Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
While God Bless America, America the Beautiful and America known popularly as My Country ‘Tis of Thee are the best known of the patriotic hymns or songs as noted in another Register article, there are others which are also not quite as well-known but are also popular and sung as patriotic hymns.
The Fourth of July is a good time to remember them too because these patriotic songs/hymns can also be part of Independence Day. They are also found in the St. Michael Hymnal.
Most everyone who has sung or heard Faith of Our Fathers would be astonished to hear it is a Catholic hymn written by a Catholic priest. Yet so it is. Nor was it first written for American patriotism, although that is what it has become for its greatest popularity.
The composer, Father Frederick Faber, first an Anglican clergyman in England, entered the Catholic Church in 1845 a month after Blessed John Henry Newman did. They knew at Oxford Faber joined Newman’s Oratory of St. Philip Neri, then co-founded the Oratorians in London and devoted himself to writing Catholic hymns.
Faber wrote Faith of Our Fathers in 1849 to memorialize sufferings and persecutions endured by Catholics during Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns. The first verse refers to that, but at the same time has a universal application, hence today’s patriotic appeal: Faith of our Fathers! living still,/ In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:/ Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy,/ Whene'er we hear that glorious word.
Printed in several Catholic sources, by 1853 the popular hymn arrived in America — in a Protestant hymnal, prompting a change to Faber’s third verse beginning: Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers / Shall win our country back to thee…was changed to: Faith of our fathers, faith and prayer / Shall win all nations unto thee… The verse appears that way in the St. Michael Hymnal today.
Soon this Catholic hymn with its timeless quality became connected with patriotism. As one uncredited source suggests, the hymn “honors both the Author of Our Faith and any Christian who has risked their life for their faith and/or for freedom of religion.”
Hymn for America’s Centennial
God of Our Fathers is considered another good patriotic hymn although not as well known or sung as often as the others. Written by a Protestant clergyman in 1876, to be sung for the Fourth of July Centennial Celebration — the centennial of the Declaration of Independence — in Brandon, Vermont, the hymn remained unpublished until it got a new melody with a patriotic flair.
The most prominent appearance came on July 4, 2012, when God of Our Fathers was sung as the entrance hymn for the closing Mass for the “Fortnight for Freedom” at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. The recessional at that Mass was America the Beautiful.
The lyrics asks God to Be Thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay / Thy word our law, thy paths our chosen way. They petition God: From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence / Be thy strong arm our ever sure defense/ Thy true religion in our hearts increase, / They bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.
Noble sentiments all around.
Perennial Navy Hymn
Eternal Father, Strong to Save also finds its text of praise and petition, coupled with a stirring, solemn patriotic melody, into Independence Day liturgical celebrations. It’s often called the Navy Hymn because of its association with the U.S. Navy. According to that branch of service, the hymn was written in 1860 by an Englishman sailing for America. A year later an English clergyman wrote the melody.
By 1879 the United States Navy began using it for religious services. Verses were rewritten and added over the years to reflect the petitions to God for safety on land sea and air.
The hymn opens today much like the original: Eternal Father, strong to save,/
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,/ Who bids the mighty ocean deep / Its own appointed limits keep;/ Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,/ For those in peril on the sea!
In beautiful lyrics in the St. Michael Hymnal the next three stanzas praise Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity before asking them to protect and save those from every peril on the land, in the air, and, for the Trinity, shall praise arise to thee / Glad praise from air and land and sea.
“Especially on the Fourth of July we sing several patriotic hymns such as The National Hymn, God Bless America, and My Country Tis of Thee, said retired Navy Chaplain Father Aidan Logan about his 20 years in the military. He currently serves as vocations director for the Archdiocese of Military Services. “They all invoke God.” Generally, “we always sing Eternal Father at every Sunday Mass as a thanksgiving after Communion” where there is music.
In the 20th century, other verses were added to reflect all branches of naval service, including those who fly, to the coast guard, to military families.
This Independence Day, these hymns are just the ones to fill out our patriotic hymn repertoire.
This article originally appeared July 4, 2018, in the Register.