In Heaven, There Is Only Singing

A Review of Two of Father Rutler's Books, and an Interview with the Author

Father George W. Rutler on EWTN YouTube; Fr. Rutler speaking at a later event.

I was fortunate to be able to read two review copies of recent books by Father George W. Rutler. As always happens when I read his writing, I was delighted by his style, inspired by the soundness of his doctrine, and enlightened–and sometimes overwhelmed–by his erudition:

  • He Spoke to Us–Discerning God in People and Events (Ignatius Press)
  • The Stories of Hymns–The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns (published by EWTN Publishing, Inc. and available from Sophia Institute Press)

Before going on to an email interview with Father Rutler, I want first to explore some thoughts about the attractions of the essay form, and then to use snippets from one of Father Rutler’s essays to illustrate how his dense and many-layered, widely wandering, writing style works effectively to convey some deep and resonant truths about the Catholic faith.

Why Does Father Rutler Have So Many Fans?
About ten years ago, my first accidental exposure to Father Rutler was in a no-longer-available YouTube video on a Father Rutler series by EWTN on the stories of hymns. During that show, Father Rutler wore a black cassock with cloth-covered buttons, and a satin cummerbund around his trim waist. He moved around the set as if he was in his own study, picking out a few notes on a grand piano, pausing in front of a desk or a bookcase occasionally to sum up a thought.

With his egg-shaped, bald head, small mouth, and pale complexion, above his clerical collar, and his studied manner of speaking, he looked and sounded like I thought an erudite, Oxford don must look and sound like. So it was a surprise to find out later that he was born and raised in New Jersey. He is a former Episcopalian priest, who now serves as pastor of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City.

From that first show I saw of his, I learned for the first time that the hymn “O Come O Come Emmanuel” was translated and rearranged from the ancient “O Antiphons” which the Church has sung for centuries at Vespers during the last week leading up to Christmas Eve. I love learning the connection between Catholic things. I was hooked.

A few years ago, I published two articles that expanded on what I had learned from that show: “History and Mystery: The O Antiphons in a Favorite Hymn” and “Top Ten Thoughts about Advent from Fr. Rutler”.

Later, I signed up to receive Father Rutler’s weekly columns by email. I even follow his “Fan Group” on Facebook. That’s quite a compliment coming from me. I usually don’t join fan groups. Close reading of the essays from the most recent two books of this deft, learned, and perceptive writer started me thinking about what makes a satisfying essay.

Essay: To Try, To Weigh, To Ascertain the Value of
The enormous amount of enjoyment we can get out of a well-written essay is not derived merely from the subject, but from the journey we take with the writer as he or she applies his or her intelligence to that subject, often examining it from many angles and showing how it connects to many other subjects. An essay of the type that I mean is a reflection, refracting light onto the subject off the many facets of a brilliant mind. The whole of such an essay, greater than its parts, carries its meaning.

The word “peregrinate,” comes to mind—a word I know well, but have never had the occasion to actually use before. The English word comes from the Latin, peregrinatio (journey) through an “Old French” word peregrinacion (pilgrimage). Peregrinating is a most apt word for Rutler’s essays, because he seems to be walking us around—as he moves from one anecdote, one image, one historical personage, or story, to another. Sometimes you feel he’s lost his way. But at the end of the peregrination, he usually has brought you to somewhere you have never quite been before.

Most of us know that the word “essay” is derived from the French word, essayer, which means to attempt, or to try, or to ascertain, the value of something. When we learned to write essays in school, we weren’t taught the type of essay that Fr. Rutler writes. His essays are not the kind of essays that have a thesis stated up front, and a concluding argument.

The meaning of a “pedestrian” essay might be summarized in a sentence or two, but what would be the fun in that? A peregrinating essay doesn’t proceed like a newspaper article, which gives us the most important information first. And it’s not like a scientific paper, which gives us an abstract of its conclusions to read before we start.

