Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Ubi Caritas'

History of Hymns: 'Ubi Caritas'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Ubi Caritas” (“Live in Charity”)

by Jacques Berthier (with the Taizé Community)
The Faith We Sing, 2179

Ubi caritas et amor,
Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

Live in charity and steadfast love;
Live in charity, God will dwell with you.*

*© 1979, Ateliers et Presses de Taizé, Taizé Community, France; GIA Publications, Inc., exclusive North American agent, 7404 S. Mason Ave., Chicago, IL 60638; www.giamusic.com; (800) 442-1358. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

“Ubi Caritas” is one of the most familiar of the ostinato chants use in the daily common prayer of the Taizé Community in France. As an ostinato, the chant is repeated at the discretion of the leaders as a prayerful meditation.

The text has a long history, possibly extending as far back as the fourth century, predating the formulation of the structure of the Catholic Mass as we know it. The text is an antiphon or refrain for a Latin hymn that was traditionally sung during the Eucharist for the Maundy Thursday foot washing rite in the Mass of the Last Supper. The text of the antiphon translates literally as follows: “Where charity and love [are], God is there.” The plainsong setting of the text in an earlier form of notation called neumes follows (Mode 6, Liber Usualis, 675):

The antiphon implies that God is present wherever charity – care for others – and love – devotion to God – is expressed. In this sense, these seven words are a distillation of the Great Commandment found in the synoptic gospels. The Pharisees and Herodians, in an attempt to trick Jesus, asked him which of the commandments was the most important. Jesus responded: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31, NIV*). See also Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27. Other Scriptures that are implied by this text are John 13:34 (NIV*) – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” – and Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (NIV*).

Carl Daw, Jr. notes that the singing version, cited at the beginning of this article, changes the tone of the literal translation: “What was originally a statement of assurance has been turned into an admonition” (Daw, 207).

There is also a variation found in some early manuscripts: “Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.” (“Where charity is true, God is there.”) The Roman Missal (1975) adopted this version, and it is also sung in some Catholic rites:

Three stanzas have been retained from the original Latin plainsong that are sung between each repetition of the antiphon. A YouTube rendition of the plainsong chant with the three stanzas in neumes is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_QEP-RHYLY. The original publication of the Taizé Community setting includes these in Latin, but as choral stanzas to be sung simultaneously while the ostinato antiphon is sung by the congregation. A direct translation from the three Latin stanzas in current use provides a context for the antiphon:

Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.

And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

This is a prayer for Christian unity. Note the number of petitions beginning with “Let us . . .”, “Let . . .”, and “May we . . .”

The version found in The Faith We Sing (Singer’s Edition) includes brief phrases for a cantor to sing over the ostinato chant as it is sung by the community. These phrases are a reduction of some of the ideas in the three stanzas found in the original version. The antiphon as well as the various cantorial insertions indicate that this is a prayer that acknowledges God’s presence in the midst of the Christian community.

A word on Taizé performance practice: for those who are not accustomed to using the ostinato antiphon, it is tempting to think of the performance of these as repetitive, singing the antiphon a specific number of times. Actually, in performance, rather than repetition, it may be helpful to think of the musical structure as theme and variation. While the antiphon may be repeated, the layering on of different instrumental obbligatos and short cantorial descants over successive presentations of the theme adds meaningful variations. Furthermore, in the Taizé Community, the accompanying instrument is a small keyboard with a classical guitar sound. Rather than playing block chords at the organ or piano, the keyboard provides an arpeggiated accompaniment that gives the singing a gentle sense of movement and helps maintain tempo. Static piano or organ accompaniments that play the vocal parts are more enervating rather than energizing. It is important that the ostinato antiphon maintain a steady pulse from one reiteration to the next so as not to disturb the underlying meditative mood of the prayer. If the singer is conscious of tempo changes, it is difficult to use the song as a foundation for a mantra of sung meditation. The following YouTube site, while not incorporating the cantorial parts, gives a sense of the theme and variation approach with different instruments (flute followed by oboe) and the arpeggiated accompaniment with a classic guitar approach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GX7tAZlAWbE.

