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When do the psalm-prayers happen?

Posted by universalis on 23 February 2018

In the revision and renewal of the Liturgy of the Hours that was completed in the early 1970s, one of the important and interesting changes was the addition of “psalm-prayers”, collects that are inserted after each psalm and canticle. As §112 of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours puts it:

Orationes super psalmos, quae recitantes adiuvent in eorum interpretatione praecipue christiana, in Supplemento libri Liturgiae Horarum pro singulis psalmis proponuntur et possunt ad libitum adhiberi ad normam veteris traditionis, ita scilicet ut, absoluto psalmo et aliquo silentii spatio observato, oratio psallentium affectus colligat et concludat.

“Prayers on the psalms, to help those who recite the psalms to interpret them in a particularly Christian sense, are offered for each psalm in the Supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours. They can, if wished, be added to the Office, following an ancient tradition – that is, the psalm having been completed and a certain period of silence having been observed, to bring together the thoughts and feelings of those who have recited the psalm, and to bring them to a conclusion.”

The psalm-prayers were controversial. Some of the people charged with the revision of the Divine Office felt that the psalm-prayers were “burdensome and contrived” and should not be included in the Breviary: the more texts you put into an Hour, the more it seems as if the point of the Hour is to get through those texts, and the presence of an imminent psalm-prayer may discourage rather than encourage proper reflection and meditation on the psalm itself – like a hurried Mass without pauses, which stops one from praying because there is always another thing to be said or done, and then another. On the other hand, another participant in the discussion said that he had, from personal experience, found the psalm-prayers helpful, and a good way of avoiding the “horse race” effect of consecutive psalms, in which the sense of “one down, two to go”, “two down, one to go, nearly there” squeezes out any opportunity for real prayer. All in all, the decision to push the psalm-prayers into an optional Supplement was aimed at getting the best of both worlds: to offer the psalm-prayers to those whom they help while not distracting those for whom they would be a burden. Nowadays, of course, the optional inclusion can be done by a simple on/off setting within an app.

Forty-seven years after the new Breviary was published, the promised Supplement has still not appeared.

This is not really a matter of politics. The fact is that there are many ancient traditions (often Spanish ones) and thus many possible sets of psalm-prayers to choose. More scholarly research and development was needed to provide something that would be of use to the universal Church. To take one example: there was the question whether the Old Testament and New Testament canticles which take the place of one of the three psalms at Lauds and Vespers should count as “psalms” for the purpose of psalm-prayers. In the view of Félix Arocena Solano in Orationes super Psalmos e ritu Hispano-Mozarabico (1993) the answer is clearly Yes: I think he is right, but of course that makes more work for everyone. At present there are various collections of psalm-prayers around, and they are different and incomplete in various ways. Arocena’s own work covers only the four-week cycle, and only Lauds and Vespers. It does cover the canticles, though, which the other well-known collection, the one produced in English by ICEL and translated from a different set of Latin prayers, does not.

The Church’s official view of these unofficial enterprises is given in Notitiæ 76 (Sept-Oct 1972): that collections of psalm-prayers could be published, and submitted for approval, before the promised Supplement was published.

How to do a psalm-prayer

With all the concern about the texts of the psalm-prayers, what to do with the texts once you have them has received less attention. Arocena says that they should be treated like the short prayers at Mass, with the usual short endings, “Through Christ our Lord, Amen”, and so on, depending on to whom the psalm-prayer is addressed, and in his book they are presented in that form. The more general consensus (followed by ICEL and the Dominicans) is that there should be no ending added.

A correspondent raised another point. He said that he had always thought that the psalm-prayer should come before the final antiphon of the psalm. It wasn’t clear whether he was looking at a book in which this was the case, or whether he was looking at the one-volume Christian Prayer from the Catholic Book Publishing Company in the USA, which, to save space, prints antiphons only before a psalm and not after them and leaves you to insert them at the end. “At the end”, he thought, meant after everything including the psalm-prayer. We don’t think so. Universalis puts the psalm-prayer after the final antiphon, making it the last thing before we clear our minds and move on to the next psalm.

It is very easy to see which of us is right! Simply consult the official Latin Breviary, and if it says nothing, ask the Congregation for Divine Worship and hope for an official answer. However, since the psalm-prayers do not exist in the official Latin Breviary, it can’t be consulted as an authority; and Cultu Divino can’t be asked for a ruling on the use of books and texts that do not exist.

Accordingly, here is a reasoned argument in favour of the arrangement used in Universalis. We are not concerned with claiming that anyone who does things another way is wrong: merely in justifying the arrangement we have adopted.

