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The German “Catholic” Hymnal Before the Synodal Way

Above: an early printing of Luther’s hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” The Catholic version of the 20th century follows the same content and tactics. 

Hymnal or Hmmm?

Many elements have helped pave the road that has led the Church in Germany to its current precarious Synodal Way. Among them, the official Catholic hymnal developed after the Second Vatican Council and used throughout the country, Gotteslob (Praise of God), has contributed more than a little asphalt to this road.

In 1963, a diocese in Germany, filled with enthusiasm for the liturgical reform movement and infused with a spirt of “out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new-and-ever-newer,” initiated a commission to create a uniform, national German hymnal. Other dioceses joined and in 1966 the Austrian dioceses joined as well. The result was the Gotteslob hymnal adopted in 1975 in Germany and Austria as well as some other dioceses in Europe with German-speaking Catholics. A new edition in 1996 included updates such as “gender inclusive” language. Another update came in 2013. This hymnal has shaped more than a generation of Catholics in Germany and most other German-speaking areas in Europe. And the Gotteslob is not only a hymnal but also a reference book for the Novus Ordo Mass and basic Catholic prayers.

When I moved to Austria in 2021, I sometimes wanted to look up a prayer or a song at Mass. Given the state of the Church in Germany and Austria, I was a bit skeptical of this sole hymnal in the pews. But it was the only option at hand; unlike my experience of American parishes having multiple hymnals, here the only one I have ever seen is the Gotteslob. Because I learned German as a teenager before I became Catholic, I have gaps in my knowledge of German regarding things Catholic; I have had to play catch-up to fill in the gaps. I figured that while the Gotteslob would undoubtedly have some mushy modern hymns (think Gather Us In in German), at least it would have the parts of the Novus Ordo Mass (geographically my only option) and basic prayers, or so I thought. But as I began to try to use the Gotteslob, time and again I found myself saying, “Hmmm, that’s odd …” This led me to dig deeper into this hymnal. My experience with the Gotteslob makes me inclined now to call it a “hmmmnal” rather than a hymnal.

St. Michael and the United Nations

My first “Hmmm …” came when I tried to find the St. Michael Prayer in the Gotteslob. Having the good fortune that I attend weekday Mass said by a priest who leads us in the St. Michael Prayer after Mass (a “unicorn” priest, as they say in the States), I reached for the Gotteslob to look up the German translation of it. I looked. And I looked. And then I looked some more, including in the section titled, “Prayers to Angels and Saints.” But I could not find it. I asked the priest about this.

With a less than pleased look on his face, he said, “It is not there.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.”

“It is not there. But the Gotteslob does have a United Nations prayer!” he said chagrined.

Curious, I looked up this “United Nations prayer” in Gotteslob. It is in the section “Responsibility for the World.”[1] The prayer is identified only as “Gebet der Vereinten Nationen” (“Prayer of the United Nations”) and thus it appears to be a prayer issued by the United Nations. All of the Austrians and Germans I have asked about this, including priests, think it is a prayer written and issued by the United Nations. It is not, but Gotteslob, oddly, does nothing to dispel this myth. This text is actually an excerpt of a piece written by an American, Stephen Vincent Benet, for a radio address given by Pres. Roosevelt on the first ever “United Nations Day” in June 1942. Benet himself titled the text simply as “Prayer”;[2] Gotteslob, however, titled it, “Prayer of the United Nations.” So, there is no room for the St. Michael Prayer but a half a page for a “Prayer of the United Nations,” which is actually part of a wartime radio address by an American President?

Hmmm …

Marian Hymns Deemed Inadmissible?

Then, when I looked up a particular Marian antiphon in Gotteslob, I noticed that the Marian antiphons have been grouped together in section 666. Yes, you read that right: 666. She and her prayers are mighty and God is mightier than Satan, to be sure, but still, assigning the Mother of God to section 666? Again: “Hmmm …” And I cannot help but wonder: would it really have been all that hard to shift the order so that the Marian section would be 665 or 667? You know, maybe skip the “Prayer of the United Nations”? And as an alternative text for 666, placing the St. Michael Prayer in this slot seems abundantly sensible.

Another “Hmmm …” came in December 2021. Some Austrians initiated weekly public rosary processions in towns all over the country to pray for Austria when the government was preparing to attempt a universal vaccine mandate for the entire country. At our local procession, we sang the Marian hymn, “Schutzfrau Österreichs” (“Protectress of Austria”) and I learned about the tremendous importance of this hymn in the history of Austria. It was composed in 1955 by Fr. Petrus Pavlicek, OFM in recognition of the role Mary’s prayers for Austria’s liberation from military occupation—worst of all by the USSR—after World War II. For years, Fr. Pavlicek had led a national Rosary movement of prayer and atonement for the liberation of Austria, especially with petitions asking Mary to pray for Austria. The hymn “Schutzfrau Österreichs” is powerful and lovely. To help me learn the lyrics, I looked it up in the Austrian edition of Gotteslob, the hymnal found in parishes all over Austria. Guess what: it is not there.

