This Thursday evening, Pope Francis will celebrate Vespers with the clergy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 6:45pm. But what is Vespers?
Vespers is NOT a Catholic Mass. It is one of the key “hours” of prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient Christian daily prayer cycle more commonly called “the Divine Office” or “the Office” or “the Breviary” by American Catholics. As the official daily public prayer of the church, the Liturgy of the Hours is intended to structure day to day life and also reflect (through its selections of readings, songs and prayers) the passage of the seasons and the church’s liturgical year.
While anyone can celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours (with the aid of books sold in Catholic bookstores), all Catholic priests promise to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours daily upon their ordination. Many religious orders of men and women also adhere to communal celebrations of the Divine Office (particularly in monastery settings), though this practice is not universal. In the early days of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), for example, St. Ignatius famously achieved a dispensation for his priests from celebrating the Divine Office together, on the grounds that they needed to be free to respond to the needs of their work.
The traditional practice of the Liturgy of the Hours was far more all-encompassing than the ritual practiced today, including prayers in the middle of the night, a practice still followed in some Catholic communities. One of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a simplification of the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as (eventually) a transition from the exclusive use of Latin to celebration in local languages in most cases.
Traditionally celebrated around sunset, Vespers (often also simply called “Evening Prayer”) is one of the five “canonical hours.” The others are the Office of Readings (Scripture readings as well as selections from saints and spiritual writers), Morning Prayer (at dawn), Daytime Prayer and Night Prayer.
Vespers is considered a “hinge hour” in the daily cycle of the church’s prayer. It includes an Introductory Verse, a song, a recitation of two selections from the Book of Psalms and a “canticle” (song from scripture), all either sung or chanted, a scripture reading, a responsory (reflection on the theme of the Scriptural selections), the singing of the famous “Magnificat” (Mary’s song of praise from the Gospel of Luke), Intercessions, the Our Father, a Concluding Prayer and Dismissal.
Film and television depictions of monastery or convent life (particularly in medieval settings) often use the communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours to depict the rhythms and structures of communities of vowed Catholic vowed religious men and women.
Depending on the formality of the occasion, Vespers can include a great deal of song as well as other Catholic traditions such as incense and processions through the church. In addition, while Vespers is not usually as formal an event in most religious settings as a Catholic Mass, we can expect both the pope and all the participants to be dressed formally in priestly vestments.
Click here to see Pope Francis celebrate Vespers in Paraguay earlier this year: Pope Francis in Paraguay-Celebration of Vespers.
James T. Keane is a columnist for America and an editor at Orbis Books.