On the absence of the Divine Office

At Opus Publicum, Gabriel Sanchez makes this point,

What the Byzantine Rite has not lost, and the Roman Rite surely needs, is the central importance of public prayer to the life of the Church. For most Catholics, that prayer is the Mass and only the Mass. If there is ever anything “more” it is typically a para-liturgical devotion such as the Rosary or a novena. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but for most of Church history reciting the Divine Office in choir was as natural as serving Mass. Today, unfortunately, that is simply not possible for most parishes to carry out all of the time, but why can’t more Latin churches strive to serve hours like Vespers and Compline at least some of the time? The easy answer is, “Because there’s no demand for it.” But the chances are there will never be a demand unless the clergy, in concert with dedicated members of the laity, create one.

(Emphasis supplied.)

The Divine Office has always occupied a tricky place in the Latin Church. Everyone agrees that the Church has to pray the Office as its public prayer, though precisely how has, as nearly as we can tell, always been a matter open to discussion. Callewaert, in his De Brevarii Romani Liturgia, outlines admirably the Apostolic origins of the Divine Office and traces its development from the days of the persecution of the Church through the reforms of Pius X. It makes for interesting reading. Of course, you know the rest of the story: the reforms continued apace through Pius XII and John XXIII’s pontificates with the help of Annibale Bugnini and his clique of liturgists, and culminated in Paul VI’s Liturgia Horarum, which bears little resemblance even to John XXIII’s Breviary, which itself was a revision of Pius X’s Breviary, which was in its turn a revision of Pius V’s Breviary. (It is passing strange that people who get incensed about the implications of Quo primum for the Mass almost never get incensed about the implications of Quod a nobis for the Office.) However, throughout this development, the laity participated regularly in the Divine Office, as Sanchez notes.

In fact, if there was one constant in the Church’s liturgy between Pius V’s Quod a nobis in 1568 and Paul VI’s Laudis canticum in 1970—a time of almost 400 years—it was that the breviary was constantly tinkered with. (Think of Urban VIII’s hymns, for example.) Benedict XVI in Summorum pontificum and its instruction Universae Ecclesiae reinstated the Breviary of John XXIII, apparently because Archbishop Lefebvre decided for some reason to stick with the books in force in 1962 (even though the Bugnini-driven reforms really started in 1955 with the revised Holy Week rites and Cum hac nostra aetate and continued with the 1960 Breviary and 1962 Missal). The upshot of all of this is that, notwithstanding the Church’s centuries of tinkering with the Breviary, the faithful have at least two Church-approved options: the 1960 Roman Breviary and the 1970 Liturgia Horarum, as updated, which is its own thing. (We will omit discussion of the traditional Benedictine Office.)

But with two Church-approved options, it should be easy as pie for any parish to provide congenial celebrations of the canonical hours regularly. Got a parish where the high altar was never jackhammered out, where the hymnals smell of incense, and where the choir calls itself a schola? Great. Offer sung second vespers of Sunday according to the 1960 books. Got a parish where Paul VI’s Mass is celebrated ad orientem in Latin and where “the reform of the reform” has appeared more than never in the bulletin? Super. Offer sung vespers according to the Liturgia Horarum on Wednesday nights. Got a parish full of felt banners and the rushing sounds of the spirit of Vatican II? Recite Morning Prayer according to the English Liturgy of the Hours on Fridays before Mass. Right? Something for everybody.

Also, the Office would be little but lay participation in most parishes. While a priest or deacon ought to lead celebrations of the Office, the laity still have significant roles in the Office—especially if the Office is sung. For example, unless one is at a monastery or a seminary, it is unlikely that the antiphons, psalms, and canticles could be chanted without substantial help from the laity. Furthermore, the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours provides rubrics for celebrations in the absence of a cleric, if it comes down to that. In other words, the Office provides, really, more opportunities for lay involvement in the liturgy, if that sort of thing is important to you.

But, as Sanchez notes, nothing doing. Laity still prefer para-liturgical—or quasi-liturgical, we suppose—devotions like the Rosary and the clergy does not appear to want to push the Divine Office in either of its forms. There are, in essence, two forms of the Office, which, between them, appeal to almost every sensibility, and neither of which are especially widely used. Why? We think there are essentially three reasons. One, the Liturgia Horarum, which most clerics use these days, practically begs to be recited either privately or in common with other clerics and all at once. Two, most parishes simply don’t have a deep enough bench, musically, to support a sung Office, even one or two days a week. And three, the Mass, having been reconceptualized as a communal celebration ordered toward the reception of the Eucharist, has sucked all the air out of the room as far as the laity are concerned. But these are just guesses.