Glory to God in the Highest

The Gloria is the most ancient of the Church’s liturgical hymns. As with the Angelic Salutation, it was intoned first by the voice of an angel, or the choirs thereof. Saint Elizabeth added the second part of the Ave Maria and the Church added the petition Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Nine months later, in Bethlehem, immediately after the Christ was born of Mary, an angel appeared to shepherds watching their flocks in the hills. The angel — perhaps it was Gabriel, the same who came to Mary at Nazareth — told the shepherds the glad tidings of the birth of the Savior and directed them to where the Child was to be found. Suddenly, there appeared with Gabriel a “multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will” (Luke 2:12).

No one knows exactly when or who composed the Gloria from the Laudamus Te on, except to say that it can be traced, in a form similar to what we have in the Mass, back to at least the third century. Scholars believe it was composed as a prayer first in the East for it is found in an Alexandrine codex of the fifth century. Tradition has it that Saint Hilary of Poitiers learned it while he was in exile in Asia Minor and translated it into Latin upon his return to France around the year 360.

The Gloria in the Liturgy

The first we hear of the angelic hymn’s inclusion in the liturgy is in the West. Even though the hymn was originally composed in the East it was never part of any eastern rite  divine liturgy. In the sixth century, Pope Symmachus [498-514] ordered that the Gloria should be said after the Kyrie every Sunday and on the feasts of martyrs, but it was to be recited only by a bishop. This was still the practice as found in the Gregorian Sacramentary of the seventh century. Soon after the Church added the Gloria to the feast of Christmas (which had been added to the Roman calendar in the mid fourth century), and on Easter Eve. At some point priests were allowed to say it on Easter Eve and on the Mass of their ordination. At a high Mass, the celebrant intones the Gloria and the choir immediately follows in with the et in terra pax, never repeating the Gloria in excelsis Deo which is sung only by the priest. The priest then finishes reciting the hymn in a low voice at the altar, after which he sits down in his sedia, returning to the altar as the choir is finishing the hymn with the laudation for the Holy Ghost.

Peace on Earth to Men of Good Will


Glory to God and peace on earth. To all men? No, all men will not have the peace of God, which is in Christ. But peace to men of good will. The English Protestants were the first to mistranslate this passage in the vernacular with the King James edition of the Bible. So, outside the Catholic Church, we hear the mistranslated verse repeated every Christmas in English speaking countries: “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” New Catholic editions of the Bible give a better translation of this verse than the King James, but they still fall short of the easily understood meaning of the Vulgate Latin and its Douay-Rheims English translation. The New Jerusalem’s “And on earth peace upon those he [God] favors” may be deduced from the inspired Greek, but it carries a different meaning than Saint Jerome’s Vulgate et in terra px hominibus bonae voluntatis. It seems to me that the new Catholic Bibles, the New American and the Jerusalem, lend the text open to Calvin’s predestinationist interpretation, while the Douay (and the Vulgate Latin) present a clear Catholic challenge to all men of free will: “If you would have the peace of God, convert your heart, be of a good will.” That’s, literally, what the Greek word for penance means: “Do penance (metanoiete) means to change your mind and will.

Luther, on the other hand, held that our human nature is utterly and immutably depraved and cannot be intrinsically purified unto justice; therefore, the human will can never be good. The goodness of Christ is imputed unto those who have Faith, said Luther, but the faithful are not in themselves made good and clean. “Sin boldly,” Luther asserted, “and have faith.”

Do you see how important it is to hold firm to the traditional translation of the scriptures? The Douay English translation is a very literal rendering of the Latin Vulgate. The Latin Vulgate was declared at the Council of Trent to be the authentic Latin Bible of the Catholic Church. Being that Latin was the official language of the Church, this decree was aimed at the suppression of other old Latin versions of the Bible. In the fourth session of the Tridentine Synod the fathers issued this canon: “Moreover, this sacred and holy Synod . . . ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.” It was so for a thousand years, from the completion of the work by Saint Jerome up to the Council of Trent (1545-63), and the Douay-Rheims, first published in 1582, is the most faithful English version of the Vulgate.

What Does It Mean to Bless God?

The rest of the angelic hymn is an extended doxology rendering joyous praise to the Holy Trinity. The assembly, the ecclesia, at Mass, is as one body in praising God, adoring Him, glorifying Him; but how do we “bless” God? Can God receive a blessing from man? Well, in the literal sense of the word He can. The English word “bless” comes from the Latin verb benedicere, meaning literally, to speak well of. In this sense, every time we praise God we bless Him. The meaning that is more familiar to us, however, is to invoke God’s favor upon a person, or to set something apart for divine service by a ritualized invocation to God. For this latter consecration a priest is required or, at least a deacon. However, there are lesser degrees of ceremonial blessings. The head of a household can bless his wife and children, beseeching thereby God’s favor upon them as head of the family; indeed, this ought to be a daily practice in Catholic homes. In the absence of the father a mother can give the blessing. Finally, there is the blessing of one self, which is the Sign of the Cross. Done reverently, and properly, with the thumb touching the tips of the fore and middle fingers, this outward sign of the Faith brings many graces and blessings.

Still, the question remains: How can anyone bless God?

