Friday, February 1, 2013

Why St. John Bosco doesn't rate the entire Common of Pastors

I got this question from someone on Google+:

Today is 31 Jan, which is the memorial of St. John Bosco. The St. Joseph Guide for the Liturgy of the Hours says that I should take the Psalmody from the Psalter (the usual Week III for this week) for Vespers. I just checked the Divine Office Web site ( and they have also taken the Psalmody from Week III of the Psalter.

Why would I not take the Psalmody from the Common of Pastors?

Few things about the breviary  are more confusing than figuring out what to do on a saint's day. If you use a digital breviary exclusively, you don't worry about this--everything is laid out for you. But if you use a breviary, questions arise. Especially if its a day for a saint that you really like, and want to honor with an office that is tailor made for him/her.

Saint's days come in several varieties, and these have an order of precedence: solemnities, feasts, and memorials (this last having a subdivision of obligatory and optional memorials). The more important the day, the more likely it is to have either it's own unique office from start to finish, or else many prayers unique to the  day plus generous  use of the  common. (Commons are "generic" offices for particular categories of saints: pastors, religious, apostles, martyrs, holy women, etc.) 

The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours explains which days use which parts of the psalter, propers and commons. It's pretty confusing. The one-volume Christian Prayer breviary has a very handy little list on page 37, titled  "Format of the Offices" which distills all this for greater clarity. 

So yesterday, the feast of st. John Bosco, was a memorial.  Memorials use the regular psalter for the psalmody, then have the option of either sticking with the psalter for everything else except the closing prayer(which comes from the saint's day proper), OR switching to the proper for the remainder of the office, concluding with John Bosco's closing prayer. In his case, the common chosen could have been pastors or holy men / teachers. 

Why doesn't the Church let us use the entire common, or even an evening prayer I for every saint that we like?  According the the General Instruction (I'm very roughly paraphrasing) the Church has a preference for the four-week psalter and for the yearly cycle of scripture in the Office of Readings. The Church does not want us to lose our familiarity with the psalter and the flow of the scriptural cycle by constantly switching over to commons of saints. This is doubly true during the liturgical seasons of advent, Christmas, lent, and Easter. 
This was also the rationale, by the way, for the Church dropping so many saints days off of its Universal Calendar after the Second Vatican Council.  Contrary to popular belief, the Church did not declare that Saint Christopher, Philomena, and others did not exist, or were no longer saints. It just removed them from the General calendar in order to encourage us to pay attention to the normal liturgical cycle, which was designed to draw our attention to specific truths about Christ over the course of the year. These saints are still on the local calendars of many countries. St. Christopher, for example, is still on the liturgical  calendar of Spain. I attended his feastday mass as a student there in 1979.  (And for the rest of the day endured the constant honking of car horns. One of the Spanish folk customs for the patron of drivers is for the young people to go cruising around town all day, honking frequently.)

One more piece of trivia: all the above ceases to apply if the saint in question is the founder of the religious order or a patron of an organization or institution you are affiliated with. In these cases the saints day is celebrated either as a feast or a solemnity. This would have been the case with the Salesians yesterday.