On the Psalms

The recitation of the Psalms

The Psalms have long held a special place in the liturgy of the Church. From very ancient times two systems of ordering the recitation of the Psalms have come down to us. One is to be found in the secular Breviary (pre-Pius X) and the other in the Benedictine tradition. The former begins the recitation if the entire Psalter with Psalm 1 at Sunday Matins. The matins cycle of psalms continues until Psalm 109 (108 according to the LXX & Vulgate). The recitation of the psalms is picked by Sunday Vespers with Psalm 110 (or 109 according to the LXX & Vulgate) and concludes with Psalm 147. The bulk of the weekly recitation of the psalter is accomplished by reciting Matins and Vespers. The recitation of the psalter is (mostly) done according to numerical order.

At least … That is how it used to be. The reforms accomplished under Pope Pius X re-organized the Psalter radically. Not quite so radically as Quinonez and Cranmer had done before him, but radical it was. No longer would the bulk of the psalter be divided between Matins and Vespers, but the Psalms would be divided over all the available offices of the day. Not only that, but the psalms themselves were often broken up in smaller unites and then spread over the daily offices in such a way that all the offices of the week would be of just about equal length. The psalter is no longer (mostly) recited in numerical order. This may seem trivial until one realizes that the psalter is the core of the daily office. The changes under Pius X were changes done to what is the essence of the psalter. In most other respects the reforms made under Pius X were quite conservative.

The Anglican Breviary

The order of psalms as we have them in the Anglican Breviary follows the reforms accomplished under Pope Pius X. The psalter begins at Sunday Matins with Psalm 1 and ends after Psalm 107  has been recited for Saturday Matins. Sunday Vespers picks up with Psalm 110 and ends with Psalm 145 on the Vespers of Saturday. There is therefore some continuity between the psalter as recited in the Anglican Breviary and the recitation of the psalter as it was done before the reforms of Pius X. Let us look at how the psalms are recited in the Anglican Breviary, especially the psalms for Matins and Vespers throughout the week.

i. The Matins Distribution of Psalms in the Anglican Breviary

We begin with Sunday Matins. We will count as psalms the units which function as such in the office regardless of whether or not they are “complete” or “divided” psalms. In the first nocturn we find the following psalms recited: 1, 2, 3. For the second nocturn: 8, 9i, 9ii. For the third nocturn: 10i, 10ii, 11. We find that nine psalms are said in the Matins of Sunday. Psalms 4, 5, 6 and 7 are missing because they are said in a different office. This is in sharp contrast with the pre-Pius X psalter where the Sunday had 18 psalms. In the pre-Pius X Breviary the Sunday Matins was unique and unlike any other Matins. In the Anglican Breviary, following the reforms of Pius X, Sunday Matins has also lost this unique character. The Sunday Matins is now of equal length with the ferial and festal Matins.

Though this unique quality of Sunday Matins is lost, the reduction in the number of psalms to be recited does result in a much more manageable office. Continuity is retained insofar as Matins still begins with the 1st psalm and the following psalms are in a, roughly, numerical order. Like in the pre-Pius X psalter the psalms said in other offices are left out of Matins. Another difference to be noted is that each psalm in the Anglican Breviary Matins has its own antiphon. In the pre-Pius X Breviary psalms were generally recited in pairs of two, under one antiphon. This is still the case in Benedictine Matins. One of the consequences of this re-arrangement is the need for different antiphons, as we shall see later.

The Monday Matins begins with Psalm 14 (psalms 12 and 13 are recited in another office) and roughly continues from Sunday Matins in numerical order with 15, 17, – 18i, 18ii, 18iii, – 20, 21, and 30. There are nine psalms recited as one nocturn. Under certain circumstances these nine psalms can be divided in groups of three so as to provide three nocturns for feasts that do not use the festal psalter. The gap between psalms 14 to 18 is relatively small but there is quite a bigger gap in numerical continuity between 18 and 30. This is so because, as the reader may suspect, these missing psalms are recited in other offices.

The Tuesday Matins begins with Psalm 35i, and continues with 35ii, 35iii, –  37i, 37ii, 37iii, – 38i, 38, ii, 39. Again the divided psalms are counted as psalms and they form one nocturn of 9 psalms. They can be made to fit a three nocturn feast as above for Monday. The psalms are still in roughly numerical order.

