(This is Neil) I believe that we’ve discussed the Liturgy of the Hours on this blog before. I should admit to knowing little about the subject. But, to continue the discussion, I’d like to summarize an article about the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office) and recent history from the current Cistercian Studies Quarterly. It is written by Daniel Shanahan. Please feel free to comment, especially about your own experiences in praying the Hours.
Shanahan begins by noting that laypeople have recently been attracted to monastic spirituality. But when they attempt to pray the Opus Dei – the Divine Office – certain thorny questions immediately face them: Should they pray all the hours? Which book or books should they use? Shanahan can’t provide answers to these questions in his short article, but any good answers must be historically informed. Thus, Shanahan wishes to discuss the recent history of the relationship of the laity and the Divine Office. It isn’t an entirely happy story.
What was the relationship of the laity to the Hours before the Second Vatican Council?
Put simply, the Hours were considered to be the activity of priests and religious. Thus, Pope Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, says, “The divine office is the prayer of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, offered to God in the name and on behalf of all Christians, when recited by priests and other ministers of the Church and by religious who are deputed by the Church for this” (my emphases). To be sure, Pius recognized that in “an earlier age, these canonical prayers were attended by many of the faithful” and the encyclical recommends lay attendance at vespers on feast days. But the Hours were primarily imagined to be the pursuit of those “deputed by the Church” – not the laity.
The so-called “Pian Commission” was formed several months after Mediator Dei, and the commission suggested two kinds of obligations regarding the Hours. The first was for contemplative religious, but the second kind of obligation was for priests with pastoral duties. Again, the Hours are associated with those deputed by the Church. Nevertheless, the “Pian Commission” would prove to be important for the laity on this matter. Obviously, the laity, just as much as parish priests, would require a more flexible Liturgy of the Hours.
Finally, in 1956, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna acknowledged at a liturgical conference in Assisi that Lauds and Vespers were part of lay spirituality.
We really can’t say that there was soon an overwhelming awareness of the relationship between the laity and the Liturgy of the Hours during Vatican II. Even, I should add, if we would like to do so. The Council’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), is mostly concerned about the Divine Office in the lives of priests and religious, who are once again said to be “deputed” to pray the Office as the “voice of the Church.” While – once again – the laity is encouraged to pray the Hours, Shanahan writes, “No mention is made, for example, of how to incorporate this public prayer of the Church into family life or even single life with its many activities.”
But we can suggest that the Second Vatican Council marks another advance in the relationship between the laity and the Liturgy of the Hours. This is clear when we read the documents of Vatican II intertextually. SC’s emphasis on the “full and active participation by all the people” is meant to apply “with special force to the celebration of the Mass,” but it must also apply to other liturgies as well, including the Divine Office. Furthermore, if we look at Lumen Gentium, we read that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love.” If the Liturgy of the Hours has a particular efficacy in forming Christian holiness, then, surely, the laity should have a part in it.
The debates at the Council surrounding the Divine Office were mostly concerned about the life of the parish priest, who would have a hard time praying the Office. Some priests, Shanahan says, would even pray Vespers and Compline in the morning, because, however odd, that was the only time that they had. So, after the Council, priests were allowed to recite only one of the “minor hours” (Terce, Sext, None) when “outside choir.” As Shanahan writes, “The majority of bishops even suggested that the recitation of the Office could be in the vernacular, rather than in Latin, the official language of the Church.”
But what about the laity? They weren’t really in mind during these debates. Besides the clerical orientation of these debates, they were colored by the assumption that the Liturgy of the Hours was monastic.
Although a rich history exists of lay involvement in the Liturgy of the Hours, that history was soon overshadowed by monasticism. Monks became professionals in the skill of liturgical prayer. The monastic model became the standard upon which to structure prayer, even for diocesan clergy. The monastic model of prayer preserved the various hours of prayer and reading of Scripture. At the same time, according to liturgist Paul Bradshaw, monasticism was “chiefly responsible for the gradual demise of corporate daily prayer among ordinary members of the church in the West.” A gradual process of near exclusion from the Office requires a gradual process of re-introduction to the Office. Although the Council was primarily concerned with providing a pastoral response to those obliged to recite the Office, I suggest that it can be viewed as part of the gradual re-introduction of the Office to the laity.
What happened after the council? The post-conciliar Consilium’s Group 9 moved to revise the breviary. This was a difficult task, because the historical research was still premature. The Jesuit liturgist Juan Mateos suggested the restoration of a Cathedral Office for both laity and clergy, but was dismissed because his proposal would make the day hours non-obligatory for priests and religious. Furthermore, Group 9, Shanahan writes, “continued to struggle with the burden the monasticised Roman Office placed on active clergy, yet they were unable to break free of the monastic paradigm.” Mateos would, much later, say in an interview, “The Church must do something that is valuable for the whole Church and not for special groups inside.”
The monastic bond would not be cut, but Group 9 did seem to become more aware that the Hours have a place in the lives of the laity. But, still, it seems as though the Hours were seen to be primarily the concern of the clergy and religious. The main concern was to make a monastic practice practical for those priests in active ministry. The new Roman Office was promulgated in 1970 and published the next year.
Some American liturgists hoped that the laity would return to daily liturgical prayer, but the theologian William Storey wrote in 1972 that most American Catholics “would not recognize an office book if it fell on them …” Jan Michael Jonas wrote in 1991, “it would be safe to say that the liturgy of the hours has not become a regular feature of Roman Rite parochial liturgical life in the United States.” It might be comforting to remember that most Christians in history have never attended daily worship of any kind, but the failure of American Catholics to receive the Liturgy of the Hours might have occurred because of the lack of serious efforts to establish the Office in parishes.
What about now? Shanahan suggests that we remember that “there is variety in the Liturgy of the Hours, and this devotion belongs as much to the laity as it does to priests and religious.” He adds, “This was not fully appreciated at the time of the Second Vatican Council,” because historical research had not come into its maturity. Perhaps we will see a revitalization of the Liturgy of the Hours as some laypeople become more associated with monastic communities.
What do you think?