A Hymn to Christ the King by Erich Przywara

In 1915 the Jesuit priest and composer Josef Kreitmaier published a collection of hymns entitled Unsere Kirche. The music was by Kreitmaier himself, but the texts were by a young Jesuit seminarian, later to become one of the most influential of Catholic philosophers and theologians in the 20th century: Erich Przywara (1889-1972). One of the hymns in the collection was a hymn to Christ the King, entitled “Liebe bis ans Ende,” (love unto the end) but usually known by its first verse, “O Du mein Heiland hoch und hehr” (O Thou my Saviour glorious). This hymn received an unexpected boost in popularity ten years later, when Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King. Soon it was sung in Churches throughout the German speaking world on the Feast Day.

It really came into its own, however, in the 1930s when Catholic Youth (the youth branch of Catholic Action) adopted it as a kind of anthem, and as a protest against the rising tide of totalitarianism. Heinrich Missalla describes the ceremonies surrounding the singing of the hymn as follows:

For the Catholic Youth in the “Third Reich” there were two highpoints to the year: the “profession day” on Trinity Sunday, and the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of October. On these two Sundays all the members of Catholic Youth in each city assembled in a large Church. The boys were dressed in black trousers and white shirts. A procession was made with banners. The banners were kept rolled up as long as they were on the street, since they were not allowed to show them in public. But they were unfurled as soon as they entered the Church, and held at a slant, so that the Symbols of Christ became fully visible— a sight that made hearts beats faster. The sermon called for fidelity to Christ and His Church. The highpoint was the singing of the song “O Thou my Saviour glorious/ High Heaven bows before thee.” At the final stanza, “Christ my great King, to Thee alone / I pledge my love lily-pure, Even to death my faithfulness,” with the organist pulling all the stops, the youth held their right hands with three fingers extended as a gesture of oath-taking. This ceremony was meant to rival the cult of the Führer, and that is how we understood it. I remember that I felt like a resistance fighter in those moments.[1]

The pledge of fidelity to Christ the King was experienced as liberating. Fidelity to the Highest King meant being able to reject the totalitarian claims of earthly rulers whenever those rulers went against Christ. It meant having the true freedom of knowing where the true good was to be found.

But in the 1960s the words came to be an embarrassment for many in the Church in Germany. Allegiance to Christ the King was seen as bound up with an antiquated “integralism”[2] incompatible with the liberal political order that many German theologians were eager to embrace, with its claim that religion ought to make no use of political power, and that politics should maintain neutrality toward religious claims. Missalla claims that even Przywara himself admitted to being somewhat embarrassed by his words when he looked back on them at the end of the 1960s.[3]

O Du mein Heiland was not included in the Gotteslob, the post-conciliar, German hymnbook. It continued, however, to be sung in many places, especially in Austria and Southern Germany, on the (new) Feast of Christ the King (either from photo-copies, or from diocesan appendices to the Gotteslob). And some German theologians were willing to admit that that sort of allegiance to the highest King was necessary to resist the totalizing tendencies of even the most (supposedly) “liberal” states. Thus Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the 1980s:

…the greatness of soul of the human vocation reaches beyond the individual aspect of human existence and cannot be squashed back into the merely private sphere. A society that turns what is specifically human into something purely private and defines itself in terms of a complete secularity (which moreover inevitably becomes a pseudo-religion and a new all-embracing system that enslaves people)— this kind of society will of its nature be sorrowful, a place of despair: it rests on a diminution of human dignity. A society whose public order is consistently determined by agnosticism is not a society that has become free but a society that has despaired, marked by the sorrow of man who is fleeing from God and in contradiction with himself. A Church that did not have the courage to underline the public status of its image of man would no longer be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city set on a hill.[4]

If we wish the Church of our time to be the salt of the earth in a secular society, which ever more denies the true nature and destiny of man, and exalts mortal sins as “rights,” then we might do well to imitate the German Catholic Youth of the 1930s, and sing “O Thou my Saviour Glorious.” We are therefore happy to offer the following English translation.

Oh Thou my Saviour Glorious

Music: Josef Kreitmaier, S.J.
Words: Erich Przywara, S.J.
English Translation: Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

1. O Du mein Heiland hoch und hehr,
dem sich der Himmel beuget,
von dessen Liebe, dessen Macht
die ganze Schöpfung zeuget:
1. O Thou my Saviour glorious
High Heaven bows before thee.
All Thy creation gives witness
To Thy great love almighty.
R. Christus mein König, Dir allein
schwör ich die Liebe stark und rein,
bis in den Tod die Treue.
R. Christ my great King, to Thee alone
I pledge my love strong and pure,
Even to death my faithfulness.
2. Nicht alle Welt und ihre Pracht,
Engel und Menschen nimmer,
o Herr, mich scheidet nichts von dir,
dein eigen bleib ich immer.
2. Never the world with all its pomps
Nor men nor angels neither
Shall sunder me from Thee, O Lord,
I am Thine own forever.
R. Christus, mein König, … R. Christ my great King, …
3. Du nur allein lebst nun in mir,
trag’ dich in Herz und Händen;
laß mich entflammen alle Welt
mit deinen Feuerbränden.
3. Now come and live in me, my God.
Live in my heart and action.
Help me enkindle all this world
With Thine own flames, Redeemer.
R. Christus, mein König, …. R. Christ my great King, …

The notes to “O Du mein Heiland, hoch und hehr”

[1] Heinrich Missalla, Erinnern um der Zukunft willen: Wie die katholischen Bischöfe Hitlers Krieg unterstützt haben (Oberursel: Publik-Forum, 2015), the translation is my own.

[2] Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Integralismus heute,” Diakonia 19 (1988), pp. 221-29.

[3] Missalla, Erinnern um der Zukunft willen.

[4] Joseph Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love, trans. Robert Nowell (New York: Cross Road, 2011), p. 76.

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