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Use of the Te Deum

July 17, 2018. Flexibility Allowed for Ancient Hymn of Praise

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

Q: What are the restriction on the use of the Te Deum, either by law or by tradition? As an example, the Te Deum is a part of the consecration of a bishop, therefore I believe it would be inappropriate for it to be sung at the ordination of a priest or deacon. Would it be appropriate after Communion during the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday? Pentecost? A Sunday in Ordinary Time? – S.M., Evansville, Indiana

A: The Te Deum, sometimes improperly called the Ambrosian Hymn, is an ancient hymn of praise, composed in rhythmical prose. It is known by its opening words, “Te Deum laudamus (We praise you, O God).”

Although traditionally attributed to Saints Ambrose and Augustine, the most probable candidate for authorship is the bishop St. Nicetus of Remesiana (333-414). The diocese was in the Roman province of Dacia Mediterranea in modern-day Serbia.

It is prescribed above all during the office of readings on feast days and is traditionally used on other solemn occasions of both religious and civil character.

In the Divine Office the Te Deum is sung or recited after the second responsory of the office of readings on all Sundays outside Lent, during the octaves of Easter and Christmas, and on all feasts and solemnities (see No. 68 of the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours).

No. 594 of the Ceremonial of Bishops describes another possible use of the Te Deum:

“At the conclusion of the prayer after communion, the hymn Te Deum is sung, or another hymn similar to it, depending on local custom. Meanwhile the newly ordained bishop, after taking the miter and pastoral staff, is led by two of the consecrating bishops through the church and he blesses the congregation.”

The Enchiridion of Indulgences grants a partial indulgence to the faithful who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving, but it also grants:

Ҥ 1. A plenary indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a church or in an oratory, are present [take part] in a recitation or solemn chant of:

“1. the hymn Veni Creator … on the first day of the year, imploring divine assistance for the whole of the coming year…

“2. the Te Deum hymn, on the last day of the year, in thanksgiving to God for the favors received in the course of the entire year.”

A Te Deum can also refer to a brief rite of thanksgiving based upon the hymn. Apart from the year-end Te Deum, it may be used on other occasions of a religious or civil nature in accordance with local custom.

While it is prescribed or recommended on the occasions mentioned above, it is not highly regulated in such a way as to be forbidden on other occasions, unless local custom makes such restrictions.

That said, I would agree that it would be inappropriate to use it in a manner similar to the consecration of a bishop for the ordination rites of a priest or a deacon. The hymn’s use in episcopal ordination is closely tied to the bishop’s pastoral mission as a shepherd blessing the faithful. Also, a new priest or deacon would not usually give a blessing during the actual ordination rite since the bishop is necessarily present.

The hymn would not be forbidden, however, as an act of thanksgiving at the end of a first solemn Mass. It can be used on other solemn religious occasions, for example, as thanksgiving for the election of a new Pope, the appointment of a new bishop, on the beatification or canonization of a representative of the diocese, and on significant anniversaries.

I would not consider it appropriate on liturgical feasts and solemnities such as Pentecost where it is already included as part of the Divine Office, especially if it unnecessarily prolongs an already lengthy celebration.

There are several occasions when the hymn is used for civil occurrences. This happens above all in Catholic countries but occasionally in Protestant ones with monarchies such as Sweden. For example, in traditionally Catholic Luxembourg a service is held annually to celebrate the grand duke’s official birthday. In several Latin American countries, a newly inaugurated president will often attend a Te Deum in the capital’s cathedral along with the country’s bishops.

There is a story of a debate among the canons of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. In August 1944 General Charles De Gaulle entered a newly liberated Paris and desired to visit the cathedral. The canons at first planned to sing the Te Deum in his presence.

However, some scrupulous prelates pointed out that, according to tradition, only the legitimate head of state could be honored by a Te Deum, and it was not clear that the general, as chairman of the provisional government of the French Republic, was at that time the legitimate head of state. In the end, the general’s visit was honored by the canons singing the Magnificat.