In the following beautiful Introduction, Pope John Paul II explains to us how to read the Psalms and pray them in a Christian way. Leaning on the results of modern Exegesis, he goes back to the way the Fathers of the Church read and prayed the Psalms, very much like the New Testament authors do.


28 March
– 4 April 2001

1. In the Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte I expressed the hope that the Church would become more and more distinguished in the “art of prayer”, learning it ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master (cf. n. 32). This effort must be expressed above all in the liturgy, the source and summit of ecclesial life. Consequently, it is important to devote greater pastoral care to promoting the Liturgy of the Hours as a prayer of the whole People of God (cf. ibid., n. 34). If, in fact, priests and religious have a precise mandate to celebrate it, it is also warmly recommended to lay people. This was the aim of my venerable Predecessor Paul VI, a little over 30 years ago, with the Constitution Laudis canticum in which he determined the current form of this prayer, hoping that the Psalms and Canticles, the essential structure of the Liturgy of the Hours, would be understood “with new appreciation by the People of God” (AAS 63 [1971], 532).

It is an encouraging fact that many lay people in parishes and ecclesial associations have learned to appreciate it. Nevertheless, it remains a prayer that presupposes an appropriate catechetical and biblical formation, if it is to be fully savoured. 

To this end, we begin today a series of catecheses on the Psalms and Canticles found in the morning prayer of Lauds. In this way I would like to encourage and help everyone to pray with the same words that Jesus used, words that for thousands of years have been part of the prayer of Israel and the Church.

2. We could use various approaches to understanding the Psalms. The first would consist in presenting their literary structure, their authors, their formation, the contexts in which they were composed. It would also be fruitful to read them in a way that emphasises their poetic character, which sometimes reaches the highest levels of lyrical insight and symbolic expression. It would be no less interesting to go over the Psalms and consider the various sentiments of the human heart expressed in them:  joy, gratitude, thanksgiving, love, tenderness, enthusiasm, but also intense suffering, complaint, pleas for help and for justice, which sometimes lead to anger and imprecation. In the Psalms, the human being fully discovers himself.

Our reading will aim above all at bringing out the religious meaning of the Psalms, showing how they can be used in the prayer of Christ’s disciples, although they were written many centuries ago for Hebrew believers. In this task we will turn for help to the results of exegesis, but together we will learn from Tradition and will listen above all to the Fathers of the Church.

3. The latter, in fact, were able with deep spiritual penetration to discern and identify the great “key” to understanding the Psalms as Christ himself, in the fullness of his mystery. The Fathers were firmly convinced that the Psalms speak of Christ. The risen Jesus, in fact, applied the Psalms to himself when he said to the disciples:  “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24: 44). The Fathers add that in the Psalms Christ is spoken to or it is even Christ who speaks. In saying this, they were thinking not only of the individual person of Christ, but of the Christus totus, the total Christ, composed of Christ the Head and his members.

Christians were thus able to read the Book of Psalms in the light of the whole mystery of Christ. This same perspective also brings out the ecclesial dimension, which is particularly highlighted when the Psalms are sung chorally. We can understand, then, how the Psalms came to be adopted from the earliest centuries as the prayer of the People of God. If in some historical periods there was a tendency to prefer other prayers, it is to the monks’ great credit that they held the Psalter’s torch aloft in the Church. One of them, St Romuald, founder of Camaldoli, at the dawn of the second Christian millennium, even maintained, as his biographer Bruno of Querfurt says, that the Psalms are the only way to experience truly deep prayer:  “Una via in psalmis” (Passio sanctorum Benedicti et Johannis ac sociorum eorundem:  MPH VI, 1893, 427).

4. With this assertion, which seems excessive at first sight, he actually remained anchored to the best tradition of the first Christian centuries, when the Psalter became the book of Church prayer par excellenceThis was the winning choice in view of the heretical tendencies that continuously threatened the unity of faith and communion. Interesting in this regard is a marvellous letter that St Athanasius wrote to Marcellinus in the first half of the fourth century while the Arian heresy was vehemently attacking belief in the divinity of Christ. To counter the heretics who seduced people with hymns and prayers that gratified their religious sentiments, the great Father of the Church dedicated all his energies to teaching the Psalter handed down by Scripture (cf. PG 27, 12ff.). This is how, in addition to the Our Father, the Lord’s prayer by antonomasia, the practice of praying the Psalms soon became universal among the baptised. 

5. By praying the Psalms as a community, the Christian mind remembered and understood that it is impossible to turn to the Father who dwells in heaven without an authentic communion of life with one’s brothers and sisters who live on earth. Moreover, by being vitally immersed in the Hebrew tradition of prayer, Christians learned to pray by recounting the magnalia Dei, that is, the great marvels worked by God both in the creation of the world and humanity, and in the history of Israel and the Church. This form of prayer drawn from Scripture does not exclude certain freer expressions, which will continue not only to characterize personal prayer, but also to enrich liturgical prayer itself, for example, with hymns and troparia. But the Book of Psalms remains the ideal source of Christian prayer and will continue to inspire the Church in the new millennium.


