History of Hymns: 'Sent Forth by God's Blessing'
By Rebecca Chase
“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing”
by Omer Westendorf
The United Methodist Hymnal, 664
Sent forth by God’s blessing,
our true faith confessing,
the people of God from this dwelling take leave.
The service is ended,
O now be extended
The fruits of our worship in all who believe.
The seed of the teaching,
receptive souls reaching,
shall blossom in action for God and for all.
God’s grace did invite us,
and love shall unite us
to work for God’s kingdom and answer the call.*
*© 1964 World Library Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This Catholic hymn from 1964 was written to direct the congregation out into the world as they depart the sanctuary. A song about transitions, it was also written at a time of great transition. On December 4, 1963, less than a year earlier, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) released a document called Sacrosanctum Concilium. Best known for allowing the use of the vernacular language in Mass, it also encouraged the use of congregational music—psalms, responses, and even hymns—to increase the participation and unity of the whole church. It flung open the doors of Catholic worship and practice, elevating and blessing local expressions of tradition, encouraging the involvement of all believers, and focusing that involvement both in the church and outside its walls (Harmon, 4, 32).
No event, however, especially one this large, is the result of a single moment. Even before the council was convened, ideas about different ways to live their faith and traditions were welling up in Catholic laity and clergy. Omer Westendorf (1916-1997), organist and choirmaster at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Cincinnati and author of this hymn alongside other familiar hymns of this era such as “You Satisfy the Hungry Heart” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 629) and “Where Charity and Love Prevail” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 549), a translation of the classic Latin hymn “Ubi Caritas,” was one such lay Catholic who was hard at work spreading new music (Young and Watson, n.p.). Inspired by a trip to Holland, Westendorf started the World Library of Sacred Music (now World Library Publications) in his garage in Cincinnati in 1950 to bring European music to America (NPM Staff, 8). He published The People’s Hymnal (1955), the first hardbound English hymnal to be used in the Mass (Harmon, 13; Hommerding, 18), eight years before Sacrosanctum Concilium!
What began with a trickle of Catholic authors writing music in their vernacular language for their local situations became a massive flood of hymns and liturgies with the release of the Sacrosanctum Concilium. It gave permission for dramatic change in the liturgy because of pastoral concerns, as seen in its opening lines from which it also takes its name:
This sacred Council (literally Sacrosanctum Concilium) has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. (SC §1)
To these ends, it focuses on the liturgy, “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed,” (SC §10) and the “full and active participation by all the people” in that liturgy and liturgical life (SC §14). It calls for education of clergy and laity, reforms of the rites, calendar, and daily worship schedules of Catholic life, and allows for the use of local cultural music and instruments, and the use of the common tongue alongside the traditional use of Latin, Gregorian chant and organs.
Most important, for “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing,” it also calls for “composers [who], filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures” (SC §121). With the experience, publisher, and connections needed, Westendorf moved quickly to answer that call. In 1964, less than a year after the Sacrosanctum Concilium, the People’s Hymnal was transformed to the People’s Mass Book, and expanded with settings for the mass and newly-written, specifically Catholic hymns. In those pre-Internet days, it was quite hard to gather authors so quickly. When even a visit to the Catholic Poetry Society’s convention garnered little response—hymns were too lowly and perhaps too Protestant an art form—Westendorf and a few colleagues set to work themselves. To disguise their paltry numbers, they took to using a variety of pen names (Hommerding 2000, 18). Westendorf used at least five: Paul Francis, J. Clifford Evers, Mark Evans, and Anthony and Michael Soldano (Hommerding, 18; Copyright Encyclopedia; Smith n.p.). “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing,” written in 1964 for that publication of the People’s Mass Book, was composed under the name J. Clifford Evers (Hommerding, 18). Despite this initial unenthusiastic reception among congregations, the People’s Mass Book sold over two million copies in three years and was instrumental in introducing ecumenical hymnody to its Roman Catholic audience (Young and Watson, n.p.).