The Wednesday Matins begins with Psalm 45i, and continues with 45ii, 46, –  48, 49i, 49ii, – 50i, 50ii, 51. The order is still roughly numerical as was true for the Matins above and it can also be divided into three nocturns if necessary. The unique feature of Wednesday Matins is that when the psalms of Lauds are used according to scheme 1 the fiftieth psalm must be divided in to parts: 50i & 50ii but when scheme 2 is used it is divided into 50i, 50ii, 50iii because Psalm 51 will be said as part of Lauds.

The Thursday Matins begins with Psalm 62 and continues with 66i, 66ii, –  68i, 68ii, 68iii, – 69i, 69ii, 69iii. There is a rather big gap between Psalm 50/51 yesterday and Psalm 62 where today’s matins picks up the recitation of the psalms. But insofar as it does pick up it does so in a (very) roughly numerical order. The none psalms of Thursday can also be divided to form three nocturns when necessary.

The Friday Matins picks up at Psalm 78i, and continues with 78ii, 78iii, – 78iv, 78v, 78vi, – 79, 81, 83. The long Psalm 78 is divided up in 6 units and distributed over two nocturns. The sequence is, still, roughly numerical and only those psalms are left out of the sequence that are recited elsewhere in the course of the week. The total numer of psalms is nine and again they can be divided to form one or tree nocturns acording to need.

The Saturday Matins begins with Psalm 105i, and continues with 105ii, 105iii, – 106i, 106ii, 106iii, – 107i, 107ii, 107iii. The Matins psalms for the week is therefore concluded by Psalm 107. There is, once again, a big gap between Psalm 83 which concluded the ferial matins yesterday and Psalm 105 which opens the matins of today. The psalms left out are recited elsewhere during the week. The psalms of Saturday can be said as one nocturn or as three nocturns as was the case with the other days above.

It can therefore be said that the reform of the Psalter under Pope Pius X has had the effect of significantly changing the way the Psalms are distributed over the office of matins throughout the week. Though it is obvious that efforts were made to retains some sort of numerical sequence, these efforts are not very successful. The, sometimes, big gaps from the matins of one day to the next are too big to say that the order of recitation is in numerical order. Yet it is not true to say that there is no numerical order of recitation at all. Some form of recitation in numerical order does characterize the psalter of the Anglican Breviary. The sequence is imperfect, but that was true of the pre-Pius X office as well. Psalms recited elsewhere were generally left out of matins in the pre-Pius X office too. In the Anglican Breviary this feature is more pronounced than before. In conclusion I think it is fair to say that the matins of the Anglican Breviary is different from the pre-Pius X matins, and that the reforms touched an essential part of the Divine Office that, perhaps, should not have been so reformed. At the same time the reforms that have been made under Pius X are not as radical as those of Quignonez, Cranmer, or the LOTH. The Pius X reforms seem to have aimed for some sort of continuity with what went before to be retained. It seems to me that one of the main reasons the reforms under Pope Pius X were far less radical than some others is that Pope Pius X did not seek to reform the office in accordance with a “new learning.” The office was expected to continue to say and do what it had always said and done. The reforms were therefore conservative and did not force a break with the past. In fact “what went before” continues to shape the office, and that is a very good thing.

The re-arranging of the psalter created the need for new antiphons. These antiphons were provided under Pius X and were translated into the Aglican Breviary as well. Though here, and at some other points, the translator of the Anglican Breviary has sometimes changed these antiphons in remarkable ways. The change in antiphons is worthy of study and comment but I must reserve this for another time. At this point I merely wish to bring this aspect of the Pius X reforms and the Anglican Breviary to the readers attention. Mostly so you know I did not overlook it!

Next the order of recitation of Vespers.

Gregory Wassen +


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
This entry was posted in Roman Breviary, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the Psalms

  1. Father Gregory: you are a Blessing in our lives. I wish we lived where you could be our Priest. Your ‘Instructorials’ and teachings are sensitive, inclusive, firm and studied.


    Christopher [Kit] Green

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