On 31st December, the Church gives to all the faithful the possibility of gaining a plenary indulgence. Just as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered for four ends (adoration, thanksgiving, atonement and petition), one of the aspects of either public or private prayer is thanksgiving. On the last day of the year, the Church encourages her children to give thanks to Almighty God, according to the words of St Paul: “Give thanks upon all occasions; this is what God expects of you all in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5,18).
The Te Deum is the Church’s prayer of thanksgiving par excellence. Its name comes from the first words of the hymn recited by the clergy at the end of Matins on feast days: “Te Deum laudámus: te Dóminum confitémur” (We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord).
Throughout its twenty nine verses, the various reasons for our gratitude are expressed: the existence of God who is made know in Jesus Christ; His holiness and eternity; the creation of earth and heaven; the orders of angels and of saints; the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, Incarnation and Redemption; the special relationship which is established between God and man through prayer; man’s confidence and trust in divine grace…
The origin of this prayer has been discussed for centuries, but the name given it by the Roman Breviary, “Hymnus SS. Ambrosii et Augustini” indicates the common belief that Ambrose, the great doctor of Milan, Italy, is its author, and wrote it on the occasion of Augustine’s conversion, as stated by the liturgist Gavantus.
As a hymn of thanksgiving, it is recited by the clergy or sung by communities solely for feast days and thus it is omitted during advent, lent, penitential times, and days to which no particular feast has been assigned. This hymn can also be sung on certain occasions to express gratitude, such as for a jubilee or an anniversary. We learn from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “In addition to its use in the Divine Office, the Te Deum is occasionally sung in thanksgiving to God for some special blessing (e.g. the election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, the canonisation of a saint, the profession of a religious, the publication of a treaty of peace, a royal coronation, etc.), and then usually after Mass or Divine Office, or as a separate religious ceremony).”
The last day of the year is an occasion for every one of the faithful to think about all the graces, blessings and consolations received during the year, and to render thanks to God for them.
In its appendix, the Liber Usualis contains two musical settings for the Te Deum: a simple and a solemn one. Both are written in a Deuterus mode that expresses the idea of eternity, with most of the finals having a semi tone cadence (Fa-Mi). The note La appears as a leading one throughout the melody, in a manner reminiscent of a psalmody. This enables the choir to sing it at a reasonable speed, while paying attention to the accents. The singing can be alternated either between two choirs or between the choir and the congregation.
Dom Pothier, OSB, notes a strong affinity between the melodies of the “Te Deum laudamus, te dominum confitemur” and those of the Preface, “Per Omnia / Sursum corda”. He also points out a psalmodic turn in the melody of the Te Deum, strengthened by the introduction of a distinct antiphon-form at the words “Aeterna fac”, etc., the antiphonal melody being thrice repeated (Mélodies grégoriennes).
During the Baroque era, one verse was often “sung” by the organ which improvised on different stops, while the other was sung by a choir. Thus the faithful assisted at a dialogue between instrument and human voices.
While singing or reciting the Te Deum, the rubrics indicate that a bow of the head may be made at the words “Holy, Holy, Holy * Lord God of Sabaoth”. The ascending melody seems to attract the voices to a higher degree, symbolic of heaven. A profound bow can also be made while pronouncing “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. The mystery of Redemption is acknowledged by kneeling while uttering the words “We therefore pray thee, help thy servants, * whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious Blood”.
A plenary indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a church or oratory, are present [or take part] in a recitation or solemn chanting of the Te Deum hymn, on the last day of the year, in thanksgiving to God for the favours received during the course of the entire year (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum). This indulgence can be acquired under the usual conditions (i.e., Sacramental Confession within the several days prior to or after the day on which the indulgence is offered, prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father, reception of holy communion, and freedom from all attachment to sin).
In the abundance of her maternal generosity during this joyful season of Christ’s birth, the Church offers the possibility of gaining yet another plenary indulgence on the first day of the year by reciting the Veni Creator! With these opportunities for gaining indulgences, it should be remembered that they also are applicable to the holy souls in purgatory. The work of mercy of praying for the dead is certainly an excellent Christmas gift to offer to our departed loved ones who rely on our prayers for their spiritual comfort and relief!