Cursing Psalms and the Liturgy of the Hours

Last year, with the publication of The Abbey Psalms and Canticles, I decided to start using the revised texts when saying the Office, to get something of a head start to internalizing the texts that would be used in the forthcoming re-translation of The Liturgy of the Hours. I expected to be happy about some alterations and irked by others, but what I didn’t expect was how having to look up the psalms in a psalter would make me keenly aware of what is omitted in the Liturgy of the Hours. Yes, omissions were noted in the headings, but I had never really paid much attention to them. Praying the entire psalm from which certain verses had been omitted sent me off in a quest to find out what went into the decision to edit the Psalter in the official prayer of the Church.

Many are no doubt aware that in the revision of the Office three whole psalms (58, 83, 109), along with select verses of other psalms, were omitted from the Four-Week Psalter because of their imprecatory or “cursing” nature (see here). The story of how this came about is recounted in Annibale Bugnini’s invaluable The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975. It is, to be honest, a rather odd story.

There was at the time of the Council a widespread sentiment that a problem was posed by the cursing psalms, particularly if the Hours were to be celebrated in the vernacular with the people, who might not have the theological and spiritual formation to understand how such texts ought to be understood in light of Christian teaching. Among the members of Study Group 3, charged with examining the distribution of the Psalms, as well as the participants at the 1967 Synod of Bishops, a majority coalesced around the idea that it was important to retain the whole of the Psalter in the Daily Office, not only to honor tradition, but also lest the selection of psalms betray an subjective set of preferences. But, they said, the imprecatory psalms might be restricted to particular liturgical seasons (as came to be done with the “historical psalms”—i.e. 78, 105, and 106) or relegated to Hours other than Lauds and Vespers, so that they would generally be prayed only by those with sufficient formation to understand their context and spiritual interpretation. Likewise the imprecatory verses in other psalms could be marked in such a way that they could be omitted if necessary—for example, in celebrations with the people or if they posed a particular problem for an individual. In reporting these majority views to Pope Paul VI, however, both the president of the Consilium, Cardinal Lercaro, and its secretary, Bugnini, appended their own views that there was no real need to retain all of the psalm in their integral form (the lectionary, after all, selects among the passages of Scripture it includes) and that the cursing psalms and imprecatory verses in other psalms posed an insurmountable psychological barrier to prayer for Christians and should be omitted entirely.

The arguments of Lercaro and Bugnini seem to have swayed Paul VI, who, despite the views of the majority of both Group 3 and the Synod of Bishops, directed that Psalms 58, 83, 109 not be included in the office and that imprecatory verses in other psalms be omitted at well. These omissions are noted  in the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours, along with a somewhat ambivalent explanation:

The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty, even though the psalms of imprecation are in fact used as prayer in the New Testament, for example, Rv 6:10, and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (§131).

So now to a few thoughts about all of this:

