Orthodoxy and Doxology

Orthodoxy is both right praise and right teaching. Orthodox understanding of, and adoration of, the Blessed Trinity is the most critical component of our unity in Christ.

St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (1:12) reminds us that in Christ, those who “first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of {Christ’s} glory.” The Fathers of Vatican II, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, used this passage in their summary of the worship inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church’s celebration of the paschal mystery (art. 6). When the Fathers called the sacred liturgy “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed,” they recapitulated that worship as the baptized faithful “{coming} together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.” This is right worship as intended by Christ and the Apostles. The word literally translated “right worship” is orthodoxy.

This word has acquired, over the centuries, multiple extended meanings. The best known use is by those churches which have maintained valid orders, but are not in communion with the Holy Father. These are called “Orthodox churches.” They have valid sacraments and so continue the “right praise” of the early Church. By and large, their teachings are in conformity with those of the Roman Church.

The other important meaning of “orthodoxy” is “right doctrine.”  This may actually be a more common understanding than the literal one. But right doctrine and right worship are intimately connected. The bishops of the United States stated as much in the reflection for Catechetical Sunday in 2009. In an article authored by Fr. Rick Hilgartner, they wrote: “The original version of the phrase, ‘ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi’ (‘that the law of praying establishes the law of believing’), highlighted the understanding that the Church’s teaching (lex credendi) is articulated and made manifest in the celebration of the liturgy and prayer (lex orandi). We understand this to mean that prayer and worship is the first articulation of the faith. The liturgy engages belief in a way that simply thinking about God, or studying the faith, does not naturally do. In other words, in an act of worship, the faithful are in dialogue with God, and are engaged in an active and personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and every individual member of the liturgical assembly is connected to one another as members of the mystical Body of Christ in the Holy Spirit, as they look together with hope for the salvation promised in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Now the fundamental doctrine, or central mystery (The Catechism of the Catholic Church §234) of the Catholic faith, is the teaching on the Blessed Trinity. It is “the mystery of God in himself … the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” Understanding God as a family of co-equal persons in one divine nature gives meaning to every human family, every human-divine encounter. The Trinity makes Love a reality, because Love is a person, the person of the Holy Spirit. Trinitarian faith is so important that the Church does not recognize the baptism of anyone who is not baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” such as those coming from the Oneness Pentecostal movement and congregations. It is so critical as a distinguishing characteristic of the Christian, that spoken prayers in the name of the Trinity can result in arrest in some Muslim countries. (I have experienced Catholic worship in the Holy Land, where Christians are a small minority. There, the Catholics insert the words “One God,” after every articulation of the persons of the Trinity.) Orthodox worship, then, is essentially worship of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The word “doxology” literally means “word of praise.” Doxologies are found in both the Old and New Testaments, although in the former, there is no understanding or mention of the three persons in One God. In the Hebrew prayers, one would find words like “baruch adonai elohim Israel” (“blessed the Lord, the God of Israel”), a formulation used by Zechariah in his prayer at the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:68). It is a prayer found at least 26 times in the Old Testament.  The prayer of Zechariah is the only literal use of those words in the New Testament, but direct or indirect doxologies are found elsewhere, using other language. Simeon blessed God (Lk 2:28) when he took the infant Jesus in his arms. In his letters, Paul frequently pronounced a blessing whenever he used the name of God, as in Romans 1:25 or Ephesians 1:3. The author of Revelation (7:12) sees the blessing of God as an important element of the heavenly liturgy. And, most tellingly, Jesus told us to bless God in the only prayer he taught us, in the words: “agiastheto to onoma” (“hallowed be Thy Name”) in Matthew 6:9.

The formal doxologies of Christian worship are, unsurprisingly, addressed to the Blessed Trinity.  It is, for instance, common to find a praise of the Holy Trinity in the final stanza of an Office hymn. The Gloria in Excelsis” of the introductory rite of the Mass is an extended praise of the Trinity, and in some circles is called the “Great” doxology. But the most common doxology of Catholic worship, called by some the “Lesser” doxology, is the “Gloria Patri.” In the modern Catholic English translation used in the Divine Office, it reads: “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, Amen.”

In many mainline Protestant U.S. and Canadian congregations, the Gloria Patri, in English, is sung during every Sunday service, to one or the other musical setting. I have seen this as a conclusion to the offering or collection, as the congregation voices its understanding that everything we offer God is originally from him. Protestant congregations often use what is called the Common Doxology at that time, or in other parts of their worship. This is actually the final version of hymns by Thomas Ken (1674): “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise him all creatures here below; praise him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.” Both the Trinitarian meaning and connection to a Sunday collection are obvious.

