Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

IMG_20140719_112038There has been an increasing interest among young lay people in praying the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours (LOTH) [1].

For those unfamiliar, ‘Office’ is used to mean Official, as in the Official Prayer of the Church. Every time you find a pamphlet, or prayer book, a rosary, a prayer card, a novena; these sorts of prayers are not official prayers of the Church. They are often authorized, but not actually prepared, written, and required for anyone to pray. The Divine Office is the official prayer of the Church, in that it has been written in Latin, approved, & translated by the Church for the use of the Church, and then canonically required for ordained clergy to pray. For non-ordained religious in Consecrated Life, they are often required by their Order or Congregation.[2]

Many people don’t realize that the Universal Church has not necessarily mandated for all members of all Congregations of Consecrated Life to pray the Divine Office. The Church prescribed a simpler Office referred to as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reasons for this are many, but a theological understanding of the Divine Office would help.

Historical Reasons for the Little Office

Theologically speaking, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is the prayer of Christ. The Divine Office, more commonly called today the Liturgy of the Hours [3] is the prayer of Christ. It would be composed primarily of the Psalms prayed throughout the day. The Church Fathers saw the Psalms as Christological, and the Church came to understand praying the Psalms as uniting to Christ before the Father. This is why ordained clergy are required to pray it.

However, just as the Eucharistic Liturgy is public, so is LOTH. Monastic Communities, Canon Regulars, and sometimes Mendicant Friars always prayed publically. It was never exclusive for clergy. We still have a few that join us almost daily, sometimes there are even people who never use the book, but sit and pray with us.

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is likewise an ancient prayer in the Church. It grew in popularity for many reasons, some of these reasons are criticisms which reduced it’s usage. They are worth looking at, however, this article is meant to encourage it.

  1. Theological & Linguistic Literacy: We live in a time of High Literacy in the West. Most practicing Catholics I met are bookworms. We are a people of the letter. Much of our tradition has been handed on in text. I think we attract bookworms because there is so much to read! Throughout the history of the Church, literacy cannot be assumed. Even religious were not fluent in Latin. Readings of multiple lessons from Church Fathers in highly theological Latin did not make sense for the majority of members in the Church. Although the Little Office was still prayed in Latin, it was so much shorter, and easier to develop as it was repeated each week. Eventually it was also even allowed in translations. In many congregations Non-Ordained Brothers began to be relegated and segregated from the clergy, and Prayed a Little Office in Common. Praying the Little Office could have also contributed to this or vice-versa.
  2. Marian: While Christ prays the Divine Office, Mary prays a Little Office. Although this is not so much an official teaching of the Church (Christ praying is, however), it was sentimentally & reasonably sound to see the Little Office as a participation in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s intercession for us. Many Orders or congregations of women appropriately adopted the Little Office. Mary was the handmaiden of the Lord, and so the Little Office was like a prayer for handmaidens.
  3. Apostolic: Often there were disproportionate amounts of women who became lay members of Religious Orders. [4] Sometimes they developed into urban apostolic communities in proximity to the Contemplative Women’s communities, or the Communities of Men, and the Little Office was the appropriate option, not merely because there were members who were women, or who were less literate, but who were also occupied with many other Apostolic activities of Service. Praying 10 elaborate Offices a day seemed a bit much with the amount of Apostolic Service envisioned by the founder.[5]

Criticisms & Responses: Why it can still be meaningful today

The Little Office is still an appropriate devotional prayer for people who want to participate in the prayer life of the Church and find the LOTH as confusing.

One criticism of the Little Office is that it was a condescending accommodation to Women and uneducated brothers. The Clergy were much more educated, and could handle the Divine Office, while the lesser educated would get the Little Office. It kept the Congregations segregated in ways that went against the intent of the Founders.

Although I believe that the literacy issue is not as much of a problem for young lay Catholics, the multiple volume books, that require navigating across multiple sections (especially for a feast during a Liturgical Season), can be confusing. Lay People ambitiously decide to do LOTH during Lent, and give up after a few days, and hate themselves. If you are not praying in common, and have ready direction from others, it is too ambitious of a task.

Today, Lay people who work full time, have families to care for, do not have a community to share their prayer with yet desire a solid prayer routine can find value in this. Young Single People who work full time, who do not yet understand the value in routine prayer would benefit from this.

