The Best Catholic Songs of All Time
If you remember the "They'll know we are Christians by our love" verse, this article is for you.
Our collection of great Catholic songs will have all you parochial school products, former altar boys, and uniform wearers humming along. And, really, any lover of religious music will find it enjoyable.
This list is very subjective, needless to say. In establishing our criteria, we considered many things, and upfront, we should clarify a few points.
It had to be a pretty good one if it’s a seasonal song – like for Advent, Christmas, or Easter. Kind of like it’s harder for a designated hitter in baseball to make the Hall of Fame because DH’s don’t play defense. It was more difficult for seasonal songs to make our list.
Having grown up in the ’60s and ’70s in the midwest of the United States, I think it’s fair to say there’s a significant bias to songs featured in that era and my geographical area. Still, we tried to include some of the most popular Catholic church songs from more recent years. And, I suspect that the songs sang in Missouri was similar to those sung in New York and California.
The origin of many of these great Catholic hymns goes way back. Some may not be Catholic in origin, and some might not have had any religious affiliation, e.g., the tune to “Sons of God” was an old German beer drinking song.
Ultimately, it came down to the favorite songs we liked. Hopefully, you’ll like them too.
50 Best Catholic Songs of All Time
There are lots of Catholic hymns and church songs to choose from, and the list keeps expanding. But, these are the top 50 songs that we think belong in the Hall of Fame. Counting down from 50, here we go…
50) Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?
Likely written by African-American slaves in the 1800s, historical records show it was first printed in 1899.
Here are the opening lyrics:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (repeat: Were you there?)
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O sometimes, it causes me to tremble! Tremble! Tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Here’s Johnny Cash’s version.
49) The Cry of the Poor
Written by John Foley based on many Psalms. Church music at its best.
The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
Blessed be the Lord.
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48) Sing a New Song
Written by Dan Schutte, the song’s chorus is as follows:
Sing a new song unto the Lord;
Let your song be sung from mountains high
Sing a new song unto the Lord
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47) Michael Row The Boat Ashore
This song was a Negro spiritual that was first noted during the Civil War. Per Wikipedia, “It was sung by former slaves whose owners had abandoned the island (St. Helena) before the Union navy arrived to enforce a blockade.”
Catholic Church Songs
46) Let There Be Peace on Earth
It was written in 1955 by Jill Jackson-Miller and Sy Miller; it was initially written for the International Children’s Choir.
Per Wikipedia, “Jackson-Miller, who had been suicidal after the failure of a marriage, later said that she wrote the song after discovering what she called the “life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love.”
45) Come to the Water
Written by Matt Maher, this Catholic hymn’s opening lyrics are:
O let all who thirst
Let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing
Let them come to the Lord
Without money, without price
Why should you pay the price
Except for the Lord?
44) I Am The Bread Of Life
Written by Sister Suzanne Toolan, this Communion song almost didn’t come to be.
Per the National Catholic Reporter:
It was 1966, and Mercy Sr. Suzanne Toolan had been asked to write a song for the San Francisco archdiocese event. With the deadline looming, she worked on a song in an unoccupied room next to the infirmary in the Catholic girls’ high school where she taught.
“I worked on it, and I tore it up. I thought, ‘This will not do,’ ” Toolan said. “And this little girl came out of the infirmary and said, ‘What was that? That was beautiful!’ I went right back and Scotch-taped it up.”
That schoolgirl saved “I Am the Bread of Life,” one of the most popular Catholic hymns of the Second Vatican Council era.
43) Here I am Lord
Prolific Dan Schutte also wrote this well-loved song. Written in 1981, the lyrics are based on Isaiah 6:8 and 1 Samuel 3. The song has been used in the Papal masses.
42) On Jordan’s Bank
One of the top 2 Advent songs – a seasonal Catholic hymns favorite – the lyrics go:
On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for He brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings.
41) Though the Mountains May Fall
Another Dan Schutte song that’s easy to sing.
Here’s the opening:
Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust, yet the love of the Lord will stand as a shelter to all who will call on his name.
