Saturday, 29 October 2011

Getting ready for November and saying a placebo and dirige!

c15th Master of Rohan

November is traditionally the month when we especially pray for the dead.

All Souls Day and praying for the dead

Amazingly (though whether they quite compensate for the triumphalist account of a nun abandoning her religion for the new religion of radical feminism is another question) there are two good pieces on this over at Cath News' weekend edition:
Intercession for the dead serves at least three vital functions: it assists the dead, who can no longer assist themselves, to escape purgatory and enter heaven; it gains merit for us, as well as the prayers from heaven of those we have aided; and it teaches us how to prepare for our own death and hence aids our own spiritual progress.

There are many things we can do to aid the dead, including (in rough order of merit and arguably efficacy):

  • having Masses said for the repose of the souls of the dead;
  • saying the Office of the Dead;
  • undertaking indulgenced actions and applying the indulgence to the souls of the dead;
  • saying other prayers and devotions for the dead, especially the rosary;
  • giving alms in their name.
Most of the focus these days, at least among those who still believe in purgatory is on the offering of masses for the dead, and perhaps the rosary.  But I want to advocate also for the recovery of another traditional practice to aid the dead, namely saying the Office of the Dead.

History and structure of the Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead traditionally consists of Matins (aka Office of Readings), Lauds (aka Morning prayer) and Vespers (aka Evening Prayer), and was traditionally known as 'placebo and dirige', the opening words of the first antiphon of Vespers and Matins respectively (note that the Novus Ordo version of the Office of the Dead has added versions of the other hours as well).  It is rather shorter than the standard Office as all of the introductory prayers are cut out, and at Matins either one or three nocturns of three psalms can be said.

The Office of the Dead used to be said at the deathbed, and as a standard part of the funeral service.  But it was also common to arrange to say it, or have it said, on behalf of the dead person, or the dead in general, on an ongoing basis.   During the middle ages, monasteries and priests were required to say it whenever there were no other feasts.  Pope Pius V reduced the obligation, earnestly recommending that it be said at least once a month and more often at penitential times. 

These days it tends only to be said on All Souls Day (when it takes the place of the normal Office).  But there are good reasons for saying it more often.

Why we should say the Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead is liturgical prayer, the official public prayer of the Church.  As such it has a higher status in the Church's armory than any devotion, even the rosary.  Rather, it extends out the sacrifice of the Mass, joining to it a sacrifice of praise and intercession on behalf of the souls in purgatory. 

Saying it will act to enhance the value of the Masses we have offered for the dead by helping increase our personal commitment to that offering (which has an impact on the efficacy of the Mass offering, since the 'extrinsic' merits of the Mass are affected both by the holiness and intention of the person commissioning the Mass, and of the priest offering it), as well as acting as a sacrifice of praise and intercession in its own right.

Moreover, we may not be able to attend daily Masses offered for the dead for one reason or another.  But we can say the Office at home individually.  Reflecting the merit associated with this personal effort, saying either morning or evening prayer of the Office of the Dead has a partial indulgence attached to it.

We shouldn't overlook though, the actual content of the Office of the Dead and what it has to teach each of us.  As well as pure intercession on behalf of the dead, the psalms, readings (mostly from the book of Job) and prayers put us in the place of the person approaching death and moving from anger to acceptance in his or her dialogue with God.  As such, they help us prepare for our own death, and to pray for the vital grace of final perseverance.


Many traditional missals (though not, for some reason, the Baronius, which also omits the standard prayers for the deathbed) and all brevaries include some or all of the Office of the Dead.  But to help you learn to say it, there are a number of online versions you could look at as well, including:
In addition, for those interesting in saying the Office in Latin, and/or penetrating the meaning of the words more deeply, over at my psalm blog, I will work through some of the psalms of the Office of the Dead verse by verse through November, breaking down the Latin into easy to learn chunks, and providing extracts from selected commentaries on each verse.  I've already started on Psalm 22 (The Lord is my shepherd), which is said at Matins.


Anthony S. Layne said...

Actually, I'm amazed that the nun left the order to become a radical feminist, let alone that CathNews considered it both newsworthy and something to be happy about. In most orders Stateside, second-wave feminism comes with the vows.

Kate said...

Ah but she was a heroine of the first wave, Anthony, a 'visionary' instrumental in freeing her sisters (Immaculate Heart Sisters of California) from the oppression of conservative male leaders - like her bishop and the Vatican!

Still, we should pray for the repose of her soul, after all you never know...

A Canberra Observer said...

I wonder how hard CathNews works to find stories like this. And of course they add their own tell-tale bylines - "rebel nun' and 'renewal'. The ever-present subtext of this 'news service' is that the institutional Church should be cleansed by a pure renewing fire (which I am afraid I interpret as by revolution).

Kate said...

This particular one seems to me to have been selected for a particular sub-text, viz heroes/heroines = those who reject the authority of Rome (like a certain bishop, formerly of T...)/villains =those who insist on orthodoxy, refuse to rebel....