Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why doesn't your Cathedral/parish offer Vespers (!)?

c14th Howard Book of Hours
One of the more positive reforms of the Vatican II was the encouragement of the laity to say the Divine Office.  But also one of the most neglected!

Spirit of Vatican IIism

The emphasis on the importance of the Divine Office in the documents of Vatican II was not an innovation: rather it reflected the recovery of a practice that was extremely popular in the late Middle Ages, when 'books of hours' were far and away the most popular book going. 

The decline in its use by the laity reflected a number of factors: the restriction of the official delegation to say the Office to priests and religious because of concerns over use of unorthodox texts and congregationalist theologies associated with the rise of protestantism; the influence of the Jesuits who did not say the choral Office; and the suppression of many of the earlier forms of the Office that had been particularly popular.

The early twentieth century saw a considerable revival in lay interest in the Office, courtesy of the Liturgical Movement, and the creation of many 'short breviaries' appropriate to the laity.  Vatican II's encouragement of this trend, and revival of the permission for the laity to say the Office liturgically, even in the absence of clerics or religious, should then have met fertile ground.

Alas, it is one of those inconvenient bits of text that has been mostly been quietly forgotten about, and whose implementation has largely been subverted by the butchery of the liturgy that is the modern Liturgy of the Hours.

Now for the real renewal?

Nonetheless, as genuine liturgical renewal gains ground, some churches are introducing Sunday Vespers, and late last year Pope Benedict XVI once again encouraged all Catholics to pray the Office, saying:

"I would then like to renew to you all the invitation to pray with the Psalms, even becoming accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours of the Church, Lauds in the morning, Vespers in the evening, and Compline before retiring. Our relationship with God cannot but be enriched with greater joy and trust in the daily journey towards him."

The Pope's words merely echoe the actual words - as opposed to the spirit of - Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says, inter alia:

"Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more common feasts.  The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually." (SC 100)

These days in Australia and many other countries, you will be very lucky indeed to find Vespers offered in a major metropolitan cathedral, let alone elsewhere! 

And as for the instruction  that 'In accordance with the age-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.' (SC1010)!

The psalms of Sunday vespers

Nonetheless, for the benefit of those who do want to pray this hour in Latin, or are already saying it and want to understand what they are saying in greater depth, I am going to resume my series aimed at penetrating the meaning of the psalms with a look at the psalms of Sunday Vespers.

I'm working primarily from the traditional Benedictine Office, that means Psalms 109 (110), 110 (111), 111 (112) and 112 (113).  The theme of the Sunday in the Office is, of course, the Resurrection, and these four psalms are particularly pertinent to this theme.

By way of a footnote, in the traditional Roman Office, Psalm 113 (114/115) is also said.  St Benedict's decision to omit that psalm has, I think, to do partly with symmetry, partly with the thematic structure of his Office, and partly to do with keeping the hour short.   In this context, it is worth noting the point on symmetry: the first of the variable psalms said at Lauds in the Benedictine Office on Sunday is Psalm 117, which is the last of the 'hallel' psalms, sung on the great Jewish feasts.  At Vespers we end on the first of the Hallel psalms, Psalm 112.  The Liturgy of the Hours also draws on these core psalms, repeating Psalm 109 each week, and uses Psalm 110, 111 and 113 (split in two).  Curiously, it omits Psalm 112 altogether.

In any case, on to Psalm 109.


  1. What killed off Vespers, with or without Benediction, or any other form of evening service such as Rosary and Sermon, or Novena?

    Evening Mass.

    That's what killed off Vespers and all the rest.

  2. You are probably right Joshua, although there are ways around it. The London Oratory for example if I recall correctly schedules Vespers practically mid-afternoon.

  3. Iam pleased to report that St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney has sung Vespers on Sunday and on three weekdays. I was there on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception for Vespers and Mass and the choir was superb enough to make me wish I lived in Sydney.

  4. I second that - when in Sydney it is a pleasure to hear Vespers at St Mary's.

    Of course, various religious communities have public Office - for example, St Dominic's in East Camberwell (Melbourne) has daily Office of Readings, Lauds and Vespers (the latter followed by conventual Mass).

    At the other extreme, St Francis in central Melbourne has daily Vespers - while the Blessed Sacks aren't the most orthodox priests, they do supply not only many daily Masses and hear vast numbers of confessions, they give good example by their communal Vespers; alas, the singing is not quite as good as at St Mary's (I always think of "make a joyful noise to the Lord" and "the beastly creatures sing their praise") - but as Chesterton said, if something's worth doing it's worth doing badly (which would sum up the general Australian approach to liturgy pretty well now I think about it).