– Aurelio Porfiri
It may be remembered that Pope Benedict XVI has said that the proof that the Catholic Church is the one intended by God can be witnessed in her art and in her saints. I think that there is great truth in this statement; thanks to the Church patronage, we have some of the greatest works of art from human history. We have also a plethora of men and women who have shown with their life and works what it means to follow Christ radically. One of these men was Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) a great Italian Bishop and a man of many talents, including poetry. We Italians know the Christmas song Tu scendi dalle stelle written by Saint Alphonsus by heart. He is known for his works in the field of moral theology, and is probably considered the greatest inspiration for all those who have to deal with issues dealing with morality and the Catholic doctrine. Indeed, the university in Rome where moral theologians are shaped is called Alphonsianum. That University, including the congregation that Saint Alphonsus had started, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), have in him a shining example of a man that devoted all his talents for the glory of God and the good of Christian people.
He was a great preacher and a great writer. Among his writings, there is also a work on the Psalms: Traduzione de’ Salmi e de’ Cantici che si contengono nell’Officio Divino (translation of the Psalms and Canticles that are contained in the Divine Office), a work he has done during his time as a Bishop in the years 1773 and 1774. Father Maurice de Maulemeester, a member of the congregation of Saint Alphonsus, commented on this book in 1933: “St. Alphonsus had first proposed to translate only the difficult passages of the psalms, but afterward, it was decided to complete an entire version of the psalter. This work, for which he consulted more than forty commentators, caused him much fatigue, to the point of making him exclaim: ‘He will make me pass the desire to print more.’ He ruined his health completely and contracted violent headaches. Although stripped of all the scientific apparatus, of which at that time the publications of scriptural texts were adorned, the work had a real success. In October 1776, the second edition was sold out and the Saint wrote to Remondini that he had only one copy left.” This work was dedicated to Pope Clement XIV. Probably what pushed Saint Alphonsus to undertake this huge task was similar work of this kind appearing in his time.
In his introduction to the work, Saint Alphonsus speaks about the Psalms always with special attention to the needs of priests and Christian faithful: “Cardinal Bellarmino speaking of the psalms, says that the psalter is a compendium of the entire Old Testament; because what Moses wrote of the history and the law, and what the other prophets have said, everything is understood in the psalms, as was said by Saint Augustine in his preface on the psalms: Psalmorum liber quaecumque utilia sunt ex omnibus (Libris canonicis) continet … et communis quidam doctrinae thesaurus est, singulis necessaria subministrans. Each one then, just as he thinks about it, understands how much the psalms are filled with divine light, of holy documents, fervent prayers and special prophecies especially about the human redemption offered by Jesus Christ. Let us observe Psalms 2., 15., 21., 44., 68. and others, where Christ’s kingdom, his birth, his preaching, miracles, passion, resurrection, ascension to heaven and the propagation of the church are clearly predicted, as Jesus himself said to his disciples: Quoniam necesse est impleri omnia quae scripta sunt in lege Moysi et prophetis et psalmis de me.
In sum, the entire psalms express feelings of divine love, of patience, of humility, of meekness, of forgetting of insults, of the fortitude of soul and confidence in God. Therefore everyone who recites the office must apply to himself all the feelings and acts that David made; of fear, of trust in God, of thanks, of good desires, of humility, of offering, of love and praise to the Lord. Especially all the prayers that he made of forgiveness, of light, and of help: since the Lord has assigned these psalms to be recited by the whole Church, certainly it had the purpose that everyone who recites them apply to himself all acts and prayers that David had for himself; and those who did it for the Jewish people must intend to do them for all Christians. So even when David talked about his enemies, literally, for the most part, he meant that he spoke of the men who persecuted him; but we must understand the devil, which are the worst enemies we have, which, more than the life of the body undermine the life of the soul.”
It is really clear how the ideas of Saint Athanasius and Saint Augustine are present in Saint Alphonsus. The Psalms are a sort of compendium of our spiritual journey, it is God speaking to us and God that gives us the words to speak to Him. We find everything in the Psalms and this is the reason why the Church prescribed these prayers not only for random acts of prayers but for daily prayer. Let us remember that praying with the Psalms is not only a prerogative of priests, monks or nuns but every Catholic can benefit from the recitation or singing of the Psalms.
Saint Alphonsus, in his introduction, speaks at length about the necessity of translating the Psalms from Hebrew, the original language. We have learned already, indeed, that the Psalms are in unity, but in a broader sense of this term, being composed in different times and places. He talks of the literary style of the Psalms, giving some interesting opinions that show his deep familiarity with this repertoire.
I have spoken of the everpresent pastoral attitude of the great Saint. An example is in the closing of the introduction when he speaks about those that recite the Psalms in the divine office without the necessary devotion: “Then one deduces how great the punishment will be that in the other life they will receive from God those who, being required to recite the office, to regret it or to wait for worldly entertainment, neglect it. But I do not speak of these here; I’m talking about those who say it scathingly. It is a pity to see with what disrespect some recite the canonical hours, reciting them in the middle of a street or facing a balcony looking at those who pass or in conversation with friends, laughing and joking and sifting through the divine praises impertinent and joking words, without minding at all what they say. If any of these were to speak with a prince and dealt with him in this way, certainly he would be chased away and chastised. One then finds that he has the audacity to deal with God in this way so that he seems sooner to wait to dishonor him than to honor him! I add that when the office is devoid of devotion and without other attention than to hurry it up as soon as possible, then it achieves a very serious and boring weight and it seems that it never ends; but when, on the contrary, one recites with devotion and desire to make a profit from it, applying the mind and the heart to that which is spoken with the mouth, the weight is light and sweet, as the saints well experienced it, who found greater pleasure in saying the divine office of what the worldly find in their secular amusements. In a single office said with devotion, more degrees of glory can be earned; what an accumulation of merits will be extracted from the office thus said for thirty or forty years of life!
“This thought is what prompted me to make the effort of the present translation so that those who are already struggling to say the office by their obligation do so with merit and profit of their souls and not with a demerit and responsibility that one day they have to be accountable to the divine court and pay the deserved penalty in the other life.”
What a great lesson! And how can we also benefit from this, not only those who have the obligation to pray the canonical hours. How many times we sing Psalms and we don’t pay attention? The work of Saint Alphonsus and his words remind us of our responsibility to the Word of God, of which the Psalms are a very important part.