An Interview with Martin Kochanski Founder of Universalis Publishing

Last week I gave a short profile of Martin Kochanski. This week I am sharing some questions that I put to Martin on how he sees his contribution to the contemporary liturgical movement.

Q. Do you consider yourself to be an unlikely leader of the liturgical movement?
I hope I don’t sound presumptuous but I am not a leader of anything. If there are grand Movements out there in the world, liturgical or otherwise, I am not aware of them: deliberately so, because I am just one of the sheep; but a sheep who, in 1996, saw something which seemed worth doing, and did it. It is that simple. All else is the work of the Spirit, acting especially through all the people who saw what I was doing, encouraged me and showed me by their enthusiasm that it really was worth doing, and who even today continue to demand more and more of it. Without them, Universalis would have been nothing.

Q. How does the program/app version of the Liturgy of the Hours differ from the printed multi-volume editions produced in the 1970’s after Vatican II?
The answer is tediously detailed in that it depends on the language. In English, the only difference is in the translations of the Bible readings in the Liturgy of the Hours, which in Universalis are always from the Jerusalem Bible (which is used liturgically in the UK and other English-speaking countries) rather than in the mixture of translations used in the printed books. (The RSV is now also available as an optional alternative). There are slightly bigger differences with the American books because occasionally they have different Short Responsories and intercessions, but we are working on incorporating the American texts as well, to make the experience smoother. In Latin, there is no difference at all from the printed books, thanks to the kindness of the Midwest Theological Forum in giving us the electronic texts and of the Vatican Publishing Company in giving us permission to use them. In the more exotic languages, such as Irish Gaelic, Yoruba (Nigeria), Malayalam (south-west India) and Malagasy (Madagascar) the match is exact – where, that is, printed books exist at all.

Q. How has Universalis developed over the years?
Back in 1996 it started as a web site, with only the bare minimum of Hours, my own translation of the Psalms from the Latin (before I got permission from the Grail to use theirs), and links to a Bible site for the readings. The gaps were filled in, the web site got fuller. Then came downloads for the Palm and for computers, then an explosion of interest when mobile apps came into existence. Kindle and ePub versions were added for people who have e-book readers, and the latest developments have been a complete audio recording of the whole Liturgy of the Hours (some 100 hours of spoken English!), which is available on subscription, and gives you any Hour for any day just by pressing the Play button. The “About Today” pages, which tell you about the saints of the day, now have illustrations, and in some of the apps you can even add the anniversaries of your departed family and friends, with descriptions and pictures.

Q. What are the advantages of a digital version of the Liturgy of the Hours?
The two biggest ones are simplicity and size. As you mentioned in your post, the Hours are an intricate dance through the weeks, through the year, and around the saints and the Easter season, and the first advantage of a digital version is that all the intricacies are taken care of for you, so that you can delight in them without worrying about getting them right. This is important because, as the Apostolic Constitution “Canticum laudis” puts it, “The Office is… the prayer not only of the clergy but of the whole People of God” – and the whole People of God are not full-time experts. The second advantage is that it weighs nothing, takes up no space, and (with mobile phones) is always with you and can fill in any short empty moment in your day. And I have to add the third of the two advantages, which (humblingly) I never thought of until people praised it. The digital Liturgy can be displayed in any size, in letters up to half an inch high. If you have screen readers, it can be read out loud to you. If you prefer, you can listen to it in recorded form. If your hands are too weak to hold a book, a tablet is light enough to be propped up in front of you. It is moving (and, as I said, humbling) to hear from people who thought they had lost the Liturgy for ever and now have it restored to them. More intellectually, if you want a fourth item in this “list of two”, there are countries where nobody can afford to buy the books and even countries where nobody can afford to print them; but where more and more people have a phone, and can have the digital Liturgy at their fingertips.

Perhaps a final point is this: you can do it anywhere, at any moment. The grand ideal, as with any prayer, is to do it in the best circumstances; but life being what it is, there are plenty of “worst” circumstances, odd few moments in a queue or on a coffee break, perhaps, where, given the choice between glancing at Twitter and seeing what God has to say, having a short daytime Hour at your fingertips is a truly valuable thing. As G.K. Chesterton said (but it has to be interpreted correctly), “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

Q. Do you see any disadvantages to praying the Liturgy of the Hours in a digital version?
It is right to be suspicious of virtuality. Christianity is a resolutely material religion. It uses and sanctifies water, wine, oil; bread, ash, salt; even fire and smoke. Bytes are none of these things. There is something inherently special about a thing, an object, a book dedicated to a single purpose, and something inherently un-special about bytes or pixels on a screen which could be displaying anything at all at any moment. But having said all that, the digital medium actually suits the Liturgy of the Hours remarkably well. Looking at a screen at Mass tends to suck you into the screen and awayfrom what is going on, but somehow doing an Hour on the screen seems to suck you intowhat you are doing. I even remember discovering, when programming the daily Mass readings for the tiny screen of the Apple Watch, how unexpectedly intense the experience is of reading the Gospel only a dozen or so words at a time!

