Last year I wrote about my recent re-discovery of Compline after sticking to the Major Hours and also the Byzantine Office for several years. Compline, for myself and for many readers, was our initiation into the Divine Office if only because it could be said before bed, it was simple, and it hardly changed day to day. Vespers, however, was for myself and another reader, our introduction into liturgical prayer properly speaking. Raised in the 20th century Roman Church, the parish Mass can be taken for granted, new or old rite. We are required to go to Mass and we can find its celebration more or less heuristic and devout depending on our own disposition and devotion. The Office, unlike Mass, is seamless and can only really be celebrated one way, without pause for theatrics, spoken prayers, or deliberate gestures. It begins as it ends, imploring aid for those who need it: Deus in adiutorium and Fidelium animae. The service may not confect the Holy Eucharist, but it does enter into Eternity as much as the Mass and into the proprietary nature of the day even more so than the Mass for great feasts.
First, at the Oxford Oratory, I heard Vespers again where I first heard the service at all. The rite was Sunday after Ascension according to John XXIII's rubrics, which Oxford follows more stringently than the mishmash service at Brompton. "Back in the day" there were probably more people from the 11AM Solemn Latin Paul VI Mass who went to Vespers than people who went to the 1962 low Mass at 8AM. The reasons are probably varied: traditionalists are very likely to have families in tow, which is a complication toward the evening; people who go to the high Mass are likely more interested in grand liturgical gestures; perhaps the greater attendance at the new rite ensures that even with a lower percentage of people interested in Vespers a greater number will be from the new Mass. Regardless, Vespers and Benediction still gathers about 50 souls. The music was Gregorian plainsong according to the Solesmes method. The provost, Fr. Daniel Seward, officiated.
The most pleasantly surprising service was Vespers according to Paul VI's Liturgia Horarum in Latin at Westminster Cathedral, where a reader left me after spending an afternoon in London with a bottle of wine. Westminster Cathedral, in the fashion of the more proper Anglican institutions, maintains both a professional male choir and a school of young boys who sing the Office daily; the choir also sings a high new rite Latin Mass daily. The singing is some of the best I have ever heard in person and a far cry better than the Sistine Screamers. Vespers was for (what should have been) the Octave Day of the Ascension of Our Lord. The theme of the new rite Vespers, which is the only public celebration of the new Office I have ever seen in my life (like the Latin Novus Ordo it is rarer than its old rite counterpart), began with the Veni Creator hymn, an odd choice given that Pentecost was some days away. Then were sung three psalms, or possibly psalm fragments, then a vernacular reading, and a priest recited some intercessory prayers. All in all, this Vespers lasted 20 minutes and perhaps 30 people attended, although 150-200 probably came in for the following Mass.
The Kyrie from the evening Mass at Westminster Cathedral, set by Orlande de Lassus
Last came Vespers for Pentecost Sunday at the Brompton Oratory, sung alternatively by their professional choir and the Fathers in choro. The provost, Fr. Julian Large, celebrated with the aid of four coped assistants who intoned the antiphons before an assembled congregation of probably 100-150. Vespers of Pentecost Sunday may be the most beautiful in the entire Roman rite. The antiphons are brisk, succinct, generally in a major key, and come as powerfully as the Holy Wind of which they speak. Is there a more moving hymn than the Veni Creator?
I have known Byzantine Vespers these past six years, the psalter of which never changes day to day, which the exception of odd times of year like Bright Week. The Roman Vespers has considerable variation with seasonality and the odd major feast. Also, whereas the Greek service tends to flow continuously, Roman Vespers builds up like the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, culminating in the offering of incense at the altar during the Magnificat. A rediscovery of the old Suffrages and Commemorations might re-orient the Magnificat into the climax of the service rather than the bittersweet end that it generally is.
I wish Vespers would proliferate the United States. For those with a well equipped parish it may well be the next thing to ask of one's pastor. If he asks why the service should be scheduled when so few would attend just answer, "For God's sake, man."