Yesterday, in a moment of mild exacerbation over—yes—something I read on the Internet, I tweeted out the following: “I remain astonished that there are people out there deeply devoted to private revelations and yet don’t pray the Psalms.” (In retrospect, I probably should have just said “private devotions” generally.) Thankfully, no one took my remark as a knock against devotion to Our Lady of Fatima (a devotion I hold and have recently defended). My point (to the extent one can have a “point” in a tweet) was to express a real perplexity over present day devotional priorities, one which I admit likely plays into certain Protestant-based narratives about the Scriptural ignorance of Catholics and the absence of a surefire Biblical foundation to the Catholic Faith. Then again, on that matter, Protestants aren’t entirely wrong. Catholic Biblical literacy is probably as poor as it has ever been since the advent of the printing press; just because people own Bibles doesn’t mean they read them. Further, given the extent to which the ideologically charged “findings” of “objective Biblical science” have penetrated Catholic Scriptural exegesis and preaching (“The words the second-century author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Johannine community’s conception of the Jesus who rose in their hearts…”), I long for the days when the Biblical text had to be copied-out by hand—in Greek or Latin, safe from the raw idiocy of armchair exegetes.
But in many ways that’s a separate matter from the one which caught my attention, namely the sure and steady replacement of the Church’s public prayer (appropriated, I should add, from the public prayer of the pre-Christian Jews) with devotions which often have less than half-a-millennium of history behind them. No doubt the reasons for this phenomenon are complex, particularly in the Latin Church where the Divine Office has all but disappeared from parish life despite the greater “accessibility” of the rather problematic Liturgy of the Hours. Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite do a noticeably better job of things, though restoring Matins or even the small hours (Terce and Sext) to regular usage has been a struggle for many Greco-Catholic parishes in the West. It’s difficult not to sympathize a tad bit with certain liturgical extremists who throw their hands up in the air when they see 30 minutes of para-liturgical devotions before morning Mass but no interest in reciting Prime in common.
It seems that there is a sense among too many Catholics that the Psalms, if not the Bible as a whole, “belong to the Church,” which by that they mean, “Belong to the priests.” It is the duty of the cleric to recite the Miserere, De Profundis, and Laudate Dominum de caelis; it is the reserve of the people to make novenas to the Sacred Heart and pray the Rosary.
Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let me make clear that I have nothing against para-liturgical and/or private devotions per se, particularly ones with as long and wonderful history as the Rosary. Moreover, I am not insensitive to the fact that for a significant portion of Christian history, most lay folk were illiterate and therefore depended largely on fairly simple, memorized prayers (Pater, Ave, and Gloria). Even as recently as the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Alphonsus and the members of the Redemptorist order sought to instruct the poor and uneducated faithful in meditative prayer so that they may draw closer to God in their everyday lives. Praise be. However, it should be recalled that before the spread of prayer books and increased literacy, the public recitation of the Divine Office was far, far more prevalent than it is today. It was not absent from the life of the Church—the whole Church—even if, arguably, it may have been kept at some distance from the laity.
Despite likely being in the minority, I am convinced that until the liturgical life of the Church is revived for the people of God (clerical and lay), the Church’s spiritual and physical health will not be restored. This has to mean more than just the Mass (Divine Liturgy), even if it is necessary to begin there. Christianity, particularly in the West, has been reduced to a “Sunday church,” and with regard to Catholicism in particular, liturgical observance is primarily thought of in terms of legal obligation rather than an integral part of a renewed life in Christ. And that must mean more than being present at the Eucharist; it must also mean standing in continuity with all God’s people throughout the millennia, giving praise and worship to God at the dawning of the day and the setting of the sun.
May 15, 2017
Fr Robert Taft SJ in his history of the Divine Office points out at one point that we have more and stronger extant evidence from the first millennium of certain local Churches mandating lay attendance (!) at weekday (!!) public Offices (!!!), than of any canonical “Sunday obligation.”
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