Is It Time to Restore the Full Psalter to the Liturgy of the Hours?

liturgy-of-hoursOne of the great gifts of reading the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Breviary) faithfully over the years faithfully is that the Scriptures become deeply impressed upon the mind, heart, memory, and imagination. This is especially true of the psalms that are repeated every four weeks, all year long, every year.

But there are significant omissions in the modern Breviary. This is true not merely because of the loss of the texts themselves, but that of the reflections on them. The verses eliminated are labeled by many as imprecatory because they call for a curse or wish calamity to descend upon others.

Here are a couple of examples of these psalms:

Pour out O Lord your anger upon them; let your burning fury overtake them. … Charge them with guilt upon guilt; let them have no share in your justice (Ps 69:25, 28).

Shame and terror be theirs forever. Let them be disgraced; let them perish (Ps 83:18).

Prior to the publication of the Liturgy of the Hours, Pope Paul VI decreed that the imprecatory psalms be omitted. As a result, approximately 120 verses (three entire psalms (58[57], 83[82], and 109[108]) and additional verses from 19 others) were removed. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours cites the reason for their removal as a certain “psychological difficulty” caused by these passages. This is despite the fact that some of these psalms of imprecation are used as prayer in the New Testament (e.g., Rev 6:10) and in no sense to encourage the use of curses (General Instruction # 131). Six of the Old Testament Canticles and one of the New Testament Canticles contain verses that were eliminated for the same reason.

Many (including me) believe that the removal of these verses is problematic. In the first place, it does not really solve the problem of imprecation in the Psalter because many of the remaining psalms contain such notions. Even in the popular 23rd Psalm, delight is expressed as our enemies look on hungrily while we eat our fill (Ps 23:5). Here is another example from one of the remaining psalms: Nations in their greatness he struck, for his mercy endures forever. Kings in their splendor he slew, for his mercy endures forever (Ps 136:10, 17-18). Removing the “worst” verses does not remove the “problem.”

A second issue is that it is troubling to propose that the inspired text of Scripture should be consigned to the realm of “psychological difficulty.” Critics assert that it should be our task to seek to understand such texts in the wider context of God’s love and justice. Some of the most teachable moments come in the difficult and “dark” passages. Whatever “psychological difficulty” or spiritual unease these texts cause, all the more reason that we should wonder as to the purpose of such verses. Why would God permit such utterances in a sacred text? What does He want us to learn or understand? Does our New Testament perspective add insight?

While some want to explain them away as the utterances of a primitive, unrefined, or ungraced people and time, this seems unwise and too general a dismissal. So easily does this view permit us to label almost anything we find objectionable or even unfashionable as coming from a “more primitive” time. While it is true that certain customs, practices, punishments, and norms (e.g., kosher) fall away within the biblical period or in the apostolic age, unless this is proposed to us by the sacred texts or the Magisterium, we should regard the sacred text as being of perennial value. Texts, even if not taken literally, should be taken seriously and pondered for their deeper and lasting meaning.

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly taught that an imprecatory verse can be understood in three ways:

First, as a prediction rather than a wish that the sinner be damned. Unrepentant sinners will indeed be punished and possibly forever excluded from the Kingdom of the Righteous.

Second, as a reference to the justice of punishment rather than as gloating over the destruction of one’s enemies. It is right and proper that unrepented sins and acts of injustice be punished; it is not wrong to rejoice that justice is served.

Third, as an allegory of the removal of sin and the destruction of its power. We who are sinners should rejoice to see all sinful drives within us removed. In these verses, our sinful drives are often personified as our enemy or opponent.

So, as St. Thomas taught, even troubling, imprecatory verses can impart important things. They remind us that sin, injustice, and all evil are serious and that we are engaged in a kind of war until such things (and those who cling to them) are put away. (For St. Thomas’ fuller reflections, see the Summa Theologica, II-IIae, q. 25, a. 6, ad 3. You can also read a thoughtful essay by Gabriel Torretta, O.P., which served as a basis for my reflections.)

To all of this I would like to add a further reflection on the value and role of imprecation in the Psalter (including the omitted verses).