      • The process itself by which this decision was made is a bit troubling, since it seems that the president and secretary of the Consilium, along with the Pope himself, didn’t really care what the majority of the Study Group or Synod of Bishops thought. Bugnini, in his memoir, is particularly harsh with regard to the eminent liturgical scholar Aimé Georges Martimort, who worried about “the dangers of an arbitrary selection.” Martimort, Bugnini says, “lacked the courage to enter upon a new path. Therefore he did not give much weight to the thinking of the Pope on the new proposals…; the result was a loss of time and a waste of energies” (500-501). The idea that having a strong bias in favor of the tradition of praying all the psalms is a lack of courage (particularly when those verses might fit uneasily with the image we would like to have or God or ourselves), or that presenting the view of a majority of scholars, even though the Pope might disagree, is a waste of time is…well…troubling to say the least. It presents an extraordinarily top-down view of matters and one that can be subject to abuse, particularly given that  Bugnini seems to have used his access to the Pope to press his own, minority view. I don’t think Bugnini to be the comprehensive villain that some do, but it is hard to escape the impression that in this case he had his thumb rather heavily on the scale.
      • Martimort’s concern about the arbitrariness of the omissions seems to me to be somewhat borne out in the results. Why is it unChristian to pray “Let those who seek my life/ be shamed and disgraced./ Let those who plan evil against me/ be routed in confusion” (35:4, omitted from the Psalter along with 11 other verses of that psalm) but not to pray the extraordinarily grisly, “Then you will bathe your feet in their blood,/ and the tongues of your dogs take their share of the foe” (68:24, appointed for Tuesday, Week III in the Office of Readings). Perhaps the inclusion of this verse was simply an oversight. But such oversight regarding what was included does not inspire confidence regarding what was omitted. Indeed, all of the verses excised from Psalm 35 seem to simply ask that one’s enemies suffer a humiliating defeat by being caught in their own machinations, not that they be physically harmed or destroyed. Is such prayer really unworthy of Christians? Who decided which verses were unacceptably imprecatory and which were not?
      • The cursing psalms are troubling and, at times, difficult to pray. When we think of Jesus’s teaching on love of enemies, we can wonder what it might mean to pray “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” (58:7) or “The just shall rejoice at the sight of vengeance;/they shall bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (58:11). They do present “a certain psychological difficulty.” And there might well be contexts in which they are inappropriate, particularly occasions of public worship when there is no opportunity to address the difficulty they present. After all, I have been know to choose the shorter form of the reading from Colossians on the Feast of the Holy Family if I am not going to address explicitly the statement “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands.” So I don’t think it is necessarily condescending to say that some parts of scripture require theological and spiritual formation in order to pray them fruitfully.
      • It is something else entirely to say, as the position taken by Lercaro, Bugnini, and Paul IV seems to imply, that the cursing psalms can never be prayed fruitfully; not only are they not for everyone; it seems they are not for anyone. Paul VI had the option of leaving the imprecatory material in the Psalter, but not requiring that it be used. The decision to exclude these psalms and verses entirely seems to put them beyond the pale–not quite removing them from the canon, but certainly forbidding that they ever be prayed as part of the official prayer of the Church.
      • One of the glories of the psalter is that it lays every human emotion bare before God. The very fact of praying that God would take vengeance is a way of acknowledging our own desire for vengeance and of  leaving such vengeance up to God. It is a kind of emotional safety valve that any realistic assessment of fallen human nature would seem to require. Prissy concern about expressing negative sentiments before God seems to at the same time overestimate human nature and underestimate the divine nature. We hardly need to protect God from the sentiments expressed in Scripture.

    I’ve now been praying all of the imprecatory verses excised from the psalms for over a year now and have not noticed any ill effects on my spiritual life. Once the complete revision of the Liturgy of the Hours appears I will probably stop, simply because it will be inconvenient to look them up. But I will miss them. Not only have they not harmed me spiritually, but on a few occasions is has even felt salutary to give vent to my anger and frustration because, in case you haven’t noticed, there is a lot to be angry and frustrated about.

52 comments

  1. In general, I am unpersuaded by attempts – however well-intentioned and sincere – to conform Sciptures to our sensibilities. Eliding difficult things mostly makes things easier for preachers, but it is not honest and as such it poorly serves them whom it is imagined to protect. To put this in a non-Psalter context, while we needn’t forefont passages such as Judges 11 and 2 Kings 2:24, skipping over them is more self-serving than honest.

  2. Fritz, I’ve been thinking about this but I’m curious about the mechanics. Do you have both the breviary and the Abbey Psalter open at the same time? So you pray the antiphon from the breviary and then switch to the Psalter for the psalms and then back to the breviary?

    1. To be honest, I often skip the antiphons, excepts on Sunday and feasts, and just do the psalms. Not that I have anything against the antiphons; it’s just inconvenient. So I do the psalms/canticles from the Abbey Psalter and then switch to the breviary at the short reading (I have to switch back for the Gospel canticle). Once we have a new translation I will definitely be using the antiphons again.

  3. I have been following the work of an Orthodox Bible Scholar whose main thesis is that in Second Temple Judaism, the primary enemies of the People of God were seen as the rebellious spiritual powers. Any so called secular entities, like Babylon or Rome, would have also been viewed as operating on behalf of demonic forces. By extension, the imprecatory psalms or verses would have been seen to refer to both these spiritual powers and their human agents. The point being is that the “spiritual/figurative” meaning is the “literal” meaning.

    I can not comment on the accuracy of how represented this view was before and during Christ’s ministry, but the New Testament seems to agree as much. See Ephesians 6:12 and 1 John 3:8 for example.

    So the imprecatory psalms can be prayed fruitfully in Christian charity. But we live in a world where the spiritual powers of darkness (or light) are not readily perceived. Attributing the actions of evil men such Hitler, Mao, Stalin (and also the daily sinful actions of men and women) to their cooperation with fallen angels would be widely perceived as being a bit “nutty”. I really wished we lived in a world where Catholics could be widely assumed to have the spiritual and theological formation to readily engage the cursing psalms, but honestly we don’t. So I can be a little forgiving St. Paul VI and .Bugnini.

    That said, we live in a world where Catholics will be confronted with psalms to attack the faith. Perhaps in high school or on YouTube. You can’t prevent Christians from coming across these verses. So if clergy and catechists don’t bring up these parts of scriptures, others will.

