LITURGY Q & A: Substitutions in the Liturgy of the Hours

Fr. Edward McNamara Says ‘OK Within Limits; Intercessory Prayers Not to Be Omitted’

Light of candles into a church

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q1: Can we substitute the morning hymn at the lauds with any other unapproved hymn? Is it allowed to omit the intercessory prayers at will or because of lack of time at lauds? Can the guide substitute the psalms with irrelevant hymns or songs? – P.F., Mumbai, India. Q2: I always understood that the “Glory Be to the father” should be said at the end of every psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours. Is it now permissible, when the psalm is divided in three parts, as in the midday prayer, to omit it? – L.B., Turin, Italy

A: Since both sets of questions relate to the Liturgy of the Hours, I will address them together.

Before entering into details, however, the premise must be clear. The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of Christ and his Church and not the private devotion of any group or individual. Thus the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours asserts:

“20. The liturgy of the hours, like other liturgical services, is not a private matter but belongs to the whole Body of the Church, whose life it both expresses and affects. This liturgy stands out most strikingly as an ecclesial celebration when, through the bishop surrounded by his priests and ministers, the local Church celebrates it. For ‘in the local Church the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is truly present and at work.’ Such a celebration is therefore most earnestly recommended. When, in the absence of the bishop, a chapter of canons or other priests celebrate the liturgy of the hours, they should always respect the true time of day and, as far as possible, the people should take part. The same is to be said of collegiate chapters.

“21. Wherever possible, other groups of the faithful should celebrate the liturgy of the hours communally in church. This especially applies to parishes — the cells of the diocese, established under their pastors, taking the place of the bishop; they ‘represent in some degree the visible Church established throughout the world.’

“22. Hence, when the people are invited to the liturgy of the hours and come together in unity of heart and voice, they show forth the Church in its celebration of the mystery of Christ.”

Therefore the liturgical character of the Divine Office means that it cannot be changed at whim but must be followed faithfully. The rules for the Office, however, allow for a significant degree of adaptability to local needs and circumstances while respecting the overall structure of the rite.

Thus with respect to hymns the General Instruction says:

“173. A very ancient tradition gives hymns the place in the office that they still retain. By their mystical and poetic character they are specifically designed for God’s praise. But they also are an element for the people; in fact more often than the other parts of the office the hymns bring out the proper theme of individual hours or feasts and incline and draw the spirit to a devout celebration. The beauty of their language often adds to this power. Furthermore, in the office hymns are the main poetic element created by the Church.

“178. For vernacular celebration, the conferences of bishops may adapt the Latin hymns to suit the character of their own language and introduce fresh compositions, provided these are in complete harmony with the spirit of the hour, season, or feast. Great care must be taken not to allow popular songs that have no artistic merit and are not in keeping with the dignity of the liturgy.”

As a consequence, all hymns used in the Divine Office must be approved by a bishops’ conferences for this purpose. I think the office allows for sufficient flexibility to permit the use of a suitable hymn approved by one bishops’ conference in the territory of another. For example, the different versions of the English- and Spanish-language breviaries offer distinct selections of hymns. The English breviaries also add appendices of religious poetry. I would say that any of these approved hymns could substitute the prescribed hymn “provided these are in complete harmony with the spirit of the hour, season, or feast.”

With respect to the intercessions the text says:

“179. The liturgy of the hours is a celebration in praise of God. Yet Jewish and Christian tradition does not separate prayer of petition from praise of God; often enough, praise turns somehow to petition. The Apostle Paul exhorts us to offer ‘prayers, petitions, intercessions, and thanksgiving for all: for kings and all in authority, so that we may be able to live quiet and peaceful lives in all reverence and decency, for this is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who wishes all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tm 2:1-4). The Fathers of the Church frequently explained this as an exhortation to offer prayer in the morning and in the evening.

“180. The general intercessions, restored in the Mass of the Roman Rite, have their place also at evening prayer, though in a different fashion, as will be explained later.

“181. Since traditionally morning prayer puts the whole day in God’s hands, there are invocations at morning prayer for the purpose of commending or consecrating the day to God.

“182. The word preces covers both the intercessions at evening prayer and the invocations for dedicating the day to God at morning prayer.

“183. In the interest of variety and especially of giving fuller expression to the many needs of the Church and of all people in relation to different states of life, groups, persons, circumstances, and seasons, different intercessory formularies are given for each day of the four-week psalter in Ordinary Time and for the special seasons of the liturgical year, as well as for certain feasts.

“184. In addition, the conferences of bishops have the right to adapt the formularies given in the book of the liturgy of the hours and also to approve new ones. …

“188. It is permissible, however, to include particular intentions at both morning prayer and evening prayer.

“193. Different methods can therefore be used for the intercessions. The priest or minister may say both parts of the intention and the congregation respond with a uniform response or a silent pause, or the priest or minister may say only the first part of the intention and the congregation respond with the second part.”

