Guest Post by Allison Salerno
We Roman Catholics have nearly forgotten the tradition of Vespers. A parishioner approached my priest last week after Sunday Vespers, wondering why we have started to incorporate “Anglican traditions” into our own. Thanks to some dedicated parishioners, our sons get to grow up knowing Vespers is very much a “Catholic thing.”
To be fair, I never heard of Vespers growing up Catholic in the 1970s, except for the Evensong services offered by the Episcopal church across town. I didn’t realize until recently that Vespers are evening prayer services whose roots go all the way back to the Apostles, who followed the Jewish practice of praying certain prayers at certain times of the day.
Vespers are part of the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. This is the official set of daily prayers that clergy and religious have been praying for centuries. Since the sixth century, the prayers have been virtually unchanged. Thanks to Vatican II, members of the laity are encouraged to pray them as well.
Two of our newer parishioners have urged our pastor to restore this ancient tradition of Vespers (at our parish). We are fortunate that our pastor has been not only receptive, but most enthusiastic. To quote the Second Vatican Council:
Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.—Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, § 100
About twenty parishioners have been gathering for Vespers every Sunday in Lent. The service is sacred and simple. On Sunday, the service began after our pastor entered the sanctuary in his resplendent purple cope. Then three members of our Chant Club chanted in Latin Audi, Benigne Conditor (Merciful Creator, Hear!) under the direction of a retired choir director who leapt at the opportunity to restore an ancient form. This chant is used at all Sunday Vespers during Lent. The Vespers, which include Scripture readings, prayers and psalms, took no more than 20 minutes.
So, why Vespers? As the Council was at pains to point out, we do these things for “the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” That’s good enough reason for anyone.
How powerful to consider that throughout the world, for centuries, the faithful have been praying and chanting these very same prayers and chants. What a privilege to be able to gather with my parish family to end Sundays this way.