This morning on EWTN's Catholic Connections radio program, on which I had the good fortune to be a guest, a caller asked about the psalm prayers. Someone had told him that the psalm prayers "weren't supposed to even be in there."
I get asked about the psalm prayers a lot. You old-timers here at Coffee&Canticles can just skip this post, since what follows is information that has appeared here before.
Psalm prayers are those short prayers that follow each of the psalms in your breviary. They are meant to be aids to understanding the preceding psalm. Many of the psalm prayers are based on traditional, even ancient prayers that have been used liturgically or devotionally over the course of the Church's history. Other psalm prayers bear the stamp of more modern composition.
Beginners often find them very helpful in explaining how the Church interprets or uses a particular theme or image from the psalm. Psalm prayers often point out the christological meaning of a psalm, and that's important. More experienced people, who have gotten pretty good at seeing these allegorical meanings, find the psalm prayers at times to be a bit redundant.
It gets more disconcerting when one has the opportunity to pray the hours in community while visiting, say, a monastery or a seminary, and see that this group might not even use the psalm prayers. A layman, praying the hours privately, has no obligation to do everything Exactly Right. But aren't these religious and clergy, who are bound to pray the hours, committing some sort of liturgical abuse by skipping the psalm prayers. Isn't this kind of like a priest deciding to skip some part of the mass?
Or, on the other hand, you get a look at a the breviary that is used in England. No Psalm Prayers in sight. Or you meet a priest from a foreign country where English is spoken (India? Africa?) and ask to take a look at his breviary. Chances are, you won't find any psalm prayers in his breviary.
What's going on here?
Here's the deal:
--a careful reading of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) indicates that psalm prayers were apparently were not to appear in the main body of the psalter. Here's what it says:
112. Psalm-prayers for each psalm are given in the supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours, to help in understanding them in a predominantly Christian way. They may be used in the ancient traditional way: after the psalm a period of silence is observed, then the prayer gathers up and rounds off the thoughts and inspirations of those taking part.
This indicates to me that psalm prayers are not an obligatory part of the breviary. They are approved for use, but not essential. My feeling is further bolstered by this from another section on how to sing/recite the psalms:
123. The antiphon for each psalm should always be recited at the beginning...At the end of the psalm the custom in maintained of concluding with the Glory to the Father and As it was in the beginning...the antiphon may be repeated at the end of the psalm.
Since nothing is mentioned here about the psalm-prayers, one can only conclude that these are not essential elements of the psalter.
The question then remains, why do the psalm prayers in American breviaries appear in the body of the psalter, and right after the psalm, with the antiphon (apparently) not being repeated until after the psalm prayer.Was this a decision of the American bishops, or of some English translation committee, or of American publishers? Also--do the breviaries of other language groups have some sort of "supplement" with psalm prayers in a separate volume, or an appendix to the breviary? I have no idea. If anyone out there has some light to throw on these subjects, let me know.
What I do know is that the United States Bishops recognized this problem at their last big meeting in November, when they approved the creation of a new American translation of the Liturgy of the Hours. The purpose of the new translation is the same purpose which drove the new translation of the mass: to make the English versions more faithful to the original Latin. But one other proposal of the Bishops on the Worship Committee was to eliminate the psalm prayers, in recognition of the original intention of the General Instruction that these are not essential elements of the Liturgy of the Hours. Will they instead appear in some sort of supplement or appendix? It's too early to tell.
But I think we can safely conclude that the psalm-prayers are clearly optional. Use them if you like them, skip them if they do nothing for you. Or if you are pressed for time. And when you participate in a community recitation of the liturgical hours, be aware that there are several valid options on this, and assent to the custom of that community, even if it is not your personal custom.