How I Learned to Love Essays
I learned to love essays before I ever knew what an essay was. Ever since I was a young child, I have been an avid reader. I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices when my Aunt Peggy would take me, or one of my two sisters, or her daughter, our cousin, to appointments in Boston when I was a kid, and I cut my intellectual baby teeth on the long discursive essays I read in the months-old, or even years-old, New Yorker magazines I picked up in doctors’ waiting rooms.

Later in my life, I fell in love with the New Yorker essays of John McPhee, the ultimate peregrinating writer, who takes readers into new places, and new areas of human experience, ranging between such far-separated places as the near-wilderness, called the “Pine Barrens” (that is smack in the middle of New Jersey), to the rugged lands where bush pilots, prospectors, settlers, politicians, and business people live in the state of Alaska. McPhee is still writing, and still overwhelming his readers—in the best possible way—with his long, discursive essays whose floods of details bring to life landscapes, both exterior and interior, along with vivid glimpses into unfamiliar ways of living.

Father Rutler’s Peregrinating Essays
I love Father Rutler’s essays partly because they are similar in style to McPhee’s, although not in their geographic scope. As I mentioned, Father Rutler was raised in New Jersey, and currently lives in New York City, not far away. He has studied abroad, in Rome and at Oxford, but as one of his essays, “Vacation Trials and Tribulations” indicates, he actually hates to travel. He ends that essay with this quote, humorously attributing it to St. Paul: “When you live in New York, you don’t have to travel because you are already there.”

The wide range of Rutler’s expertise is not geographical; it is religious and historical, political and cultural. The more I read Father Rutler’s essays, the more I get out of them. They are dense with poetic, learned references, lightened with flights of fact and fancy, and dry rarified humor.

He starts out with one subject, which leads to another, and to another, and you find at the end, that all of the facts he brought in come together. “Ah yes,” you finally think, “I see what he’s getting at.”

And if you don’t get any one person or thing or historical event he mentions in one of his essays, you file it away mentally so you can find out more about it later for yourself. Any unknown things he refers to get embedded in your mind like little hooks for future study and research. Like the writings of T. S. Eliot and others, Rutler’s writings are going to leave most readers lost in one or several particulars. But that’s okay. “To learn gives the greatest pleasure.” You can catch up later with the facts about the things you don’t already know.

One writer referred to the method of writing as practiced by Eliot and Pound, McPhee and Rutler, as bringing in everything but the kitchen sink; and then, the sink, too. That suits me fine. Don’t they say that: “God is in the details”..? Bring them on!

You probably won’t agree with him on everything. I ran across one blogger who was irate that Father Rutler wrote one essay against the long-standing practice of having pews in churches. I wasn’t convinced by Father Rutler’s arguments against pews either, but I, for one, enjoyed reading what he had to say.

“The Transfiguration of the Church”
The essay titled “The Transfiguration of the Church” is the first essay in Father Rutler’s collection: He Spoke to Us. It starts with the story of an eccentric Oxford don who kept a small menagerie–including a mongoose and an eagle–in his rooms. Fr. Rutler writes that one day, the eagle flew from the don’s rooms into the cathedral, and tried to mate with the brass eagle-shaped lectern, which, Fr. Rutler notes with sly humor, “was cold and unresponsive.”

At the time the eagle landed, the choir, we then learn, was singing Mendelsohn’s “O for the wings of a Dove.” Rutler’s inclusion of an aside that Mendelssohn had recently dedicated his “Scottish” symphony to Queen Victoria is arguably an extraneous fact. But Father Rutler then moves quickly on to remind us that the dove and the eagle represent differing aspects of the spiritual life, and after a few comments about the existence of eagle lecterns in churches all over the world, he ends the dense first paragraph by reminding us that the eagle symbolizes St. John, “whose record of the saving Gospel soars on wings not of this world.”

In the next paragraph he finally uses for the first time the central word of the essay, when he notes that it is curious that: “Saint John is the only evangelist who does not record the ethereal mystery of the Transfiguration, and especially so since he was there.”

Father Rutler then tells us that even though St. John did not record the Transfiguration, some say John’s Gospel is one long Transfiguration. Besides, John was “the only evangelist who recorded the marriage at Cana,” which Rutler argues can be seen as a kind of prototype for the Transfiguration.

