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May 26, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

A musical example of the great art of praise

Millennium hymn has a long history

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor

What's the top hit for the Jubilee Year?

An old one: the Te Deum (tay DAY-um), according to the National Council of Catholic Bishops. In fact, the U.S. Bishops have commissioned a new version of this ancient hymn for the Jubilee Year: "Te Deum, You Are God" by Marty Haugan in Spanish and English. Richard Proulx has also adapted the ancient hymn for the Jubilee. But most of us probably remember the 19th century version by Fr. Clarence Alphonsus Walworth: "Holy God, we praise thy name/ Lord of all, we bow before Thee. ..."

The Te Deum dates back to about the fourth century, and was originally in Latin. By 540, it appears in the Rule of St. Benedict. A translation of the original Te Deum Laudamaus (We praise thee, O God) is still used after the Office of the Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours every Sunday and on solemnities and feast days. It was sung at St. Peter's Basilica on Dec. 31 to close the year, and it will also be sung at the closing Vespers of the Holy Year on Jan. 6, 2001.

No one really knows who started the prayer -- some say St. Augustine and St. Ambrose spontaneously composed it on the night of Augustine's baptism, which is why we sometimes call it the Ambrosian hymn. Others say St. Hilary or St. Niceta of Remesiana (part of Yugoslavia). Most likely, all of them contributed to it, as did many others. It has been set to music countless times -- by Mozart, Handel, Purcell, Bach. Shakespeare used its words for the victory celebration in Henry V.

But the Te Deum is more than great art: it is an example of one of the main forms of prayer -- pure praise. (The petitions at the end of the hymn, while ancient, do not appear to be part of the original hymn.) Praise flows directly from creation and gives voice to our basic reason for being: to know and love God.

"Praise is the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS. It shares in the blessed happiness of the pure of heart who love God in faith before seeing him in glory. By Praise, the Spirit is joined to our spirits to bear witness that we are children of God, testifying to the only Son in whom we are adopted and by whom we glorify the Father. Praise embraces the other forms of prayer and carries them toward him who is its source and goal. ..." (CCC, no. 2639).

Christ himself taught us how to pray. One of those prayers he taught was the "Our Father." While we have two versions of the prayer in the Gospels (Lk 11:2-4 and Mt 6:9-13), both start out with a prayer of praise: "Hallowed be your name."

Praise is the main theme of the Te Deum, which consists of three main parts: to God, the Trinity and Christ. Since theme for this Jubilee Year focuses on the Trinity, a hymn of praise to the Trinity makes perfect sense. Looking at the official translation of the hymn here, we can see the three parts clearly.

Part one expresses adoration and ends "The glorious company of apostles ... prophets ... the army of martyrs praise you." Part two acknowledges the Trinity "throughout the world." Part three glorifies the Risen One and ends: "We believe you will come and be our judge." (Petitions based on the Psalms follow.)

As we acknowledge 2,000 years since the birth of Christ, the fulfillment of all the promises God has given since the beginning of human history, what better song than one of praise to the Holy Trinity? And what better song than one recognized the world over, by all Christians?

As Dr. Philip Ryken, a Presbyterian minister in Philiadelphia said last Pentecost Sunday: "Tonight we are doing what God intended us to do since before the world began, and that is to praise him ... if your heart's desire is to be tuned to God's praise, then what better harmony to sing than the Te Deum?"

(Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; USCC/NCCB web site; the Tenth Presbyterian Church web site; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; Dictionary of the Liturgy; Jubilee 2000 web site; Columbia University web site and


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 God, 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 praise 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.

-- The Handbook of Indulgences, Norms and Grants, Catholic Book Publishing, NY

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