“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing” is in many ways the direct child of the Sacrosanctum Concilium, not only by its very existence, but in its contents and usage. This is a bit clearer in its original text, much of which has been adapted for a more ecumenical and modern audience. The original text refers to the Eucharist, part of every mass, by noting “God’s sacrifice ended.” Some have adapted this to “the supper is ended.” Others, including The United Methodist Hymnal, avoid the reference to the Eucharist altogether and have changed the phrase to “the service is ended.” Most non-Catholics wouldn’t find much familiar in singing about “the fruits of this Mass” which is adapted to “the fruits of our worship.” The original text, however, consists of almost direct quotations from the papal document itself (People’s Mass Book, 1964). The second stanza’s focus on the unity of a people who were fed together, and now live “as one in this life that we share” for the purpose of “God’s children of each tribe and race” also reflects the unifying and evangelical purpose of the reforms. The metaphor of seeds blossoming in “receptive souls” echoes the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23), conforming to the instruction to “[draw] chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources” (SC §121).
“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing” also faithfully follows the directions of the Council to direct attention and “proper dispositions” to the liturgy (SC §11). Singing a closing hymn following the Eucharist was initiated with Vatican II. This new practice served to extend the rather terse traditional closing, “It missa est” (the Mass is ended), and provide a direction for the assembly as they concluded the liturgy. It has a distinct place within the liturgy as a sending hymn, and it sums up what has happened in that liturgy and its purpose as the congregation moves out into the world. It balances neatly between the world within the church walls where God’s word is planted and the world without where that word grows by actions out of the good soil of our hearts.
Westendorf’s choice of music helps with this movement. ASH GROVE, an upbeat and flowing Welsh harp tune already familiar to many when it was paired with the popular text “Let All Things Now Living” by Katherine K. Davis (1892-1980) as an anthem, sends people out energized and encouraged for action (Westermeyer, 382).
“Sent Forth by God’s Blessing” is a song that moves the church forward in daily life and in history. As the effects of the Second Vatican Council have spread over the world, bringing new life and vigor (and challenges) to the whole Christian world, it calls for us be sent forth as well, empowered to change the world we meet outside our doors.
Additional Reading and Sources
Copyright Encyclopedia. “Psalm 135: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. Unison or SATB, congregation, and organ, with brass, harp, and timpani ad libitum. music and adaptation of English words: Mark Evans, pseud. of Omer Westendorf, and Russell Woollen”. Advameg.org http://www.copyrightencyclopedia.com/psalm-135-give-thanks-to-the-lord-for-he-is-good-unison-or/
Harmon, Kathleen, “Singing the Pascal Mystery,” New Songs of Celebration Render: Congregational Song in the Twenty-First Century, Ed. C. Michael Hawn (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2013), 3-36.
Hommerding, Alan J., “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing: Roman Catholic Hymn Text Writers after Vatican II.” The Hymn 51, no 4 (October 2000): 18-19. Available at: https://hymnary.org/files/articles/Hommerding%2C%20Sent%20Forth%20By%20God%27s%20Blessing.pdf
NPM Staff, “Omer Westendorf 1916-19” Pastoral Music 22, no. 2 (December 1998): 8. Available at http://liturgicalleaders.blogspot.com/2008/11/omer-westendorf-february-24-1916.html.
People’s Mass Committee, eds., People’s Mass Book (Cincinnati: World Library of Sacred Music, 1964), 168-9.
Second Vatican Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium; Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
Smith, Tom. “Letter to Leonard Ellinwood, 6 February, 1980.” Hymnary.org https://hymnary.org/person/Westendorf_O.
Westermeyer, Paul, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), 381-2.
Carlton R. Young and J. Richard Watson, “Omer Westendorf.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 15, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/o/omer-westendorf.
Rebecca Chase, a native of Plano, Texas, is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where she studied hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program.