    1. I can’t weigh in intelligently on the claims about 2nd-Temple Judaism, but it sounds plausible to me. I’ve often thought that the Christian practice of spiritual interpretation arose from the context of prayer–the need to make things in the psalms and other scriptural texts prayable for Christians (No Temple in Jerusalem? That’s OK, the Temple represents heaven. Feel bad about the Babylonian babies? Don’t worry, they represent incipient evil thoughts.).

  4. The Psalms are poetry, and as such are oversaturated with meaning. We think of historical context (slavery in the Babylonia exile}; speaking voice (who is speaking and why does he/she feel this way?); spiritual allegory; and considerations of the progression of religious understanding through the ages. Again, and perhaps as an imperfect analogy: We don’t have to fall in with Macbeth in order to feel into the wrongness of his motivations. More: sometimes we need to see the ugly side of ourselves brought to light in order to find a better way. Maybe these psalms can serve as a mirror, and a warning.

    The psalms are provocative, to say the least. Wrestling with their significance, without coming to a final conclusion, is worthwhile in itself. Leaving them open ended and troubling may be part of our listening process.

  5. Thanks for this excellent post, Fritz.

    My bias is for including the entire psalter and not omitting the parts we don’t like. I’m not sure I’ll prevail in the revision of the St. John’s Abbey office now underway but it does seem to be moving somewhat in that direction.

    Psalm 139, “O Lord, you search me and you know me,” is everyone’s favorite psalm around here. Until you get to vss. 21-22 near the end, which we omit: “Do I not hate those who hate you, abhor those who rise against you? I hate them with a perfect hate and they are foes to me.” Vs. 23 then shifts back to pleasant and loving sentiments which end the psalm. The Mennonites in Bridgefolk pray with us, and one Mennonite said to our abbot that our omission makes the psalm less human, less real. For it is *exactly* our experience that the heart moves in a split second from peace to rage, and then back to peace again. Exactly right. I hope the abbot will support my efforts to put the missing verses back in. We shall see.

    awr

  6. My only skepticism on including the cursing verses is that modern Christians often use Biblical examples of anger to justify their own, be it righteous or personal. Jesus got angry with the John 2 moneychangers, so even my temple isn’t off-limits for an outburst, right? Modern people love their curses–f-bombs galore wherever you turn. It gets to the point that cursing becomes all too routine. It loses its edge, its power. It becomes self-indulgent.

    The psalmist was rather general when singing about oppressors–they are not named. Would modern Christians be disinclined to attach persons to biblical curses: corrupt politicians, CEOs, people who sexually abused them, and such? Or would we want to tag 139:23 to the fence at the White House or corporate headquarters in town?

    The orientation I’ve tried to take to heart was attributed to Thomas Aquinas: bearing wrongs patiently, but calling out when others are wronged. I’d say if praying Christians can muster outrage for the injustices applied to other people, then sure: let’s curse the corrupted 1% from here to their sorry graves. Otherwise, tread with caution: the psalmist might be speaking of us from time to time.

  7. [I]t seems that the president and secretary of the Consilium, along with the Pope himself, didn’t really care what the majority of the Study Group or Synod of Bishops thought… I don’t think Bugnini to be the comprehensive villain that some do, but it is hard to escape the impression that in this case he had his thumb rather heavily on the scale.

    I don’t think Bugnini’s thumb needed to be pressed down particularly hard on the scale. In early 1962, during the deliberations of Vatican II’s Central Preparatory Commission on chapter IV of the draft Constitution on the Liturgy, Cardinal Montini is on record as saying the imprecatory psalms ought to be omitted from the Office psalter:

    Placet iuxta modum: scilicet quoad substantiam, attentis praesertim animadversionibus ab Em.mis Cardinalibus Tisserant, Léger, Agagianian prolatis, et a Card. Ruffini de mentione in schemate facienda circa cultum Beatae Mariae Virginis et de omittendis Psalmis deprecatoriis in Officio divino. (Acta et Documenta, Praeparatoria, vol. II, pars 3, p. 361)

    Cardinal Ruffini’s remarks on the draft can be found on pp. 338-339, where he states that Pss. 55, 58, 83, 109, 129, 137 and 140 ought to be omitted entirely, along with other imprecatory verses elsewhere in the psalter.

    This does provide evidence that Paul VI had already made his mind up about the imprecatory parts of the psalter years before the reform. That the president and secretary of the Consilium concurred with him probably acted as enough justification to overrule, for example, the overwhelming vote of the 1967 Synod of Bishops to preserve the psalter intact in the reformed Office (117 placet, 25 non placet, 31 placet iuxta modum).

