This well known and favourite hymn strongly evokes, but I suggest at a much more intense and personal level for each of us, the parable in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reading of the contrition and return of the Prodigal Son to his father’s house. Most of us will recognise it from our childhood Lenten devotions. As you might have guessed already, it is of course . . .
The hymn-writer was the Redemptorist Father Edmund Vaughan (1827-1908). He was a member of the Herefordshire recusant Vaughan family and was the uncle of Herbert Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster, Bishop Francis Vaughan of Menevia, Auxilary Bishop John Vaughan in Salford and Archbishop Roger Vaughan OSB, second Archbishop of Sydney. Through his mother he was the cousin of Sir Frederick Weld (1823-1891), Premier of New Zealand, Governor of the colony of Western Australia, Governor of the colony of Tasmania and Governor of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George and (Papal) Knight of the Order of Pius IX. (He even has a shopping plaza named after him in Kuala Lumpur!)
Compared to his illustrious relatives, Father Edmund was no slouch. Having been ordained for the Redemptorists in Belgium in 1852, he established the Redemptorists in Scotland (Perthshire), and then at the request of Bishop Murray of Maitland (New South Wales), he established the Redemptorists in Singleton and Waratah in the Hunter Valley (near Newcastle, New South Wales) and then in Ballarat in the western district of Victoria. It is thought he narrowly escaped being appointed third Archbishop of Sydney himself after the death of his Benedictine nephew. He was recalled to England in 1894 where he became provincial and the major superior of Redemptorists in England, Ireland and Australia. From Father Vaughan’s foundations in Australia the Redemptorists have spread to New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Western Samoa.
Father Vaughan was much involved in hymn-writing and rendered into English the hymns of St Alphonsus. He also wrote many of his own, most of which I have not heard but would very much like to. This particular hymn was also much used in the retreats and parish missions that the Redemptorists became renowned for.
The melody (in a plaintive minor key) is said to be an older French tune, borrowed by Pergolesi and adapted from him, but several other melodies have also been used.
It’s a great hymn in my opinion. It would be good if readers of CP&S would write below names of the hymns or other music they found appealing during Lent in their childhood. We’ll then see if we can find them and put them on CP&S for everyone’s benefit.