Rempublicam Nostram: A Patriotic Text for the Latin Mass

The versicle and response Domine salvum fac regem, “God save the King” is liturgically part of the Divine Office, where it appears in the Preces said during Lauds and Vespers in Advent and Lent. There had also developed a secondary usage, originating in the Ancien RĂ©gime of France and introduced to the British Commonwealth after its conquest of Quebec, of its being sung at the Sunday High Mass.  In England it was chanted at the end of Mass in churches up to Vatican II, and its use there has now been revived in both Traditional Latin Mass and Ordinariate parishes.

An 1801 Concordat between post-Revolutionary France and the Holy See allowed French priests to pray instead for the Republic and the Consuls, though subsequent political instability saw the commemoration bounce back and forth between Republic, Emperor, and King. As republican fever spread across Christendom, Rome extended similar permissions via concordats to number of nations in the Americas, with varying terminology depending on the exact political offices being prayed for (consuls, presidents). The text was even adapted for secular contexts—New England composer John Knowles Paine adapted it for the inauguration of Harvard's President in 1863.

It does not seem the Catholics of the United States ever received any permission from Rome—but the need for it was clearly felt here, and patriotic piety tried to supply for the deficit. In the early 1900s a version of this prayer was not only being used by American priests in private recitation of the Office but also being sung at Sunday High Mass after Communion in some dioceses, as attested in a 1916 query to the Ecclesiastical Review. The Fortnightly Review from 1917 gives additional information of its use in the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, saying that it was the custom there for the congregation to stand while it was sung by the choir.

The version of the prayer used by Catholics in the United States was as follows:

V. Domine, salvam fac rempublicam nostram.
R. Et exaudi nos in die in qua invocaverimus te.

V. O Lord, do Thou preserve our Republic.
R. And do Thou mercifully hear us in the day in which we call upon Thee.

It was common in England and elsewhere to sing a Gloria Patri after the response; this is not mentioned in the American sources, but perhaps it was done nevertheless.

Neither of the two sources quoted above seem to question the content of this prayer—they hardly could, given the orthodox sentiments that gave rise to it as well as the precedents already established for other nations. The only question was whether they could be officially used in the U.S.; the editor of the Fortnightly Review was obviously skeptical, but the editor of the Ecclesiastical Review judging that adding it was better than the alternative of simply omitting the verse altogether. Whatever the correct rubrics as they stood in 1917, in our day the issue seems rather moot, given all the reckless liturgical vandalism that has been allowed in the hundred years since.

American Catholics have long felt a need to pray officially, if not liturgically, for the national government, and that has not always been particularly easy in a Church whose rites assumed Catholic Kings rather than Protestant Presidents. Nonetheless, good solutions have been offered. From both a devotional and literary standpoint, Archbishop Carroll's 1800 "Prayer for the Church and Civil Authorities" is far and away the best—as evidenced by its appearance in many of our best Missals and prayer books for 200 years, as well as its continued use on civil holidays. More recent attempts have not been as well done; even, sadly, those approved by competent authorities. I recently acquired a special 1976 Bicentennial missalette, with a bit of nostalgia for my own childhood memories in Philadelphia and a hope to "thee and thou" its official liturgical prayers into something more traditional. Unfortunately the collects given for the Masses of July 4th and for the Nation were not really salvageable—I have generally been disappointed with the quality of modern prayers and these proved no exception.

The Domine salvam fac Rempublicam nostram, however, provides Americans with another good traditional option for July 4th and other events of national interest such as election days. A number of setting are available, from plainchant to polyphony. Although obviously not liturgical per se, as a sung devotion with a set position during High Mass after the Communion verse and an established posture for the congregation, it would certainly feel part of the liturgy to the laity in the pews.

Which, to my mind anyway, seems to be a perfect example of what we mean by an organic development in the liturgy—one that emerges naturally from a need of the Catholic faithful rather than from a Roman dicastery, and one that enhances and enriches the existing Missal rather than deforming it beyond recognition.

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