Gotteslob has generic, Protestant-friendly hymns. But the rich Marian hymn “Schutzfrau Österreichs” of historic significance? No. Enthusiasts of the ecumenical movement replaced such distinctly Catholic hymns in Gotteslob with lowest-common-denominator “ecumenical” hymns to facilitate ecumenical services. To facilitate the use of these, the Index of Gotteslob (2013) even specially marks hymns made suitable for ecumenical services with an “ö” for “ökumenische Fassung” (“ecumenical Version”). The Gotteslob commission also rewrote traditional hymns to “ecumenize” them. For example, in the hymn “Firm Shall My Baptismal Covenant Always Stand” from the early nineteenth century, one sings, “I want to belong to the Church,” whereas in the Gotteslob version one sings instead, “I want to belong to the Lord.”[3] (In Part 2 of this series, I explain in more detail how the Gotteslob uses this method of creating “Trojan Horse hymns” to push a new image of the Church through new content on unwitting Catholics; “Trojan Horse hymns” have the old title and the old music making the hymn appear the same, while in fact something else is smuggled in on the inside.)

Luther’s Old Tactics

The move by the Gotteslob commission, with support of bishops, to have one hymnal for all of Germany and Austria, created a mechanism to push liturgical reform and ecumenism, and then subsequently to push de-gendered language onto Catholics in the pews. The unifying force of Gotteslob pushed many regional traditional Catholic hymns out of use (hymns which were themselves traditional in their content). Some dioceses have their own Gotteslob supplements, including the diocese where I live, but I have never seen one. Not once. The churches I have been to in dioceses in both Austria and Germany only have the main Gotteslob hymnal—no other hymnals. When radio programs such as Radio Maria broadcast the audio from Mass and other religious activities, the listener guides I have seen and heard refer only to the main Gotteslob, not the supplements.

As a guide for the Novus Ordo Mass, the only Eucharistic prayer in Gotteslob is Eucharistic Prayer II . And so I wonder: if having multiple options generates too many texts to share in a reference book for the Mass, well then, maybe it would be helpful to have one single Eucharistic prayer for the Roman rite, uniting us at the heart of the Church. Gee, what a “novel” idea. Again: “Hmmm….”

I also had “Hmmm …” moments on Sundays in a church which, unusually, has no hymnals. Instead of a hymnal, there is a little sheet with music for Mass each Sunday. I started to notice occasional asterisks with a note: “*traditional Catholic version.”

Hmmm …”

I would soon discover the significance of these notes. In addition to the “Trojan Horse hymn” mentioned above, the fate of one famous traditional hymn will help us see why these little asterisks matter.

Recently, my curiosity about the Gotteslob was piqued again when I noticed in an essay from 1971 that Ida Friederike Görres identified the traditional hymn, “Ein Haus voll Glorie schauet” (“A House Full of Glory Gazes”), as the embodiment of what the post-Vatican II “demolition troops,” as she called them, sought to stamp out.[4] So, I looked into what happened to this hymn in the Gotteslob. This story is a doozy. Stay tuned; see “Germany’s Synodal Way Hymnal, Part 2: Trojan Horse Hymns.”

Read part II here.


[1] Gotteslob: Katholisches Gebet- und Gesangbuch, Ausgabe für die (Erz-)Diözese Wien  (1975), 31.1; Gotteslob: Katholisches Gebet- und Gesangbuch, Ausgabe für die (Erz-)Diözesen Österreichs (Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk; Vienna, Austria: Wiener Dom-Verlag, 2013), 20.1.

[2] Stephen Vincent Benet, We Stand United and Other Radio Scripts (New York: Farrar & Rinehart Incorporated, 1945), 209.

[3] Gotteslob, 925-925 ​​“Fest soll mein Taufbund immer stehn”, Gotteslob (Vienna, 2013), 1164-1165.

[4]  Ida Friederike Görres, “(Response Essay. No Chapter Title.),” in Warum Bleibe ich in der Kirche? Zeitgenössiche Antworten, eds. Walter Dirks and Eberhard Stammler (Munich, Germany: Manz Verlag, 1971), 58. Jennifer Sue Bryson has translated this essay into English for publication in a forthcoming volume of essays by Görres on the Church; the working title of the volume is A Letter on the Church and Other Essays. Regarding the label “demolition troops,” this comes from an essay Görres wrote in 1969. This translation has been completed and is with a publisher now: Ida Friederike Görres, “Demolition Troops in the Church,” in Bread Grows in Winter, trans. Jennifer Sue Bryson (forthcoming).

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