A Divided Family

My journey to understand the controversy between Catholic musicians surrounding “On Eagle’s Wings”

Fall 2021

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,” I sang the opening line of the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings”. My fingers ran in familiar patterns across the piano, finding the keys with ease as I played the arpeggiated accompaniment for my voice. I leaned into the seventh chord. “And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings; bear you on the breath of dawn.” My eyes closed as I focused on the prayer. The image of my Jesus lifting me up filled my mind. 

I had sung and prayed this hymn countless times before. But as I played this time, I was slightly restless.  The reality that this hymn had such opposite effects on people of the same faith—on Catholics—gnawed at me in a way that I could not ignore. I finished the final refrain and sat back, considering the debate about this hymn.

All my life I had known the tension which surrounds “On Eagle’s Wings”. Passionate comments in favor of or against it are familiar to my ears. The same question would always arise when I heard the opposing views: why? What is it about this hymn that people find so appealing or equally distasteful?

For the most part, I left these questions unanswered. Sometimes I would have a conversation with people who don’t like “On Eagle’s Wings”, but most of what I heard was that it’s too sentimental for the Mass or that they hated it so much it better not be played at their funerals. It wasn’t until college that I became actively involved in the controversy of this hymn and liturgical music. One day I was the same I had always been regarding this hymn: I loved it, others hated it, and I didn’t really give it a second thought. The next day, I had jumped into a study of Catholic music which I could never have imagined.

“People come to God and they long for an intimate connection with Him. Songs that express that will be ‘popular’ in the sense that people will be drawn to the words and the meaning behind them.”

-Todd Flowerday, St. Katharine Drexel parish, Ramsey, Minnesota

Taking the freedom I was given to complete any music-based project for my music seminar, I figured this was my chance to dive into the dispute encompassing “On Eagle’s Wings”. It sounded like a fun project at first. Then I realized just how deep and intense the issue of liturgical music in the Catholic Church truly is.

Settling down to what I expected to be a laid back and simply interesting assignment, I started with a quick Google search: on eagle’s wings history. This led me to a few articles, including one from America magazine, which tells the story of the hymn being written by Father Michael Joncas as a response to the death of his friend’s father as well as tracing how it has gained emotional attachment over the years. Armed with the basics, I moved onto the debate.  My next search—why do Catholics hate eagle’s wings—opened a totally different door. The results showed another article from America magazine, but one which has a focus on the controversy rather than the history. 

Amid the basic searches which were reeling me into the topic, I began to conduct individual interviews with church musicians and music ministers. It was through these exchanges that I was able to understand the main arguments against “On Eagle’s Wings” and continue my research. I noticed that, in general, the ones who were having this debate at all were music ministers in the Catholic Church. Parishioners who know the hymn—whether they like it or not—are much less aware of the controversy than the musicians.  Intrigued, I turned my attention towards this group.

Looking back on the interviews, I recognized three recurring arguments against the use of “On Eagle’s Wings” during the liturgy.

“It really depends on how you’ve been raised in the Church. If that’s what you’ve grown up with, it’s not distracting at all, it’s just what Mass is like.”

-Emma Atkinson, student, University of Mary Washington

Some argue that the hymn was written as a solo work. Others say it is for a group to sing, but disagree with the composer’s intention, as it is not feasible in that approach.

“’Eagle’s Wings’ lends itself better, I think, to a solo interpretation than congregation,” said Joseph Ciskanik, music director at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, VA. 

All of them take the stance that the melody and rhythms are too musically complex for the liturgy. Having never heard this argument before, but finding it fascinating as a musician, I immediately turned to analyzing it.

The first thing mentioned about “On Eagle’s Wings” being a solo and too difficult for a congregation to sing together is the opening line (see Figure 1). The hymn is written in the key of D major, but the first note of the melody is a C#. This isn’t as intuitive as a song starting on a I chord (the tonic, which, in this case, is D). It is, arguably, more confusing, and more challenging to sing, especially since the members of the congregation are not all musically trained. I can understand, from a musical perspective, the complexity and unintuitive nature of beginning on a IV rather than a I chord. But I have never heard that it is too hard to sing from anyone who is not a church musician.

Figure 1

Similarly, the following verses are in the same style of verse 1—utilizing quarter and eighth notes, quarter note triplets, and the same chords—but they are rearranged so that it is not the exact same (see Figure 2). Hence, the belief that this hymn is not well suited for a congregation to sing. The inconsistency is once again confusing and distracting. 

Figure 2

While I can see the musical complexity compared to a hymn such as “Holy, Holy, Holy”, which is consistent throughout and easy to sing as a group, some who argue that this is too complex also hold the belief that traditional Gregorian chant is the most fitting for Mass. If “On Eagle’s Wings” is too complex for the liturgy and community praise, is the intricate nature of Gregorian chant, sung only by cantors and choirs, any different in terms of complexity and compatibility? Perhaps we are distracted by the details of the music and forgetting the bigger picture of praising God through music.