Sing the praise and the glory of God.
“Sister Smile,” in French “Soeur Sourire,” was a Belgian singer and songwriter in the Dominican Order. Born Jeanne-Paule Marie “Jeannine” Deckers, she achieved worldwide fame when “Dominque” landed in the Billboard Hot 100.
Debbie Reynolds played her in a feature movie. It’s an unforgettable Catholic song that will stay with you.
The Singing Nun – Humming allowed when the video plays
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39) One Bread, One Body
Written by John Foley, this Catholic hymn opens with these words:
One bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessing which we bless.
And we, though many, throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord.
38) Amazing Grace
37) Silent Night
Composed by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the third best-selling single of all time. Father Joseph Mohr, a young priest, wrote the lyrics.
36) Blessed Be The Lord
35) Like a Shepherd
Written by Bob Dufford.
It goes like this:
Like a shepherd, he feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in his arms,
holding them carefully close to his heart, leading them home.
Say to the cities of Judah: Prepare the way of the Lord.
Go to the mountain top, lift your voice; Jerusalem, here is your God.
34) Yahweh, You Are Near
This guy is like the Michael Jordan of Catholic hymns – yes, Dan Schutte again with this Catholic hymn.
Yahweh, I know you are near,
standing always at my side.
You guard me from the foe,
and you lead me in ways everlasting.
33) Jesus Christ is Risen Today
If it’s Easter and you’re at a Catholic Church, the odds are 99.8% that you’ll hear this one. Written in the 14th century, this one goes way back. It was originally a Bohemian Latin hymn.
Here’s how it goes:
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
32) Angels We Have Heard on High
A famous Christmas carol with lyrics by James Chadwick, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle. The music comes from Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes, a French song.
And, it goes like this:
Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in Excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in Excelsis Deo!
31) Holy, Holy, Holy
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning, our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons blessed Trinity!
30) Eye Has Not Seen
Written by Marty Haugen.
Eye has not seen, ear has not heard what God has ready for those who love him;
Spirit of love, come, give us the mind of Jesus, teach us the wisdom of God.
29) Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel – Advent
28) Oh Come All Ye Faithful
Attributed to many authors, it goes like this:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.
27) The Church’s One Foundation
It goes like this:
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word:
From heav’n, He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride;
With His own blood, He bought her,
And for her life, He died.
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26) Joy is Like the Rain
Sister Miriam Therese Winter wrote “Joy is Like the Rain” at the lowest point of her existence, knowing just three chords on the guitar.
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25) Accept Almighty Father
It appears to be translated from an old German hymn. It is said that religious songs are putting daily prayers to music. We agree.
Here you go:
Accept Almighty Father
These gifts of bread and wine
Which now the priest is offering
For us before Thy shrine
But soon the Word will make them
His Body and his Blood
The sacrifice renewing
Once offered on the rood.
24) Go Tell It On the Mountain
Dating back to 1865, this song is an old African-American spiritual that’s considered a Christmas Carol.
23) It’s a Long Road to Freedom
From the Medical Mission Sisters “Joy is Like the rain” album which was released in 1966.
Featuring easy-to-sing-along-to-lyrics, it goes like this:
It’s a long road to freedom, a winding steep and high
But when you walk in love with the wind on your wing
And cover the earth with the songs you sing
The miles fly by
Traditional Catholic Hymns
22) Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
(louder) Praise Him above, ye heav’nly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
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21) Ava Maria
Melody by Charles Gounod superimposed on Bach’s Prelude in C.
Here you go:
Ave Maria, Gratia plena,
Benedicta Tu in mulieribus
et Benedictus Fructus Ventris tui, Iesus.
Sancta Maria, sancta Maria,
Maria, ora pro nobis nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora, in hora mortis nostrae.
20) We Gather Together
19) Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Everyone knows this one:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
18) Weave Me the Sunshine
In the 1970s, the “Guitar Mass” was a thing. If you were present, there was a good chance this song would be played.
