Vespers offers alternate form of prayer
Tom Naatz | Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Every month, the McGrath Institute for Church Life holds vespers, an evening prayer service in the chapel in Geddes Hall. John Cavadini, a professor of theology and the director of the institute, explained that Vespers is part of the church’s ongoing Liturgy of the Hours.
“Liturgy of the Hours refers to the daily prayers of the Church,” Cavadini said. “The two hinges of Liturgy of the Hours is morning prayers, which is called Lauds, and evening prayers, which is called Vespers.”
Cavadini discussed the other Liturgy of the Hours as well. There is mid-morning, noon and mid-afternoon prayers in addition to lauds and vespers. The idea behind Liturgy of the Hours, Cavadini said, is to “sanctify the day.” Since Mass can be held at any time of the day, it is independent of the Liturgy of the Hours. Vespers, in particular, centers around the Book of Psalms.
“There are three psalms every day on a four-week cycle. You’ll go through the whole book of Psalms in four weeks,” Cavaldini said. “There are special psalms for feast days.”
According to a program for a normal service from the McGrath Institute, vespers opens with a prayer, is followed by a hymn, which in turn is followed by a psalm, then a canticle. Next, there is a short Bible reading and a homily. In the final part of the service, the congregation sings a canticle and the “Magnificat,” or song of Mary. The congregation offers intercessions, recites the Lord’s Prayer, then says an additional prayer before the service is brought to a close.
Cavadini explained that vespers is different than a usual Mass in that laypeople can preach the homily.
“Laypeople can give the homily at the Liturgy of the Hours. We have lots of different people whose voices you hear,” Cavadini said. “It’s nice to get a wide range of voices from students, faculty, staff, etc. It’s sort of fun to hear and to be asked to deliver one.”
Carolyn Pirtle, the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, said vespers services have been happening on campus for a long time.
“We’ve been doing monthly vespers services for a number of years now. We’ve made a real effort to bring this form of prayer to the campus community,” Pirtle said. “It’s a beautiful form of prayer that incorporates the psalms and scriptures. We wanted to try and bring this to a wider audience.”
From a logistical perspective, Pirtle said the readings and the psalms are laid out for the entire church, much in the same way Mass readings are. It’s simply a matter of figuring out what day it is and what psalms and readings correspond to that day. Pirtle said that this uniformity is a “beautiful symbol of the unity of the church,” since everyone throughout the world is saying the same prayers. She also noted that evening prayer services date back to the very beginning of the Christian church. She emphasized the importance of the psalms to the service.
“The psalms are beautiful because they speak to the breadth of the human experience,” Pirtle said. “They speak to the joy of joys and the worst of sorrows. Whatever you’re going through, there’s a psalm for that.”
Since laypeople can preach, Pirtle also said that it’s a great opportunity for masters of divinity students to practice preaching.
“Traditionally, we’ve had a lot of masters of divinity students preaching,” she said. “I’ve drawn from that community so that they can learn how to preside and practice that as a lay person. It’s a great chance to exercise ministerial leadership.”
Pirtle emphasized the beauty of vespers and its benefits in a stressful environment.
“If you’ve never experienced vespers, it’s a really beautiful form of prayer that’s very reflective and very contemplative,” she said. “It’s a wonderful way to take half an hour away from the stress and busyness of student life to come and spend some time with God and let God speak to you through the scripture and the psalms, as well as enter into a community of people who you might not know through prayer and the grace of spirit.”