After a few more interesting asides, Father Rutler begins to bring us to the meat of the essay. He leads us to realize that we are not transformed by ideals no matter how much we idealize them, but only by being transfigured by the glory of God, with observations such as these:

The Church Militant, which in its weakest moments may seem like a scattered and tattered regiment of the Church Triumphant, has supernal guarantees that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Any reformation of the Church that is not a transfiguration by the light of that confidence becomes a deformation. With the best intentions, sectaries spring up to fix the cracks they see in the Rock which is Peter, using some principle other than his power to bind and loose.

Father Rutler makes the excellent point that, as truly laudable as the morality of those denominations created by reformist sectarians often is, whose followers’ moral lives “often excel the practice of Catholics,” the Church is not perfected based on any mere theory, or on striving for perfection, but on the saints who are perfected by their experience of the glory of God. “The perfectionist wants to make himself good, better, best. But the Perfect Man said, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5). That is why he gave us the Church as his body . . .”

He is showing that apart from Christ’s Body the Church, we cannot achieve anything of real value. Reformers who try to set up an alternative to the Church are going about it all wrong, based on their own efforts, and the ideals they have constructed for themselves. These ideas of his are, perhaps, especially convincing because Father Rutler is a convert, and he knows the failures of the innumerable sects that sprang up from idealistic humans determined to reform the Catholic Church from outside. The saints, he tells us, know better.

The saints, having seen the glory on the mountaintop, do not gaze at themselves but ‘see only Jesus’, who rather than transforming them into goodness, transfigures them into glory.

There’s a lot to think about in just the first part of that essay that I’ve touched on here. And there is much, much, more. I hope you’ll read the rest of that essay, and other essays by Father Rutler yourself, from He Spoke to Us, and get as much out of them as I do.

Interview with Father Rutler
Whether hymns should be sung, or not sung, at Mass, and which hymns are acceptable, is a fraught topic. The issues are described in more detail in an interview I did with Professor Peter Kwasniewski, called “The Propers of the Mass Versus the Four-Hymn Sandwich” (which was published here at Homiletic and Pastoral Review).

The phrase “We should not be singing at Mass, we should be singing the Mass” is used often among Church musicians and liturgical experts who believe it is important it is that the actual texts of the Mass be sung. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote this in his “Foreword” to The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities, by chant composer Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B., who founded with Archbishop Cordileone the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy at the archdiocesan seminary.

“It is often said, and rightly so, that we should aim at singing the Mass not singing at the Mass, but old habits die hard, and in many places the ‘four-hymn sandwich’ is still being served, a relic from the days before the Second Vatican Council when provision was made to allow vernacular hymns to be sung at Mass.” The archbishop went on to write that the best hymns can enhance our liturgical celebrations, but that hymn singing is a recent innovation in terms of Church history.

Experts claim that singing of any old hymns at Mass became entrenched after Vatican II because vernacular versions of the Proper texts were not available, and hymns filled the void. Many feel that choirs and congregations should be singing the texts of the Mass, which are the Ordinary and the Proper texts of the Mass. Venerable Pope Paul VI wanted congregations to be able to sing the Ordinary in Latin set to simple chants, as published in his booklet Jubilate Deo. And eighteen more-complex settings of the Ordinary are available in the Kyriale. Many musicians, including Father Weber, are composing English versions of the Propers.

Because of the controversy about where hymns belong in Ordinary Form Masses, my questions to Father Rutler focused mainly on the paragraph at the end of his “Preface” to his Stories of Hymns, in which he wrote about how the hymns he wrote about may be included in Catholic liturgy. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t read and enjoy the rest of the book, and I hope you will read and enjoy it too.

Where Can Catholics Sing These Wonderful Hymns?
RTS: At the end of your preface to Stories of Hymns, you wrote:

The hymns that follow complement the Liturgy but are not part of it. The whole Mass itself is its own gigantic hymn, and it is only by indult that it is said at all instead of being sung. It is liturgically eccentric to “say” a Mass and intersperse it with extraliturgical hymns. Hymns may precede or follow the Mass, but they should never replace the model of the sung Eucharist itself with its hymnodic propers. In the Latin Rite, that model gives primacy of place to the Latin language and Gregorian chant, according to numerous decrees, most historically those of Pope Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudini and Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Church has normally reserved other hymns for other forms of public prayer, especially the Daily Office. And, of course, all hymns can be part of private prayer, following the Augustinian principle that he who sings prays twice.