17) Hail Holy Queen – Salve Regina
Who better than Whoopi in the “Sister Act” to bring this one to life?
16) You Satisfy the Hungry Heart – Gift of Finest Wheat
Simple and pleasant:
You satisfy the hungry heart
With gift of finest wheat
Come give to us, O Saving Lord
The Bread of Life to eat
15) Joy to the World – Christmas
Christmas mass isn’t over until this one gets played.
14) Sing of Mary
Yet another great Catholic church song featuring Mary.
13) Spirit of God in the Clear Running Water
Another one of the great Catholic hymns by the Medical Mission Sisters was written by Miriam Therese.
My English teachers would love this one:
Spirit of God in the clear running water
Blowing to greatness the trees on the hill.
Spirit of God in the finger of morning:
Fill the earth, bring it to birth,
And blow where you will.
Blow, blow, blow till I be
But the breath of the Spirit blowing in me.
12) To Jesus God Our Sovereign King
11) O God Almighty Father
10) We Are One in the Spirit – They’ll Know We Are Christians
This one kind of had a haunting melody that was difficult to shake. Something about that “They’ll know we are Christians” line.
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9) Whatsoever You Do
Folksy and memorable.
8) Now Thank We All Our God
Traditional and powerful.
7) Take Our Bread
Another memorable, folksy song.
6) Crown Him With Many Crowns
5) Be Not Afraid
Written by Jesuit priest Bob Dufford.
You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way.
And you shall speak your words in foreign lands, and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.
4) Sons of God
An old German beer hall song melody…
3) On Eagles Wings (one of the great Catholic songs)
This hymn is the Catholic’s go-to song for funerals; this hymn generates a Pavlov response for many to ask for a tissue. But, it’s played in ordinary times at regular masses as well.
2) Immaculate Mary, Thy Praises We Sing
Maria and song lyrics work well together:
Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing;
You reign now in splendor with Jesus our King.
Ave, ave, ave, Maria! Ave, Ave, Maria!
In heaven, the blessed your glory proclaim;
On earth, we, your children, invoke your sweet name.
Ave, ave, ave, Maria! Ave, Ave, Maria!
1) Lord of the Dance
With a tune borrowed from the American Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” Sydney Carter wrote this song in 1963.
Per Wikipedia, “It follows the idea of a traditional English carol, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” which tells the gospel story in the first-person voice of Jesus of Nazareth with the device of portraying Jesus’ life and mission as a dance.”
Uplifting song; here’s the chorus:
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.
Catholic Funeral Songs
There are certain Catholic funeral songs that, when played, you’ll be able to remember the funeral you attended where they played it.
- Song of Farewell — Ernest Sands
- Eye Has Not Seen — Marty Haugen
- On Eagle’s Wings — Michael Joncas
- Be Not Afraid — Bob Dufford
- We Will Rise Again — David Haas
- My Soul Is Thirsting — Michael Joncas
- One Bread, One Body — John Michael Talbot
- Gift of Finest Wheat — John Michael Talbot
- You Are Mine — David Haas
- O Taste and See — Marty Haugen
These Catholic wedding songs capture the celebration of the big event and the unification of the two people being married.
- Where There Is Love — David Haas
- I Have Loved You — Michael Joncas
- We Have Been Told — David Haas
- Servant Song — Richard Gillard
- Nuptial Blessing — Michael Joncas
- Here I Am, Lord — John Michael Talbot
- Glory and Praise to Our God — Dan Schutte
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring — Johann Sebastian Bach
- In Love, We Choose To Live — David Haas
- Be Thou My Vision — Audrey Assad
I never realized how many Catholic Christmas songs began with the word “O.” There are four in our top ten. Read on.
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- Silent Night
- The First Noel
- Angels We Have Heard On High
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- O Come, All Ye Faithful
- Away in a Manger
- O Holy Night
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- Joy To The World
There you have it – some of the great Catholic hymns of all time. Agree? Disagree? Suggestions? Let us know.
By Mike O’Halloran
Mike is an author, former altar boy, and co-founder of ListCaboodle.
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