ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
 …For [Jesus] continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office.
84. By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church's ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; It is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.
100. Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.
If your New Year’s resolutions included improving your daily regimen of prayer, you may be considering the Liturgy of the Hours, the official daily prayer of the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium devoted close to twenty paragraphs of explanation, of which I listed three points for introductory purposes here. The SC section on the Divine Office [nowadays The Liturgy of the Hours] is an example of a teaching which has not been fully unpacked nearly sixty years later as well as the gulf between clerical and lay structured prayer style.
The paragraphs 83-102 describe the reform of the official observance of the Church’s daily prayer. The Divine Office [Liturgy of the Hours] is the round-the-clock schedule of daily prayer built around the Psalms, composed and arranged by the Church and sung and/or recited by communities of monks. religious orders and communities, and clerics in major sacramental orders: diaconate, presbyterate [priests], and bishops. It is not known how and when the practice of a prayer routine developed in the early Church. There is a hint of a routine in Mark 15:25 and in Mark 15:33-34, where the evangelist gives the time of the crucifixion as 9 AM, with significant events at 12 PM and 3 PM. The symmetry of this chronology has led some scholars to wonder if the times correspond to devotional services in use in St. Mark’s time on Good Friday and perhaps other days, forty years after the death of Christ. [“The Great Intercessions” of the contemporary Good Friday rite may be related to the Prayer of the Faithful in today’s Mass.] Another consideration from the era before Mark is the probability that Jewish Christians would have followed temple worship and timed observances, along with the celebration of a sunrise Eucharist on Sunday.
The establishment of the monastic life by St. Benedict [480-547 A.D.] and the composition of a monastic rule established a template for abbey living, As Wikipedia puts it, “Following the golden rule of Ora et Labora - pray and work, the monks each day devoted eight hours to prayer, eight hours to sleep, and eight hours to manual work, sacred reading and/or works of charity.” The design of the monks’ routine of prayer—a balance of hymns, psalms, readings, and intercessory prayer—is a work of true historical genius that survives in general form to this day, though it has been renewed and revised many times and was in need of attention at Vatican II.
The Vatican II reform of the Divine Office was of considerable interest to clerics and religious, as these cohorts were bound to pray it [or “read” the office as some would say]. Monks in monasteries and cloistered orders] sang the Office in common. Everyone obligated to the office prayed in Latin. A lay person could go through an entire life and never see a text.
Is the Liturgy of the Hours a format that we can all use—in part, at least--in unity with Catholics around the world praying the same prayers? Or can the Hours bring a parish or faith community together, or be used profitably by an individual? At the time of Vatican II [1962-1965] priests themselves were having problems meeting their obligations to pray the Divine Office meaningfully. For one thing, the Divine Office—a four-volume set called “the breviary” --is hefty. [See the present-day breviary here on Amazon.] In 1962 the hours or prayer sessions included Matins [now Office of Readings], Lauds [now Morning Prayer], Prime, Tierce, Sext, Vespers [now Evening Prayer] and Compline or night prayer. These prayer units were expected to be prayed in Latin, and even the Council did not make translation mandatory.
The parish priest did not have to say the entire day’s office, as monks did, but “reading one’s breviary” took a good hunk of time out of a busy pastor’s day. It was not that uncommon for a priest to park his car under a streetlight and squeeze in all his required prayers before midnight. My recollection of respected priests is their approach to the breviary as a sacred duty; they drew their inspiration not so much from those Latin texts as from the rosary, Eucharistic adoration, and other popular devotions of the heart. The divine office was never a part of a parish’s life.
Time and space do not permit a full analysis of the Vatican II discussion of the divine office; Sacrosanctum Concilium uses the lingo of the day, “divine office” and/or “breviary.” The term Liturgy of the Hours would come later in the reform. But we can gather some of the principals of the reform from the above citations. First, although the celebration of the Eucharist is the preeminent prayer of the Church, the Council fathers did not view the Eucharist as the only time the Church prayed together. As we would say today, they hoped for more prayerful expression than one hour per week. Second, para. 84 speaks of a unity of clerics and even faithful in offering an endless prayer of praise. Para. 101 adds the instruction that parishes celebrate public Vespers or Evening prayer on Sundays and solemnities. The Council, in other paragraphs not cited in this post, eased the obligation of priests to pray all the hours. Morning and Evening Prayer [Lauds and Vespers] were to be highlighted. And, there is greater exposure to Scripture reading and the writings of the Church Fathers in today’s revised version.
Generally speaking, though, the reform has not impacted the Church to the degree that the Council hoped. The Liturgy of the Hours is a complicated style of prayer. It was and is written for communities of monks, religious, and clerics, all of whom studied this style as part of religious formation and seminary training. My wife and I pray some of the hours, but we are both veterans of religious orders required to common recitation, having received that training when we took our religious habits many years ago. I began praying the Hours in novitiate in 1968 when English translations began to appear. But when I went to the major seminary in 1969, I found that the obligation of the Hours consisted of Morning Prayer and Vespers and could be substituted for, and we were encouraged to create our own versions of prayer services for group use as part of our liturgical training.
I may be wrong, but my sense is that diocesan clergy by and large are faithful to Morning Prayer and Vespers, along with other devotions and spiritual reading. What about laity? As a pastor and catechetical instructor, I encouraged my students to consider the Liturgy of the Hours [a daily portion] for the purpose of unity within the Church and a heightened sense of the liturgical calendar. Today the Hours are available on multiple internet platforms, [we use ibreviary] which at least lay out the order of the service in a linear fashion. The book versions carry five ribbons as standard gear!
May I borrow this observation of an Amazon reviewer of the four-volume print set of the Hours:
In actual practice, one universally recognized problem is that there is no single authoritative guide easily teaching how to properly "use" the books in prayer, and the "instructions" such as they are, are not really clear and may be confusing in explaining the steps in how to pray the various Offices, holy days and seasons. One valuable tool I highly recommend, is the short and very well-written book "The Everyday Catholic's Guide to The Liturgy of the Hours " by Daria Sockey, and a visit to her very helpful blog. Internet based sites with helpful guides are also very available.
All prayer requires effort, and more so here in this highly structured method of prayer. It's important to take your time to learn the setup of the book, the form of the Offices and the flow of the weekly and liturgical calendars. When beginning to pray with these resources, take it slow and easy, immersing yourself a little deeper into the discipline of prayer as you grow comfortable with each Office and what it holds. Do not do too much, or you will grow in frustration and work against progress in your prayer. This is a rich meal - take small bites and savor each one. One benefit as laity joining the raising of this prayer on behalf of the entire Church, is that we are not required to follow a certain form but we can adapt to our own circumstance and pray as we can, as little or as much as we will. This can help us to grow slowly and confidently in our prayer and method, expanding our reach as our need to grow closer to the Lord increases.