Arguments in justification

The intention of a psalm-prayer is that once a psalm has been completed, a period of silence follows. This period is intended for us to respond to the psalm we have recited (or listened to) and to follow the threads of our feelings (affectus) wherever God, through the psalm, has told us to go. It is not intended to be a period of clock-watching, of waiting for the next thing to happen, of the recitation of the psalm being suspended in mid-course. That is: the psalm, at this point, should have been completely completed. This does not mean having a final antiphon hovering just out of sight, waiting to be said or sung.

Equally, the conclusion provided by the psalm-prayer, ending with its “Amen”, should leave the whole thing conclusively concluded, all loose ends tied up, our minds ready to start afresh with the next psalm. To untie everything and reopen a closed box by interjecting an antiphon which, by now, belongs very much to the previous psalm would break the whole rhythm and frustrate the intention of the psalm-prayer.

Finally, there is standing and sitting and speaking and singing. One common pattern of recitation of psalms is for the psalm and its antiphon to be sung, standing – with two half-choirs, or cantors versus choir, or… the permutations are endless, and rightly so, since different communities and different circumstances lead to different answers. Prayers and collects, on the other hand, are usually spoken rather than sung; and even when chanted, are chanted by one person while the others listen. This is because the aim of a collect is not for each of to worry about keeping together with the others in pace and pitch, but actually to pray.

To draw these arguments together, the structure of each psalm in each Hour is (we argue) as follows:

At the core: the psalm itself.

Inseparably attached: the doxology.

Top and tail: the antiphon.

Optional conclusion: the psalm-prayer.

You might say: the ham; the mustard; the two slices of bread; and the plate.

This is the arrangement that Universalis uses.


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Mass readings on the Memorials of saints

Posted by universalis on 29 August 2017

The Lectionary gives readings for most saints’ days. So do the printed missals, and so do a lot of web sites.

In most cases the readings given should not be used.

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More audio in Universalis

Posted by universalis on 1 February 2017

Adding Sung Latin Compline to Universalis has been a great success, even though it is so far only available on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. (We do plan to produce an Android version later this year).

Now we have started to add speech as well as music.

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Malayalam in Universalis

Posted by universalis on 20 September 2016

The project to provide Malayalam translations of the Mass texts – the Order of Mass, the readings and psalms, and the prayers and antiphons – is almost complete.

Because we have been given these texts free of charge, we do not intend to charge for them. Here is how this works:


Catholic Calendar normally has a one-month period during which it shows you the full text that the paid-for Universalis app would show. But if, in the app settings, you set the “Order of Mass” language to “Malayalam”, then for the Mass pages only this time limit is removed and you will be able to view the Mass without ever having to pay.

This is available now.

Windows and Mac

The Universalis program normally has a one-month period during which it shows you everything; after that, you need to buy and enter a registration code if you want to carry on seeing anything other than the “About Today” page. But if, in the “Translations” screen, you set the “Order of Mass” language to “Malayalam”, then the Mass pages will always be visible and will not require a registration code.

This is available now.

iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)

Free access to Malayalam text will be available in the next release.

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Music in Universalis

Posted by universalis on 15 September 2016

We have long wanted to be able to add music to Universalis, and now at last we have been able to take the first step. Users of the Universalis and Catholic Calendar apps on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch can now hear:

  • The Marian anthem at the end of Compline (Night Prayer), free of charge.
  • The whole of sung Latin Compline for Sundays, as an in-app purchase.

A useful liturgical fact is that Sunday Compline is allowed to be used on any day of the week, not just Sunday. A useful technical fact is that we have been able to get Universalis to show the sung Latin in parallel with the English and to highlight each line as it is being sung. This means that as you listen, you know where you are and what the sung words mean.

This music has been recorded specially for us by the Schola Cantorum of The London Oratory School, is one of the leading liturgical choirs in Britain. We are grateful to Charles Cole, the Director of the Schola Cantorum, and the choristers for recording sung Compline. We would also like to express our gratitude to Father George Bowen of the London Oratory for his enthusiasm and support, and to the Fathers of the London Oratory for allowing the recording to be made in St Wilfrid’s Chapel, Brompton Oratory, London.

We intend to provide more music (and audio generally) throughout Universalis, so look out for updates! As soon as more music is available, we will also work on adding it to the Android app and possibly to the Windows and Mac programs.

Posted in Downloadable Universalis, Liturgy | 1 Comment »

The two-year cycle of the Office of Readings

Posted by universalis on 29 April 2016

Update: Here is how to get the two-year cycle in your Universalis program or app.

When the liturgy was extensively revised in 1970, one of the themes was the inclusion of a far wider range of biblical readings. At Mass, this meant a three-year cycle of Sunday readings and a two-year cycle of weekday readings. In the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours this meant a two-year cycle, both of Scripture readings and of the patristic Second Readings which accompany them.

