Psalm Prayers in the Breviary

Date: July 9, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.


Quetion: Will the psalm prayers be included in the new English Liturgy of the Hours? -- E.M., Victoria, Kansas


Answer: The short answer is that I do not know. That is something that might yet still have to be decided by the several bishops’ conferences.


The first mention of these prayers being reintroduced into the Liturgy of the Hours was in No. 112 of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours:


“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 promised official supplement, however, has yet to see the light of day, although some of the prayers were composed along with the reform of the breviary. In 1972 the Holy See did allow certain contemplative communities to compose appropriate psalm prayers and submit them for its approval (Notitiæ 76, Sept-Oct 1972, page 256). There are several collections of psalm prayers as well as those found in the official Liturgy of the Hours of the United States. 


It should be noted that, concerning official texts of the breviary, the English version edited for the United States is apparently the only one that prints the psalm prayers within the body of the four-week cycle. They are absent from other official English-language versions of the Office as well as from the two official Spanish versions (Spain and Latin America), the German, Italian, French, Portuguese, and, as far as I can ascertain, most other language versions as well.


Most bishops’ conferences apparently decided not to include the psalm prayers within the text, perhaps so as not to give the impression that their use was obligatory.


Indeed, their introduction, or reintroduction, was always somewhat controversial insofar as some find the psalm collects enrich their prayer experience while others find them distracting and burdensome. Some bishops’ conferences, perhaps, preferred to await the promised supplement before deciding.


Although the presence of the psalm collects does not appear to form part of the Roman tradition, there is significant evidence of their presence in some form or another in other traditions as an aid in praying the psalms.


The renowned liturgist A.G. Martimort points out that according to Cassian (360-435) the monks of Egypt prayed in silence after reciting each psalm, after which one of them would conclude in the name of all. The pilgrim Egeria, writing between 381-386, also testifies that in Jerusalem each psalm was concluded by a prayer by a priest or deacon. The Council of Agde in 506 also prescribed similar prayers, and they are found in several Eastern and Western rites such as the Chaldean in Iraq and the Visigothic, or Mozarabic, rite of Spain.


They are always optional, but if used, there is some slight confusion as to when and how they are prayed. This would appear to stem from the expression in No. 112 above (“the psalm having been completed”) since it is not clear when the psalm is completed. 


It is also occasioned by different practices of printing the prayer in popular abridged versions of the Office and in some electronic versions that do not repeat the antiphon after the psalm. At the same time, most apps with the Liturgy of the Hours offer an option to include or exclude the psalm prayers at will.


Fortunately, however, the proper liturgical practice is clarified in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No 198:


“When the psalm prayers are used, after the repetition of the antiphon, the bishop puts aside the miter, rises, and once everyone else has stood says ‘Let us pray.’ After a brief pause of silent prayer by all, he says the prayer corresponding to the psalm or canticle.”


This procedure would be followed in other cases even when the Liturgy of the Hours is presided by a priest or deacon or led by a lay person. It appears clear that the repetition of the antiphon is always required before the prayer. For the other aspects, however, given that it is an optional element, communities with well-established traditions could have some legitimate variations as to posture or the moment and duration of the moment of silence.


In private recitation, the person praying the Office would be free to do as he or she thinks best, although respecting the proper order of elements.


In conclusion, even though the English-speaking world is moving toward a common text for the Divine Office, the decision to include or not the psalm collects will remain with each bishop’s conference. Even if included, they will remain optional.


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