The Laity, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Second Vatican Council

(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.

Shanahan writes:

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?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgy, Neil. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Laity, the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Second Vatican Council

  1. Liam says:

    The translations of the texts of the Office need to be much more poetic or musical than they are. That’s at least why they fail to engage me in their authorized forms. Flat, flat, flat.

  2. Scott says:

    As an Episcopalian, I would point to Episcopal and Anglican churches as examples of places where public recitation of the Daily Office is stronger (although it varies from place to place). The reason for this is the availability of the texts and psalter in every church, in the Book of Common Prayer. This availability continues in Anglican Use parishes of the Roman Catholic Church through the Book of Common Worship. When you have a standard source in the pews, with copies for all, that’s used regular and taught in classes, it’s easy to pray these services in church (in the Episcopal Church, these include Morning, Noonday, Evening Prayer, and Compline).

    Without such a source, books have to be brought by the participants or provided for their use: the Catholic parishes in which I’ve prayed the office have provided Shorter Christian Prayer for those who didn’t bring their own full breviary or Christian Prayer with them.

    It also helps to have some sort of group that will pray the Office regularly in the church no matter what the weather or turnout. St. John Cantius here in Chicago has the advantage of its Canons Regular, who basically form a monastic community in residence, so they are obligated to attend and participate daily, several times a day. In my parish, there are the Sisters of St. Anne whose convent is next door and whose conventual Mass is our morning low Mass; they pray their own monastic office in the convent but also often assist the lay officiants with the parish morning and evening prayer from the BCP.

    Parishes wishing to have a daily public offering of the Liturgy of the Hours need to plan who will lead it each day and then just do it, and don’t be discouraged by low attendance as parishioners learn what it is, when it happens, and how to participate.

  3. Charles says:

    Agreed, Liam. I am a lay oblate-novice of a Benedictine monastery, and am therefore getting close to a time when I will make promises to pray the Office (at least Lauds and Vespers). I get so bored with the current translations that I sometimes use either the Anglican Breviary (beautiful translation of the old Roman Breviary) or the (gasp) Book of Common Prayer 1979.

  4. Todd says:

    Excellent, Neil; thank you.

    One item I’d like to add is the struggle with the communal nature of the Office versus the devotional practice of it.

    As fodder for personal prayer, the psalms and all are certainly laudable, so to speak. The LotH were designed as a communal effort. When praying them as a single person, I find something missing.

    I wonder if the all-out approach of the Anglicans might inform us in some way. Liturgy with serious music and preaching, plus a persistent presence on the parish liturgy calendar: that has a lot going for it, don’t you think.

  5. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I think more parishes should celebrate Vespers on feasts days and solemnities communally, as encouraged by Mediator Dei n. 150 (1947) De Musica Sacra n. 45 (1958), Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 100, Musicam Sacram n. 39 (1967), and the GILH nn. 23 (1971). I think this exposure (although far more ceremonial than personal or family recitation would be) is a good introduction to the Divine Office.

    Surely the current Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church will have at least a few recommendations on how to better incorporate the Divine Office into the parish life and family life!

    (My parish has an “evensong” service a few times throughout the year, but it’s not really Vespers. It feels simply like Mass without Communion…)

  6. Thanks, Neil, for a fine post.

    My parish celebrates Sunday Evening Prayer in Advent through the Christmas season and in Lent through Easter Sunday, and on Pentecost. We use a cathedral office (based on Praise God in Song, the combined effort of Bill Storey and John Melloh.

    Using a cathedral format celebrated liturgically (ministers/vestments/lucenarium/music/brief homily) we have built a following of about 100 parishioners with about 50-75 present at any given liturgy.

    Obviously we’re not celebrating what’s in the LoH but it does serve to assembly people for liturgical prayer outside the Eucharist. If I recall correctly, Bill Storey used to say, “The best office to use is the one that works.”

  7. John says:

    What do I think?

    The last line of this fine piece is, “Perhaps we will see a revitalization of the Liturgy of the Hours as some laypeople become more associated with monastic communities.”

    Is there a train I can board for this?

