Reinvigorating Devotion

Acclaiming Christ Jesus With Her Life: An Interview with Kathleen Pluth

Recently, Sr. Kathryn Hermes interviewed Kathleen Pluth, composer of the official hymn of the National Eucharistic Revival. Read on to learn more about Kathleen’s background in music, her Eucharistic faith, and the inspiration behind the hymn!

Sr. Kathryn: Can you describe your earliest memory of experiencing music?

Kathleen: When I was a very small child, I remember listening to orchestral music and wondering, “But what is music?” It was the sort of question that I knew I couldn’t answer but enjoyed thinking about. I still feel an overwhelming sense of wonder at the mystery of music, especially when hearing lush strings, almost anything by Bach, or a long piece of Gregorian chant such as a Tract1.

Sr. Kathryn: What was the best wisdom someone shared with you when you were starting as a Catholic musician?

Kathleen: I remember one of my pastors once preaching on a relatively obscure passage of Scripture, Psalm 89:15: “Happy the people who know the joyful shout.” In my own singing and writing, the “joyful shout” comes with a certain self-forgetfulness, when I manage to get lost in realities beyond myself. In all kinds of singing, from the Divine Office to cantoring Psalms at Mass, there is a huge difference between singing with an eye on myself and singing with my eyes on Jesus. We see this in the Blessed Mother’s Magnificat: she sings about what God has done. While aware of what God has done for her, she seems primarily awed about God’s gracious actions and what these blessings reveal about God’s nature.

Lit red candle in a Catholic church with choir in the background

Sr. Kathryn: What place does Eucharistic devotion have in your Catholic life?

Kathleen: I prioritize the Eucharist in my own life in many ways, and hopefully this gives a certain intensity to the text. I have attended daily Mass whenever possible for many years and usually stay to make a thanksgiving after Mass. I make a weekly Holy Hour. Once I made a major life choice because of the Blessed Sacrament. I had two solid scholarship offers for graduate school, and, in the end, I chose Catholic University because I could stay under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament in the dormitory there, because the building also housed a beautiful chapel.

Sr. Kathryn: As a Catholic musician, what is your hope for those who sing your hymns?

Kathleen: I like to think of a hymn writer as an encourager. Hebrews 3:13 says, “Encourage yourselves daily while it is still ‘today.’” The Christian life is literally beyond us: God lifts us up beyond the limits of our human nature. This process, while joyful, is also incredibly difficult. Over the years, my own faith has been bolstered by writings of many kinds, including hymns, which are Christian writings that can be made one’s own by the act of singing. My hope is that my hymn texts may sometimes provide the same sort of encouragement that I have received from others.

Sr. Kathryn: How would you describe “Let the Earth Acclaim Christ Jesus”?

Kathleen: The basic story of Christianity is really very simple: God created the world. The world, because of the Fall, needed a savior. The Father sent the Son, who assumed a human nature, suffered, died, and rose. The Father and Son then sent the Holy Spirit to bring us into union with the Trinity along with all the saints and holy angels in the eternal liturgy of heaven. All of this was planned and accomplished out of God’s gratuitous love for us! I love to tell that story over and over again. It is this basic story that forms the overall structure of my text, until it becomes just simple praise in the last verse.

Close-up of sheet music

In a Eucharistic hymn, it seemed possible to unite two themes that Jesus unites in John 6, one of the classic biblical texts on the Eucharist. In this text, Jesus says multiple times that eating the Eucharist leads to eternal life. During the recent pandemic, every one of us endured a memento mori, a personal reminder of our own death. So, it seemed to me to be especially hopeful at this time to bring out this aspect of Jesus’ teaching in the hymn’s thematic “hinge”—verse 3:

Jesus rose upon the third day

as the Holy Spirit willed,

like a seed once dead and buried

till the times had been fulfilled;

and his glorious Resurrection

raises not the Lord alone:

those who eat and drink his Supper

stay in him, become his own.

