Eucharistic hymns and Catholic theology

By Father Stef Bankemper.

In this installment of our series on the Eucharist we turn to Eucharistic hymns. It is a vast topic, so must be severely limited in a short article. One sub-topic that has interested me for years is the question of how adequately the hymns we use express our Catholic theology. The shortness of space allows me only to begin to broach this subject, and so this article will be limited to a very brief discussion of how well a few of our commonly-used hymns express one aspect of our Eucharistic theology. I have chosen hymns from Breaking Bread; it is not the only worship aid/hymnal in use in the diocese, but it is often used.

Before I begin this exploration, let me note that people are often surprised when I raise this question. We commonly assume that the prayers we pray at Mass, for instance, and the songs we sing, accurately express what we believe. And we should assume that. One of the maxims of Catholic theology is the phrase “lex orandi, lex credendi” (“the law of praying, the law of believing”), which means, basically, that the words we pray shape what we believe. Knowing that, the Church takes great care that her official prayers are theologically correct. Surprisingly, she does not show the same care in the hymns that she allows to be used, and so the quality of the theology in our hymns, and its expression, ranges from excellent to questionable to poor to heretical; thankfully, there are few of the last, but they do exist.

Let us look at the song “Bread of Life,” by Rory Cooney. The first words we sing are the words of the refrain:


I myself am the bread of life.

                                    You and I are the bread of life,

                                    taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ

                                    that the world might live.


On the most immediate level — what the words actually say — this is one of the worst hymns we could sing in the liturgy. I can assure you that I am not the bread of life, and — no offense — you also are not. There is one Bread of Life, and we know who it is.

But Cooney does not capitalize the words “bread” and “life”; what is he trying to express? I think he is trying to express something that Paul VI, taking his cue from St. Augustine, wrote about in his encyclical “Mysterium Fidei”:


From this it follows that the worship paid to the Divine Eucharist

strongly impels the soul to cultivate a “social” love, by which … we make the

interests of the community … our own and extend our charity to the whole

world because we know that everywhere there are members of Christ.


As I wrote, Paul VI received his idea from Augustine. I have heard people quote a line from one of Augustine’s sermons in support of Cooney’s words: “become what you see.” The trouble is that they do not quote more of Augustine’s words. He continues in that same sermon by claiming that we say “Amen” to what we are. But Augustine does not say bread of life; he says body of Christ: “Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true.”

What is the difference between saying “we are the bread of life” and “we are the body of Christ”? The biggest difference is that the second is scriptural and accurate (1 Cor 12; Rom 12), while the first is analogous and tenuous at best. And two things make these words even worse: first, they are the first words we sing and there is no preparation, no context for them; second, that Cooney does not just write “I am the bread of life,” but “I myself am the bread of life.” Without any preparation, it could be interpreted that I am not just forgetting God but consciously excluding God. What is the problem? The problem is that the liturgy is not the place for theological speculation, but for clear and direct expression of what is true. If the maxim lex orandi, lex credenda is valid, then when the Church is praying — especially in a time when the faithful are so inadequately catechized — she should be praying words that strengthen our faith, not weaken or confuse it.

Another hymn, “Bread For The World,” by Bernadette Farrell, comes a little closer to a more adequate expression of the idea that the Eucharist begets in us a “social” love. The refrain of her hymn reads:


Bread for the world; a world of hunger.

Wine for all peoples: people who thirst.

May we who eat be bread for others.

May we who drink pour out our love.


There is much that is still problematic in this hymn: for instance, there remains the idea, slightly less overt, that somehow we are ourselves what the world needs and longs for; Farrell does not mention Jesus Christ anywhere in the refrain. At least, though, she hints in the third and fourth lines at the need for us first to receive something before we can give to others.

In his hymn “Gift Of Finest Wheat,” Omer Westendorf comes closest in this group of three composers to expressing well the idea that the Eucharist impels us to go out to others. First, there is no ambiguity in the refrain as to the source of the bread of life:


Come give to us, O saving Lord,

the bread of life to eat.


Then, in the fifth verse, he writes,


You give yourself to us, O Lord;

then selfless let us be,

to serve each other in your name

in truth and charity.


While there is more that Westendorf could have written to express how the Eucharist impels us to others, he at least is on the right track. There is no suggestion that when we go to others we bring only ourselves. Indeed, we hope to be “selfless;” and if we are selfless, then we must be bringing something else to others — who else but Jesus, who has given himself to us in the Eucharist?


Let us end with a look at a hymn that, while not trying overtly to express the idea we have been discussing, might actually bring us to it in a more substantial way. The hymn is “Adoro Te Devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas, but the words at which we will look are from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ well-known translation of the hymn into English. The fifth verse reads:


O thou [the Host], our reminder of the Crucified,

Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,

Lend this life to me, then; feed and feast my mind,

There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.


There is no ambiguity here, and no questionable theology. The host reminds us of the crucified Jesus, the living Bread of Life. He is our life; we beg it from him. The last line recalls the verse and response of benediction: “You have given them Bread from heaven/Having within it all sweetness.” Even if we do need hymns that remind us of the social responsibility the Eucharist imposes on us, they should begin with the true Bread of Life and work outwards, so to speak.

It was not the purpose of this article to look at every aspect of the hymns mentioned, but hopefully our brief exploration has awakened an interest in looking more closely at the hymns we use. Perhaps one day someone in Rome or our bishops in this country will require more care in the creation of the hymnals that shape in some way the beliefs of our Catholic people.


Father Stef Bankemper is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Ft. Thomas.