The two-year cycle covers the whole of salvation history and uses practically every book of the Bible – not avoiding tricky passages which need thorough reading and meditation and aren’t suitable for the “listen fast or it’s gone” nature of the readings at Mass. It is also carefully designed to be out of step with the Mass readings, so that if you hear a passage read at Mass then it won’t appear in the Office of Readings for a year (or at worst, for a few months).

This masterpiece is lovingly described in §§147 to 152 of the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours. But if you look in the actual printed books – it isn’t there. In its place is a one-year cycle of readings, covering half the material.

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An English Christmas bug

Posted by universalis on 22 December 2013

Since at various times it has been necessary to point out errors in the American version of the Liturgy, particularly around Christmas, it seems only fair to say that the English translator has his moments as well.

At First Vespers for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Magnificat antiphon is taken from the Magnificat antiphons for the days between 18 and 24 December.

At Vespers for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Magnificat antiphon is taken from the Magnificat antiphons for the days between 18 and 24 December.

So far, so good.

But at Lauds (Morning Prayer) for the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Benedictus has antiphons of its own, a different one for each year of the three-year cycle. The English version ignores this fact. It says that the Benedictus antiphon should be ‘as provided among the antiphons for 17 to 23 December’.

This is wrong.


Posted in Calendars, Liturgy | 2 Comments »

Psalms of the day in the daytime Hours

Posted by universalis on 17 December 2013


A question has been asked on Stack Exchange about why Universalis sometimes gives a choice of psalms for the daytime Hours and sometimes not. I don’t live on Stack Exchange, but Andrew Leach, who does, pointed the question out to me and I thought that it might be worth putting the answer on the Universalis blog.

The Breviary gives a set of psalms to be used at a daytime Hour – at the daytime Hour, if you only recite one, or at a daytime Hour if you recite two or three of them in the day. The remaining daytime Hours then use what are called “complementary psalms”, one for Terce, one for Sext, one for None. So the simple rule is: pick one Hour for the psalms of the day, and use the complementary psalms at the other Hours.

Now and then, however, the Breviary sets limits on when you use the psalms of the day. For instance, on Monday of the third week of Advent, if you recite Sext, then you must use the psalms of the day at Sext and not at another hour. Only a few days are affected, and the restriction looks rather arbitrary. The Stack Exchange question asks for a reason for it, because no reason is given in the Breviary.

When I was programming Universalis I had to include the restriction, and I was also curious about the reasons. It turned out to be simple once I’d worked it out. Looking at my example of Monday of the third week of Advent, Vespers includes Psalm 70(71), and so do the complementary psalms for Sext. Thus, in the interest of not having the same psalm twice on the same day, one shouldn’t use the complementary psalms at Sext – which, turned round, becomes “If you are celebrating Sext, you must use the psalms of the day then”.

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Liturgia Horarum as an e-book

Posted by universalis on 13 October 2013

Universalis has had Latin available as an option for some time, but only as the Latin half of Latin-English parallel texts.

Now we have created a Universalis e-book in Latin only. it contains the Liturgy of the Hours for every hour of every day of the year 2013. We will publish an e-book for 2014 before the beginning of 2014. UPDATE: this e-book has now been published.

The e-book is available in both Kindle format (for the Amazon Kindle) and ePub format (for all other e-readers).

The e-book is available as a free download from our web site. This is because (bizarrely) Amazon and the other distributors refuse to distribute anything that is written in Latin.

Each hour is complete in itself. For example, if you want to see (for example) Vespers for Monday 18 November, you look in the Index dierum, click on Dies 18 novembris, and then click on Ad Vesperas. Everything will be there. There is no need to jump backwards and forwards as you would with a printed breviary.

If an optional memorial falls on a particular day, you can view both the Office of the memorial and the Office of the feria. If a local calendar has a different celebration from the General Calendar, you have access to them both. Here is a list of the calendars that Universalis knows about.

Do download the e-book and try it out, and do recommend it to anyone you know who might find it useful. As well as actual e-readers, practically all mobile phones and tablets have software available that will read either the ePub or the Kindle format.

Parallel texts: a reminder

You can view the Liturgy of the Hours in a parallel Latin-English version on the Universalis web site: here is an example.

All the Universalis apps can optionally display Latin and English together, as can any Universalis e-books you create for your own use.

Posted in e-books, Liturgy, The Universalis site | 2 Comments »

How the selection switches work for Mass

Posted by universalis on 15 April 2013

In Universalis you will see selection switches at the top of the Mass readings for certain days. What these switches look like depend on where you are looking at Universalis: typically, on the downloaded versions, there will be a pale blue arrow at the top right of the page, which pops up a menu if you touch it or click on it.

These selection switches have subtly different meanings at different times.

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Posted in Calendars, Liturgy | 4 Comments »