Because the general instruction speaks to “psychological difficulty” in regard to imprecation, I think it is good to recall that the overall context of prayer modeled in the Scriptures is one of frank disclosure to God of all of our emotions and thoughts, even the darkest ones. Moses bitterly laments the weight of office and even asks God to kill him at one point (Num 11:15). Jonah, Jeremiah (15:16), and other prophets make similar laments. David and other psalm writers cry out at God’s delay and are resentful that sinners thrive while the just suffer. At times they even take up the language of a lawsuit. Frequently the cry goes up in the psalms, “How much longer, O Lord” in the psalms. Even in the New Testament, the martyrs ask God to avenge their blood (Rev 6:10). Jesus is later described as slaying the wicked with the sword (of his word) that comes from his mouth. Yes, anger, vengeance, despair, doubt, and indignation are all taken up in the language of prayer in the Scripture. It is an earthy, honest sort of prayer.

It is as if God is saying,

I want you to speak to me and pray out of your true dispositions, even if they are dark and seemingly disrespectful. I want you to make them the subject of your prayer. I do not want phony prayers and pretense. I will listen to your darkest utterances. I will meet you there and, having heard you, will not simply give you what you ask but will certainly listen. At times, I will point to my final justice and call you to patience and warn you not to avenge yourself (Rom 12:19). At other times, I will speak as I did to Job (38-41) and rebuke your perspective in order to instruct you. Or I will warn you of the sin that underlies your anger and show you a way out, as I did with Cain (Gen 4:7) and Jonah (4:11). At still other times I will just listen quietly, realizing that your storm passes as you speak to me honestly. But I am your Father. I love you and I want you to pray to me in your anger, sorrow, and indignation. I will not leave you uninstructed and thereby uncounseled.

It is not obvious to me that speaking of these all-too-common feelings is a cause of psychological distress. Rather, it is the concealing and suppressing of such things that causes psychological distress.

As a priest, I encounter too many people who think that they cannot bring their dark and negative emotions to God. This is not healthy. It leads to simmering anger and increasing depression. Facing our negative emotions—neither demonizing them nor sanctifying them—and bringing them to God as Scripture models is the surer way to avoid “psychological distress.” God is our healer, and just as we must learn to speak honestly to a doctor, even more so to the Lord. Properly understood (viz. St. Thomas), the imprecatory verses and other Scriptures model a way to pray in this manner.

Discussions of this sort should surely continue in the Church. The imprecatory verses may one day be restored. For now, the Church has chosen to omit the most severe of the imprecations. I think we should reconsider this. The complete Psalter given my God the Holy Spirit is the best Psalter.

Listen to this reading of one of the omitted psalms (109 [108]) and note its strong language. But recall St. Thomas’ reflections and remember that such verses, tough though they are, become teaching moments. Finally, recall that these psalms were prayed in the Church until 1970.

26 Replies to “Is It Time to Restore the Full Psalter to the Liturgy of the Hours?”

  1. Excellent article. Psychological censorship?
    The Liturgy of the hours is beautiful and I love it. Hopefully there will be a new version with all the Psalms,etc. Would also like to see a mature version of Sacred Scripture used.

  2. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for your lesson in this matter.

    I pray the Divinum Officium (“revived” by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Motu Proprio “Summorum Pontificum, On the use of the Roman Liturgy”) partially because of the omissions to which you refer. As a Carmelite Aspirant, my Community prays Pope Paul VI’s new Roman Breviary (“Liturgy of the Hours”). Using both Liturgical Prayer Collections (the 1962 resuscitated Divinum Officium privately and the Liturgy of the Hours when in Carmelite Community) I have an experiential appreciation for the points that you have made.

    I also have occasional confusion/(dubia…) with some Antiphons, which sometimes seem to be either poorly worded or theologically contradictory. Just yesterday, in the Morning prayer for 8 Jan, Solemnity for Sunday in the 3rd week of Christmas (The Epiphany), the Antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah is:

    “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.”

