How to Pray the ‘Te Deum’, the Ancient Hymn of Praise to God
“You are God; we praise you. You are the Lord; we acclaim you. You are the eternal Father; all creation worships you.”
We all have our favorite prayers, novenas, devotions and aspirations.
One of mine is a prayer that seems to have fallen out of popular use lately: the ancient “Te Deum”, commonly attributed to St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Doctor of the Church and the man who baptized St. Augustine. However, the authorship of this venerable hymn of praise has never been firmly nailed down and Nicetas of Remesiana has been put forward as a possible composer too. More recently an argument that the Te Deum is part of an ancient Easter Vigil hymn has been proposed.
The Te Deum (whose name is simply the first two words of the prayer itself, not unlike the title of a papal document) is unique in that it is indeed a permanent part of the Divine Office: it is said at the end of Matins/Vigils/Office of Readings after the final reading and before the closing prayer on Sundays and Holy Days. (According to the 1962 rubrics it is said every single day, outside of the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent.) The Divine Office may be a private prayer — and the Office of Readings may be recited at any hour of the day per the Vatican II rubrics — but for consecrated religious it is generally say in common in the middle of the night. So night owls who visit a monastery or abbey may hear it intoned—beautifully—together.
Another peculiar part of the Te Deum—and the entire prayer is reprinted below—is that part of it is repeated verbatim during Holy Mass (namely during the Sanctus):
Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
And the final part of the Te Deum is a nod (or better, a kneel) to the Credo in that the lines are supposed to be said on your knees:
V: Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance.
R: Govern and uphold them now and always
V: Day by day we bless you.
R: We praise your name forever.
V: Keep us today, Lord, from all sin.
R: Have mercy on us, Lord have Mercy
V: Lord, show us your Love and Mercy
R: for we put our trust in you.
V: In you, Lord, is our hope:
R: and we shall never hope in vain.
And it is an obvious invocation to the Kyrie of the Mass in the line, “Lord Have Mercy”, above.
Strangely, the post-Vatican II version allows for the omission of those final ten lines, though what is possibly gained by that omission is a mystery to me.
Thus, the Te Deum is a prayer steeped in the Mass, and includes the only intact Hebrew word (“Saboath”) kept in the Latin. The whole is a prayer of praise, obviously.
But when was the last time you actually heard this prayer used?
Technically, the Te Deum may be said (or better yet, sung) at the end of Mass or the canonization of saint, or in a public procession of a saint’s relics. But for the life of me I can’t remember when the outro to Mass wasn’t “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” or “City of God”.
The Te Deum is, in essence, a very ancient liturgical poem, and like many poems it has been put to music very effectively by some of the greatest composers, from Mozart and Verdi to Dvorak and Benjamin Britten.
And while Te Deum may be inextricably tied to the Divine Office, there’s no rule that says you can’t (or shouldn’t) pray or learn the prayer as a stand-alone oration. Indeed, one could do worse than pray in these words which are worth reprinting in toto:
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 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.
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 forever.
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.
“And we shall never hope in vain.” As I mentioned above, we all have favorite prayers and the Te Deum is one of mine. If asked why, I’d say that generally speaking, I love poetry and the Te Deum is a poem. But specifically I like that final reminder in the last line: “We shall never hope in vain.” Amen.