Pope John Paul II began a series of teachings on prayer March 28, proposing the psalms as an indispensable means of inspiration.
Speaking to about 15,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square for his weekly general audience, the Pope stated his objective: that the psalter, as the collection of psalms is also called, should become a privileged instrument in the spiritual life of all Christians, not just priests and religious.
Noting their literary beauty and psychological insight, the Pope said the psalms, “though written so many centuries ago by Jewish believers, can be taken up into the prayer of Christ's disciples.”
He said the key to understanding the psalms is to realize that they speak of Christ. He said the teaching of the Fathers of the Church showed that “in the psalms, either the psalmist is speaking to Christ, or it is actually Christ who is speaking.”
This was why the psalms were used in prayer by the early Christians. In fact, the Pope recalled that, at a time when heresies were shaking the faith of Christian communities, some saints, such as Athanasius, dedicated their life to teaching the psalter as a way to remain firmly established in the faith.
Pope John Paul concluded saying: “The book of Psalms remains the ideal source of Christian prayer.”
In the apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, I express the hope that the Church will increasingly distinguish itself in the art of prayer, continually learning it anew from the lips of the divine Master (No. 32). This effort must be made especially in the liturgy, the source and summit of the Church's life. In this regard, it is important to dedicate greater pastoral attention to promoting the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of the entire People of God (ibid., 34).
Though, in fact, priests and religious have a specific responsibility to recite it, it is, nevertheless, also highly recommended to lay people. This is what my venerable predecessor Paul VI intended just over 30 years ago with [the promulgation of] the constitution Laudis Canticum, in which he established the current composition of this prayer, hoping that the psalms and canticles underlying the structure of the Liturgy of the Hours would be understood “with renewed love by the People of God” (AAS 63 , 532).
It is encouraging that, both in parishes and in Church groups, many lay people have learned to value it. The fact remains, however, that it is a prayer that requires an adequate catechetical and biblical formation to be enjoyed to the full.
For this reason, we are beginning a series of catecheses today on the psalms and canticles used in morning prayer. In this way, I wish to encourage and help everyone to pray with the very words used by Jesus, which have existed for thousands of years in the prayer of Israel and of the Church.
We could approach an understanding of the psalms in various ways. The first would be to explain their literary structure, their authors, their development and the contexts in which they came into being. Then, an attractive approach would be to show their poetic character, which at times reaches the highest levels of lyrical intuition and symbolic expression. No less interesting would be to go through the psalms considering the various feelings of the human spirit they manifest: joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, love, tenderness, enthusiasm, but also intense suffering, complaint, appeals for help and justice, which at times end in anger and curses. In the psalms, the human being meets himself in his entirety.
Our approach will aim, above all, to make the religious meaning of the psalms emerge, showing how, though written so many centuries ago by Jewish believers, they can be taken up into the prayer of Christ's disciples. So, we will enlist the help the results of exegesis, but we will also attend the school of Tradition, and above all we will listen to the Fathers of the Church.
Christ in the Psalms
These latter, in fact, with profound spiritual insight, were able to discern and point out the great “key” to the reading of the psalms — Christ himself, in the fullness of his mystery. The Fathers were thoroughly convinced of it: The psalms are speaking about Christ. In fact, the risen Jesus applied the psalms to himself when he said to the disciples that it is necessary “that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The Fathers add that in the psalms, either the psalmist is speaking to Christ, or it is actually Christ who is speaking. In saying this, they were thinking not only of the individual person, Jesus, but of the “Christus totus” — the whole Christ, made up of Christ the head and of all his members.
In this way, the possibility arises for the Christian to read the psalter in light of the full mystery of Christ. It is precisely this perspective that makes their ecclesial dimension emerge as well, which is particularly emphasized in the choral chant of the psalms. Thus we understand how it is that the psalms were able to be used right from the first centuries as prayers of the People of God. When, in some historical periods, the tendency arose to prefer other prayers, it was the great merit of the monks to hold the torch of the psalter high in the Church. At the dawn of the second Christian millennium, one of them, St. Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese, went so far as to maintain — as his biographer Bruno of Querfurt states — that the psalms are the only way to experience truly profound prayer: “Una via in psalmis” (Passio Sanctorum Benedicti et Johannis ac sociorum eorundem: MPH VI, 1893, 427).
St. Romuald maintained that the psalms are the only way to experience truly profound prayer.
The Church's Book of Prayer
With this statement, which at first might appear exaggerated, he remained, in fact, anchored in the best tradition of the first Christian centuries, when the psalter had become the book of ecclesial prayer par excellence. This was the winning decision that was made in the struggle with heretical tendencies that continually undermined unity of faith and communion.
In this regard, it is interesting to note a wonderful letter that St. Athanasius wrote to Marcellinus in the first half of the fourth century, when the Arian heresy, which attacked faith in Christ's divinity, was raging. In contrast to the heretics, who attracted people to themselves with songs and prayers that pleased their religious feelings, this great Father of the Church dedicated himself with all his energy to teach the psalter as handed on by Scripture (PG 27, 12 ff.). In this way the prayer of the psalms, which soon became a universal practice among the baptized, was included with the Our Father, the Lord's prayer par excellence.
Thanks also to the communal prayer of the psalms, the Christian conscience remembered and understood that it is impossible to turn to the Father who lives in heaven without an authentic communion of life with one's brothers and sisters who live here on earth. Not only this, but by vigorously entering into the Jewish prayer tradition, Christians learned how to pray by recounting the “magnalia Dei” — the great wonders accomplished by God, whether in the creation of the world and of humanity, or in the history of Israel and the Church.
This form of prayer, drawn from Scripture, does not exclude certain freer expressions, and these will continue not only to characterize personal prayer, but also to enrich liturgical prayer itself, for example with hymns and other embellishments.
The book of Psalms, in any case, remains the ideal source of Christian prayer, and the Church of the new millennium will continue to draw inspiration from it.
(Translation by ZENIT and Register)