Mercy, O God

We are now three weeks into our Lenten journey. By now, you have most likely noticed that our hymn choices have remained constant this season and that the use of musical instruments is greatly subdued.

I was recently asked why we don’t just play instrumental music during Lent like other Catholic parishes. While many parishes around the country opt to do away with singing, especially a closing hymn, during the Lenten season, we have not. This practice is quite common in the non-liturgical mainline Protestant churches and, contrary to popular belief, is not Catholic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Musicam Sacram, a product of Vatican II, explicitly forbids us from playing instruments as solo instruments during the Advent and Lenten seasons, during the Sacred Triduum, and in the Offices and Masses of the Dead (Musicam Sacram, 1967, #66). What exactly does that mean? Quite simply, we can only use instruments to accompany singing. There are no preludes, postludes, or even interludes of music if Communion goes “too” long.

To encourage singing at an even greater level and to reinforce the idea that we are currently living in a Penitential Season, we have simplified the music and made it very repetitive.

One of my favorite songs of the post-Vatican II era is Mercy, O God. Written in 2001 by Fr. Patrick Francis O’Brien, this song has two sets of verse lyrics: Lenten and Communion. During this season, we are using the Lenten text. This summer, we will use the Communion text.

Fr. O’Brien is currently the pastor of Saint Matthias in Marlborough, Massachusetts. The refrain to Mercy, O God is written in what’s called a rhythmic ostinato, which is a short, repeated rhythmic pattern. Like the rhythm, the text is a repetitive prayer of intercession and thanksgiving for God’s great mercy that He has for us that can “set us free.” The refrain can stand alone and be used repetitively in a Taize style similar to another Lenten favorite, “Jesus, Remember Me.”

At our Advent Parish Mission a few months ago, Fr. Bob Stoeckig shared his experience of having a musical refrain in the proverbial back pocket. A song like “Mercy, O God” provides a prayer of praise, comfort, and forgiveness.

Another popular hymn at our parish is Rory Cooney’s “Jerusalem, My Destiny.” I will share more on this hymn later, but I did want to point something out that might not be so obvious. You have probably noticed that we only sing one verse of this hymn per week. That is because each verse corresponds to each particular week of Lent. This week’s verse starts with, “In my thirst, you let me drink the waters of your life.” In the Gospel, we hear about the Woman at the Well. This week, pay particular attention to how the text of the hymn and the Gospel relate.