    1. I got the impression from Bugnini’s book that Paul was inclined against them, but it sounds like it was maybe more than an inclination.

  8. It would be interesting to broaden this discussion. For example, is there much difference between editing the psalms to eliminate verses that offend modern sensibilities and using inclusive language in order not to offend modern sensibilities?

    1. Maybe I am being heterodox, but my reading of Jesus of Nazareth is that he was all about ‘offending sensibilities.’

      We need that challenge from the Lord. The psalms help us to confront all things human, good and bad, exultation, confidence, serenity and rage too.

      AG.

    2. I definitely think there is a difference.

      We can disagree that the inclusive language should be used, but I don’t think there’s any disagreement that it represents the actual meaning of the phrase. For instance, nobody thinks that when the priest says “Orate, fratres” he is literally telling only the men to pray, and not the women. This does not mean that it should be translated as “pray, brothers and sisters”, but if it were, that would not be a distortion of the intent of the phrase.

      This is very different from actually omitting entire psalms or verses of psalms without even the option of their use.

      1. Right. St. Jerome himself went into the contextual difference between homo and vir in Latin, as well. That said, Sarum used Fratres et Sorores. I would argue that rhe Roman uses are more appropriate to the Roman Rite, though.

    3. Paul, It’s not about “modern sensibilities”. Jesus asks us–commands us–to forgive our enemies and all the rest. These psalms seem to celebrate revenge and even cruelty. I hope you’re not advocating for a supposed earlier, pre modern Christianity that was unapologetically ready to bash non believers while advocating a strict patriarchal order?

      Or are you dating the modern era as starting with Christ?

      1. I was just being Devil’s Advocate. It seems to me that a furore about omitting unpleasant psalm verses, or transforming psalmic language into inclusivity, is in the same realm as the furore over omitting dated or unpleasant verses in hymns, or updating the language of those hymns. One can agree or disagree. But taking up philosophical positions on these questions seems a little pointless.

        The Church admitted, or failed to admit, portions of books or even entire books when gradually coalescing what became the Canon of Scripture. The Index of Banned Books did something analogous closer to our own time. Vatican II moved to update and refine the Church’s liturgy. What is being discussed here is simply a recent manifestation of this updating phenomenon, which will no doubt always be with us.

      2. Our Lord is the same God that did all the wrath stuff in the Old Testament. Some say that the “Angel of the Lord” that destroyed Sodom was the 2nd Person of the Trinity… He certainly had no problem flipping tables and lashing out the moneylenders with a whip. His mercy in infinite… yet so is His justice.

        Pius Parsch spoke to the Christian interpretation of the curse Psalms as reflecting of God’s perfect Justice in which iniquity will be righted. This was included in the Baronius reprint of the Collegeville 1962 Breviary after Summorum Pontificum (along with other good writings), which I pray daily.

      3. I agree with Gary Castro. The “Angel (of the) Lord” and the “Word (of the) Lord” in the Old Testament were manifestations of the Second Person of the Trinity. But the wrath of God is the experience of the unrepentant sinners (or those who are unfortunately connected to them) who encounter God’s justice (his setting right all the wrongs in creation). Encountering God is like fire. See 1 Cor 3 10-15. And as St. Luke wrote, Christ was to be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel. The NT interprets the Roman invasion in 70AD as being a result of Christ’s coming and not being received. And those closest to him, his Mother, the Apostles and his earliest followers all suffered greatly (though they also experienced greater joy at that same time).

    4. 2 different things. Excluding “angry” expressions is a prudential judgment for considering the maturity of a liturgical assembly. Many monasteries, it seems to me, are able to handle this. Christians these days liable to wave guns, wish for death for their ideological foils, or willing to stamp all over people-not-like-us–this is a potential abuse in an abuse-rich secular culture which has severely affected the Church.

      I think “offending sensibilities” wasn’t the reason. Perhaps prelates interpreted it that way. I think a lot of lay people aren’t so “nice” in the way they think about persecutors–theirs or, in the case of social justice advocates, someone else’s. For a mainstream parish, I’d think considerable preaching on the psalms is needed. But for my experience, leave them in. I also pray them from the Bible more than from the LotH.

  9. “I’ve now been praying all of the imprecatory verses excised from the psalms for over a year now …”

    I find it kind of interesting when clerics decide they can just do whatever they want in praying the Breviary, but many would be scandalized by the idea that individuals can self-edit the texts of the Mass or other sacraments. The do-it-yourself attitude seems to be widespread concerning the Hours and I’ve often wondered about it. What is it about the Breviary that lends itself to this?