“It is recommended to choirmasters, singers, members of the clergy, superiors of seminaries, ecclesiastical institutions, and religious communities, parish priests and rectors of churches, canons of collegiate churches and cathedrals, and, above all, to the diocesan ordinaries to favour with all zeal these prudent reforms, long desired and demanded with united voice by all; so that the authority of the Church, which herself has repeatedly proposed them, and now inculcates them, may not fall into contempt.”

-Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope Pius X, 1903

While some agreed that the reason behind “On Eagle’s Wings” not being fit for Mass was the argument of complexity, others pointed me to Church teaching and documents which emphasize the tradition of organ and chant in the liturgy. This led me to the next big argument: the argument for tradition, as indicated in the official writings of the Church.

I compiled a list of the documents which I was directed to, and which I read diligently (see below). 

Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope Pius X, 1903

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul VI, 1963

Musicam Sacrum, Second Vatican Council, 1967

Chirograph for the Centenary of “Tra le Sollecitudini”, Pope Saint John Paul II, 2003

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), 2007

As you can see by the dates, these documents range from 1903 to 2007. All of these documents are focused on sacred music, and all of them are written by church authority.

When crowdsourcing for my research, the document that everyone pointed me to was that of Pius X. It seems to be held up as the ultimate guide for liturgical music in the Catholic Church, but I am not convinced that we should look at this document alone. The guidelines on sacred music have changed, as we can see when reading the documents produced by the Church over the years. A commonly overlooked reality is that all of them express the importance of tradition, and how the intention of contemporary liturgical music can remain the same—grounded in truth and acceptable nature for the Mass—but sound and look a little different than traditional chant. 

Is it enough to cling to one document when so many have been written on the same issue? Should we not be looking at all of the Church’s teaching, not just what was said in 1903?

Something that I cannot emphasize enough is the truth that none of these documents contradict each other, so there shouldn’t be an issue with heeding more than one. All of them point to the value of tradition, and the most recent teachings include the value of contemporary music in providing participation of the laity in the liturgy, as introduced during the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps most important, though, is the warning against division mentioned in each writing. If the Church is continually cautioning us not to allow music to cause a rift in our family, is it not worth our time to address the issue at hand?

“Many other instruments also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy, such as wind, stringed, or percussion instruments according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt.”

-Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2007

Of all the questions to ask, inquiring about people’s thoughts on instrumentation fascinated me the most. When I asked if “On Eagle’s Wings” was more appealing if played on an organ rather than a piano, those in favor of traditional music said yes, without any hesitation. Next to the human voice, the organ has the seat of honor in the Catholic liturgy. But that is not the same as saying it is the only instrument with a place at the table. Similar to what the documents say about musical style, traditional instruments such as voice and organ are acknowledged and respected in a special way. But modern instruments are not eliminated from use during Mass. With all the passionate arguments posed to me claiming that the piano is unsuitable for the liturgy, I have not found a single document or decree in the modern Church which states that piano, guitar, or “On Eagle’s Wings” are inappropriate for use during Mass. When I ask this question, some admit there is no such documentation, and it is an opinion rather than a moral judgment. Others simply ignore the question altogether. 

“Music that sounds less like what you hear on the radio can kind of teach you to feel something you may never have felt before,” Ciskanik said. “But on the other hand, it doesn’t always taste good to people.”

Something that everyone seems to agree upon is that the music should not be what we focus o during the Mass. It isn’t about the music. It’s about the sacrifice Christ made for each one of us, and our gift of ourselves back to Him.

“It shouldn’t be distracting, whatever it is,” said Jordan Grinkawitz, a student at the University of Mary Washington. “I don’t think it matters what you’re using, as long as they’re not distracting.  Because at the end of the day, you’re not there for the music.” 

While there were not many with whom I spoke in depth about the importance of how instruments are played during the liturgy, one organist from Toronto agreed that this is a factor and that there is room for improvement in the way in which the music is presented.

“If we need to advocate for the organ to be the primary instrument, then we need to do a better job of playing well,” said Jeremy Tingle.

There are many opposing views on instrumentation in sacred music, but the Catholic Church teaches the same thing it has taught for years (with the exception that the piano and female singers were forbidden by Pius X but were allowed by the 1960s). Organ and voice continue to hold a special place of honor in the tradition of the liturgy, but have instruments such as piano and guitar been deemed inappropriate for the Mass by Church authority? What about the reality that the Holy Spirit touches each of us differently—some through Gregorian chant and some through “On Eagle’s Wings”? Do we respect individual paths to Christ as we should?