It is no wonder that the text of this chant became one of the earliest and most popular of prayer songs used by the Taizé Community, appearing in a 1978 publication in France, Canons, Litanies, et Réspons de Taizé 3: Chantier L’Espirit. It first appeared in the United States in Music from Taizé: Volume 1 (Chicago, 1981). The Taizé Community is a parable of Christian charity, becoming a place of hospitality and pilgrimage for young people from around the world. In July 1940, Roger Louis Schutz-Marsauche (1915-2005), a Reformed minister, arrived in the tiny community of Taizé in the southeastern part of France. In response to the conditions of occupied France, he cast his lot with the poor and disadvantaged.

Brother Roger, as he became known, had a dream to live in community with others who would practice the essential dimensions of the gospel in a manner that would offer a response of Christian reconciliation and hope in the face of the horrors of the war. He found a place for such a community in the village of Taizé, just north of Cluny, a site of one of the great medieval monastic traditions of the church 1,000 years earlier.

After 1960, young people sought out Taizé as a pilgrimage destination in the years following World War II. The brothers were surprised that these young pilgrims, usually between 18 and 30, would seek out such a secluded location. Their numbers increased to thousands in the summers and Holy Week. In the manner of a monastic community, brothers and pilgrims alike gathered to pray three times a day.

Brother Jean-Marie, a current member of the community and one of the primary cantors for daily prayer, noted that the larger groups brought liturgical changes:

Changes in the liturgy were now necessary. If the young people were to pray with us and not just watch or listen to us pray, we would have to adapt and simplify some things. And things were changing. For many people, the very language of faith was becoming harder to grasp. Times were changing. People were no longer coming to church to receive a teaching or to do their devotions or to fulfill religious and social obligations, as they had done for centuries. If they were coming, it was for different and more personal reasons: to find rest and refreshment, to live their lives with more meaning, or just to maintain a connection with God or else with the church they had grown up with. It was also becoming harder for people to listen and retain what they heard. Modern life was noisier and more stressful (Brother Jean-Marie of Taizé, 45).

In 1974, the physician Brother Robert (1923-1993), one of the original seven brothers and the first musician, shared his ideas about engaging young people from around the world in sung prayer along with brief texts, mainly selected from Scripture, with Jacques Berthier (1923-1994), a composer and friend of Taizé, who became instrumental in providing music for the three daily prayers. Dr. Berthier was organist of Saint-Ignace Church in Paris. He maintained a close relationship with the community, helping them devise songs that could be easily sung by the young people coming from around the world. This accessible music includes a variety of forms – chorales, ostinatos (short, repetitive refrains), acclamations, responses and canons – that worshipers with radically diverse liturgical and linguistic backgrounds are able to participate in immediately.

Even after Brother Roger's tragic murder during a prayer service in August 2005, the work of this ecumenical community has continued with approximately 100 brothers who come from around the globe. The overarching theme of Taizé is reconciliation through prayer. The brothers provide hospitality for thousands of pilgrims each year and also serve in some of the poorest and most helpless situations in the world.

Taizé songs are sung in several languages, including Latin, during the prayers. Latin is common because it is a historical language of the church and, since few speak it currently, places everyone on a common footing, unifying the singers in the mystery of prayer.

A second Taizé setting of this text was composed in 1991 by Father Joseph Gelineau (1920-2008) who had a long association with the community, going back to its founding. This setting has not supplanted the earlier composition by Jacques Berthier in the hearts of many who practice Taizé prayer, but was a welcome addition to the community’s repertoire where the song has been sung at least weekly for many years. The following YouTube recording displays both a gentle arpeggiated guitar accompaniment, use of obbligato instruments, and cantorial descants in a variety of languages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQzQEsRbDU4.

Obviously, this text has inspired composers of choral music. Two of the most beautiful settings of the antiphon and the original Latin stanzas are the compositions of French composer Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-LQve92U1o) and Norwegian composer Ola Gjello (b. 1978) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvI5sNucz1w).

For more information on the Taizé Community, visit www.taize.fr.

Further Reading

Bob Batastini. “Taizé.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 4, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/taizé.

Carl Daw, Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2016).

Jean-Marie of Taizé, “Jubilate Deo Award: Building a Bridge of Reconciliation,” Pastoral Music 31:1 (October-November 2006), 45.

Interview with Jean-Marie of Taizé; Center for Congregational Song, The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada: https://congregationalsong.org/interview-with-taize-brother-jean-marie/

J.L. Gonzales Balado, The Story of Taizé (London: Mowbray, 1980; Third Revised Edition, Continuum, 2003).

J. Richard Watson, “Jacques Berthier.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 4, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jacques-berthier.


*Bible verses marked NIV are from the New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.


C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

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