What do you mean by: “The hymns that follow complement the liturgy but are not part of it”?

Father Rutler: Those hymns would qualify as “tropes,” or embellishments of the proper liturgical texts, but not substitutes for them. The guidelines for the Ordinary Form would accord a certain validity to hymns, other than the traditional Propers, as part of the Liturgy provided the texts are approved by the legitimate ecclesiastical authority, but this is by way of exception.

RTS: Do you agree that we should not be singing at Mass, we should be singing the Mass?

Father Rutler: Since the Mass is the highest act of praise, and singing is the highest form of praise, the Mass is a song, and is not therefore interrupted by song.

RTS: Can you explain what you mean where you wrote, “The whole Mass itself is its own gigantic hymn, and it is only by indult that it is said at all, instead of being sung.” How is the Mass a hymn? What indult do you mean?

Father Rutler: The Second Vatican Council described the Holy Eucharist as the song of the Heavenly Jerusalem brought to earthly altars. For expediency in the Latin Rite, recitation is permitted instead of chant, but this should be only by exception. Expediency is not a concern of the Oriental Rites, or of Jewish prayer, for that matter. In Heaven, there is only singing, no mere talking.

RTS: You wrote, “Hymns may precede or follow the Mass, but they should never replace the model of the sung Eucharist itself with its hymnodic propers.” In layman’s terms, what are the “hymnodic propers?”

Father Rutler: The Propers are the Scriptural texts and other sacred texts. The Psalter is the Church’s main hymnal. To recite Psalms, rather than chanting them, is an oddity. It would be better to sing brief texts (antiphons) rather than rather drearily recite a Psalm between the readings. Indeed, as I understand it, the provision of lengthy Psalm verses between the Readings was granted at the last moment in the revision of the Mass, to satisfy a minority opinion.

RTS: If hymns should not be sung during Mass, when might hymns from this rich collection you wrote about in Stories of Hymns be sung by Catholics?

Father Rutler: I did not say that hymns should not be sung at Mass. In the Ordinary Form they are permitted, but should not replace the Propers (for example, the Introit and Gradual). A hymn after Communion would not be inappropriate but the “Hymn Sandwich” of an Entrance Hymn, Offertory Hymn and Closing Hymn accompanied by a static “said” Liturgy should be avoided.

RTS: You also wrote in your “Preface” that outside of the Mass, these hymns might be used in the Divine Office and private prayer. The stories for some of the hymns also often mention how stirring some hymns can be when sung in procession, for example, the Easter hymn “Hail Thee Festival Day,” with its alternative verses that can make it also appropriate for processions on Ascension Day, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and at dedications of churches. You also wrote about “Daily, Daily Sing to Mary” as “a marvelously raucous hymn, which is especially suited for processions.” And you wrote about a favorite hymn, “Jerusalem the Golden,” which you fondly recalled singing as a choirboy. Do any others still appeal to you particularly?

Father Rutler: “Jerusalem the Golden” was my favorite boyhood hymn–I had good taste in youth–and it remains such. There are others I especially like, such as “Brightest and Best” and “Hark, Hark My Soul”–but it is difficult to choose. Obviously some are more appropriate for particular seasons. One hymn that I wish I had included in my book was the Wesleyan one: “And Can it Be That I Should Gain.”

RTS: I remember enthusiastically singing, “And Can it Be That I Should Gain,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”–and other hymns that I recognized in the Stories of Hymns–when I worshipped at an Evangelical Free Church, which is one of the Protestant denominations I sampled on my way back to the Catholic Church after I lapsed as a college student. I missed that enthusiastic hymn singing when I came back to the Church, until I started singing with a Gregorian Chant choir, and all the treasures of the chant repertoire opened to me. More important than hymn singing is the Eucharist, and the Eucharist and the teaching authority of the Church are a large part of what brought me back. Now it seems to me that Protestant denominations filled up their worship services with long sermons, and lots of hymns, because they removed the Sacrifice out of the Mass.

