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The Liturgy Of The Hours

July 9, 2016 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

The liturgical year of the Church, during which she “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ from his Incarnation and Nativity through his Ascension, to Pentecost and the expectation of the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1194), has the Paschal Triduum as its “source of light, the new age of the Resurrection [which] fills the whole liturgical year with its brilliance” (CCC, n. 1168).
During the course of an annual cycle consisting of five seasons (Advent, the Christmas season, Lent, the Easter season, and Ordinary Time), we recall and celebrate all the great events of the earthly life of Jesus.
As expressed by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, the Church guides us from the anticipation of the birth of the Messiah as foretold by the Old Testament prophecies to the foretelling of His coming “at the dawn of each person’s eternity and his majestic coming on the last day of the present world” (The Catholic Catechism [TCC], p. 550).
Moreover, the Church interrupts this cycle on set days as she “venerates with special love the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The Church also keeps the memorials of saints who lived for Christ, who suffered with him, and who live with him in glory” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 242).
The last topic examined by the Catechism in answering the question “When is the liturgy celebrated?” is the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. Hardon defines this public liturgical prayer of the Church as “the group of psalms, hymns, prayers, and biblical and spiritual readings formulated by the Church for chant or recitation at stated times every day” (p. 165).
It is through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours that “the mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day” (CCC, n. 1174). Similarly, it is the Church’s response to the Lord’s command to His disciples to pray without ceasing (cf. Luke 18:1; 21:35), and it corresponds to St. Paul’s counsel to early Christians to “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17) and “at all times” (Eph. 6:18).
What role does the Liturgy of the Hours play in the life of the Church? As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn states in Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Sacraments, “For Christians, there is, strictly speaking, no ‘private prayer’…since each of us, as believer and as someone in the grace of Christ, is a living member of the Body of Christ” (p. 47).
However, some forms of prayer are objectively more perfect than others. As indicated by Daria Sockey in her excellent work of 2013 entitled The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours (GLH), “Next to the holy sacrifice of the Mass, there is no greater way to pray than [the Liturgy of the Hours]” (p. xi).
Fr. Hardon describes it as “in a class by itself.” Indeed, as “the public prayer of the Church for sanctifying the day by praising God” (TCC, p. 553), it is intrinsically superior to all forms of devotional prayer (e.g., the rosary, novenas, chaplets, etc.).
To better understand this statement, it would be good to use an analogy. Earlier in this series when we considered the consecrated religious life as compared to the married state, we saw that “the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ’s own way of life, has an objective superiority” (Vita Consecrata, n. 32).
Does this mean that Christ desires that all of us become priests or religious? Of course not, for God calls the vast majority of people to marriage. Each of us has a duty to prayerfully discern the vocation to which God is calling us, respond to that call, and cooperate with His grace in fully living it. Similarly, the Liturgy of the Hours, despite its objective superiority, may not be best for everyone — at least in the present circumstances of their lives.
Daria Sockey lists several reasons which, taken together, explain why this prayer transcends all other forms of prayer except the Mass: It unites us to the Church universal; it is liturgical; it is scriptural; it flows from and into the Mass; and it is the very prayer of Jesus Himself (cf. GLH, p. 15).
In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Vatican II Fathers emphasized its importance by stating: “It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 84).
The 1971 General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours highlights what characterizes its excellence: “By ancient Christian tradition what distinguishes the liturgy of the hours from other liturgical services is that it consecrates to God the whole cycle of the day and the night” (n. 12).
What is the origin of the Liturgy of the Hours? In his scholarly and well-researched work entitled The Church at Prayer: The Liturgy and Time (CP:LT), A.G. Martimort explains that in the early centuries of Christianity, it “was based on Jewish usage but also and above all on the examples of Jesus himself and of the apostolic community. . . . It was in the framework of Jewish prayer life that Christ and his apostles did their praying” (pp. 157-158).
Examples of fixed times of the day that were sanctified to God by prayer are present in the Old Testament. In the Book of Deuteronomy, morning and evening are specified: “when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). It was then that the faithful were to recite the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might [Deut. 6:4-5]), a prayer that still appears in the Liturgy of the Hours every Saturday night. Based on the human rhythm of life — retiring and rising — these times of prayer also represent the rhythm of nature: dusk and dawn.
The Book of Daniel specifies three times for prayer: “He got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God” (Daniel 6:10), a practice also found in the Book of Judith (see Judith 9:1; 12:5-6; 13:3). Likewise, an allusion to three times of daily prayer is present in the Book of Psalms: “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and [God] will hear my voice (Psalm 55:17). Seven times for prayer is called out elsewhere: “Seven times a day I praise thee for thy righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:164).
In the New Testament, Jesus is often described as going aside to a lonely place to pray to His Father in Heaven (e.g., Matt. 14:23; Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35, etc.). In the early life of the Church, the Acts of the Apostles gives evidence that certain hours were set aside for prayer by the apostles: the third hour (Acts 2:15); the sixth hour (Acts 10:9); and the ninth hour (Acts 3:1; 10:30).
As attested by Blessed Paul VI in his 1970 apostolic constitution Laudis Canticum, “the liturgy of the hours gradually developed into the prayer of the local Church, a prayer offered at regular intervals and in appointed places under the presidency of a priest.”
It was St. Benedict, the great sixth-century “father of Western monasticism,” who devised the form of the Liturgy of the Hours which has the greatest influence on the way we pray it today. He assigned it the name Divine Office and gave the hours their Latin names of Prime, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and Matins, a system that specified prayer every third hour around the clock (cf. GLH, p. 6).

Accessible To Everyone

The Office has gone through many revisions over the centuries, including a “sweeping and dramatic” revision as an outcome of the Second Vatican Council. The 3:00 a.m. hour (Prime) was eliminated, hours were shortened, the psalms were distributed over a four-week period instead of a week, and readings now include some of the best material from the Church Fathers and authors with a reputation for sanctity and orthodoxy.
As summarized by Fr. Hardon: “The revised Liturgy of the Hours now consists of Lauds and Vespers, the morning and evening prayers called ‘the hinges’ of the Office; Matins, to be said at any time of the day, which retains the form of a nocturnal vigil service and is called the Office of the Readings; Terce, Sext, and None, any one of which may be chosen for prayer at an appropriate time of the day, approximately mid-morning, noon, or mid-afternoon; and Compline, which is the night prayer” (TCC, p. 554).
As specified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (see canons 1173-1175), clerics are obliged to carry out the Liturgy of the Hours daily and consecrated religious are bound according to the norm of their constitution. Moreover, the laity, according to their circumstances, “are also earnestly invited to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours as an action of the Church” (canon 1174 § 2).
The revisions of Vatican II made this eminently practical and now, with the advent of online and mobile applications, the Liturgy of the Hours is accessible to nearly everyone. It is a great treasure that many should avail themselves of, especially Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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