Q. What challenges does the app face?
The main challenge is that everybody ought to be using it, and they aren’t. The root of the problem is public unawareness of the Liturgy of the Hours, or a perception that it is a thing for the specialist, the enthusiast, even the “a little weird”. When it was all specialized, and complicated, and expensive as well (a full set of printed volumes costs well over £100), there was some excuse for this perception. Now there isn’t.

Q. Where do you see the app going in the future?
Part of trying to listen to Divine Providence is that one doesn’t make business plans much! But I can guess: more languages, more accessibility, more “peripheral” material, such as Dom Henry Wansbrough’s meditations for Lent which the Catholic Truth Society has kindly provided for “About Today” this Lent. Something that many people ask for is more hymns. But whatever comes in the future is just as likely to be completely unexpected and from an unlooked-for direction. Digital screens on buses giving the encouraging antiphons of the day? Big screens outside churches slowly scrolling a psalm? But experience shows that it will probably be something that no-one thought of in advance until the day when it was suddenly the obviously right thing to do.

Q. Is there anything that the institutional Church or professional liturgists should be doing to encourage more people to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on a Digital Platform? 
Make them aware of it. Teach them how easy it is. Even nag them, just a little.

And what about confirmation classes? Give the digital Hours to every person on the way to being confirmed, and you will have given them a lifelong gift for their apostolate, for the dry, desolate seasons just as much as for the fruitful ones; a gift which, unlike a physical object, need never be lost or mislaid.

Q. Are there any other liturgical uses for digital technologies that you think people should be working on at the moment?
No. But it is quite possible that someone out there thinks that that is wrong. Never underestimate the richness of the human imagination or the power of the Spirit!

6 comments

  1. Wonderful – from user of Universalis and also the tragically “frozen” App Divine Office (as noted in my comment to the first article). I am so grateful to Mr. Kochanski for his pioneer work of great spiritual benefit – and I agree it should be more widely known. Thank you PrayTell for publishing these two pieces. Just saddened that there are almost no comments on them. And I agree that the LOH is one of the better suited religious practices for the Virtual /App world. As I said , on Divine Office you can see how many around the world are praying with you.

    1. Try this approach to accessing the Divine Office App:
      https://www.podbean.com/
      and type in “Divine Office” in the search function.

      I don’t know if I can access because I already have the app (as podcast) or if anyone can find it at this site. As I recall, I spent quite a long time trying different ways to get it on my computer (I do not know how I was able to get it, as a podcast, after they had stopped taking new subscribers but I have had it for a few years now. It’s a mystery….) At any rate, to my surprise, this podbean service finally came up and I was shocked that it worked. Good luck!

  2. This is incredible! And what a great point made with the Chesterton quote, about using “right now” (whatever that may be) to pray and get in touch with God. Thank you!

  3. Ditto the above comments and I cannot thank Martin Kochanski enough for saying YES to doing this Work. Inspired, yes. God bless his work! And so thankful that you interviewed him. Perhaps there can be a regular feature to highlight different ways in which people are using Unversalis and/or sharing latest changes/improvements/uses that Kochanski has provided.

  4. More comments, Todd Voss!
    1. Much though Martin Kochanski may dislike being called a leader, that’s what he is. In personally curated online breviaries, he seems to have got there firstest with the mostest. I would urge him to accept his status, listen (selectively) to the criticism and praise that come to him, and pray for the grace to keep doing good work.
    2. As I mentioned while commenting on Father O’Donoghue’s post last week about Martin, he is my virtual hebdomadary. But he’s not much for self-promotion, and therefore most Universalis users have probably, like me, found him pretty mysterious until this interview. For years, I knew how his parents met (on the anniversaries of his dad’s death, Martin puts a link on Universalis to his notes for the funeral), but until a few days ago I had no idea what he looked like. And Father O’Donoghue has helpfully filled in the detail of where he was educated. The English are right: life is just one damned Balliol man after another.
    3. As I mentioned last week, Universalis users who read the “About Today” section hear about possibly every last Catholic martyr of the English Reformation. They also hear about possibly every last canonized founder of a Catholic diocese or monastery in Ireland. If I’d paid closer attention to Martin’s saint lives, I wouldn’t have been so surprised to find out that Enda Kenny was male.

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