This article commemorates an icon of liturgical music: Fr. Lucien
Deiss. His name may not sound
familiar, but if you have ever heard or sung hymns like “Priestly People”, “Behold among men”, “All
nations”, “God reigns”, or “Keep in Mind”, then you know who this is about. These titles are just
the over 15 compositions of his found in the Cameroon Hymnal, and this brief write-up attempts to
that the compilers of that Hymnal made no mistake in including his songs in that hymnbook, and that
Catholic worship today, more than ever, deserves a re-discovery of the flame that animated this
of the Church, whose songs have performed an immense missionary role, to a multitude of cathedrals,
schools and parish communities.
Fr. Lucien Deiss was born in 1921 in France. He entered the Spiritans (Congregation of the Holy Ghost
-Cssp) in 1942. Passionate about the Bible and Liturgy, in which he had been trained, he was initially
professor of Holy Scripture at a Spiritan-run Major Seminary in Brazzaville Congo, until health reasons
made him return to France in 1948, where he continued to teach at the Seminary of Chevilly-Larve. From
this point, his liturgical compositions would power the entire Church, first in French, then in the
English translations he personally supervised, and in over 5 other languages.
ONE IN HEART WITH THE COUNCIL
A Latin adage goes “bonum diffisivum sui” – the good diffuses itself. The immense work of Fr. Lucien
Deiss caught the attention of Pope Paul VI who invited him to serve as a Liturgical Consultant during
the Second Vatican Council, as well as to coordinate the revision of the Psalter in the new Lectionary.
Based upon this experience Fr. Lucien Deiss cautioned fellow composers and liturgists of the reform, to
be faithful both to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the instructions from Rome. Fully aware that
the spirit behind of the reform needed to be well understood, he organized countless workshops,
university seminars and gave keynote presentations at liturgical music conferences, diocesan study days
(nicknamed “Deiss” days), in which he took his scholarship and musical skills to where the Church – as
people of God – were. But what is peculiar about the songs of Fr Deiss?
WHEN MELODY MARRIES MEANING
In a brief way, I propose us to look again at some of the common hymns from Fr. Deiss, inorder to savour
how beneath their melodic simplicity, lies both a biblical beauty and lyrical finesse.
a) Priestly People, Kingly People, Holy People!
By several standards, this song is the most famous hymn in our local Church. Somehow, however, its
frequent use at ceremonies with long entrance processions (especially priestly ordinations) has almost
limited the relevance of the hymn to the ordained priesthood, which is somehow unfortunate. The refrain
is a paraphrase of 1Pet2:8-9, which refers to the dignity of all the baptized as “a chosen race, royal
priesthood and consecrated nation”. By our anointing with chrism, each Christian shares something in
common with a prophet like Samuel, a king like David and a priest like Zechariah. To sing this song is
like to take an oath. Precisely because to be a “priestly person” is to make my life a living sacrifice
to God; to be a “kingly person” is to exercise royal command over my passions, and to be “holy person”
is to seek God and try to be like him. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 901, 908). But that is not
The verses of the hymn are a roll call of the main royal and messianic titles the Bible addresses to
Christ. He is the ‘Son of the Father’, the ‘Morning Star’, ‘Son of David and Abraham’, ‘Shepherd and
True Vine’. The singing of each title is made to correspond with a prayer made to Christ, in the next
line of each verse. It goes without saying that any rendition of this hymn that rushes over the words
does a great disservice. It is important to note, that although the English translation numbers 17
verses, the French numbers 9, such that two verses are sung “antiphonally” (that is, voice after voice)
before the refrain is taken. This has the potential of exploring more verses, and bringing out their
richness. Fr. Deiss recommends the song for Feasts of Christ, or the Mystery of the Church.
