Sense and Nonsense: Te Deum Laudamus

On the last day of the year, in many religious houses, the community gathers for a solemn chanting of the famous sixth century hymn, Te Deum Laudamus. This hymn is recited in the Sunday and Feast Day Office of the Breviary after the morning readings. The hymn is the common form of a thanksgiving prayer, but it is more than that, as it is primarily an act of pure praise. No doubt, at the end of a year, it is more than appropriate to reflect on what has occurred to us, to our world, during the previous twelve months while doing what we are created for, to praise God.

The Te Deum is, as are all Christian praises, cast in the form of a Trinitarian unity. The Year 1998, with its specific consideration of the Holy Spirit, prepared us for the jubilee of the of the Year 2000. The Year 1999 is to be devoted to God the Father and the Year 2000 to the Trinity. The Holy Father has been remarkably concerned to call the world’s attention to the central core of our faith, which is nothing less than the knowledge of and worship of God. Somehow, I do not think the world, or even the Church, has been quite prepared for the Holy Father’s initiative.

Te Deum Laudamus has been set to music by a great number of composers—Charpentier, Berlioz, Gounod, Purcell, Handel (five times!), Ralph Vaughn Williams, Gabrieli, Scarlatti, Verdi, Hayden, Bach, Mozart, and Bruckner. The authorship of the hymn is generally attributed to Nicetas of Remesiana, but St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Hilary of Potiers, and a number of others have been designated over the centuries as possible authors. The old Catholic Encyclopedia says it was definitely written by St. Caesarius of Arles, though there are longer and shorter versions. It seems originally to have been written in Latin, not Greek, and to have been used liturgically in southern Gaul, Milan, and northern Italy.

The first two Latin phrases are “Te Deum laudamus; to Dominum confitemur.” These are translated in the Breviary as “You are God; we praise you. You are the Lord; we acclaim you.” The next verses are “You are the eternal Father; all creation worships you.” Notice what is happening here. We have a hymn mostly intended to be sung—gloriously sung—but what it does is state what we hold God to be after the manner of praise. There is awe to the affirmation.

The next segment of the Te Deum refers to the praise of the angels, the Cherubim and Seraphim, who sing precisely “endless praise,” as if that is their highest act. Not only is the Lord God of power and might “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but heaven and earth are “full” of His glory. Then the apostles praise, the prophets, the martyrs. The Church herself throughout the world “acclaims you Father.” This is, of course, how God reveals Himself to us. Along with the Father is His Son, “worthy of all worship” and the Holy Spirit, “advocate and guide.”

The hymn next addresses itself to the Son, “You, Christ, are the king of Glory, the eternal Son of the Father.” This Christ became man “to set us free”; He did not “spurn the Virgin’s womb.” The “sting” of death He overcame and opened “the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” These verses also are in the form of address and praise; “You, Christ” did these things. The present affirmation: Christ is now “seated at God’s right hand in glory.” We also believe that He will come again to be our judge. The final address is also to the Son—“Come, then, Lord, help your people.” They were bought with “blood,” our blood. The final address is for ourselves, our completion, that we may be with “your saints,”—the text says “bring us”—why and where? “[T]o glory everlasting.”

My old Book of Common Prayer contains an earlier English version of the Te Deum. It begins: “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord. All the world doth worship thee, the Father Everlasting.” And it ends, “O Lord, save thy people, and bless thine heritage. Govern them, and lift them up forever. Day by day we magnify thee; and we worship thy Name ever, world without end.” On reading these old English wordings, we are hard pressed to think we have improved our language of worship. We marvel at that which this glorious hymn allows us to sing and recount, the praise of God. When we are revealed the order of the divinity, “We praise thee, O God.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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