The Vespers Apostlate

vespersI was going to send this idea to a Dominican friend, but I’ll post it here:

If I could ask for one great pastoral initiative (especially from the Friars Preachers), it would be sung Vespers, with benediction and good preaching, and a priest in the confessional the whole time.

This idea especially struck me on a recent vacation, in a parish with pretty bad liturgy and preaching.

Lots of little points:

  1. What strikes me, first, is that the problem is more a lack than any positive evil. This is a disputable point, but this is how it seems to me. Yes, yes, there are many evils taught in our society.  But the key point is, people don’t know what prayer is, what liturgy is, what the Gospel is, or what Catholicism is really about.  They need someone to show them.
  1. Fixing parishes is a huge problem. It requires a huge work of priestly education – a work many of us are involved in (I teach in a seminary – and perhaps you just support your priests), but it will take a long time (since the men we educate now will not be pastors for a long time) and a huge cooperation (since none of us alone can change everyone). But even good pastors are up against hugely complicated parish situations, with all the complications of hundreds of malformed parishioners.  These are things we should work on – but the danger is that, seeing such a huge work, we are tempted to give up and do nothing.  We should all do our best to improve Sunday Mass, but honestly, most of the work has to happen somewhere else. That’s why I propose Evening Prayer, Vespers.  It doesn’t have to involve all the parishioners.  Lay people can go to Vespers at a different church from their parish, and come back refreshed to renew their parish.  Priests, or even lay people, can lead vespers even if they are not pastors.
  1. Another danger is trying to convert everyone at once. Often it means watering things down, to try to win people who aren’t much inclined to be won. To the contrary, I think we can do a lot more by supporting those who are actively seeking.  If people want to pray, if they want good preaching, if they want to go deeper, give them the opportunity.  Rather than watering things down so that no one will be much converted, we need to help create the saints who can be real apostles – to their neighbors, to their family, to their coworkers.  And if those apostles get people interested, we need to have somewhere good to bring them.


  1. But we don’t want to take people out of their parishes. We need those apostles everywhere. They are the force for renewal in parishes.  One danger is that we can form separatist parishes, so that everyone serious about their faith leaves behind the parishes and pastors that so desperately need them – and think of the need: yes, there are a lot of confused people in those parishes, but they are interested enough to get there on Sunday morning.  This is fertile ground.  We need apostles in the parishes.

Another danger is that we nurture a spirituality that has nothing to do with Sunday Mass.  The first problem with this is for those we preach to: Sunday Mass is the source and summit of our faith; we need to teach people to benefit from it, not lead them away.    The second problem is for the other people at Sunday Mass: what the parish needs most is people who can show what Sunday Mass is all about.  To nurture parish apostles, we need to teach people how to pray Sunday Mass better.

The Liturgy of the Hours is a great way to do that.  Show people what real liturgical prayer is about.  Nurture their liturgical spirituality.  With adoration and benediction, teach them to long for the Eucharist.  With the Psalms, teach them to cling to the words of Scripture.  With good preaching, teach them what everything else is really about – teach them how to listen to Scripture at Mass, how to sort out the good points in the often confused homilies, to receive the Eucharist with the fervor it deserves.


My proposal can be broken into parts.  I would be happy if priests just sat in the confessional, without preaching, vespers, benediction, or good music.  We can pray the liturgy of the hours even without priests, in our homes and communities, with or without serious liturgical music.  And we can preach elsewhere – this web site is one effort to preach the Gospel outside the liturgy.

But wouldn’t it be better if communities could form around all of these things at once?  Vespers Sunday evening, or midweek.  Morning Prayer for mothers.  All done well, prayerfully, beautifully, with serious preaching, and confession, and benediction.  Liturgy will save the world.

What elements of this plan could you implement?  What alternatives can you suggest?



The Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.

This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.


The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.

Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.

But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).

In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.


But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.

And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.


What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:

1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.

2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.

3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.

What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.

Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?

The Little Hours

page186-Liturgy of the hoursThe Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies time by spreading liturgical praises throughout the day.

Traditionally, there is prayer in the night (the old hour of Matins, composed of three sections called “vigils”; Vatican II reformed this into the Office of Readings, and gave the option to non-monks to pray it during the day), morning prayer (called “lauds,” or the hour of praise), prayer at the beginning of the day (the old hour of Prime, which Vatican II suppressed: it mostly ended up being tacked on to other hours), mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon, evening prayer, and bedtime, or compline.


liturgy five partFun fact: in the old Roman reckoning, time is counted from sunrise, with the length of “hours” adjusted according to the length of the day. Thus the “third hour” would be nine a.m., the sixth noon, etc. But a funny inversion happened in the history of Western languages. The main meal was often eaten after mid-afternoon prayer: the ninth hour, or nona hora. Thus the hour of the main meal came to be called “noon,” from nona, or ninth – but we slid it earlier and earlier, all the way up to midday.

Meanwhile, it was common to take a little rest after midday prayer, at the sixth hour, sexta hora. This nap came to be called siesta, from sexta. We have inverted noon and the siesta, but their names come from the liturgical hours that preceded them.


lauds1One of the great pushes of the liturgical reforms at Vatican II was to rediscover the sanctification of the hours in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is for this reason that the name was changed from “The Divine Office” to “Liturgy of the Hours”: to underline that the point of these prayers was always precisely to spread prayer throughout the day.

It was standard practice in the couple centuries before the Council to squish the hours together. Even a contemplative monastery might, for example, pray morning prayer, mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon first thing in the morning, then evening prayer, compline, and matins before dinner. Sometimes it was more confused than that: I have seen horaria of otherwise healthy nineteenth-century monasteries where morning prayer of the next day is prayed before dinner. This sort of misses the point.

It is especially strange when one sees that the traditional ways of distributing the Psalms (there were a few different ways) focuses on times of day. Psalms that mention morning go in the morning, etc. But over time, otherwise healthy religious orders lost track of this liturgical sanctification of the day.


downloadAlong with calling for the restoration of the hours to their proper places, Vatican II also called for a broader distribution of the Psalms. Traditionally, monks have prayed all 150 Psalms (plus Old Testament and Gospel canticles) every week, some Psalms every day. This is the heart of traditional monastic spirituality. But it takes a lot of time to pray it well.

One might be working along alright – and then one finds five Psalms at dinner (unless one also has to catch up on the three from mid-afternoon), another three at bedtime, and then nine in the middle of the night. Five Psalms for morning prayer might work alright – but it was immediately followed by three more for prima hora, or Prime. And then three more in the mid-morning. It’s hard to keep up with this.

Vatican II’s solution was to spread the Psalter out over multiple weeks – the Council just said “multiple,” the final decision was four. The reason for this was not to water down the Liturgy of the Hours, but to beef it up. Even contemplatives were having a hard time praying the Divine Office seriously. By diminishing the amount of material that had to be covered, the Council Fathers hoped to make it easier to pray the hours at their proper time of day, and to pray them well, really entering into the Psalms instead of just saying them quickly. They hoped to reestablish a true Liturgy of the Hours spirituality.


One way we can embrace this mentality is by cultivating the often forgotten “little hours”: mid-morning, midday, and mid-afternoon. The true spirit of the liturgy does not require us to say as many Psalms as the monks did. But if we broke three times, or even once or twice, in the course of our day to pray even one Psalm, or one part of a Psalm, or just a Hail Mary and an Our Father, we too could help to immerse all of time in prayer.