Te Deum, Triumphalism and History

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Something for the weekend.  Te Deum (To God) sung by the Benedictine monks of Saint Maurice and Saint Maur.  A song sung by Catholics in moments of triumph and thanksgiving, it was probably written by Saint Nicetas in the late Fourth century or early Fifth century.

One of the swear words common since Vatican II in the Catholic Church is triumphalism.  We are to avoid it at all costs, and it is a bad, bad thing.  In a small way this makes sense.  The Church is both a divine and a human institution.  As a divine institution the Church is always victorious and triumphant as result of the Triumph of the Cross, and proceeds serenely through time and eternity.  As  a human institution the Church consists of we sinful individuals here on Earth, and meets with victories and defeats as she seeks to spread the message of Christ, often on very stony fields indeed.  To view the Church here on Earth through rose colored glasses and to assume that simply because the ultimate victory will be claimed by the Church against the Gates of Hell that all is well within the Church is to mistake the Church Triumphant for the Church Militant.

However, in the place of triumphalism too many Catholics have embraced defeatism, either by assuming that the mission of the Church to all of humanity is hopeless or, much worse, thinking that spreading the Gospel isn’t important because everyone is saved anyway, and the religion they follow is unimportant.  Hand in hand with this is the thrusting firmly down the memory hole of most of Church history, teaching and practice before Vatican II.  The “fruits”  of two generations of Catholics ignorant of the teachings and history of the Catholic Church are plain and dismaying.

We Catholics have a grand history and we should learn it and teach it to our children.  We should teach to them the victories and the defeats of the Church here on Earth, and also teach them that whenever they have reason to thank God, to remember the Te Deum.

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs.

That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila.

The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions.

Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

                   Thomas Babington Macaulay-Historian and Protestant -October 1840

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  1. Te Deum laudamus . . .

    By the blessings and graces of Almighty God, we got through the storm. Prayers answered.


  2. Macaulay was a Whig historian who believed the Church of Rome to be in error, and wrote a famous put-down of Gladstone, then a High Church Tory, in what must be one of the best polemics in the English language. In the article you quote he shows an understanding of Catholicism which would have evaded most of his contemporaries, stressing the Roman Church’s inclusivity in contrast to Anglicanism (for example, he says John Wesley would have founded a religious order and been canonized had he been a Catholic). He was too good an historian to let his prejudices cloud his judgement, and should stand as a corrective to those (many of whom claim to be Catholic) who see fit to criticize the Church while at the same time being woefully ignorant of history.

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