On Dec. 31 every year, the pope leads the Church in a solemn prayer of thanksgiving to God for the civil year coming to a close. It takes place in St. Peter’s at the end of First Vespers for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. It’s an opportunity to thank God for all the gifts of the year approaching its end, to ask for mercy for the ways we have not responded to his “grace upon grace,” and to ask for help so that the new year about to begin may be a true “year of the Lord.”
The Te Deum is a fitting prayer by which to do this. It calls on all of creation to praise, thank and worship God. The whole Church, heaven and earth, the angels, cherubim, seraphim, apostles, prophets, martyrs, all laud the Father of infinite Majesty, the True and only Son, and the Holy Paraclete. We express our gratitude for Christ’s incarnation, for his death and resurrection that opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, and for sitting in glory to be our judge. We ask him who has redeemed us by his blood to number us with the saints in eternal glory. And then, with some verses from the Psalms, we implore him to have mercy on us, save his people and bless his inheritance, confessing that we have placed our trust in him.
The Church has been singing the Te Deum for 1,700 years in the Liturgy of the Hours on all solemnities and Sundays outside of Lent, at the canonization of saints, the election of popes, the ordination of bishops, and religious professions. Lutherans, Anglicans and Methodists continue to sing it on various solemn occasions, a testimony to its venerable history that extends far before the Reformation. Some of the greatest composers have set it to music — Mozart, Handel, Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Elgar, Hadyn, Berlioz, Verdi, Bruckner — and there are several Gregorian chants tunes to make the prayer melodious and beautiful. It’s been loosely translated into English by the hymns “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “God, We Praise You,” and others.
It’s most solemn setting, however, is at the end of each year, when the Church gives a plenary indulgence to the Christian faithful who take part in reciting or singing it in a Church or oratory.
The spirituality behind the Te Deum is like that of the dialogue that occurs in the heart of every Mass when the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” everyone responds, “It is right and just,” and the priest replies with great theological depth, “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, Holy Father, almighty and ever-living God.”
The Church knows that it’s right, it’s just, it’s fitting, it’s appropriate, for us to give God thanks, “always and everywhere.” It’s right, just, fitting and appropriate for us to do so on sunny days and rainy days, on days we feel like a million bucks and days we’re in the hospital, on days when we’re celebrating weddings and days we’re attending funerals of family and friends, on days when we get promotions and bonuses at work and days we get pink slips, on days when we win and on days that we suffer brutal defeats. It’s our duty to thank God for everything seemingly adverse or propitious because we know that everything he has given us or permitted to happen to us “works out for the good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28).
The Te Deum, the Church’s most solemn hymn of thanksgiving, is particularly needed this year, as we come to the end of one of most challenging periods for the Church in decades due to the revelation of so much corruption in parts of the Church seen above all in the sexual abuse of the children of God on the part of Church ministers with the vocation to die for them rather than defile them.
Pope Francis aptly summarized the year in his address to the Roman Curia on Dec. 21.
“This year,” he said, “the barque of the Church has experienced, and continues to experience, moments of difficulty, and has been buffeted by strong winds and tempests. Many have found themselves asking the Master, who seems to be sleeping: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mk 4:38). Others, disheartened by news reports, have begun to lose trust and to abandon her. Still others, out of fear, personal interest or other aims, have sought to attack her and aggravate her wounds. Whereas others do not conceal their glee at seeing her hard hit.”
He went on to describe how this year has brought us to face anew the revolting reality that there are “consecrated men, ‘the Lord’s anointed,’ who abuse the vulnerable, taking advantage of their position and their power of persuasion; [who] perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing had happened; [who] have no fear of God or his judgment, but only of being found out and unmasked; who rend the ecclesial body, creating scandals and discrediting the Church’s saving mission and the sacrifices of so many of their confrères; … who, without batting an eye, enter into the web of corruption and betray God, his commandments, their own vocation, the Church, the people of God and the trust of little ones and their families; [who] often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls; [who] disfigure the countenance of the Church and undermine her credibility.”
And yet the Church, despite all of this evil, ends 2018 with a Te Deum.
We do so first because we recognize that these abominations are not the whole story. Even if many members of the Church have been manifestly unfaithful to God, God has been ever faithful to us. God-with-us is still very much with us — and his presence made 2018 objectively a year of the Lord. Where sin abounded, grace has super-abounded (Rom 5:20), and we witnessed those profuse blessings in the multitudes entering the Church, the ordinations, religious professions, baptisms, holy marriages, acts of extraordinary charity, martyrdoms and so much more.
Even in the case of the monstrosities of infidelity that have surfaced, the Church is one year and several steps closer to confronting and eradicating that evil. The worst thing is not that these crimes and sacrileges have come to light but that they occurred in the first place, in darkness, many of them years ago. The fact that they are now known allows for long-overdue reparation and, we pray, for healing for the victims and for the whole wounded Mystical Body of the Church.
Pope Benedict, in his Te Deum reflections in 2012, pointed to the hope that pervades the prayer of the Te Deum even after an annus horribilis.
“The Te Deum we are raising to the Lord this evening, at the end of a solar year,” he noted, “is a hymn of thanksgiving that … ends with a profession of trust — ‘in you, Lord, we put our trust; we shall not be put to shame.’ However the year went, whether it was easy or difficult, barren or fruitful, let us give thanks to God. Indeed the Te Deum contains deep wisdom, that wisdom that makes us say that in spite of all, good exists in the world and that this good is bound to win thanks be to God, the God of Jesus Christ, who was born, died and rose again. At times of course it is hard to understand this profound reality, because evil is noisier than goodness … whereas acts of love and service, the daily effort sustained with fidelity and patience are often left in the dark, they pass unnoticed.”
But the Te Deum, he added, starts us “afresh on a journey of conversion that makes us wiser and better people, more capable of generating solidarity and communion and of overcoming evil with good.” It reminds us that “Christians are people of hope, even and above all when they face the darkness that often exists in the world and has nothing to do with God’s plan but is the result of the erroneous choices of human beings, for Christians know that the power of faith can move mountains (cf. Mt 17:20): The Lord can illuminate even the thickest darkness.”
The one who shows us best how to let the Lord’s light illuminate, heal and transform is the Mother of God. The Church prays the Te Deum in the context of Vespers on the solemnity of her maternity and then begins the next year with hope at Mass, invoking her prayers for all her children, and asking God for the grace to follow her example of keeping our gaze on the infant Jesus, the blessed Fruit of her womb.
He is the new Sun of Justice rising on the horizon of humanity after a long and dark night.
He is the one to whom we turn, saying with Mary, in the words of at the end Te Deum, “In te, Domine, speravi: non confundar in aeternum”: “In you, Lord, is our hope: and we shall never hope in vain.”
Fr. Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.