Acknowledgment of, and prayer to, the Trinity is incorporated into many parts of Catholic worship. The “lesser” doxology begins each hour of the Divine Office and concludes each psalm and canticle. The responsories of the Office include the “Gloria Patri” without the conclusion “as it was…” The orations in the Office and the Mass are always offered with a concluding Trinitarian formula, such as “we ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You {Father} in the unity of the Holy Spirit…”  During the Holy Sacrifice, as noted above, the “Great” doxology, the “Gloria in Excelsis,” is prayed on solemnities, feasts, and Sundays outside Advent and Lent. It is now prayed at all Nuptial Masses. A Trinitarian doxology concludes the Eucharistic Prayer, “per ipsum et in ipsum et cum ipsum, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.” Of course, in every Mass, Office, and sacrament, the rite begins and ends with an invocation or blessing, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

There are a couple of problems that have insinuated themselves into the doxologies of the Mass since the 1960s. The first is relatively recent, and it is pervading the entire U.S. Church where the “customary” English hymnals are used. The “Great” doxology, the Gloria in Excelsis,” is very often treated as a kind of responsorial prayer. The angelic greeting, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” is treated as a refrain to be sung by the whole congregation, with the remainder of the hymn broken up into verses to be sung by a cantor or choir. I have seen an alternative, and even more disturbing, usage. In one popular Mass, the refrain is sung in Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, gloria, gloria. Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra, terra pax.” This latter treatment disrespects the biblical text by excising the words “hominibus bonae voluntatis” at the end. The reality is not that God gives peace only to “men of good will,” but that people of bad will are incapable of receiving the gift of peace. As it stands, the Latin text says that God gives peace on earth, and it automatically takes effect. That contradicts good theology and common sense.

But even in those Masses that respect the integrity of the text, the real problem is that the hymn of praise is not written to be broken up:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, Heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father. {Typical break}
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us;
You take away the sin of the world, receive our prayer;
You are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. {Typical break 2}
For you alone are the Holy One; you alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God, the Father. {Typical break 3} Amen.

The versification first breaks the adoration of the Father from that of the Son, then breaks the petition to the Son away from the acknowledgment of Christ’s triple office. And, last of all, some even break the “Amen” away from the prayer it is affirming. Moreover, on a practical level, and pastoral one, treating the Gloria” responsorially disrespects the congregation. Such actions tell the congregation that they are too inept to read a full hymn and learn it with continuous music.

No, instead of this, a worshiping community should use one of the few remaining versions of the Gloria” that is sung straight through, such as Owen Alstott’s, or the fine and easily sung version in the Roman Missal. If one of the responsorial versions must be used, then it is usually possible to omit the internal repeats of the refrain.

The “lesser” doxology, the Gloria Patri,” is almost never sung or heard by Ordinary Form, U.S. English-speaking congregations. Yet, it used to be heard every week and is still used in the Extraordinary Form. This prayer, which should conclude every psalm, is used at the end of the psalm verse section of chants, like the “Asperges me,and every Introit. It is a clear and concise expression of Trinitarian belief and praise. Where did it go?

The Gloria Patri” was one of the many losses suffered when U.S. choirs and congregations gave up singing the Propers of the Mass, the Introit, Offertory, and Communion. Each of these chants comes with an attached psalm, and the psalms should conclude with the “Gloria Patri.” Only the Introit continues to be printed in the various Solesmes books with the psalm verse and “Gloria Patri.” When the Propers are ignored, the people no longer sing or hear this “lesser” doxology, and it is a clear reminder of the fundamental truth of our faith. That is a huge loss.

What can be done to restore the Trinity to the front of the Catholic conscience? Certainly preaching and teaching are needed, and not just on Trinity Sunday. But the Liturgy itself offers many opportunities. Parish celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours would do much in this direction, because of the numerous Trinitarian doxologies it contains. But most Catholics do not, and would not, participate in an “extra” liturgy. They go to Mass, hopefully each week, and if they are to hear or say or sing something, it has to be done then.

The obvious change is to sing or recite the Introit of the Mass, with its psalm verse and at least the “Gloria Patri.” I have noticed that in the Mass aids published by various companies, the Introit for each day is printed, but without the psalm verse or “Gloria Patri.” Fortunately, most Catholics do know the latter prayer, because it is short and used in the Rosary. I have found at weekday and some feast day Masses that, if a cantor lines out a simple melody for the Introit as printed in the Mass aid, most of the congregation will repeat it with him, and then easily add the “Gloria Patri” in English, followed by a second repetition of the antiphon. On big feasts and solemnities, or even on typical Sundays, a choir can sing the Introit in Latin or English. There are great resources in both languages for these chants: Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers and Arlene Oost-Zimmer’s Parish Book of Psalms are two of the best.

Orthodoxy is both right praise and right teaching. Orthodox understanding of, and adoration of, the Blessed Trinity is the most critical component of our unity in Christ. Restoring the doxologies of our worship, then, will be a huge step toward renewing both praise and worship.


Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham is a retired deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas, but continues to serve at St. Pius X Church in that city. He holds a Master’s degree in Theology from St. Mary’s University of Texas and has written for HPR and other Catholic publications since 1975.


  1. Great read! I learned a lot from this blog. We Catholics believe that there is the right kind of praise like in the form of celebrating the mass and the blessed sacrament. The right teaching is also required for the people to be able to understand how and why certain practices are being done.


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