The Little Office is a simple format that does not vary week to week. LOTH takes four weeks to complete the psalms, while the Little Office only prescribes prayers for one week without having to cover the entire Psalmody.

Current Editions

The Reform of the Liturgy did not include an updated Little Office. With Summorum Pontificum widening the use of Latin, the use of the Little Office is still appropriate. There are various new editions being published with side-by-side Latin & English.

Baronius Press has a nice leather softcover edition. For those who have a love of the Pre-Conciliar Rite (or Extraordinary Form, or Latin Mass), they may find this edition appropriate. Many people may love Latin, but not feel drawn to the Pre-Conciliar rite, and there are still options.

Fr. John Rotelle OSA [6] compiled a Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary which would be in harmony with the current LOTH. He used only the approved texts from the LOTH propers for the Blessed Virgin Mary, while formatting the week similarly to the traditional Little Office. As it is published by Catholic Book Publishers, readers will notice it also mirrors the textual format of LOTH. In my opinion, THIS IS THE BEST OPTION FOR BEGINNERS. And, although this prayer was not officially prescribed by the Church, it has an Imprimatur. My younger brother has one in his room, although I allege that he doesn’t actually use it, he may disagree.

Finally, another handy option would be the more devotional A Book of Marian Prayers by William Storey Loyola Press. [7] Here he uses even shorter prayers for the evening & morning in a liturgical format: Hymn, Psalms, Reading, Canticle, Litany, Collect; he also includes a wealth of devotional prayers: A Byzantine Devotion, prayers from the Saints, the Rosary, the Seven Sorrows, various Litanies. This gives options to people who want a regular prayer routine, but might want to switch between the Rosary, or a Novena, or Evening Prayer (A Marian Vespers so to speak).

Notes

[1] LOTH not LOTR. LOTH is a good abbreviation for Liturgy of the Hours. Office is a colloquial abbreviation for the Divine Office.
[2] The Reason that the Church has traditionally not required Religious Orders and Congregations to Pray the Divine Office 1) Some Orders (Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans) actually have had their own Rites, with their own Offices prepared in advance, & 2) as explained in this articles, it was thought the simplified Little Office would be appropriate for other congregations.
[3] The Church focused more on the term of the Liturgy of the Hours, in that this prayer revolves around the Liturgy. It becomes part of our Liturgical Life to participate in the Eucharist, where the prayers, Seasons, & Feasts all synchronize with our Prayers at Mass. In some way, I see the use of the term the Liturgy of the Hours as more explicitly Eucharistic, whereas the term Divine Office seems to be an end in itself.
[4] The First Orders referred to the Men, and the Second Orders referred to Contemplative Cloistered Women’s Communities. Lay Members were often called Third Orders, or more commonly Seculars. In times past, when marriage wasn’t something people felt entitled to have, many young women were not given in marriage, so to remain and care for their aging parents. They often took this option that would not separate them from their family in the same way that a Convent would. Sometimes younger widows found a calling here, as well as other young women who joined these established groups. Many joined for penance, as part of their conversion.
[5] For instance, when Saint Ignatius made the radical decision prohibiting those in the Society of Jesus from praying the Divine Office in Common, it was because they could have literally spent 1/2 of their active day doing so in the elaborate style required of them at the time.
[6] Fr. Rotelle has been responsible for initiating several modern translations of Augustine’s works in English, as well as several important literature from our Order. As the Little Office had sometimes been in use by Brothers & Seculars of our Augustinian Order, & perhaps many other congregations, there was a hole left by it’s absence in the Revised Liturgy.
[7] William Storey is Professor Emeritus of Liturgy & History at Notre Dame U. I found a few of his other Prayer Books on Loyola Press tend to be very Liturgical & Didactic, any of them making a great gift. Not only does he go for a more modern devotional format, with the use of personal pronouns in many prayers, he also draws on centuries of ancient traditional prayers from throughout Christendom (Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Byzantine, Celtic etc.). I know with the updated Roman Missal in the direction of a literal translation of Liturgical Texts, I don’t believe it is inappropriate for devotional texts to have a variety of translations. However, his rich use of ancient liturgical texts with glorified language would not be off putting.

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