There are several other themes of the Gospel of John that I have meditated on over the years, and these also appear in the hymn. One is the word we translate as “remain” or “stay,” which is a key word in St. Luke’s Emmaus account as well. I use this idea twice in the text. Another is the expression “his own,” which is used for the Good Shepherd’s “own sheep,” as well as in other special moments in John’s Gospel. There is something important about this identity of belonging to Jesus and being “his own” that is especially imparted in the gift of the Eucharist, or as the prayers of the Mass often say, “participation in the mysteries.”

Sr. Kathryn: What is the tone or feel of the hymn and where do you see it fitting best in the liturgy?

Kathleen: The organizers of the hymn contest have decided to release the hymn with two2 very different tunes: HYFRYDOL and NETTLETON. Both are engaging tunes, but they have different moods. HYFRYDOL is more meditative and would be the setting most appropriate for Offertory and Communion, although I have heard it used well throughout the Mass. It would be especially helpful for meditating quietly on the theology and mystery of the Eucharist. NETTLETON can be livelier and would be my preference when it is sung as the Entrance or Recessional hymn. With this setting, the joy of the text would come through more prominently. The text itself has a tone of gratitude, and this can be celebrated in these very different ways.

Close-up of sheet music of a hymn

Sr. Kathryn: What does winning this competition mean for you as a Catholic artist?

Kathleen: The judges chose a hymn text that is full of doctrine, and this gives me great hope that moving forward, doctrinally strong hymns will experience a kind of renaissance in parish life. I feel that we already have a lot of songs that primarily seek to comfort our anxieties. What I would like to provide are texts that “give a reason for the hope” (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) and provide a stronger, more lasting comfort based on the revealed, saving actions of God for us. I feel we have to be careful of setting the bar too low, as far as doctrine goes. People learn all sorts of things every day, and as the engagement with various online apostolates show, they are hungry for solid teaching that is biblically and theologically literate. I like to think that doctrine can be communicated and sung aloud in fresh, modern hymnody.

Sr. Kathryn: So you certainly have experience with hymnody over the years. For you, what is the power of a good hymn?

Kathleen: One of the powers of hymnody is its ability to abbreviate. For instance, there’s a beautiful passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that the Church sings most Saturdays at Evening Prayer, and it describes the path of humility that Jesus willingly took for our salvation:

He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:7–8)

In the first verse of “Let the Earth Acclaim Christ Jesus,” I abbreviated this by saying, “He became for us a servant.” Most of us are familiar with the passage from Philippians, so the short line of the hymn recalls that passage, as well as the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah, Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, and Jesus’ self-description as one who came to serve. Hymns can provide a richness of allusion in this way.

A monstrance on an altar during Eucharistic adoration with stained glass in the background

There are other moments like this in the hymn, for example, “Like a seed once dead and buried/ Till the times had been fulfilled.” These two lines recall not only Jesus’ own words about the seed that must die to produce fruit but many other passages from the Gospels, as well as 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul’s most sustained treatment of the Resurrection.

Sr. Kathryn: What is your hope when parishes begin to learn and sing your hymn “Let the Earth Acclaim Christ Jesus”?

Kathleen: Because they are united to music, hymns have a unique staying power within the soul. Homilies are certainly much more important to the Mass than hymns are, but don't you find it harder to remember a homily while driving home from Mass or doing the dishes? Instead, people hum hymns and sing them in their hearts after Mass because of the music, and they are even more memorable because they rhyme. People even sing hymns to loved ones who have lost their memories or who are dying. My hope is that the reality of the Eucharist will become more alive in the hearts of at least some of those who sing this hymn.

Enjoy professional recordings of the hymn and sheet music here!

1. During penitential seasons, the Tract replaces the Alleluia.

2. A third tune, the familiar “Hymn to Joy”, has also been introduced as an additional tune for this hymn.