Thus, once more there is flexibility to local needs but no mention whatsoever of any faculty to omit the intercessions, which form an integral part of the Divine Office of lauds and vespers. On weekdays, if morning prayer is united to Mass, the text of the intercessions may substitute the prayer of the faithful. This is not permitted on Sundays and other major feasts.

The third question refers to the psalms. Once more the General Instruction illustrates their importance in a chapter on the psalms and their connection with Christian prayer:

“100. In the liturgy of the hours, the Church in large measure prays through the magnificent songs that the Old Testament authors composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The origin of these verses gives them great power to raise the mind to God, to inspire devotion, to evoke gratitude in times of favor, and to bring consolation and courage in times of trial.

“101. The psalms, however, are only a foreshadowing of the fullness of time that came to pass in Christ the Lord and that is the source of the power of the Church’s prayer. Hence, while the Christian people are all agreed on the supreme value to be placed on the psalms, they can sometimes experience difficulty in making this inspired poetry their own prayer.

“102. Yet the Holy Spirit, under whose inspiration the psalms were written, is always present by his grace to those believers who use them with good will. But more is necessary: the faithful must ‘improve their understanding of the Bible, especially of the psalms,’ according to their individual capacity, so that they may understand how and by what method they can truly pray through the psalms.

“107. Staying close to the meaning of the words, the person who prays the psalms looks for the significance of the text for the human life of the believer. It is clear that each psalm was written in its own individual circumstances, which the titles given for each psalm in the Hebrew psalter are meant to indicate. But whatever its historical origin, each psalm has its own meaning, which we cannot overlook even in our own day. Though the psalms originated very many centuries ago among an Eastern people, they express accurately the pain and hope, the unhappiness and trust of people of every age and country, and sing above all of faith in God, of revelation, and of redemption.

“108. Those who pray the psalms in the liturgy of the hours do so not so much in their own name as in the name of the entire Body of Christ. This consideration does away with the problem of a possible discrepancy between personal feelings and the sentiments a psalm is expressing: for example, when a person feels sad and the psalm is one of joy or when a person feels happy and the psalm is one of mourning. Such a problem is readily solved in private prayer, which allows for the choice of a psalm suited to personal feelings. The divine office, however, is not private; the cycle of psalms is public, in the name of the Church, even for those who may be reciting an hour alone. Those who pray the psalms in the name of the Church nevertheless can always find a reason for joy or sadness, for the saying of the Apostle applies in this case also: ‘Rejoice with the joyful and weep with those who weep’ (Rom12:15). In this way human frailty, wounded by self-love, is healed in proportion to the love that makes the heart match the voice that prays the psalms.

“109. Those who pray the psalms in the name of the Church should be aware of their full sense (sensus plenus), especially their Messianic sense, which was the reason for the Church’s introduction of the psalter into its prayer. This Messianic sense was fully revealed in the New Testament and indeed was affirmed publicly by Christ the Lord in person when he said to the apostles: ‘All that is written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Lk 24:44). The best-known example of this Messianic sense is the dialogue in Matthew’s Gospel on the Messiah as Son of David and David’s Lord, [4] where Ps 110 is interpreted as Messianic.

“Following this line of thought, the Fathers of the Church saw the whole psalter as a prophecy of Christ and the Church and explained it in this sense; for the same reason the psalms have been chosen for use in the liturgy. Though somewhat contrived interpretations were at times proposed, in general the Fathers and the liturgy itself had the right to hear in the singing of the psalms the voice of Christ crying out to the Father or of the Father conversing with the Son; indeed, they also recognized in the psalms the voice of the Church, the apostles, and the martyrs. This method of interpretation also flourished in the Middle Ages; in many manuscripts of the period the Christological meaning of each psalm was set before those praying by means of the caption prefixed. A Christological meaning is by no means confined to the recognized Messianic psalms but is given also to many others. Some of these interpretations are doubtless Christological only in an accommodated sense, but they have the support of the Church’s tradition. On the great feasts especially, the choice of psalms is often based on their Christological meaning and antiphons taken from these psalms are frequently used to throw light on this meaning.”

Since “Those who pray the psalms in the liturgy of the hours do so not so much in their own name as in the name of the entire Body of Christ,” the psalms and other biblical canticles cannot be substituted by any other text or hymn.

Finally, as to the technical second question regarding the “Glory Be to the Father,” the General Instruction explains:

“124. When longer psalms occur, sections are marked in the psalter that divide the parts in such a way as to keep the threefold structure of the hour; but great care has been taken not to distort the meaning of the psalm. It is useful to observe this division, especially in a choral celebration in Latin; the Glory to the Father is added at the end of each section. It is permissible, however, either to keep this traditional way or to pause between the different sections of the same psalm or to recite the whole psalm and its antiphon as a single unit without a break.

“125. In addition, when the literary genre of a psalm suggests it, the divisions into strophes are marked in order that, especially when the psalm is sung in the vernacular, the antiphons may be repeated after each strophe; in this case the Glory to the Father need be said only at the end of the psalm.”

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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