    There seems to be this idea that the Hours are whatever you make of them, so it doesn’t matter if you do what is prescribed or not. Fritz, was this something you were taught in Seminary, or Deacon formation? I mean, are the guys taught that the liturgy of the sacraments is fixed, but it’s not the case with the Liturgy of the Hours? Is it because private recitation makes it seem like it’s a private and personal exercise so it’s up to you? Are there rubrics I’m not aware of that say “you can pray these texts or other texts”? I get it that scholars have argued about this, but why is there so much latitude in practice?

    I understand the merit of considering the imprecatory psalms as an abstract question, and I am all for it. But in concrete terms why is following the prescribed texts not a matter of obedience, but instead a matter of convenience or of personal preference?

    1. How about this: when I hit an imprecatory verse I am pausing briefly in praying the official prayer of the church for a moment of personal reverie that happens to consist of paying that particular verse, after which I resume praying the official prayer of the Church. I hope you are not against personal reverie during prayer.

      Are there any other questions about my prayer life you might want to ask?

      1. No, I’m really serious about that. I’ve been in countless situations where people said they were taught, at Notre Dame for instance, that the reform of the hours was seriously flawed and for it really to catch on we need to do it differently, model our practice on cathedral hours, etc. When I’m with bishops, it’s always done straight as in the book, but with priests or deacons it’s rarely considered “pastoral” to do so and many alterations are made — usually by omissions, but also by adding things (never by adding the imprecatory verses, admittedly, but there’s a first time for everything). In fact, I’ve been castigated for doing it “by the book.” So it seems to me there must be some reason why “different rules apply” for the Hours. That’s why I asked.

      2. Rita, my answer is more than half serious, in that I do think that there is a difference between private recitation and public celebration of the hours. During private recitation I might pause for a lengthy period of reflection or go back a re-read a passage in the Office of Readings that is particularly striking, or even repeat a psalm if I find that my mind had wandered when first reading it—all things I would never do in public celebration. Likewise, I would never take it upon myself to add back in the imprecatory verses in public celebration (though were I a monastic I might, like Fr. Anthony, advocate for the community reciting the whole Psalter, as Benedict directed).

        I realize that when clerics pray the office their private prayer is in a sense “public,” but I don’t think that this obliterates the difference between how one might celebrate the office in private and in public. The GILH itself acknowledges this difference (e.g. allowing longer readings at the celebration of Lauds and Vespers with the people).

      3. I would also add that one reason public celebration of the hours often take great liberties is that hymnals often do not provide the resources for celebrating the hours “by the book.” They don’t have pointed verses of whole psalms, and sometimes only paraphrases of the canticles. When a bishop is going to celebrate one of the hours in public, someone will go to the time and expense of creating a worship aid, but with parish celebrations not so much. So you get a couple of responsorial psalms intended for !ass and a metrical paraphrase of the Magnificat and we salve our conscience by calling it the “Cathedral Office.”

      4. Fritz,

        You have pointed out a serious problem with the attempt to bring back the Liturgy of the Hours as public prayer: the lack or resources. Making an English translation was the easy part. But as a public liturgy there needs to be the proper musical support. It was unfortunate that in the original effort modern hymns were used rather than already available metrical translations of the original Latin. This was a needless distortion.

        For the antiphons and psalms, I do not think that enough thought was given to how difficult it would be. This should not have been left to haphazard private initiatives, if not outright neglected. There should have been a serious effort to produced something that would allow for their singing. The antiphons, of course, would be the hardest. Perhaps some simplified chants. Precluding an immediate solution perhaps even use (gasp!) Latin antiphons until English alternatives could be composed.

        For the psalms, I do not know why the Latin pattern of verse and half-verse was not maintained. The regular psalm tones then could have easily been pointed and used. As it is now, with the verses being divided between two, three, or four stanzas, it is often difficult to know how to divide it while singing. Hopefully the new translation will correct this.

        Simple recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours will work with clergy who are familiar with it in their private lives; not so much with a public liturgy with the laity. With the proper resources perhaps the Liturgy of the Hours could become what it was intended to be: public prayer.

      5. I think the British Divine Office retains the asterisk dividing the verse (our British cousins can correct me here).

        I am part of a group that gets together for five or so days every summer to read Aquinas together (I call it “Thomas Aquinas Summer Camp”) and we chant Lauds and Vespers every day. The biggest challenge is when there is an odd number of verses but there is no dagger indicating the flex, so it is not entirely clear what you’re supposed to do where. We usually try to follow the lead of our two strongest chanters, sometimes to comic effect.