The Spirit prays through us in the Psalms

1. Before beginning the commentary on the individual Psalms and Songs of Praise, let us complete today the introductory reflection which we began in the last catechesis. We will do so by starting with one aspect that is prized by our spiritual tradition:  in singing the Psalms, the Christian feels a sort of harmony between the Spirit present in the Scriptures and the Spirit who dwells within him through the grace of Baptism. More than praying in his own words, he echoes those “sighs too deep for words” mentioned by St Paul (cf. Rom 8: 26), with which the Lord’s Spirit urges believers to join in Jesus’ characteristic invocation:  “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8: 15; Gal 4: 6).

The ancient monks were so sure of this truth that they did not bother to sing the Psalms in their mother tongue. It was enough for them to know that they were in a way “organs” of the Holy Spirit. They were convinced that their faith would enable the verses of the Psalms to release a special “energy” of the Holy Spirit. The same conviction was expressed in their typical use of the Psalms known as “ejaculatory prayer” – from the Latin word “iaculum“, that is “a dart” – to indicate concise phrases from the Psalms which they could “let fly” almost like flaming arrows, for example, against temptations. John Cassian, a writer who lived between the fourth and fifth centuries, recalls that monks discovered the extraordinary efficacy of the short incipit of Psalm 69:  “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me,” which from that time on became as it were the gate of entry to the Liturgy of the Hours (cf. Conlationes, 10, 10:  CPL 512, 298ff.). 

2. In addition to the presence of the Holy Spirit, another important dimension is that of the priestly action which Christ carries out in this prayer, associating with himself the Church, his Bride. In this regard, referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the Second Vatican Council teaches:  “Jesus Christ, High Priest of the New and Eternal Covenant … attaches to himself the entire community of mankind and has them join him in singing his divine song of praise. For he continues his priestly work through his Church. The Church, by celebrating the Eucharist and by other means, especially the celebration of the Divine Office, is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the entire world” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 83).

So then the Liturgy of the Hours has the character of a public prayer in which the Church is specifically involved. It is enlightening to rediscover how she gradually came to shape her specific commitment of prayer to coincide with the various phases of day. To do so we must go back to the apostolic community in the days when there was still a close connection between Christian prayer and the so-called “legal prayers”, that is, those prescribed by Mosaic Law – which were prayed at specific hours of the day in the temple of Jerusalem. From the book of Acts, we know that the Apostles were in the habit of “attending the temple together” (Acts 2: 46), and “going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (3: 1). Moreover, we also know that the “legal prayers par excellence” were those of the morning and the evening.

3. Jesus’ disciples gradually identified certain Psalms as particularly appropriate for specific moments of the day, week or year, finding in them a deep sense of the Christian mystery. An authoritative witness of this process is St Cyprian, who writes in the first half of the third century:  “We must also pray at the beginning of the day that the Resurrection of the Lord may be celebrated by morning prayer. The Holy Spirit once set this forth, when he said in the Psalms:  “O my king and my God. For to you will I pray:  O Lord, in the morning you shall hear my voice. In the morning I will stand before you, and will see you’ (Ps 5: 3-4)…. For since Christ is the true Sun and the true Day, as the sun and the day of the world recede, when we pray and petition that the light come upon us again, we pray for the coming of Christ to provide us with the grace of eternal light” (De oratione dominica, 35:  PL 39: 655).

4. The Christian tradition is not limited to perpetuating Jewish practice but made certain innovations which end by giving a different character to the entire prayer experience lived by Jesus’ disciples. In fact, in addition to reciting the Our Father in the morning and evening, the Christians freely chose the Psalms with which to celebrate their daily prayer. Down through history, this process suggested the use of specific Psalms for certain particularly significant moments of faith. Among thesepride of place was held by the prayer of vigils, which were a preparation for the Lord’s Day, Sunday, on which the Resurrection was celebrated. 

Later, a typically Christian characteristic was the addition at the end of each Psalm and Canticle of the Trinitarian doxology, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”. Thus every Psalm and Canticle is illumined by God’s fullness.

5. Christian prayer is born, nourished and develops around the event of faith par excellence:  Christ’s paschal mystery. Thus Easter, the Lord’s passing from death to life, is commemorated in the morning, in the evening, at sunrise and at sunset. The symbol of Christ, “Light of the world”, can be seen in the lamp light during the prayer of Vespers, which is consequently also called “lucernarium“. The hours of the day, in turn, recall the events of the Lord’s Passion, and the third hour, the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as well. Lastly, prayer during the night has an eschatological character, recalling the watching recommended by Jesus in expectation of his second coming (cf. Mk 13: 35-37).

Giving their prayer this rhythm, Christians responded to the Lord’s command “to pray always” (cf. Lk 18: 1; 21: 36; 1 Thes 5: 17; Eph 6: 18), but without forgetting that their whole life must, in a certain way, become a prayer. In this regard, Origen writes:  “One who prays ceaselessly is one who combines prayer with work and work with prayer” (On Prayer, XII, 2:  PG 11, 452C).

The whole panorama constitutes the natural habitat of the recitation of the Psalms. If heard and lived in this way, the Trinitarian doxology that crowns every Psalm becomes for the believer in Christ a continual immersion in the waters of the Spirit and in communion with the People of God, in the ocean of life and of peace in which that people was immersed through Baptism, that is, in the mystery of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.