanzas
% Change
I 22 17 -19%
Me, Myself 22 18 -19%
My, Mine 24 23 -2%
1st Singular Total 67 58 -13%
You, Thou, Thee, Yourself, Thyself 3 20 552%
Your, Yours, Thy, Thine 2 13 560%
2nd Singular Total 5 33 555%
He, She 1 0 -100%
Him, Himself, Her, Herself 1 0 -100%
His, Her, Hers 1 0 -100%
3rd Singular Total 3 0 -100%
We 34 81 139%
Us 33 56 72%
Our, Ours, Ourself, Ourselves 46 62 37%
1st Plural Total 112 199 78%
You, Ye, Yourself, Yourselves 8 20 144%
Your, Yours 3 8 236%
2nd Plural Total 11 28 164%
They 0.3 3 967%
Them, Themself, Themselves 0.8 6 700%
Their, Theirs 0.8 4 400%
3rd Plural Total 2 14 580%
Self-Pronouns Total 200 333 66%
Divine-Referential Pronouns
Pronoun Pre-VII
Per 100 Stanzas
Per 100 Stanzas
% Change
I 1 16 1373%
Me, Myself 1 14 2267%
My, Mine 1 8 1300%
1st Singular Total 2 39 1664%
You, Thou, Thee, Yourself, Thyself 46 56 21%
Your, Yours, Thy, Thine 41 57 38%
2nd Singular Total 87 113 29%
He 21 13 -35%
Him, Himself 29 9 -68%
His 30 19 -35%
3rd Singular Total 79 42 -47%
Them, Themself, Themselves 1 0 -100%
3rd Plural Total 1 0 -100%
Divine-Pronouns Total 169 194 14%
Angels & Saints-Referential Pronouns
Pronoun Pre-VII
Per 100 Stanzas
Per 100 Stanzas
% Change
Me, Myself 0 0 -100%
My, Mine 0 0 -100%
1st Singular Total 1 0 -100%
You, Thou, Thee, Yourself, Thyself 3 3 36%
Your, Yours, Thy, Thine 3 1 -71%
2nd Singular Total 5 4 -21%
He, She 1 4 186%
Him, Himself, Her, Herself 1 1 -45%
His, Her, Hers 3 2 -42%
3rd Singular Total 6 6 14%
Us 0 0 0%
1st Plural Total 0 0 0%
You, Ye, Yourself, Yourselves 3 0 -100%
2nd Plural Total 3 0 -100%
They 3 0 -100%
Them, Themself, Themselves 1 0 -82%
Their, Theirs 4 0.4 -89%
3rd Plural Total 8 0.6 -92%
Angels & Saints-Pronouns Total 22 11 -48%

What the Numbers Mean

How do the results from the “Angels & Saints” category help us to make sense of the results from the “Divine” category? Well, why did we see a decrease only in the third-person plural pronouns in the “Angels & Saints” category? We coded all the hymns, so we knew that references to Mary were abundant in hymns from both periods. This shows in the fact that singular pronouns in the “Angels & Saints” category remained constant across the eras. But angels and other saints—commonly referred to in the plural, as Mary would never be—seem to have largely dropped out of hymns in the post-conciliar era.

And what role do angels and saints play in Catholic theology? They are mediators between us and God. Drop the mediators, and you get a much more “immediate” God—an interpretation of the data that is supported by the fact that third-person references to God as “Him” and “Himself,” i.e., as “distant” or “other,” declined post-Vatican II, whereas instances of God “speaking for Himself” through the use of first-person singular pronouns (I, my, mine) rose significantly.

This interpretation also helps us to better understand the results of the “Self” category: Why, for example, was there such an increase in the second-person singular and plural pronouns (you, your, and their variations) and in the third-person plural pronouns (they, them, their, etc.)? Well, again, if God Himself is speaking more in postconciliar hymns, to whom is He speaking? If He’s speaking to us, then we would expect a rise in the self-referential second-person pronouns (you, your, etc.). And if He’s also speaking more about us, then we would also expect a rise in the self-referential third-person plural pronouns (they, them, their, etc.). And that’s exactly what we found.

