The 'Te Deum' in English and the Hymn's History

«You Are God: We Praise You; You Are the Lord: We Acclaim You»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 1, 2012 ( As Benedict XVI mentioned during Saturday evening’s vespers service, «The Church suggests that we should not end the year without expressing our thanks to the Lord for all his benefits.» 

That celebration of vespers concludes with the «Te Deum.» 

This ancient hymn was explained by ZENIT’s liturgy columnist in a 2010 article. We offer a reprint of that explanation, which includes an English translation, here.

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I read with great interest your discussion of the Adoro Te Devote. I wondered if you would prepare a similar explanation and discussion of the Te Deum. I consider it to be a beautiful hymn and would be interested to know more about its history and use. — B.D., Columbia City, Indiana

A: Compared to the labyrinthine history of the Te Deum, that of the Adoro Te Devote was quite straightforward.

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 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.

We present the Latin version and the translation published in the 1975 Liturgy of the Hours. For the sake of clarity we have divided it into the three parts mentioned above.

«Te deum laudamus te dominum confitemur / Te aeternum patrem omnis terra veneratur / Tibi omnes angeli Tibi caeli et universae potestates / Tibi cherubim et seraphim incessabili voce proclamant / Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus sabaoth / Pleni sunt celi et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae / Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus / Te prophetarum laudabilis numerus / Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus / Te per orbem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia / Patrem inmense maiestatis / Venerandum tuum verum unicum filium / Sanctum quoque paraclytum spiritum

«Tu rex gloriae christe / Tu patris sempiternus es filius / Tu ad liberandum suscepisti hominem non horruisti virginis uterum / Tu devicto mortis aculeo aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum / Tu ad dexteram dei sedes in gloria patris / Iudex crederis esse venturus / Te ergo quaesumus tuis famulis subveni quos pretioso sanguine redemisti / Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria numerari

«Salvum fac populum tuum domine et benedic hereditati tuae / Et rege eos et extolle illos usque in aeternum / Per singulos dies benedicimus te / Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum et in saeculum saeculi / Dignare domine die isto, sine peccato nos custodire / Miserere nostri domine miserere nostri / Fiat misericordia tua domine super nos quemadmodum speravimus in te / In te domine speravi non confundar in aeternum»

«You are God: we praise you; You are the Lord: we acclaim you; / You are the eternal Father: All creation worships you./ To you all angels, all the powers of heaven, / Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise: / Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,/ heaven and earth are full of your glory./ The glorious company of apostles praise you./ The noble fellowship of prophets praise you. / The white-robed army of martyrs praises you. / Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:/ Father, of majesty unbounded, / your true and only Son, worthy of all worship, / and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.

«You, Christ, are the king of glory,/ the eternal Son of the Father./ When you became man to set us free / you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb. / You overcame the sting of death, and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. / You are seated at God’s right hand in glory./ We believe that you will come, and be our judge./ Come then, Lord, and help your people, bought with the price of your own blood, / and bring us with your saints to glory everlasting.

«Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance./ Govern and uphold them now and always./ Day by day we bless you./ We praise your name for ever. / Keep us today, Lord, from all sin. / Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy. / Lord, show us your love and mercy; / for we put our trust in you. / In you, Lord, is our hope: / And we shall never hope in vain.»

As we mentioned, we are probably dealing with three distinct hymns in one. The first 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 probable 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.

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.

It is also common to sing the Te Deum as a hymn of thanksgiving to God on special religious and civil occasions. Religious occasions would be such as 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 occasion of a royal coronation or presidential inauguration, for peace treaties and significant historical anniversaries. This tradition was sometimes ruled by strict protocol. For example, when
General Charles de Gaulle triumphantly entered a liberated Paris during the Second World War the canons of Notre Dame Cathedral debated if the recognized French leader was also the legitimate head of state. The Te Deum could only be sung for the legitimate head of state, and the legal situation was confused. Therefore, when the general entered the cathedral the canons diplomatically received him by singing the Magnificat.

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

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