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Te Deum Services

Date: April 18, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Te Deum Services

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have noticed that in a number of European countries, including those that are not Catholic, there is often a "Te Deum" service to mark a national holiday or another important anniversary. I would assume this naturally involves the singing of the Te Deum, but in the Church is there or has there been a set structure to these ceremonies? In other words, would a Te Deum service be essentially the same in Belgium as it would be in Spain or the same contours in 1820 as it has in 2020? 

A: The Te Deum, an ancient Latin hymn in rhythmical prose, is probably a compilation of three sources. In fact, there are triple rhythms and three distinct melodies within the one piece. In many ways, it resembles another ancient liturgical prose hymn, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

The first part is directed toward the Father and ends with a Trinitarian doxology. It could be a rare survivor of the hymns that were popular before the Council of Nicaea in 325. There are probably references to this hymn in the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage and in the Passion of St. Perpetua, which would make its composition earlier than the year 250.

The second part, entirely Christological, is evidently later and reflects the controversies surrounding the fourth-century Arian heresy. It is also the more perfect composition faithfully respecting the rules of Latin rhetoric.

The third section is formed from a series of verses from the psalms. It is possible that these were originally versicles added as a litany at the end of the hymn. Something similar happens today when we add the versicle "You gave them bread from heaven …" after the Tantum Ergo.

Eventually, this litany also became part of the hymn itself. Indeed, in the Milanese Ambrosian rite the Te Deum ends with the "Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria [Munerari]." The present rubrics also allow this part to be omitted in the Roman rite.

There are many theories regarding the author, especially with respect to who composed the second part and added it to the older first part.

The most likely candidate is Nicetas (circa 335-414), bishop of Remesiana, now Bela Palanka in present-day Serbia. This zealous missionary bishop's poetical talent was acknowledged by contemporaries such as St. Jerome and St. Paulinus of Nola, as well as Gennadius writing about 75 years later.

Nicetas' authorship is attested by about 10 manuscripts, the earliest from the 10th century and mostly of Irish origin. It is likely that Ireland's isolation could have kept alive an older attribution, whereas in continental Europe the hymn was attributed to more famous names such as St. Hilary and St. Ambrose. A more detailed discussion of the question of authorship and translation of the text can be found in the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

Musically, the chant melodies are from pre-Gregorian and Gregorian styles. Polyphonic versions have been composed by, among others: G. Palestrina, G.F. Handel, Henry Purcell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, M.L. Cherubini, Benjamin Britten, H. Berlioz, A. Bruckner and A. Dvorak. Numerous English translations have been made, including one by the poet John Dryden (1631-1700). The popular "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," originally a 1775 Lutheran hymn in German, is also based on the Te Deum.

The earliest evidence for the use of this hymn in the Divine Office is found in St. Caesarius of Arles in 502. St. Benedict (died 526) also prescribed it for his monks. The general rubrics of today's Divine Office direct the recitation of the Te Deum before the concluding prayer of the Office of Readings on all Sundays outside of Lent, during the octaves of Easter and Christmas, and on solemnities and feasts.

The Te Deum is also traditionally sung on December 31 in thanksgiving for the year about to end. The Church grants a plenary indulgence to those who participate in a public recitation of the Te Deum on this day.

It is also common to publicly sing the Te Deum as a hymn of thanksgiving to God on special religious and civil occasions. Religious occasions would be the election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, the canonization of a saint, religious profession, and other significant occasions.

In many traditionally Catholic countries, it is still common for civil authorities to assist at a special Te Deum on the occasion of a royal coronation or presidential inauguration, for peace treaties and significant historical anniversaries. For example, in the city of Valencia in Spain, there is a traditional Mass and Te Deum on the anniversary of the Christian's retaking of the city in 1238 following several centuries of Muslim dominion.

The singing of the Te Deum usually followed a strict protocol.

For example, when General San Martín entered Lima, Peru, in 1821 he proclaimed independence from Spain on Saturday, July 28. The following day he attended a solemn Sunday Mass and Te Deum which followed the established protocol of solemn religious feasts with the obligatory attendance of all civil and religious authorities except that San Martín took the place of the Spanish viceroy as the supreme civil authority.

In this way, the independence proclamation also received a religious sanction. Since then, Peruvian presidents have traditionally attended a solemn Mass and Te Deum on July 29 each year. Similar celebrations take place on independence days in several other South American countries.

However, there is no fixed rite for all countries, and the rite may be readily adapted to circumstances.

Thus, while Peru tends to follow the traditional Mass and Te Deum order, the celebration in neighboring Chile, which since 1811 takes place on September 18 in the Catholic cathedral, substituted Mass for an hour of the Divine Office in 1870 and has subsequently evolved toward an ecumenical and even interreligious prayer service for the governing authorities.

It consists mostly in a solemn Liturgy of the Word with representatives of various Christian denominations and even finds an appropriate space for interventions of non-Christian religions before the solemn singing of the Te Deum.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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