Monday, December 3, 2012

Vespers and Compline in a Southern City

My first assignment as a priest was at St Mary’s in Greenville, SC, the parish that was mentioned in George Weigel’s book Letters to a Young Catholic.  One of the first projects the pastor, Fr Jay Scott Newman, and I had was to find ways to introduce the Divine Office to the people there.  So we decided for Advent and Lent to start Vespers and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  I have to admit that it took some time just to get everything together in order to do it.  We had to create our own worship aid that was easy enough for someone to follow who had never seen Evening Prayer before.  We enlisted the Choir’s help, and thus started a new phase in the life of a parish whose liturgical life was exemplary, and also had formed me as a young man to think liturgically.

It is now several years later, and Advent and Lent Vespers is a fixed event of the area’s Church year.  One of my old altar boys called me last night to tell me that the church, which seats about 450, was comfortably full.  I paused to think how many more people were at Vespers in my home parish than there would be at St Peter’s in Rome or Notre Dame in Paris, places where I often attended Sunday Vespers when I lived in those amazing cities.

your humble scribe at St Mary's during Advent Vespers 2006

St Mary’s uses the Liturgy of the Hours in English for the service, with one of the Hymns from the Solemn Mass celebrated earlier in the day and with the Psalmody according to the St Meinrad tones.  The Choir supplies an Anthem after the sung Reading and often the Magnificat, in settings either according to the Roman School of Palestrina or the Anglican tradition.  Vespers has become a bit of an ecumenical event, as well, with Episcopalians and Lutherans and even the stray Presbyterian making Vespers at St Mary’s a usual part of their Kalendar.

Of course, anyone who knows the parish likes to tease that it puts Canterbury Cathedral to shame in how Anglican it feels.  It is no surprise then, that after Vespers the Anglican Ordinariate Community celebrates Mass there.  But it is a place which is Catholic to the core, and the celebration of Vespers has been the source of numerous graces for many people in Upstate South Carolina.

I am now across town at the daughter parish, Prince of Peace.  St Mary’s, in its neo-Gothic Anglican-ish splendor, represents the best of the Reform of the Reform.  Prince of Peace is one of the most interesting churches I have ever seen. It is a postmodern take on Romanesque, and combines everything from steel and concrete to marble and wood.  There, the ethos of the Roman Basilicas prevails, with both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite celebrated every day. 

We already recite Night Prayer often during the week according to the Liturgy of the Hours, and POP is the kind of place where you see 20 and 30-somethings sitting in our Perpetual Adoration Chapel reading the Divine Office of John XXIII on their IPad Minis.

During Eastertide of last year, we decided to do Sunday Vespers and Benediction in Latin according to the Liber usualis.  We did several Sundays where the Curate, Fr Richard Tomlinson, taught about the spirituality and history of the Divine Office and the Latin of the Office, and I taught the chant.  I knew that, when the time came to do it, it would not be quite as polished as what goes on at the Mother Church down town, but I wanted to get the people to have the confidence to tackle such a difficult thing as Sunday Vespers in the traditional form.  They did quite well, but it was a big thing to accomplish.  Entirely a cappella, the Curate and the Servers did a fine job of carrying off the ceremonies while we capably sang the services those Sundays, even though there were a few hiccups here and there.

Prince of Peace during Assumption Solemn High EF Mass 2012

I did not want to compete with the Mother Church for Advent and Lent, and by chance I came upon a booklet of Sunday Compline in English and Latin, with music for both, from Collegeville’s Popular Liturgical Library from way back in the day.  Our excellent Director of Music, Mr Alan Reed, who also directs the Chicora Voices choir for young people in the city, set about producing something similar for us at Prince of Peace. 

We decided to do Compline in the traditional form in English, to get more of the parish involved.  Last night we had our first go at it.  I was a little worried, because I was the only person in the church who had ever seen this done before, in English or in Latin, and I wondered how it would go.  We had the people in the two choirs in opposite transepts, and we set about doing it. 

I was so proud of my little parish!  People came from both the OF and EF parts of the parish, and the two choirs went back and forth with the Gregorian psalmody like they had done this all their life.  It was not perfect, but it was beautiful.  The simplicity of the rite itself, the darkened church, the plainsong without the organ: we all had the confidence to pray in this form, although it was entirely new to everyone there. 

So if you happen to be in Upstate South Carolina on a Sunday in the tempi forti, check out Vespers at 5pm at St Mary’s downtown and then truck out to the suburb of Taylors at 7.30pm for Compline.  Both are very different experiences of the Liturgy of the Hours, but beautiful ones.  It is a great grace to live in the buckle of the Bible Belt and have such an embarrassment of riches to have to say, “Where can I go for beautiful liturgy in two forms of the Roman Rite?  There are too many choices!”       
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