After almost half a century, the first official collection of Catholic Hymns approved by Vietnamese bishops has been published in time for the celebration of the Holy Jubilee.

During a weeklong Sacred Music Conference hold in Saigon last week, Bishop Paul Nguyen Van Hoa, the president of Sacred Music Committee of The Episcopal Conference of Vietnam, proudly presented the first official Catholic Hymnal (Volume 1)- since the communist takeover of the South Vietnam in 1975 -before an audience which gave a thunderous applause to the group effort of a dozen Catholic clergy, musicians and choir directors who have been working tirelessly to compile a book of 500 songs, composed during the beginning of the Church's music history up to the time South Vietnam had been under control of Communists in 1975. These unique songs had been selected from a pool of more than 4000 most beloved hymns.

Catholics have failed to gain permission to publish Hymnals due to a long tradition of government’s strict censorship of music, harsh religious policies and bureaucratic obstacles.

The lack of official Hymnbooks has led many local Catholic communities to composing hymns for themselves. “It's sort of bittersweet news for us" said the prelate, explaining that some hymns being used by parish choirs are not of sound theology.

“The language of some newly composed hymns is also of concern,” elaborated Peter Minh Tran, a Catholic in Saigon Archdiocese who participated in the conference. “Some authors tend to stress so much on the ‘modernisation’ using contemporary language including slang. For me, the language of hymns must be the language of worship, transparent and comprehensible by lay people,” he added.

According to Monsignor Paul Nguyen, the Sacred Music Committee has repeatedly called authors of newly composed hymns to submit their works for imprimatur. However, as the committee could not gain government’s permission to publish Hymnals, its call has seemed to be ignored.

Due to lack of funds for printing, also hampered by government's approval for publishing such religious items, parish choirs usually use hand-written hymnals in which lyrics have been changed so radically from their original verses.

Fr. Nguyen Duy, a member of the Sacred Music Committee, expressed his concern that “many old hymns have been changed far from their authors’ intention,” emphasizing that the author’s original intentions deserve respect. Fr. Nguyen, himself, is a well-known hymn composer.

He revealed that the newly published hymnals consisted of only old well-known and loved hymns. Some of them have been used for more than a century. According to Fr. Nguyen, his committee has spent four years to collect well-known hymns in their original form.

Marie Pham, a university student, argued that in some cases some verses of old hymns should be revised for better comprehensibility due to language evolvement and to suit with the context. “Hymns are taken up by the community and so become more than the expression of an individual,” she said.

“In the protest at Thai Ha, we altered a well-known hymn and our congregation has been used the new verse extensively. Every time we sing the hymn, we feel so emotional,” she continued.

The verse that Marie Pham mentioned, in its original form, was: “Our Mother, have mercy on our nation. Destructive war clouds loom all over the country” It has been changed into “Our Mother, have mercy on our nation. Injustice rampage all over the country”

Many Catholics and non-Catholics alike share her points. Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, a dissident novelist, who is being detained by the government, expressed in one of her articles that even she was not a Catholic; she was deeply moved if not electrified when she first heard the revised verse and saw Catholics singing the song passionately in front of thousands of police armed with a pack of dogs who were ready to attack them at any moment. “They are heroes who dare to publicly sing aloud a truth that few Vietnamese people dare to say even in private sphere,” she wrote.

"With the grace of God, we may be able to present to the public Volume 2 by the end of the Holy Jubilee in January of 2011" Fr. Nguyen Duy said with a big smile.