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Vespers: An Often Forgotten Universal Prayer of the Church

“Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, it is the day of Christians, it is our day.”

-St. Jerome

The leisure suits, felt banners, and clown Masses prevalent in the 1970s are not the sort of seedbed one envisions for the start of a 45-year liturgical tradition of chanting Sunday Vespers in Latin with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. But bucking the heartbreaking liturgical trends of that time, the Church of St. Agnes in its unassuming neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, started and continues the beautiful custom to this day.

Years ago, I was a seminarian, spending three years with the Diocese of Lincoln, two years with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, and a short time as a hermit. Sunday Vespers was something I took for granted because it was built into the horarium of the day. It wasn’t a choice, though it was something I wanted to do. In contrast, my “horarium” as a layman, lawyer, husband, and father of five looks much different. Many things can snatch away the time of a Sunday afternoon. When our first several children were young, I thought there was no time to go to Vespers at St. Agnes. But over the years, even with a growing family, I realized that our Sundays needed more than just attending Holy Mass in order to infuse the day with a true spirit of leisure and the rejuvenation that comes with it. The depths of my soul missed the chanting of Vespers.

So, following the example of my father-in-law (who has served at St. Agnes Vespers for 35 years), I began making Sunday Vespers a staple again, regardless of whatever else might be going on, bringing along my three oldest children. Over the years, the Sunday Vespers Psalms and antiphons have become part of them too. It particularly struck me the first time I overheard them singing lines from the Psalms while bounding up the stairs.

The pace of modern society can be oppressive and disorienting. Perhaps more than ever, it is necessary for us as Catholics to intentionally make Sunday different than the other days of the week, and not just by attending the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I recall the example of now Fr. Gregory Pendergraft, FSSP, in the seminary resolving to refrain from studying on Sundays. It was a concrete, simple way of making Sunday different than other days. But it required intentionality. Yet, Sundays should be intentional and different.

Josef Pieper in Leisure: The Basis of Culture noted the necessity of periodically focusing on the wonder of creation, which can only be effected by periods of leisure, the “soul” of which is “celebration,” that is, “man’s affirmation of the universe and his experiencing the world in an aspect other than its everyday one.” The most “intense affirmation of the world” is the “praise of the Creator of this very world.” (Id.) But such celebration and worship require formation or a relearning of fundamental principles best taught by the “true school” (vera schola): Sunday, the Day of the Lord. (Pope St. John Paul II, Dies Domini ¶ 83.) Vespers does precisely that.

“The ideal of Christian life is that each one be united to God in the closest and most intimate manner.” (Pius XII, Mediator Dei ¶ 138.) Our “most pressing duty” is “to live the liturgical life, and increase and cherish its supernatural spirit.” (Id. ¶ 197.) And “[u]nquestionably, liturgical prayer, being the public supplication of the illustrious spouse of Jesus Christ, is superior in excellence to private prayers.” (Id. ¶ 37.) The “worship that the Church renders to God, and which is based especially on the eucharistic sacrifice …, is directed and arranged in such a way that it embraces by means of the divine office, the hours of the day, the weeks and the whole cycle of the year, and reaches all the aspects and phases of human life.” (Id. ¶ 138.) The “Mystical Body of Jesus Christ” has as its prayer the Divine Office. (Id. ¶ 142.) For these reasons, the Church has exhorted the laity to “participate in reciting or chanting vespers sung in their own parish” because of the “salutary results when [V]espers are conducted in a worthy and fitting manner.” (Id. ¶ 150.) “Although the Church only commands the faithful to abstain from servile work and attend Mass and does not make it obligatory to attend evening devotions, still she desires this and recommends it repeatedly.” (Id.) Not only that, but “the needs of each one demand it, seeing that all are bound to win the favor of God if they are to obtain His benefits.” (Id.) “Sundays and holy days, then, must be made holy by divine worship, which gives homage to God and heavenly food to the soul.” (Id.) The Church has exhorted all to “come to our churches and there be taught the truth of the Catholic faith, sing the praises of God, be enriched with the benediction of the [B]lessed [S]acrament … and be strengthened with help from heaven against the adversities of this life. Let all try to learn those prayers which are recited at [V]espers and fill their souls with their meaning. When deeply penetrated by these prayers, they will experience what St. Augustine said about himself: ‘How much did I weep during hymns and verses, greatly moved at the sweet singing of thy Church. Their sound would penetrate my ears and their truth melt my heart, sentiments of piety would well up, tears would flow and that was good for me.’” (Id.) Indeed, “[e]ven in lay life, when possible why not make provision for special times of prayer—especially the solemn celebration of Vespers … which on the eve of Sunday or on Sunday afternoon might prepare for or complete the gift of the Eucharist in people’s hearts?” (Dies Domini ¶ 52.) “This rather traditional way of keeping Sunday holy has perhaps become more difficult for many people; but the Church shows her faith in the strength of the Risen Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit by making it known that, today more than ever, she is unwilling to settle for minimalism and mediocrity at the level of faith. She wants to help Christians to do what is most correct and pleasing to the Lord.” (Id.)

Fortunately, decades ago at St. Agnes in St. Paul, Monsignor Richard Schuler and Paul LeVoir were cognizant of the importance of Sunday Vespers, and started a tradition rooted in the patrimony of the Church, and anyone in the Twin Cities can partake in this tradition that the Church exhorted long, long ago. Every Sunday afternoon, time is carved out voluntarily, intentionally, and God is worshipped in a sacred language, using the ancient tones chanted from time immemorial. You cannot hustle through Psalm 113 (“In exitu Israel de Aegypto”) in Sunday Vespers in the 1962 Divine Office; you have to stop all else, and let time unfold. Vespers transforms Sundays, which as Catholics, are to be the soul of the other days. But you have to choose it.

I write of Vespers at St. Agnes for two reasons. First, to note that beautiful traditions can be started, even during the unlikeliest of times (think 1970s or even now). If your parish or a church within driving distance has Sunday Vespers, go. If you are in the Twin Cities, come to St. Agnes for Vespers. You won’t regret prioritizing it before all else. It reinforces to ourselves (and in particular, our children) that all else should give way to the worship of God, good as those other things might be. If your parish does not have Sunday Vespers, consider asking your priest to start it (or if you are a priest reading this, consider starting it). If you are trying to persuade a priest enamored with Vatican II, you might point out the instruction of Sacrosanctum Concilium that “[p]astors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays.” Second, even if your parish does not have Sunday Vespers, consider praying Vespers yourself. Include your family. Making Sunday a day intentionally different than the others requires something concrete, something that accords with the leisure of Sunday beyond just attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Embrace the leisure of Sunday by doing something that you don’t have to do, something that the Church and popes have exhorted Catholics for many years to do: pray Vespers. Join your voice to the universal prayer of the Church.

Embrace true leisure (not leisure suits), and make Sunday different.

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