History of Hymns: “Santo, Santo, Santo”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Santo, Santo, Santo"
Guillermo Cuéllar
The Faith We Sing, No. 2019

Oscar Romero

Holy, holy, holy, holy, holy
holy is our Lord,
God is Lord of all creation,
holy, holy is our Lord.
God is Lord of past and present,
holy, holy, is our Lord. *

Roman Catholics around the world were freed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to explore congregational song in their own local musical idioms. While composers everywhere have added new songs for the Mass, this is especially true in Central and South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

Guillermo Cuéllar (b. 1955) is among the most prominent of the Central American Catholic composers. His “La Misa Popular Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Folk Mass)” served as a model for how to integrate the spirit of El Salvadoran folk music into the structure of the Mass.

While Mr. Cuéllar is usually cited as the composer of “Santo, Santo, Santo,” the hymn was actually the work of several composers, theologians and Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran church leader who was assassinated in March 1980 after advocating for human rights in the war-torn country.

Five months after the assassination Mr. Cuéllar recorded the Mass in honor of Romero with a popular Salvadoran group, Yolocamba I-ta. A second recording was made in 2005 by Mr. Cuéllar in honor of the 25th anniversary of the archbishop’s martyrdom.

The Mass and others like it in Nicaragua and Argentina established an emotional link between the campesinos (country peasants) and the structure of the Mass by incorporating the music of popular folk dances throughout the liturgy.

The joyful music of the Salvadoran Folk Mass belies the struggle and oppression suffered at the time by so many people in El Salvador. Mr. Cuéllar later described the political context in a letter to the Rev. Gary Campbell, a Presbyterian minister:

“I know what peace is; I can enjoy it now with all my being after a long drawn-out war that I suffered in my own flesh, in my time and my country. . . . I saw babies thrown into the air and caught on military bayonets. I had to bear the howling of women machine-gunned en masse; the roaring of rockets launched by human beings at other human beings. And I stood and watched while entire towns were swept away by showers of bombs; starving old men blown to pieces by the explosions.

“ . . . For thirteen long years I lived with my bitterness and consternation. It seems a miracle to me that I am alive now, sharing my sufferings with you. But now the warm sun of peace comforts me again, and I know that I could not be different for anything in the world. I rediscovered peace, not only because the arms fell silent, but because in my heart I renounced hatred and vengeance. That peace that springs up inside of each of us is the peace that our Lord Jesus promised to all people of good will.”

The “Santo” (“Holy”) draws its inspiration from the “Holy, Holy, Holy” that is spoken or sung during Communion. While the text is similar to the usual text, there are some changes that reflect the perspective of liberation theology. For example, God is the “Lord of all the earth” and the “Lord of all of history” in the first part. In the second part of the song, God “accompanies our people living in our struggle. . . . Blessed are those who announce the good news of liberation.”

This is an excellent song for World Communion Sunday, especially to accompany the procession of the Communion elements. In singing it we join with so many people around the world who have shed their blood in suffering just as Christ did.
 

* © Abingdon Press, admin. by The Copyright Co. Translated by Josué Alvarez and Debi Tyree. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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