Friday, April 8, 2011

Ask Tony: What is the Divine Office?

A reader over at Outside the Asylum, who has been a Catholic for two years come this Easter (OOH-RAH!), has a bit of a problem: he has so many health issues that, for all practical purposes, he lives "almost like a hermit". However, he's on fire for Christ and wants to do more for Him. What to do in this situation?

Monks in choir (I don't own the copyright)
My response: Well, how about praying the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office)?

The Liturgy of the Hours is an outgrowth of the 1st-century Jewish practice of praying four times a day, at the third, sixth and ninth hours of the day and at midnight. Selected psalms were sung and texts from the Old Testament were read. Eventually, readings from the New Testament were added, as were canticles like the Major Doxology ("Glory to God in the highest"), readings from the martyrology and other pious works. Other times for prayer were added until, by the end of the fifth century, there were seven hours; St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-543) added an eighth. Since prayer was the basic work of the consecrated religious, the eremitical and mendicant orders, their prayers and readings grew longer; by necessity, the prayers of laypersons were short.

Over time, the cycle of readings became more elaborate and began to require more books: a psalter for the psalms, a lectionary and a Bible for the scriptural texts, a hymnal, etc. The search to reduce the number of text required resulted in the first breviary, the Franciscan Breviarum Curiae, a one-volume text for travelling. This popular innovation spread throughout Europe and was eventually adopted by Pope Nicholas III (r. 1277-1280). The Office itself went under its first major revision after the final session of the Council of Trent (1563), resulting in the promulgation by Pope St. Pius V (r. 1566-1572) of the Roman Breviary; with minor changes over time, this remained the standard text until after Vatican II.

The current Divine Office stems from Vatican II's extensive look at the Church's prayer life, which is detailed in the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963). Known as the Liturgy of the Hours of Paul VI (or just Liturgy of the Hours), it consists of three major hours and four minor hours:

  • The Office of Readings, which may be read at any time of the day (major);
  • The Morning Prayer (Prime), about 6:00 am (major);
  • Daytime Prayers (minor), which can be one or all of:
    • Mid-Morning Prayer (Terce), about 9:00 am,
    • Midday Prayer (Sext), about 12:00 pm, and
    • Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Nones), about 3:00 pm;
  • Evening Prayer (Vespers), about 6:00 pm (major); and
  • Night Prayer (Compline), about 9:00 pm (minor).
In Laudes canticum (1970), his apostolic constitution promulgating the new Liturgy, Pope Paul says:

This prayer takes its unity from the heart of Christ Himself, for our Redeemer desired “that the life He had entered upon in His mortal body with supplications and with His sacrifice should continue without interruption through the ages in His Mystical Body, which is the Church.” Because of this, the prayer of the Church is at the same time “the very prayer that Christ Himself, together with His Body, addresses to the Father.” As we celebrate the Office, therefore, we must recognize our own voices echoing in Christ, and His voice echoing in us.

The Liturgy is required of all priests (including bishops) and transitional deacons (i.e. seminarians ordained to the diaconate in their final year of study for the priesthood), while permanent deacons are either required or strongly encouraged according to their national conference of bishops' mandates (CIC 276 §2, n. 3). Members of religious institutes are bound by the constitutions of their organizations. Laypersons are "earnestly invited" to participate but not canonically required (CIC 1174 §2). In his 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI gave permission to priests to use the Roman Breviary of Bl. John XXIII (Art. 10, §3).

Since 1965, many traditional Catholic prayer practices have languished in the doldrums, such as the Angelus prayer. However, in recent years the Liturgy of the Hours has become more popular as younger "JP2 Catholics" have become more interested in the Church's traditional riches. You can buy the four-volume set on or at your local Catholic bookstore. Some websites, including and, support the prayers online ... and yeah, iPhone owners, you guessed it: there's an app for that (both Universalis and DivineOffice have one, and I wouldn't be surprised if others offered it). There's plenty of flexibility in the Pauline format for people whose ability to pray the full Liturgy is restricted by work schedules.

Praying the Divine Office daily is an ideal spiritual work for someone whose ability to work in more physical ministries is curtailed by health. We need as many people praying for the Church as we can muster, so the importance of this Office should never be underestimated. 

If your health forces you to live like a hermit, why not pray like a hermit?


  1. Excellent idea!

    There is a blind Grandmother at my church who makes Rosary's for the Soldiers and knits prayer blankets. She thought she didn't have anything to offer the church because of her blindness until she went to a weekend retreat with a friend. She is now very active in her own way.....

  2. My friend Daria Sockey has a new blog with the theme of the Divine Office. She helps us understand all the little nuances that are in those prayers. Check it out at