        I do hope this will be remedied in the new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours.

      6. The asterisk is missing from the American edition. The verses are divided in block paragraphs with a various number of lines. This can be further confusing when a verse spreads over two pages. Is the new line a continuation of the former verse or is it a start of a new verse?

      7. I think the British Divine Office retains the asterisk dividing the verse (our British cousins can correct me here).

        This is correct, Fritz.

        Occasionally the dagger for a flex appears in the wrong line, but apart from that all is well — at least with the psalms (don’t get me started on the British Isles Short Responsory mess-up).

        For gentle amusement, look at p. 280 of the US Roman Missal (Palm Sunday), where ICEL made a real dog’s dinner of the then-RGP version of Psalms 24 and 47, with the stanzas arranged incorrectly, pointing marks in the wrong lines, and even an entire line of Psalm 24 accidentally omitted altogether….. If the forthcoming Divine Office maintains the same standard, it will prove to be unusable.

    2. Although it is a proper liturgy, and thus the prayer of the Church rather than of an individual, the practice of individual recitation unfortunately can give the impression that it is a private devotion. We need to remind ourselves that even with private recitation it is an office of the Church, i.e. it is the Church at prayer even if it is dispersed in individual acts.

      1. Thanks, Father Anthony. I am reminded of Pius Parsch’s beautiful comments on this subject. “The breviary is above all the prayer of the Church, the prayer said in the name of the Church. . . . In liturgical prayer, I feel more like a member of a great community, like a little leaf on the great living tree of the Church. I share her life and her problems. The Church is praying through my mouth, I offer her my tongue to pray with her for all the great objectives of redemption, and for God’s honor and glory. “

      2. An appreciation that the Liturgy of the Hours is a prayer of the Church and not of the individual would also help to give context to the imprecatory psalms if the Church were ever to restore them. The enemy is not a personal or private one for whom we seek revenge but the enemies of the faith with whom we seek a spiritual victory.

    3. Rita, I very much appreciate your raising the point about clerics changing elements in the Liturgy of the Hours. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this Prayer of The Church is seldom celebrated as a “work of the people”. In seminaries, monasteries and religious houses these “Hours” are prayed in a proper liturgical manner. But secular priests and deacons are commanded to pray the hours privately as part of their sacred duties. Some are more faithful than others, but an overriding issue is that the manner in which the hours are laid out in the “breviary” (a word unknown to most Catholics) pose a challenge to those who must pray them privately. Should liturgies be celebrated privately on a day in and day out basis?

      1. This discussion strikes me as yet another bit of evidence that the conciliar reforms of the Office were timid and lacked vision. I’d give them a D-minus. I’ve long believed that multiple forms are needed, unless the institution wishes to continue the Liturgy of the Hours as a private devotion. Which it is, as constituted in the shorter book, the single book, and certainly the four-volume set.

        Are psalms 58, 83, and 109 appropriate for children? Likely not. Would a home celebration of Compline at bedtime need more than 4, 91, and/or 134 for children? Likely not. Would the omission of 86 be a bad thing? Not if it sparked boys and girls memorizing 134 and even 4 with their parents.

        I don’t perceive that either traditional-leaning clerics nor Vatican II reformers really take the Hours seriously as a liturgy inclusive of lay people. It’s a private devotion, period. The discussion about imprecatory psalms (the inclusion of which I would support) is a distraction from the lack of a real reform and implementation of praying Lauds, Vespers, and Compline among a wider swath of believers.

      2. Todd,

        Prior to the Council there were two different forms. The Divine Office, although reduced in practice to a private devotion for clergy, was nevertheless the public office of the Church. For truly private devotion there was the Little Office. One of the faults of the reform was to try to make the Liturgy of the Hours cover both purposes.

        To facilitate a public celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours by the laity in parishes perhaps we should, at least initially, scale back our ambition with it. Rather than pushing it for daily use by the laity in imitation of the clergy, limit it to a solemn celebration on Vespers on Sundays and Solemnities. The work to develop a full musical resources for this would be less demanding than for trying to do so for the full day and the entire week and feast days. These would also be the when the laity would be more likely to participate. A daily celebration, while ideal in a cathedral or monastery, is too much for a parish. For private celebrations revive the Little Office.

      3. Agree 100% with Todd. The problem with the postconciliar reform of the Office was that they entrusted the reform to the “professional pray-ers” instead of casting the net more widely.