b) Behold among men, the dwelling place of God
The verses of this song beautifully capture Fr. Lucien Deiss’ commitment to the new vision of the
Church. They are a prolonged explanation of the image of the Church as the “People of God”. (Lumen
Gentium no 9). As people of God, they are “called by God”, “born of Water and the Spirit”, “grafted on
Jesus the Vine”, and nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. The refrain is taken from the vision of
John concerning the new Jerusalem, found in Rev 21: 3. When the verses and refrain are put together, the
song makes an even strong point: that the Eucharistic assembly is a rendez-vous between Heaven and
Earth. A profound awareness of this truth would surely limit the distractions that sometimes make their
way into our liturgies. Fr. Deiss proposes a prayer commentary to precede the singing of the song: “We
beseech you, O Lord, to help us understand this mystery, so that we may become your dwelling place in
c) Alleluia, Wonderful and Great
Rev. 15:4 describes this hymn as the Victory song of Moses and the Lamb. It announces with joy the
triumph of the Lord and those who belong to him. Given that the Apocalypse was written to strengthen the
faith of Christians at a time of bitter persecution, this hymn was therefore conceived as the
announcement of Good news to the infant Church: “Be brave, Christ has conquered the world”. The Hymn is
often used as a Gospel Acclamation, Fr. Lucien Deiss recommends it for Praise and Thanksgiving, or as a
d) Yes, I shall arise and return to my Father
This song relates the thoughts of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:18). They describe the resolute decision of
someone who has been awakened to the awesome treasure he is forfeiting by living in sin, deprived from
his Father’s bounty. Although it is penitential in character, a sluggish rendition of the refrain could
only contradict the resoluteness (“Yes!”) of the decision that should take the sinner to God’s throne of
Mercy. The verses, on the other hand, are beautifully chosen from a list of the penitential Psalms (Ps
25, 27, 30, 51, 64). It must be noted that these verses build up in climax, from a contrite mood to that
of thanksgiving, in the last verses. This overall pattern, coming from the Psalms themselves, should be
respected, especially if circumstances require the rendition of just a few verses.
e) J’ai vu l’eau Vive
There seems to be no readily available English translation of this hymn, although the French is becoming
very common among choirs of this Church Province. The words of the refrain say: “I saw living water
flowing from the side of Christ (Temple). Whoever (or whatever) was touched by this water was saved, and
sang ‘Alleluia’”. This is the heart of the hymn Vidi Aquam which the Roman Missal prescribes for the
sprinkling at the renewal of baptismal vows during the Easter Vigil. The French Edition of the Divine
Office provides this hymn of Lucien Deiss for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, since Deiss’ hymn makes
a link between the healing water that flowed from the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1ff) and the water and blood
that flowed from the pierced side of Christ.
f) You are the Honour
This is a Marian hymn inspired by Judith 15:9-10. The book of Judith tells the victory of God’s people
over the enemy. The heroine is Judith, whose bravery and cleverness delivered the Jews from the hands of
Holofernes. As a result, the people went to Jerusalem to give thanks, and acclaimed Judith as the “glory
of Jerusalem”, the “greatest joy of Israel”, and the ‘highest honour of our race”. In fidelity to the
traditional interpretation of the Church, Fr. Lucien Deiss sees in Judith a herald of the figure of
Mary, and therefore applies these praises to her. As the Mother of the Lord (Luke 1:43), she has eminent
dignity in the Church. She is the glory of the New Israel, that is redeemed mankind. She represents the
Church ever victorious.
This Biblical interpretation is put into flesh musically speaking, when Fr. Lucien Deiss inserts the
words “Holy Virgin Mary” as the acclamation repeated by the congregation after each line of praises sung
by the choir. This gives a clear juxtaposition between Judith and Mary, between promise and fulfillment.
As St Augustine said, what in the Old [Testament] was hidden, is now uncovered in the New! These are
just a few examples to show how in the musical compositions of Fr. Lucien Deiss, Biblical expertise weds
Pastoral sensitivity, and musical talent serves (without overshadowing) the mystery celebrated. Ten
years after his death, what can liturgical choirs and composers learn from him?
“WHAT THE SPIRIT SAYS TO THE CHURCHES”
1. Those who met Fr. Lucien Deiss testify that he was above all a man of prayer, dedicated to the
celebration of the Eucharist and was always filled with a gentle and loving humour. This means his
devotional creativity came from a certain inner spring –which was Christ himself. The awareness of the
treasure that the Eucharist is, inspired him to write music that will match the dignity for that
encounter. The Eucharist was both the source of his inspiration, and the summit or goal of his service.
One could be tempted to ask in this regard: What is the source of inspiration for today’s liturgical
composers? A survey done in 2012 by late Fr. Denis Ndang, Liturgy Coordinator of the then Buea Diocese
observed the prevalence of secular rythymns in Catholic Liturgies. In his words, “Some of our choir
groups have adopted the use of secular rhythms, for example, “Mapouka”, Bikoutsi, “Zenge” into the
Liturgy. It should be noted that the Cameroon Minister of Information and Culture in a press release
MI/PR006/13/6/2000 banned “mapouka” music from being played in all radio and Television stations in
Cameroon. “Mapouka” is a form of dance that originated from Ivory Coast. This dance is highly
pornographic in nature..Since Church music is heard in a holy place, in a moment of prayer, it ought to
be an honest sound; a sound that is a servant to prayer, and not a distraction.”(Fr. Denis Ndang,
Diocesan Seminar for Choir Leaders, Kumba, September 14, 2012). The question could be asked: how did
Church music get to this point? How can the transformation be effected? Hopefully, some insights will be
2. One does not need to go far to notice that all Compositions of Fr. Lucien Deiss were inspired by
Biblical Sources (or other Liturgical Sources). The Church prescribes that “Composers, animated by a
christian spirit, should accept that it pertains to their vocation to cultivate sacred music and
increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to
genuine sacred music… The texts to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed,
they should be drawn chiefly from the sacred scripture and from liturgical sources.” Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, 121. Many areas in our Church province need to pay attention to this caution. It is
striking to note that many songs in local Cameroonian dialects (such as “Yahweh Kola”, “Asang Diobe”, O
Beri we Tah Oh) succeed to capture the essence of worship, and are far richer in spiritual content than
the “choruses” that are imported today from mostly Pentecostal groups, or non-liturgical forums like
wake-keepings or youth rallies (eg. “I go bend down for Jesus”, “Na you make me I fine oh” etc).