    [, also in the printed “Liturgy of the Hours” (4-Volume Set) English Translation Prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy Edition, ISBN-13: 978-0899424095, ISBN-10: 0899424090]

    The teaching in this Antiphon, that the Church had sins to be washed away by our Lord Jesus, in a literal sense, seems contradictory to the Doctrine that the Church, the Spotless Bride of Christ has always been, is now, and will always be sinless. Dr. Jeff Mirus’ (2013) exposition, “The Church: Like Us in All Things, But Without Sin” cogently conveys this understanding gives a good examination of this Teaching. []

    Pax Christi

    1. While I agree that the LOTH omitting and censoring Psalms is not good and the translation is banal your specific Antiphon is traditionally used for Epiphany’s Octave: This day is the Church joined unto the Heavenly Bridegroom, * since Christ hath washed away her sins in Jordan; the wise men hasten with gifts to the marriage supper of the King; and they that sit at meat together make merry with water turned into wine. Alleluia.

  3. Perhaps we could add to the St. Thomas’ second way of understanding these verses that I is good to rejoice in the justice of God. The vanguishing of evil is GOOD — because God is glorified. it seems that we in the modern Church think constantly about ourselves and rarely about God and God’s rights.

  4. Well said, Monsignor!

    The new “Divine Worship: The Office” (if that is what they’ll call it) is due out very soon for those in the Anglican Ordinariates, pending only final approval by Rome.

    Blessedly, it will retain the benefit of the more widely distributed, and thus lay-friendly, psalter (over 30 days) combined with one of the most beautiful translations (Coverdale) and no omissions at all. Can’t wait!

  5. One of the verses omitted is from Psalm 68(69), prayed in the Office of Readings every four weeks: “26 Make their camp desolate, with none to dwell in their tents.” This verse was used by St. Peter to establish the doctrine of the apostolic succession when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. It seems we would want priests and bishops (bound to pray the Liturgy of Hours every day) to encounter this founding text for their ministry on a regular basis.

  6. I totally agree that we need to bring our dark thoughts and feelings to prayer when praying with the LORD ‘alone’. But here, the Liturgy of the Hours is precisely that, the Church’s Liturgical Prayer. When people, believers or non-believers seek to understand us and what we are about they turn to our Scriptures, Doctrines {Catechism] and our Liturgy. Imagine what a non-believer present at an Hour in which the Church publicly calls for ‘their children’s heads be smashed against the pavement’ might think-without the benefit of Saint Thomas Aquinas or Origin or some other great spiritual writer in our tradition. You and I know that the text is to be understood as those ‘thoughts’ leading to sin-but that is not what is being said, publicly with the Church praying that verse aloud. I don’t agree with you Msgr.

    1. When we pray, we pray not for the benefit of those who hear our prayers (and even if we do, this is only ever incidental), but for God. When we pray the Hail Mary, we needn’t worry whether we offend any Protestants. When we pray of the Holy Trinity, we needn’t worry whether we offend any Pentecostals. When we pray of the Son being consubstantial with the Father, we needn’t worry whether we offend any Mormons.

      Your criticism presupposes that the hearer of a prayer must have sufficient theological knowledge for the prayer to be licit, but this is false on the face of it.

    2. Two points:

      1.) I find it very unlikely that an unbeliever would be present at a public celebration of the Hours. In the entire Western world, where is there a regular habit of celebrating the Hours publicly? Where this occurs, how likely is it that there would be present an unbeliever? If an unbeliever should be there, how likely would it be for this unbeliever to simply bolt as opposed to asking what the imprecatory passage means? An unbeliever who already attends the public celebration of the Hours doesn’t strike me as someone who would depart over a superficial difficulty.

      2.) Not everything we do as a Christian people can be rendered immediately understandable to an outsider. An unbeliever at Mass might very well believe that we think we’re cannibals. The early Church solved this by banishing catechumens from Mass before the Offertory. Nowadays, we just assume that the unbelievers will need to ask questions if/when they’re confused. By following your logic, maybe we should publish “save for unbelievers” Bibles that omit those passages, and the “hard sayings” of Our Lord while we’re at it. An unbeliever is more likely to read the “offending” passages in the Bible than randomly hear them at the Hours.

