OR MUCH of his pontificate, and right from the start of it, Pope Francis has spoken openly against a certain kind of CLERICALISM amongst the clergy. That is, a false understanding of priestly service. One of the ways pastors can better serve their people is to offer them every opportunity to participate in the richness of the Church’s liturgies, and these opportunities are not limited to the Holy Mass.
Well before the Second Vatican Council, the Popes Pius (X, XI, and XII) had written about the importance of actuoso participatio. In a 1987 article for Sacred Music, the redoubtable Msgr. Richard Schuler documented this history:
* * PDF Download • “Actuosa Participatio” (Msgr. Richard Schuler)
The public singing of Vespers is an antidote to the kind of clericalism that Pope Francis consistently speaks against. How? When pastors offer to the people, as the Church desires, the prayer which they themselves are required to do privately, they keep nothing to themselves. But by denying their flocks the fullness of public prayer, pastors decide, against the wishes of the Church, what to make available to the laity. That’s a lack of service, and that’s clericalism.
In his important volume 1 on the liturgy, Msgr. Peter J. Elliot cites Sacrosanctum Concilium, §100: “Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts.”
HOW CAN VESPERS BE INTRODUCED to a parish? My first recommendation is to start slowly, offering it on an important day such as Pentecost, then seasonally. After a while you may be able to expand this to once per month. It will soon become part of the flow of the liturgical life of the community.
Be prepared to do a tremendous amount of work. You will have to train choirs, cantors, servers, deacons and priests, create worship aids, do the advertising, and perhaps even compose some antiphons (for services in English). For the service, lower the lighting and use candles wherever possible. Teach and perform solemn and uniform liturgical motions, gestures, and actions. Copy from places that do it well. The bottom line is, you will probably have to do everything yourself to make this a success. But do it anyway!
Vespers can be sung with one cantor, a small schola, or an entire choir. In addition to an SATB choir, you can spice things up, one time employing just the women of the choir, another time, just the men. At Notre Dame in Paris, Vespers is sung almost exclusively by two cantors. This can also be effective, and will give your choir a chance to attend Vespers to help the congregation sing their parts.
A distinguishing aspect of sung Evening Prayer is the way the Entrance and Retiring processions are carried out. Organ improvisations, sometimes based on seasonal melodies or completely abstract, are especially impactful. In our parish—in an attempt to imitate in a small way what happens at Notre Dame—the organ begins the ENTRANCE PROCESSION for the choir, servers and clergy. About half way through the procession, as the organ begins to build, a large hand-bell is rung, indicating the time for the people to stand. This is all well-orchestrated, and the formal role-playing of all involved lends an air of both liturgical solemnity and actuoso participatio.
After a few publicly-offered Vespers, you’ll end up with a small but loyal cohort who attend because they love it. They love the beauty, the stillness, the solemnity, and the smoke. It’s literally smells and bells. And don’t count the number of people in attendance. That’s not why you do it. You do it because it’s the prayer of the Church, and she wants us to pray together. And that is most certainly “the spirit of the Council.”
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This book’s full title is: “Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite: the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours.” Everyone should own and read Msgr. Elliot’s various volumes on the liturgy.