How do you use music in Masses in your current parish, St. Michael’s in New York City? Do you, the choir, and/or the congregation sing the Propers?

Father Rutler: We have a small choir that sings the Introit and Gradual and, often a special setting of the Gloria. Otherwise the people sing the chants. (Plainchant, or Gregorian chant, should have pride of place, even as Vatican II prescribed.)

It is highly preferable that the choir be in a loft, or at least positioned to support the people’s voices. Choirs should never face the people. And “song leaders” are entirely counter-productive. No ritualistic: “Please join us in singing…” and so forth, and no arm waving. Highly recommended on the topic are two books: Why Catholics Can’t Sing by Thomas Day, and Real Music: A Guide to Timeless Hymns by Anthony Esolen.

We sing the liturgical texts and, as provided in the rubrics for the Ordinary Form, we usually have an additional hymn at the Offertory. I think that if there is a hymn, it may best be at the end of the Mass. Hymns should not displace the liturgical texts, and normally one hymn is adequate.

RTS: By saying that your congregation sings the chants, do you mean the Ordinary chants? If the Ordinary is chanted by the congregation, what settings do you sing? Do you cycle during the year through the some of the eighteen Gregorian chant Masses available from the Kyriale, such as Mass I: Lux et origo (for Pascaltide), Mass XI: Orbis factor (for Sundays/Sundays per annum)? Or do you follow a simpler scheme?

Father Rutler: To encourage participation, the Missa de Angelis is a Plainchant setting that everyone can sing easily–then on special feasts other Gregorian settings can be sung from the choir.

RTS: What might you add to help Catholics who are attached to singing their favorite hymns at Mass, and who might object to the idea of any change?

Father Rutler: In a time of cultural decay, such as ours, the Church has an obligation to preserve and promote the best human achievements, including music, and the visual arts. The Church must convert the barbarians and not be converted by them. Many of the aging “baby-boomers” who resist change, imposed it wantonly on others right after Vatican II. That period of aesthetic destruction may take a long time to repair, but bad music should not be allowed to drive out the good, just as bad money should not be allowed to drive out good money. To deny that there are superior forms of aesthetics is simply to enlist oneself in the ranks of the relativists for who quality is nothing more than opinion. That is not aestheticism; it is narcissism. The astonishing collapse of church attendance in recent decades, cannot be blamed on St. Gregory, Palestrina, and Mozart, and there are many reasons for it other than a defective psychology of worship, but the cloyingly grotesque, pseudo-Christian elevator music in many parishes is not guiltless of the damage done in those post-Conciliar years.

Roseanne T. Sullivan About Roseanne T. Sullivan

Roseanne T. Sullivan is a writer from the Boston area who currently lives in San José, CA. Many of her writings and photographs have appeared in the Latin Mass Magazine, at the New Liturgical Movement, in Regina Magazine, National Catholic Register, at the Dappled Things blog, Deep Down Things, and other publications. Her own intermittently updated blog, Catholic Pundit Wannabe, is at


  1. Avatar Patti Day says:

    Roseanne, Thank you for a very interesting, informative, and well written article. I, too, am an admirer of Fr. George Rutler and a follower of his Facebook group page and weekly essay from his parish.

  2. Avatar Charles Teachout says:

    I remember the Propers and chant with great fondness, particularly in light of the fact that the Bishop banished them from the Cathedral by order. He insisted that our congregation at the Cathedral conform to the standard of the other parishes in the Diocese, where music is a 4 hymn sandwich. He further banned the use of any kind of chant, either Latin or English, at the 3 main masses of the weekend, and imposed mensural music in its place. As a final touch, he assured the Cathedral congregation that those leading the music should not be in any way disobedient to the spirit of enthusiasm for the “contemporary” style of song of popular usage elsewhere in the Diocese, and that the music should be led by those who are hearty untrained amateurs who conform to the wishes of the Bishop.


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