        It is interesting to me that even the clerical Office as reformed was found not suitable by those in monastic life, with congregations and orders compiling their own cursus of the psalms and making other modifications.

      4. I somehow had the impression that even before the reforms monastic communities had their own form of the office. Was this not the case?

      5. I guess I am a bit confused Todd. You lament the LOTH as being a private devotion, yet the example you give, Compline at Bed Time, is an example of a private devotion par excellence. Going over the GILH, it appears it had three type of celebration in mind to make it the pubic prayer of the Church 1) monostatic settings, 2) parishes, and 3) those who are bound by law – clergy, third order laity and those who which to take up the breviary as their own.

        Settings one and three were to some extent low hanging fruit. Two didn’t take off probably for a myriad of reasons. Most obvious are the contraction of resources and personal starting the 1950s. The emergence of anticipated Saturday evening masses and also Sunday evening masses filled out time slots that could have been used for parish level celebrations of the hours on the weekends.

      6. “The emergence of anticipated Saturday evening masses and also Sunday evening masses filled out time slots that could have been used for parish level celebrations of the hours on the weekends.” That was a foreseeable consequence of laying all the emphasis on the Mass as source and summit to the *practical* exclusion of other liturgies and devotional para-liturgies.

        Bingo on that point.

        Any office designed with regular prayer of parish communities in mind probably would benefit from imagining the major offices for Sundays/Solemnities – Vespers I/Lauds/Vespers II – becoming the principal form of corporate worship in parish worship clusters where there is no priest reliably available for preside at Sunday Mass and where (this is more of a leap, but it has precedent in Eastern practice) the Church has commuted the preceptual requirement to participate in Mass to participation in corporate celebration of one of those offices (rather than *dispense* with the preceptual requirement entirely). The latter point is not unimportant, because it would include in the frame the idea of people being required to join, and therefore it might a larger and less self-selected group than if that were not the case, which could affect the desiderata for structuring such celebrations.

        (For what it’s worth, my sense is that this is the only way celebration of such Offices are likely to “take off” in territorially-defined parish worship clusters.)

      7. Liam,
        I think you are spot on. For the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S., their local adaptation of canon specifically allows for the celebration of the canonical hours to fulfill the Sunday and holiday obligation in any jurisdiction. So a canonical Ukrainian Catholic in this country could fulfill his or her obligation but attending Advent Vespers on Saturday or Sunday evening in a Roman Catholic monastery/parish while a Roman Catholic could not.

        The LOTH already has adaptions to use the Sunday lectionary in Sunday celebrations without a priest.

      8. Possible Correction: New particular law of the Ukrainian Catholic Church was issued in 2018. I do not know if the U.S. adaption found in U.S. Ukrainian Catholic pastoral guide is still in force.

      9. A few things:

        Compline at bedtime in the domestic church is a liturgy prayed by parents and children. It’s not a devotion. Ordinarily, one would not do it alone. A volume of compline for families would contain elements accessible and intelligible to young children, and adaptable for different ages.

        I lean to agreement about evening Masses. The “problem” predates Vatican II, and is twofold: the connection of liturgical obligation with Mass more than liturgy or even a combination with charity, and the long-time emphasis on receiving Communion. The more immediate blame I think is on whatever group formulated the Hours, and of course, on bishops and pastors of large churches who don’t make the Hours a parish priority.

      10. “secular priests and deacons are commanded to pray the hours privately” – not in the General Introduction, where the public nature of the “Prayer of the Church” is repeatedly emphasised. Pastors are requested to get their flock to pray with them. Praying the hours alone is very much the least desired option.

      11. From the Code of Canon Law:

        Can. 276 §2.3. Priests and deacons aspiring to the presbyterate are obliged to carry out the liturgy of the hours according to the proper and approved liturgical books.

        This binds personally even when it is impractical or impossible to carry out as a public liturgy.

      12. You make my point Father – the word “privately” does not appear in that Canon Law. Is there any reason why a cleric should not sit in church saying the Office aloud, even if no one else participates?
        The 1662 Book of Common Prayer ordered all who have a cure of souls to say their (Anglican) office in church so that people could participate if they wished. And I read recently a complaint by parishioners to a bishop in Austria, around the time of the reformation, that the local clergy were not saying their Office in public. This bothered them as much as the reason, which was that the clergy were off spending their Mass stipends on drink and women.

      13. An option never considered. Although there must be exceptions when a priest is traveling or otherwise cannot get to the church. If so implemented for the entire cursus at their proper times, and not just for vespers, this would greatly change the daily life and duties of a priest and perhaps of the priesthood itself. Worth considering. I would like to hear from others on this.