At this point, I was completely invested in my work. Before conducting these individual interviews, though, I had come across a Catholic music forum, which posted a variety of discussions about liturgical music. Skimming over some of the discussions, I felt like I had struck gold. I could tell that those who participated leaned towards the more traditional view of Catholic practices. Based on my limited experience at the time, I had noticed that those who were opposed to “On Eagle’s Wings” were typically advocates of traditional Latin Mass and music. Knowing that my views were not the exact same as that group, I hesitated slightly before jumping into this conversation. 

Becoming quite vulnerable, I launched a new discussion post, in which I described my research project on this hymn and inviting people to both have an online discussion and contact me for individual interviews. I thought I had an idea of what I was getting into, but I never imagined all that I learned and experienced through that exchange.

“I think a lot of the opinions stem more from what the song represents than the song itself.”

-Jeremy Tingle, organist, Toronto

From day one, the forum was almost always active. Church musicians and music ministers from all over the country contributed to the discussion. Surprised by the multitude of responses, I scrambled to keep up with all the comments, posting new questions and thoughts as I learned more about the topic.

At first, the debate was simply sharing views and experiences with the hymn. Most commented on how frequently “On Eagle’s Wings” is requested for funerals and that it is no longer particularly common for an ordinary Sunday liturgy (where it used to be found more often than at funerals). My questions shifted from inquiring about general familiarity with the hymn to more controversial ones: What is your opinion of this hymn? What is appealing or unappealing about it? 

The intense dislike and disapproval of “On Eagle’s Wings” began to come out into the open. Arguments that the hymn is too much of a solo, goes against traditional practices in sacred music, and that the liturgy is not about sentimentality were shared many times. With each argument, I continued to ask questions: Has the Church banned this hymn or instruments such as the piano from the liturgy? If people find a connection to God through “On Eagle’s Wings”, shouldn’t we acknowledge the beauty of the Holy Spirit’s work through this song? Is this truly going against Church teaching, or are we getting caught up in our own opinions?

Passions flew back at me at an overwhelming pace. I felt under attack with the arguments against my questions, claiming that the hymn was completely inappropriate for Mass, instruments beyond the organ were too secular, and hinting at my own ignorance on the topic. My questions were often left unanswered, as people simply hurled their opinions at me without stepping back to have a conversation. It hurt to read the judgment being passed to one another—onto other Catholics.

I, too, was growing increasingly frustrated. The argument had characteristics of a fight. Genuine listening seemed like a foreign concept, and we were getting nowhere. Sitting back to think through a response which was more personally hurtful than the others, I stared at my laptop in despair. There we were, a bunch of Catholic musicians, belittling those who view liturgical music differently than the lens through which we see it. Tears filled my eyes at the understanding that music—a gift from God meant to provide unity—was separating us from our family of faith. Common themes of the responses rang endlessly in my mind. “Too secular…not traditional chant and organ…the wrong way to worship…people disrespected the liturgy in the 70s…” This was so much deeper than music. People are upset about post-Vatican II practices and forgetting to distinguish the reverent from the irreverent responses of the council. It was the traditional Catholic view against the post-Vatican II view. Anger and discouragement overwhelmed me.

I began to wonder if my questions were valid after all. Maybe they were right, and I was just being stubborn. Could it be that I was being blinded by my own love of the song? Were my own painful experiences with the traditional viewpoint hindering my ability to see clearly? Was I just wasting my time?

I just sat there crying, fearing that I had only worsened the situation and there was no hope for overcoming the division. After a while, the tears ceased, and God pulled me out of the despair. I was able to shake the negative comments and remind myself that I was not wasting my time. There is a divide in my family, and I was taking one step to bring us back together. Even though the issue runs much deeper than liturgical music, it is through the music that I can work. Why shouldn’t I take what I know and love and use that as an instrument of peace and unity? It can’t be fixed overnight, and I may never see the fruit of my labor. But stopping for that reason would be giving into the devil, whose goal is to divide. 

Taking a deep breath and saying a prayer, I posted one last time, stating that this argument was proving my point and was not helping to solve the issue. After thanking everyone for contributing, I never looked at it again.

If we can see this issue of liturgical music, as well as the traditional vs modern divide, then what are we going to do about it?

“Finding and fostering a place for people to get together and talk: that might be helpful,” said Flowerday.  “It seems to work within parishes. You’d think that with the internet, it would happen more often, but the reality is that people gravitate to like-minded others and shut out new or different ideas.”

“It’s about doing the best we can do because anything less would be disrespectful,” Tingle said.  “God doesn’t need us to do any of this.  It’s the least we can do.”

Do we love our neighbors, or do we judge them for preferring a different musical style or liturgy? Are we walking with one another wherever we are in our faith journeys, or are we degrading those who are not at the same spiritual level as us? Do we celebrate our common goals, or do we only see our differences? 

If this division among Catholics does not help us become saints, then it is time to change. What are we waiting for?

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