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Posted in National News, on December 30th, 2013

Response to ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ over the years humbling for composer

By Darlene J.M. Dela Cruz
Catholic News Service

HONOLULU (CNS) — Father Jan Michael Joncas has composed more than 300 liturgical songs, but his name is widely known for the one that tops a list of favorites: “On Eagle’s Wings.”

The hymn by Father Joncas, 62, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, was named by hundreds of voters as their No. 1 liturgical hymn in a 2006 poll sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Since “On Eagle’s Wings” was written in 1979, it has become a staple at Sunday Masses, funerals and memorial events as a reminder of God’s uplifting presence in times of sorrow.

“Most people associate me with this single piece,” Father Joncas told the Hawaii Catholic Herald via email.

Father Joncas said the song came about when he was visiting a friend at the major seminary in Washington. One evening, Father Joncas’ friend got word that his father had suffered a fatal heart attack. Father Joncas wrote “On Eagle’s Wings” in the days that followed and it was was sung for the first time publicly at the friend’s father’s wake service.

The song is based on Psalm 91, its lyrics drawing from the Scripture’s descriptions of God’s protection and providence. Lyrics include the lines “You need not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,” and “For to his angels he has given a command to guard you in all of your ways.”

Although there are no mentions of eagles in Psalm 91, the song’s chorus uses the metaphor to depict God’s high, secure places the verse describes. “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Father Jan Michael Joncas

“I have been humbled by the number of times people have spoken or written to me about how God has used the song to bring them comfort and peace,” Father Joncas said.

The song’s colorful imagery is woven together by a melody with airy highs and a crescendo refrain. Father Joncas said the verses were meant to be sung by a cantor capable of handling the wide range of notes. Congregants would join in singing the simpler chorus.

“I have been amazed to find congregations singing the entire thing, because I think the verses are somewhat difficult,” said Father Joncas, who, with fellow composer Marty Haugen, participated in a liturgical arts conference in Honolulu in the fall.

The priest has been composing new material recently, after his recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome. The illness paralyzed him in 2003, but he has recuperated well.

Haugen, 63, wrote “Shepherd Me, O God” in the mid-1980s. It is cherished by many Catholics for its treatment of Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Speaking by phone from his home in Minnesota, he explained that depicting “shepherd” as an action instead of a noun brought forth the now famous song.

“I have never met a shepherd,” Haugen said. “My wife was finally the one who suggested … make it a verb. That sort of was a breakthrough.”

Haugen, who is not Catholic but has worked in Catholic parishes, was living at an ecumenical retreat center in Washington State with his family when he was commissioned to do a version of Psalm 23. Haugen said he knew it would be a challenge.

“It’s hard to write something that everybody knows the text to,” he said.

The retreat center community held vespers every night. Haugen said they would regularly integrate his new music into prayer time. That winter, with little else to do on snowed-in evenings, the community helped critique his work. “Shepherd Me, O God,” Haugen joked, is the one of several versions he wrote that received the least amount of criticism.

“That piece, like everything I wrote up there, went through the grill of the community,” he said. “I think that’s really valuable.”

“You don’t really know if a piece is going to be helpful or not until a congregation has sung it a number of times and they’ll tell you,” he added.

“Shepherd Me, O God” stays close to the words of the psalm, with verses such as “Surely your kindness and mercy follow me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of my God forevermore.” Haugen’s tight lyrical adherence to Scripture comes from a pastoral studies degree he earned at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

“If you’re writing liturgical music, your two main sources are the rite and the Scripture,” he said. “The more you can know about both, the more you feel you have something to offer when you start to write.”

In a song such as “Shepherd Me, O God,” where the words are already familiar to many, Haugen said “the melody is at the service of the text.”

“You want people to remember the music because if they remember it, then they’re remembering the words,” he said.


Dela Cruz is a staff writer at the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Honolulu Diocese.

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9 Responses

  1. Psalm 91 clearly does reference angels…

    Verse 11:
    *For he commands his angels with regard to you,
    to guard you wherever you go.”

    By: Frank on January 2, 2014 at 12:52 am

  2. “Eagles Wings” song is fine for a Christian radio station, but as far as using it in the Mass, it is just terrible. My young one always says that God cries when he hears that song at Mass, because it is so bad. I tend to smile and agree.

    By: Jim on January 3, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    • you’re crazy, man. this is one of the most beautiful songs ever composed!

      By: Certainly Do on March 22, 2014 at 3:21 pm

  3. But the point is, the psalm does NOT refer to the eagles of the title.

    By: Frank H on January 4, 2014 at 6:02 am

  4. The article said that “there are no mentions of eagles” in the psalm, not of angels.

    By: Dwayne Bartles on January 4, 2014 at 12:49 pm

  5. How terribly sad to encourage a young gone to think that God likes and dislikes what we do. I can’t comprehend thinking God would be saddened by sincere prayer because of the (perceived) quality of the musical composition. On Eagle’s Wings is not one of my favorite pieces. I spent several decades working as a Director of Worship in Catholic parishes. I’ve probably met with more than a thousand grieving families. This particular setting speaks to many families in a profound way. I don’t know why and stopped questing it. Perhaps it’s like democracy…it’s the worst possible choice for funerals, except all the others. Perhaps when the hungry are fed and we stop killing each other, we can fret over people finding solace in music we don’t think measures up. I, personally, will take off after that abominable dumbing down of the Schubert Mass :)

    By: Leslie Selaghe on January 4, 2014 at 6:28 pm

  6. A very small number of publishing companies produce the missalettes for most of the parishes in our country. They use a rather small number of composers for most of their music. The result is that most Catholics are exposed to a very constricted repertory of liturgical (or quasi-liturgical) music. When you hear Eagle-music at every funeral, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was mandatory.

    At my funeral, please sing Requiem Aeternam and In Paradisum. And leave the poor eagles alone.

    By: sacerdos on January 5, 2014 at 12:57 am

  7. I don’t know why people should get so worked up about there being no mention of “eagles” in Psalm 91. It may have been said that this hymn is based on Psalm 91, but there are also words incorporated from a passage in Isaiah, namely Isaiah 40:31. Look it up.

    By: L.H. Olsen on April 22, 2015 at 2:37 pm

  8. The enemy loves to cause division between Christians..Satan was in charge of the music in Heaven before he was cast down by St. Michael the Archangel. Therefore, when any piece of music is uplifting to Christ ,the fuss FOLLOWS…more folks have been turned off by poorly written hymns that do nothing but push us away from a meaningful worship experience. If those are what you like,have more of them. I’m willing to bet that you do not.”On Eagles Wings ” is God’s work. His instrument is Fr. Michael Joncas. Play on Fr. Michael……..

    By: Joseph Carlyle on October 31, 2015 at 2:04 pm

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