  8. monkagain says:

    Thanks for discussing this – that already brings it to many more people. Yes in some Anglican Churches some hours are prayed, in Orthodox Churches this is quite common. How about praying Lauds and Vespers in RC churches before mass in the morning or at night. The RC LoH might be for communities but many hermits, like myself, and canonical hermits use it – perhaps with additions for our eremitic life. I suggest to RC’s to become involved in some Oblate programe, like Lay Cistercians, Cameldolie, Carthusians – Google for that. We have an interdenominational list of 410 members, bishops, priests, religious, hermits, laity for monastic subjects, spirituality, hesychasm, info,news, vocations and much else at Also Google for the liturgical site of rev Bosco Peters from New Zealnd.

  9. Neil says:

    Thanks to everyone for writing. If I might summarize the comments:

    1. We should discuss the current translations. (Shanahan does not discuss this issue.)

    2. Parishes should try to make the Liturgy of the Hours more available, by providing texts and ensuring the continuous attendance of a stable (if small) group.

    3. Parishes should also make the possibility of associating with monastic communities (e.g., Oblate programs) more available.

    Does this sound accurate? Thank you also for providing links to your websites and other sources.


  10. Jim McK says:

    Why isn’t there more of an effort to combine LOTH with Mass? There are regular parish communities that would accept recitation of the psalms as the opening rite and the Benedictus after communion. (GILH 93)

    This seems like a wonderful way to introduce LOTH to the laity — it establishes it as liturgy, introduces the riches of the Psalms, and ensures that at least some people know the Benedictus.

    Rather than rely on relationships to religious/monastic communities, this recitation would bring people into closer contact with the deeper prayer of the Church. At the same time, it would introduce some to the life of prayer of clergy and religious, laying a foundation for those who might be attracted to that life.

  11. Bosco Peters says:

    Thanks for this wonderful thread.
    People may be interested that the RC Carthusians use the Anglican psalter translation when not using Latin.
    I hope we can not only encourage laity to take up their right of the Church’s prayer,
    but also ecumenically.

  12. LP says:

    Reviving, or attempting to, an old discussion.

    I am an RC returning to the church from a decade of attendance at an Episcopal church (not a hostile break, more a return to the religion of my family).

    Scott describes for me the most basic problem with encouraging use of the LoH: Inavailability of texts for praying the hours in churches. Further, the four volume LoH in English is close to $200 w shipping.

    Probably worth encouraging as a gift to a church, coupled with an announcement in a bulletin.

    Of course, a personal prelature dedicated to saying the hours rather would be the real solution.

  13. Gavin says:


    Have you seen Universalis?

  14. LP says:


    Thanks! That’s great!

    Universalis is not intended to be complete, but certainly a good partial (much cheaper) substitute.

  15. A little late for the comments – however, the Catechism of the Catholic church is very insistent that the Divine Office – Liturgy of the Hours – pertains to the WHOLE church, Clergy, Religious and Laity equally. See paragraphs 1174…”In this public prayer of the Church, the faithful (clergy, religious, laity) exericse the royal priesthood of the baptized.”, 1175…”The laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

  16. Neil says:

    Dear Laurence,

    Thanks for writing. You are certainly right – the Catechism does encourage the laity to recite the office. My post was meant to show that this was not always the case.

    And, even in Sacrosanctum Concilium, as Daniel 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.”

    Perhaps this history explains why more of the laity haven’t yet embraced the Hours.


  17. Todd says:

    I’ll echo Neil’s thanks for commenting. Proposition 19 of the recent bishops’ synod was also concerned with the Office. The suggestion there was that the existing ritual be adapted into a “simple form” in places where it has not been done.

    I do think Lauds and Vespers, in order to take hold in families, will need to be simplified to some degree. It is vain to hope that children will page through a 2000-page ritual with their parents.

  18. Paul says:

    Regarding simplifying the Divine Office. The website which belongs to the Confraternity of Ss Peter and Paul now has the full Divine office all sorted out in a very easy format with no knowledge of the rubrics needed. It is all there and reads from top to bottom in both Latin and English without having to navigate back and forth for various commons and commemorations etc. They have made it so easy for lay people to participate in the recitation of the Divine Office. I can see that the day may come when some monastic communities may exchange their breviaries for a computer screen on their choir bench with the office of the day all sorted and ordered for them.

    Please take a look at their website.

  19. Neil says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you very much. I’ll look at the site in the next day or two and perhaps update this post.


  20. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for Axiron lawyer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s