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Bible Vigils, and Why We Don’t Have (or Need) Them

It can be bewildering, when reading about modern liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church, to compare reality (such as the disappearance of Gregorian Chant in the liturgy) with the intention, rationale, or official narrative (Gregorian Chant should have pride of place in the liturgy). While the fruits of these reforms are increasingly well documented, what can be harder to document are the missing dots: the origins, histories, and justifications that may explain a reform’s associations and fruits.

A curious case of missing dots is that of Bible vigils, or paraliturgies, discussed in detail here at New Liturgical Movement. Despite their onetime prominence — Pope Paul VI closed the Council with a Bible vigil — and support from the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 35.4) these paraliturgies have been almost completely unexplored in the literature on modern reforms.

“Mass, Bible Vigil Features of MSJA Liturgical Day”, Catholic Transcript, Oct. 10, 1963

How did this particular reform, so closely tied to Scripture and the liturgy, become entangled with so many innovations, and last such a brief amount of time?

It is tempting to start with Lawrence Dannemiller, whose 1960 book Reading the Word of God was widely cited as a foundation for explaining and composing Bible vigils. (Some years later, Dannemiller would leave the priesthood and marry, without requesting formal laicization.)

To do justice to this origin story, however, we must closely examine an otherwise unassuming article: “Bible Devotions,” by Redemptorist Father Thomas Irving Kelly in the short-lived Yearbook of Liturgical Studies. Kelly’s 1964 article in the Yearbook is invaluable for both its history of Bible vigils (which peaked the year he published the article), and for its dot connections. His article is broken into six sections, three of which are of particular interest for our purposes: Historical Development, Structure and Content, and Pastoral Possibilities.

In Historical Development, we learn that (at least the spirit of) Bible vigils can be traced to early 1950s Europe, racked with postwar despondency. The French Catholic hierarchy released instructions on paraliturgies in 1955, and Kelly states that such paraliturgies existed in Germany and Austria in the 1940s. Bible vigils took clearer shape in mid-’50s France, following the “fundamental pattern of liturgical prayers” (p. 31): readings, sung responses, and prayers. These paraliturgies were founded on a then-new Bible translation (most likely the French Jerusalem Bible). Turning to France as a model, Kelly relates,

Abbé Michonneau [of Sacré Coeur de Colombes] worked from two principles: the liturgy must be communal and must be adapted. In his attempt to do this he used “paraliturgies” which are ceremonies inspired by the texts and gestures of the liturgy but without the latter’s official character…The word “paraliturgy” is new, but the idea is ancient. It is not liturgy but seeks to express liturgical ideas. [emphasis added] (p. 30)

In “Structure and Content,” we find our first significant dot connection: a justification for paraliturgies. Bible vigils, Kelly says, can in their essentials be traced to Jewish synagogues, the early Church, the Divine Office, and most recently to Protestantism:

In our efforts to implement Vatican Council II’s exhortation to make greater use of Bible services, we must not ignore the experiences of centuries evident in the Book of Common Prayer. (p. 35)

In Pastoral Possibilities, Kelly situates the American origins of paraliturgies in the tradition of Sunday devotions. The popular practice of Sunday vespers had been replaced by the “facile substitute” of a “rosary-litany-benediction service” (p. 35), which in turn was replaced by no Sunday devotions at all. Bible vigils were, Kelly says, a response to that void, that desire for a greater exposure to prayer and God’s word.

Kelly asks the obvious question — why not revive Sunday vespers, given the ancient history of vespers and its previous popularity with laypeople? Why not turn to the rosary, to benediction, to prayer and devotions already available to us in our Catholic tradition? Kelly answers:

Gelineau points out that, although the use of vespers (and compline) are an advance in liturgical culture, grave pastoral problems arise because these offices have been so deeply influenced by monasticism. “Singing of large numbers of psalms by alternating choirs is not deeply rooted in the ordinary prayer of the faithful.” The structure and content of the Bible Devotions seem more suitable for communal prayer and are also more instructive. The second value seen in Bible services by the Roman Synod is that they contribute to our knowledge of God’s Word. Our acquaintance with the Bible is fragmentary and often limited to the pericopes read during Mass. The biblical texts should be met in a more developed form, in a vernacular setting, where full explanation and development are possible. [emphasis added] (p. 36)

Kelly closes his article with detailed suggestions on how to incorporate Bible vigils into parish life. Kelly recommends overcoming resistance and confusion by combining Bible vigils with pre-existing devotions, “which can profit greatly” from Bible vigils: rosaries, Stations of the Cross, holy hours, and evening prayers. In this way, this paraliturgy, full of innovation and vernacular, will “lead the faithful to the liturgy itself” (p. 38).

We pass over the confusing suggestion that the Divine Office was influenced by monasticism, which is akin to saying that the trip to the Moon was influenced by NASA. There are three assumptions at work in Kelly’s arguments that may make the history of many other modern reforms more explicable. The first assumption values Protestant traditions (the Book of Common Prayer, liturgy as community, Evensong) over Catholic traditions (rosaries, litanies, benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, monasticism, and the Divine Office). The rosary, benediction, and litanies have been deemed facile. The Divine Office is an unsatisfactorily “developed form” (p. 36) whose structure is too unnatural for the laity (despite the fact that Kelly has already granted the popularity of vespers among laypeople, mere paragraphs before).

This assumption results in Fr. Kelly criticizing Vespers and lauding Evensong in the space of a few paragraphs.

Matins and evensong follow the traditional liturgical prayer form and offer the means of achieving a genuine community action that has the virtue of being all at once a proclamation of the Word of God, a simple clear rite, and a catechesis in Scripture. (p 35)

[A]lthough the use of vespers (and compline) are an advance in liturgical culture, grave pastoral problems arise because these offices have been so deeply influenced by monasticism. (p. 36)

The second assumption is an underestimation of the laity: that the laity need maximum instruction and explanations regarding prayer and exposure to Scripture. Kelly is not alone in this particular assumption; it was, for example, both laypeople and monks whose desire to more perfectly prepare for Our Lord’s Passion led to the development of the season of Septuagesima. It was the members of the Council who determined that the season was too “difficult for the faithful to understand … without many explanations.” Again, Kelly contradicts his own argument by admitting the widespread popularity of practices he describes as unnatural and underdeveloped.

The last assumption, our last newly discovered dot, is the most revealing. Kelly relies on a false dichotomy between pastoral and monastic. If a spiritual or devotional practice is monastic, then it is generally unsuitable for the laity. This position is squarely at odds with the history of public prayer within the Church, in both the West and the East:

The Office, in the broad sense of the word, was prayed by the Christian Church from the dawn of her existence. Paul and Silas sang psalms in the prison in full voice so that other people could hear it (Acts 16:25). The Office, in the strict sense of the word, was born when the constituents above have been integrated and the continuous psalmody has been built organically into the regular “Folk Office.” This historical process was affected by the foundation of urban monasticism: the monks moved into the cities and became catalysts of the “pastoral” liturgy, and consequently, of the Parish Office. Simultaneously, once the persecutions stopped, the parish churches were provided with priests, deacons, acolytes, lectors, psalmists, and so became able to sing the full Office day by day, and to pray it not only with the people (cum populo), but also for the people (pro populo).

—Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

With these assumptions laid bare by our obliging Fr. Kelly, it is no longer surprising that Bible vigils did not bear more fruit — or, at the very least, last longer. The Divine Office continues to attract the laity, who do not see a conflict between monastic influence and pastoral possibilities. Rather, they are continually attracted by the opportunity for mutual enrichment and greater participation in the ancient and public prayer of the Church.

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