      I don’t mean to sound insulting. I’m just pointing out the reduction ad absurdum.

  7. Thank you Father!!! I agree completely. I had never seen St Thomas’ reflections on the imprecatory psalms before, it is very helpful.

  8. Thank you for writing about this. I’ve been praying the LotH for several years now. The one thing that has bothered me most is the missing verses and Psalms, I’ve thought of using my separate volume of the Grail Psalter to add them back. ALL of God’s Holy Scriptures are inspired and usefull. I’ve found great strength in the so called ‘imprecatory’ Psalms at times in my life. The Psalter has given me permission to pray my full range of emotions, including anger. Before praying the Psalms every day I was less likely to give myself permission to tell God the way I’m feeling in my own raw words and emotions. The Psalms opened the way to put into words ALL of myself to Almighty God.

    Here lately I find myself especially upset. The Church seems like it should be my one constant unchangeable truth, yet it feels like the Church is being destroyed from the inside. If adulterers can receive communion then why do I bother to struggle with sin and bother with confession? But, I know the truth will prevail. In the end the Immaculate Heart and Sacred Heart will triumph, but at times I find myself almost at the point of despair. Thank you for your helpful blog.

  9. Just exercise your right, under Summorum Pontificum and Universae Ecclesiae to use the old office. You’ll get the entire psalter there.

  10. Where can one purchase an older version of The Liturgy of the Hours? Any in digital format?

  11. The Pope has Divine Assistance when he exercises his Ordinary Magisterium, so I agree with the Pope removing some of the Psalms.

    Catechism 892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

    Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.
    – Lumen Gentium 25

    1. Probably a bit of an over-reach in your application of the Pope’s role here. Can’t you come up with a better reason to support your view. I mean after all, what’s to keep another pope just reinstating them? For example, Pope Benedict said that the mass “forbidden” by Paul the VI could be said agains, along with all the older rites. How about some liturgical principles from you, or something more related to scripture?

  12. I see this “editing” as the arrogance within the hierarchy of the modern Church.

    Just like their editing of Jesus’ specific words within the Last Supper (sacrifices “for many” being edited into “for all”).

    And the Modern Biblical Interpretation urge to wink or eye-roll at implausible episodes within Sacred Scripture (Transfiguration, Magi, etc.)

    Connect the dots, and it becomes clear human pseudo-intellect and Pride are supplanting Wonder & Awe.

  13. Absolutely. The next pope should order their inclusion. One might also suggest taking 4 weeks is… weak. Even if returning to the Roman weekly Psalter is too aggressive for too many clerics today, which should arouse some level of skepticism (though one could also posit giving the Ordinary the power to dispense at least some of the obligation – particularly for Matins), then perhaps the two week Psalter of the Ambrosian Rite…

    In any case, I pray the next Holy Father requires the LOTH to be recited in Latin, which would compliment with requirement of Latin proficiency in seminary on Canon 249 (which was, if anything stronger in the 1983 Code than in the 1917) as well as Veterum Sapientia of St. John XXIII. Older priests could be dispensed by the bishop.

    I pray with the 1962 Office with the Baronius Press breviary myself, slightly modified with a few rubrics from Divino Afflatu (I always commemorate 1st Vespers of a 3rd class or higher Feast, for example, as well as the traditional octaves and Vigils) though I obey the 1960 rubrics and follow the FSSP Ordo (with the patrons of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to include St. Vibiana).

  14. More hippie inspired 1960s modernist humanism aka the “fruits” of Vatican II.

    For what it’s worth, these psalm remind me that God is to judge, and that God will decide on justice. That’s not my job.

  15. Yes you are right. Its just another example of the liturgical deform undertaken by Bugnini.

  16. Monsignor Pope,

    Can you comment upon the possibility of construing or interpreting the Grail version of the Psalms as somewhat Pelagian in parts?

    Thank you.

  17. I am with you on this one Msgr Pope. Parts of the Psalter should never have been removed in the first place, and they need to be restored. But what can we do to bring about the change? What about confraternities of clergy petitioning the CDW?

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