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Remembering Fr Lucien Deiss Cssp (1921-2007): An Icon Of Liturgical Music

Posted on November 9, 2017 By Fada Herbert in Funeral Reports

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 you nations”, “God reigns”, or “Keep in Mind”, then you know who this is about. These titles are just few of the over 15 compositions of his found in the Cameroon Hymnal, and this brief write-up attempts to show 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 servant 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.


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?


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 all! 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 Spirit”.

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 Closing Hymn.

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?


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 presented below.

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!

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Fada Herbert is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Buea. He is equally an author, songwriter and has written several articles in the areas of Philosophy, fiction, Religion and Society Follow him on Facebook, twitter and visit his website at

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