Perhaps, it is time to pay attention to the words we sing, not just to the beauty of the beatings, if
for no other reason, then at least, because the rule of prayer, is the rule of faith.
3. A careful look at any collection of songs (such as Biblical Hymns and Prayers) shows at least 2
musical settings for each hymn: a version for standard choirs, and another for single or mixed voices.
This shows that Fr. Deiss wrote songs that were accessible to the average congregation. He was aware
that in every liturgical assembly, there were persons who are not very gifted choristers, but who are
willing to sing something. Fr. Deiss would surely not applaud choir directors that flood liturgical
celebrations with songs which, are either known only to the choirs, or beyond the reach of ordinary
singer. The full conscious and active participation desired by the Church is thwarted when the
congregation returns home disappointed because the Cameroon Hymnal was kept aside totally in the
selection of songs for a particular Eucharistic assembly.
4. Fr. Lucien Deiss can be considered to have greatly fostered Inculturation. A separate article will be
required to discuss the full meaning, potential as well as misunderstandings of “Inculturation”. Suffice
it to mention that the Church does not intend Christians to partake in a Liturgy that is foreign to any
country or people or individual, but one that transcends the particularity of race and nation, and
capable of expressing itself in every human culture, while being faithful to Tradition. (Varietates
Legitimae, no 18). From this background, Inculturation is a two way-process, by which, firstly, the
Gospel penetrates and purifies cultures, then secondly, aspects of the culture which are compatible with
Christianity are uplifted for use in worship. (Ecclesia in Africa, 69). Beyond external adaptations of
vestments and décor, a principal starting point of adapting the Liturgy fostered by Vatican II was the
incorporation of national and local languages in a Liturgy that was previously conducted only in Latin.
The immense compositions of Fr. Lucien Deiss in French as well as the translations he supervised into
English, therefore make him a herald of the good news of the council, that people could also be
evangelized in their own languages. In our local Church, too great strides have been made in
Inculturation, for instance with the Pidgin-English translations of the Lectionary. Generations of
composers have also given Christian expression to dialects, songs and instruments of our cultures,
bringing out the best of them for use in the Liturgy. At a time when the older generation of native
speakers of many dialects are fading out, and many villages are becoming more cosmopolitan, there is an
urgent need to document and re-learn the traditional compositions and even liturgical prayers that were
written in the yesteryears. If we can sing Lucien Deiss’ songs 60years after he wrote them, shall our
own later generations render our songs of today with the same fidelity?
5. Fr. Lucien Deiss often organized musical seminars in coordination with other musicians and liturgy
coordinators. It goes without saying that every liturgical community needs to periodically stop, take
stock and reflect on how to improve the Liturgical celebrations. These can be done through seminars,
organized either at Parish, Deanery or Diocesan Levels. These seminars should target both
Instrumentalists, Choir masters and even the general populace. The Church is always in the process of
self-renewal. (Ecclesia semper reformanda). Seminars help to discover anew what the Church expects of
the Liturgy, and also discern the current needs and challenges of the local Church. These are but a few
of the lessons that can be drawn from Fr. Deiss, and further reflection can pick out even more.
On October 9th 2007, at Bicetre, France, Fr. Lucien Deiss celebrated what he often referred to as “the
most joyful day of my life”, in returning home to be with his Lord. While we mourn his passing, and pray
for the Lord to raise many more dedicated musicians like him. We ask the Lord to reward him that he may
share in Heavenly joys and live to sing for all ages in the eternal light of our Risen Saviour. If this
is your prayer too, then you can join me sing in hope and thanksgiving: Keep in Mind that Jesus Christ
has died for us, and is risen from the dead. He is our saving Lord, He is joy for all Ages!