For that matter, how can any creature “glorify” God, who is His own infinite glory? First of all, even with irrational creation, the Old Testament Scripture speaks of their blessing the Lord. Take the Canticle of the three young men who were thrown into the fiery furnace in Babylon and protected from harm by their guardian angels. Their canticle, in each of thirty-seven verses, calls upon all creation to bless the Lord: “All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord: praise and exalt him above all forever” (Daniel 3:57). Irrational creation, of course, cannot bless God except by declaring its beauty and might to men, who can see God, vestigially, in the wisdom of His created order. Seeing God’s paternal benevolence for us in His creation we can bless Him from the heart and tongue, spirit to Spirit. David repeatedly blesses God through his divine praises in the Psalms: “I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall be always in my mouth” (Ps. 33:2). So, too, does he petition the angels to join him in blessing God: “Bless the Lord, all ye his angels: you that are mighty in strength, and execute his word, hearkening to the voice of his orders” (102:20).

With the Incarnation of the Word there is an immeasurably higher sense in the blessing that man can give to God. We bless and glorify Him by returning His gift both in an interior way by charity and exteriorly with the help of our body and the elements set apart for divine worship. Our exterior acts, however, are nothing without the proper interior dispositions. And it is by our interior piety that we return the inestimable gift of His love. This is how we bless God corporately as members of His Body, the Church: first, by uniting our worship with Christ our Head at Holy Mass, and, second, individually, by magnifying Him with His own charity, given to us in the Gift of the Holy Ghost. “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). Blessing in this sense is the same as praising. We return to Him, as created and finite reflections of His own infinite Goodness, the charity we have received in sanctifying grace. The more our hearts are divinized and the more we become like God by partaking in His life, the more we bless Him with His own blessing given to us. Our love for God is a return of His love for us. It is the sigh of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and acts in us. Thus, as “sons of God” we praise, bless, adore, and glorify Him, through His own love that has become one with us and on account of our new supernature. “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings” (Romans 8:26).

With this in mind we can see how the enthusiasm grew to include Our Lady, the “Mirror of Justice,” in this hymn of praise, for no creature other than Mary could perfectly reflect God as she did in her immaculate soul, all full of grace from the moment of her conception. Thus, in the Sarum Missal, which was in use for many centuries in pre-Reformation England, there were found the following tropes or prosa, as they were called:, ad Mariæ gloriam (to the glory of Mary,” and, again at the end of the hymn, Quoniam tu solus sanctus, Mariam sanctificans (sanctifying Mary), Tu solus Dominus, Mariam gubernans (ruling Mary). Tu solus altissimus, Mariam coronans (crowning Mary), Jesu Christe etc. Local liturgical accretions, such as these, were suppressed in the Tridentine reform of the Mass with the bull Quo Primum, issued in 1570 by Saint Pius V.

An Ancient and Complete Prayer

In Latin, the angelic Gloria not only sounds beautiful when sung, it is beautiful even when recited. It is the Church’s poem to God in rhythm, verse, and rhyme. It expresses each of the four purposes of prayer: adoration, Adoramus Te, glorificamus Te (We adore you, we glorify You); thanksgiving, Gratias agimus Tibi propter magnam gloriam Tuam (We give You thanks on account of the greatness of Your glory); supplication to the only-Begotten Son of God Jesus Christ, Suscipe deprecationem nostram (receive our prayer); and reparation, the double Miserere nobis offered in atonement to the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. At a high Mass, the celebrant intones the Gloria and the choir immediately follows in with the et in terra pax, never repeating the Gloria in excelsis Deo, which is sung only by the priest.

The doxology begins with praise to Our Lord God, heavenly King, the Father Almighty, then the body of the text is all in praise of the only-Begotten Son, “Thou alone art holy, Thou alone art the Lord,” finishing with the glorification of the Holy Trinity as One God, “O Lord Jesus Christ, together with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father, Amen.”

The Gloria is a hymn of jubilation as well as praise. It is sung almost every Sunday and for feasts of Our Lady, the Apostles, and martyrs, but is omitted during the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. Even when, for a day, the Church interrupts her period of penance and mourning, on Gaudete and Laetare Sundays, she still refrains from singing the Gloria, saving the joyful song for the Christmas and Easter vigil Mass. If the color of the priests’ vestments are purple or black (requiem Mass) there can be no Gloria. The mood of the Church must complement the season, because singing the Gloria in the weeks before Christmas would be premature, when the faithful ought to be preparing their souls for the Advent of Christ by prayer and penance. Even more so, is this restraint proper during Lent when the Church adorns herself with the garments of sackcloth and ashes.

How blessed we are to have so ancient a hymn in our liturgy! Intoned by angels, it has been amplified and completed by men. By making the hymn part of the sacred liturgy the Church has exalted it to the highest of dignities, the supreme worship of God in the holy sacrifice. Whether sung by the choir or recited from the missal let us unite our hearts, minds, and souls to this most blessed doxology at every Mass wherein we hear the angels’ invitation: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

One thought on “Glory to God in the Highest

  1. Mr. Kelly-

    Thanks for such an impressive background on the Gloria. It’s a beautiful hymn, especially in the Latin tongue.

    The translation of the NAB is only one of the problems with that Bible; have you seen the definition for “Church” in the St. Joseph edition NAB? Basically it implies that the Church has yet to fully exist and that it will only fully manifest itself at the parousia, thus paving the way the “ecumenical” “invisible” Church of true believers theory. Don’t just take my word for it, check it out yourself.

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