Of course, our study couldn’t tell for sure whether these increases in the self-referential pronouns are in fact cases of God speaking more to and about us. It could be that we are simply speaking to and about each other more in postconciliar hymns. Or it could be a mix of both. Either way, though, there is definitely more of us in postconciliar hymns.

Because Max and I wanted our study to be as useful to as many people as possible, we also compared the hymnals in addition to the hymns themselves. Here we got the expected result: The 2015 Ignatius Pew Missal (the more “traditional” hymnal) showed significantly fewer self-referential pronouns than the 2015 Breaking Bread pew missal (the more “modern” hymnal). In the “Divine” and “Angels & Saints” categories, the differences were miniscule, but roughly mirrored those of the hymn comparison: more divine “my” and “mine” in Breaking Bread and more angels and saints “their” and “theirs” in Ignatius. Combined with the hymn comparison, this tells us that a person—say, a parish music director—doesn’t need to run a full-blown content analysis (like we did) of a bunch of hymnals to know which one is the most “God-focused.” S/he can know roughly how “self-focused” a hymnal will be simply by looking at the proportion of hymns written pre- and post-Vatican II that it contains.

What the Numbers Do Not Mean

I would, however, caution readers about how they interpret these results. Consider, for example, the following passage from Psalm 18:

I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, so I shall be saved from my enemies. The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. (New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)

In our coding scheme, this psalm would look mighty egocentric. But I doubt that any of HPR’s readers would argue that it centers the self in a way that displaces God. There’s only so much one can tell from a pronoun count, and all this study has really told us is that there has been a change since the Council, and that change means a whole lot more of us. But it does not, apparently, mean a whole lot less of God—just a very different way of approaching Him.

I would also point out that Catholics are not the only faith group arguing about this shift in modern hymnary. In his book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal, professor and Presbyterian minister T. David Gordon has outlined similar controversies in the Protestant denominations.8 And in a 2001 article in Tikkun, Catherine Madsen complained about “kitsch” in Reform Jewish liturgy.9 But for us Catholics, at least, my study with Max has hopefully helped to better define the nature of the problem (if you agree there is one) with contemporary Catholic hymnary. Certainly, if it is true that “the law of prayer is the law of belief,” and that “he who sings, prays twice,” then a dramatically increased focus on “us” in Catholic hymns is potentially problematic. That we are not the only ones with this problem should come as a comfort to us, though: Very likely, it means that the Council is not entirely to blame (as some engaged in the “liturgy wars” would argue), but that changes outside the Church are impacting the culture inside the Church in ways that other denominations and religions also find difficult to resist.

  1. Karin Dovring. “Quantitative Semantics in 18th Century Sweden.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, 18, 1954–1955, 389–394.
  2. George Weigel. “Archbishop Marini on the Liturgy Wars.” Ethics & Public Policy Center, February 13, 2008. eppc.org/publications/archbishop-marini-on-the-liturgy-wars/

    Fr. Dwight Longenecker. “Clarity and Charity in the Liturgy Wars.” Standing on My Head (a Patheos blog), June 26, 2014. patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/clarity-and-charity-in-the-liturgy-wars

    Tom Roberts. “Battle Lines in the Liturgy Wars.” National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2010. ncronline.org/news/faith-parish/battle-lines-liturgy-wars

    Michael Sean Winters. “Liturgy Wars.” America: The National Catholic Review, January 11, 2010. americamagazine.org/content/all-things/liturgy-wars

  3. Michael Brummond. “The ‘Sanctus’: A Catechetical Signpost for the Mass.” Homiletic & Pastoral Review, February 12, 2015. hprweb.com/2015/02/the-sanctus-a-catechetical-signpost-for-the-mass/
  4. In order to ensure that the general impressions Catholics have of these two hymnals as more traditional/modern are indeed correct, Max and I counted how many all-Latin hymns each hymnal contained. Ignatius contains 25 (15.24 percent of the total number of hymns in the hymnal), whereas Breaking Bread contains 4 (0.65 percent of the total number of hymns in the hymnal).

    Additionally, we counted the total number of all-English hymns written/translated before 1965 in each hymnal: Ignatius contains 133 (81 percent), and Breaking Bread contains 167 (27 percent).

    From these percentages, we concluded that, indeed, the general impressions Catholics have of these hymnals are correct.

