Thursday, December 31, 2020

Te Deum on New Year’s Eve

It has long been a custom in Catholic churches to sing the Te Deum, the hymn of thanksgiving par excellence, on New Year’s Eve, to thank God for all of the blessings received over the course of the previous year, and then to invoke His blessings for the coming year by singing the Veni, Creator Spiritus on New Year’s Day. In Rome, the Pope and cardinals resident in the city traditionally attended the Te Deum ceremony on December 31st at the church of the Holy Name of Jesus, popularly known as “il Gesù”, the mother church of the Jesuit order. In recent years, however, it has generally been celebrated, even by the first Jesuit Pope, at St Peter’s, together with First Vespers of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and Eucharistic Benediction.

Before the Breviary reform of St Pius X, the Te Deum was titled “the hymn of Ss Ambrose and Augustine”, in reference to the tradition that Saints Ambrose and Augustine composed it as if by divine inspiration, immediately after the baptism of the latter at the Easter vigil of 387. (Incidentally, this was one of the extremely rare years on which Easter fell on its terminus post quem non, April 25th.) “Te Deum laudamus!”, exclaimed Ambrose, “Te Dominum confitemur!”, replied Augustine, and so on. For this reason, in many illustrated breviaries the Te Deum is decorated with an image of the two bishops together.

The Te Deum in a Psalter created in the mid-16th century for a canon of the Duomo of Milan. (Bodleian Ms. Canon. Liturg. 275)
This ceremony took place in the baptistery of St John “ad Fontes”, the remains of which can still be visited under the floor of the modern Duomo. (Many years ago, I visited this space and sang the Te Deum together with two priests of the FSSP, while in Milan to attend a traditional Ambrosian Rite Mass in the cathedral in honor of the Blessed Ildefonse Schuster.) A plaque on a wall close to these remains of the ancient font notes that in 1987, the 16th centenary of St Augustine’s baptism, Card. Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, baptized three African converts on Easter night, giving them the names Ambrose, Augustine and Adeodatus; the last was the name of St Augustine’s son, who was baptized alongside him, and died the following year at the age of only 16.

The baptistery of St John “ad Fontes” is seen in the drawing below as the octagonal building between Milan’s two cathedrals. The larger one on the left, dedicated to St Thecla, was also known as the summer church, used from Easter until the 3rd Sunday of October; the smaller one on the right, the winter church, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and used from that Sunday until the Easter vigil. St Mary’s also had a baptistery, named for St Stephen the First Martyr, which is not seen here, and of which nothing now remains; this would have been where St Ambrose himself was baptized. The modern Duomo is built over and oriented the same way as St Mary’s, but is very much larger; St Thecla was demolished in the 16th century, but its memory is preserved by the presence of an altar dedicated to her in the cathedral’s left transept, and by the fact that the cathedral parish as a corporate entity is named for her.

(This post is largely the work of our Ambrosian correspondent Nicola de’ Grandi.)

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