    4. I cannot provide a citation at the moment, but there are sections of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours that say that longer readings can be used, or other readings from the week or season can be interchanged, so indeed some portion of the Breviary is up to personal choices. Whether that leeway can be applied to the Psalter is another question. But, in principle, even if I don’t like it, there is leeway baked into the Office.

      1. You are right. At Night Prayer, for example, the traditional three psalms, 4, 91, and 134 can be prayed at any evening. Also, the particular liturgical calendar of a diocese or parish: one must account for patronal feasts and dedication anniversaries of both the cathedral and diocese. The online versions of the Hours don’t alert users to that. Nor do the various single or multi-volume editions of the books.

      2. These paragraphs are ad rem:

        46 A longer scripture reading may be chosen, especially for celebrations with the people. It may be taken from the Office of Readings or from the passage read at Mass, and especially from those texts left unread for various reasons. On occasion, there is no reason why a more suitable reading may not be chosen in accordance with the norms of nn 248–249, 251.

        141 In the Liturgy of the Hours, there may be a longer or a shorter reading of sacred scripture.

        142 A longer reading is optional for Lauds and Vespers. This has been described above in n 46.

        246 Provided that the general arrangement of each Hour is maintained and that the rules which follow are observed, texts other than those found in the Office of the day may be chosen on particular occasions.

        247 In the Office of Sundays, solemnities, feasts of the Lord which are in the General Calendar, on ferial days of Lent and Holy Week, during the octaves of Easter and Christmas, and on the ferial days between 17 and 24 December inclusive, it is never permitted to change the texts which are proper or appropriated to the celebration. These include the antiphons, hymns, readings, responsories, concluding prayers, and, very often, the psalms. In place of the Sunday psalms of the current week, the Sunday psalms of another week may be sub-stituted if desired. Especially in the Office with the people, other psalms may be chosen so as gradually to bring the people to a deeper understanding of the psalter.

        248 In the Office of Readings, the continuous reading of scripture should always be highly regarded. The wish of the Church that ‘a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people over a set cycle of years’161also applies to the Office.

        Therefore, the sequence of scripture readings given in the Office of Readings for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Eastertide should be maintained; during the ordinary time of the year, for a good reason, on a given day or for a few successive days, the readings may be selected from among those given for other days or even from other readings of the scriptures, for example, during retreats, pastoral gatherings, times of prayer for Christian unity and other things of this kind.

        250 Likewise in the Office of Readings, instead of the second reading assigned to a particular day, if there is a good reason, another reading may be chosen from the same season, taken either from The Divine Office or from the optional Lectionary (n 161). Furthermore, on ordinary ferial days of the year, and if it seems suitable even during Advent, Christmas, Lent and Eastertide, a quasi-continuous reading may be taken from a work of one of the Fathers. This work should be in harmony with the spirit of the bible and the liturgy.

  10. Thank you, Fritz, for this most interesting article.

    Those who would like to see all the omitted verses will find them arranged here, together with some theological commentary on the significance of their official excision from the prayer of the Church.

    https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-omission-of-difficult-psalms-and.html

    Thanks be to God the Roman Breviary or Breviarium Romanum has made quite a comeback these days, among clergy, some religious, and many laity.

  11. Devin wrote: “Encountering God is like fire.” Indeed. Our sins are consumed; those things which keep us from growing into Christ are burnt away. This is something different from wishing for the eternal damnation of those “who are even unfortunately associated” with evil (and what does that mean?). I suppose one can hold that God follows a strict retributive justice a la lettre (not you Devin, obviously!). I also find Christ to advocate something else entirely; forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

    Mercy and Justice have met. And it’s a good thing for all of us!

    I don’t pray for my enemies to be laid bleeding in the dust. Frankly, I don’t I have any ‘enemies’ in my day to day life–except spiritual enemies, that I try to deal with in non violent terms. And yes, I realize that this last is a privileged condition. Others face real persecution.

  12. I think it’s important to remember that Vatican II started in the shadow of all the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century. If Pope Paul VI was concerned about how cruel words could lead to harm or whether the Church could adequately catechize against misuse, it is not surprising.

    As a lay person, I have prayed the liturgy of the hours during various times in my life and love them, especially the invitatory. Recently, I have very much enjoyed an app that provides the U.S. translations along with audio. I hope the hours are done more at churches if only through lay prayer. I think the perfect can be the enemy of the good though. If people have resources, chant and the official hymns are great. However, if people can only manage popular hymns and spoken psalms, that can be very accessible and very spiritual, perhaps even more spiritual to people for whom chant seems difficult.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.