  5. Random selection was important, because the logic of scientific content analysis requires that texts be randomly selected if valid statistical inferences to the larger population of hymns is to be made.
  6. Incidentally, content analyses that employ coders from different social groups (e.g., Catholic and non-Catholic) are also considered more reliable, because the coders are less likely to have the same biases towards the content being coded and so must rely more heavily on the shared coding scheme to achieve intercoder agreement. Put simply: All else being equal, two coders from different social backgrounds who agree in their coding of content (as Max and I usually did) are more likely to have found something really significant than two coders who agree but are from the same social background.
  7. Note that pronouns missing from Table 1 (e.g., Divine “they,” Angels & Saints “I,” etc.) were coded for, but did not appear often enough to run statistical tests reliably. Also note that the numbers presented here have been multiplied from per-stanza decimal means to per-100 stanza whole numbers, then rounded, for ease of reading. Some percentages or significance highlights may therefore appear incorrectly calculated, but they have been triple-checked for accuracy. For a complete breakdown of the statistical data and analyses, please contact the author.
  8. T. David Gordon. Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)
  9. Catherine Madsen. “Kitsch and Liturgy.” Tikkun, 16(2), 2001, 41–46.
J.E. Sigler About J.E. Sigler

J.E. Sigler is a doctoral student in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. Her area of research is organizational communication, especially for the Catholic Church. Her work has been published in the The Journal of Communication and Religion and in Argumentation.


  1. I wonder if the root cause is more about money? “New” hymns and translations can be copywrited and make more money and those writing or translating “new” hymns could be statistically more likely to reflect the modern self-centered and anti-angel/saint culture, making the change in hymnals an effect rather than a cause, although perhaps a self-perpetuating effect.

    • J. E. Sigler J. E. Sigler says:

      Rick: Max and I do think that a change in how hymnals are produced is a factor. Pre-Vatican II, there wasn’t much of a hymnal “industry” in the Catholic Church. Each parish just had its own collection. Now, hymnal publishing is a huge industry, and many of the publishers that produce Catholic hymnals are cross-denominational publishers who use the same hymns in hymnals for various denominations—and, I presume, get more for their dollar when they do. But I don’t think that alone can explain the differences we see pre- and post-VII. Rather, I think that larger cultural changes are being institutionalized in these new publishing houses and, combined with their publishing practices, are leading to a change in what we see in the hymnals they publish.

  2. Dcn W Patrick Cunningham Dcn W Patrick Cunningham says:

    The break in style of hymns generally attributed to the “spirit” of Vatican II is functional. Prior to the Council, when the sung Mass was in Latin, there was little use of hymns, because the Mass Propers and Ordinaries were the sung prayers. In the 1960s, the effort in the U.S. and elsewhere by the Liturgical Conference and others was to get people “singing at Mass” no longer “singing THE Mass.” So the four-hymn style (Entrance, Offertory, Communion, Recessional) and the guitar-piano Ordinary little by little has taken over. That means hymns have almost totally eclipsed the Proper of the Mass.

  3. I can’t stomach these new hymns, I’d rather hear nails on a chalk board. It’s not the assault on the ears so much as the undermining of the Faith that makes me so sick. It’s not even so much what it IS, it’s what it is NOT. Instead of “Immaculate Mary” we get “Take the word of God with you when you go” What does that even mean? Are they suggesting taking a HPR on the next trip to the loo?
    Sorry, this is a pet-peeve, Christopher Walker needs to realize his dream and start writing quirky, broad-way numbers and leave the hymn writing to the old-timers! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

  4. Avatar mary travis says:

    As we pray, so shall we believe….( translated from Latin and paraphrased )
    As we believe, so shall we sing…………
    Loss of the Sacred…trickle down …

    I am regretful still of the abandonment, even with very dedicated Catholic teachers,
    of capitalized adjectives, and pronouns when addressing God or in references to Him.

  5. Avatar Peggy Doyle says:

    IMHO, I view the hymns we sing now as much more reflecting the “Relationship” we have with God. Relationship implies two people intimately loving one another. So I see to analyze the use of pronouns is not useful to me. Perhaps if we could analyze the conviction and dept of love in each heart as they sing it would be more concise. Thankfully that is between the person and God.