On the Little Office

We have noticed an uptick in one of the traditional liturgical devotions of the Church, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Officium Parvum Beatae Mariae Virginis. (We shall use the terms “Little Office” and “Parvum” interchangeably.) Available today in a couple of very handsome editions—one from Baronius Press, the other from Angelus Press—the Parvum is a devotion of great antiquity, and it has, at times, made up part of the public prayer of the Church. Indeed, for several hundred years, the Little Office was no less obligatory for clerics than the great Office. Unfortunately, in connection with his reform of the Roman Breviary in 1568, St. Pius V reduced significantly the obligation to recite the Little Office. In 1911, St. Pius X finally suppressed the obligation altogether. The Parvum continued to be printed in the Breviary, but primarily as a private devotion. (We will leave to one side the orders that required it of lay brothers and sister.) And that is how one finds it today: as a private devotion.

But what a devotion! There are, in our view, two great attractions to the Parvum. First, it is, like the Rosary itself, a wonderful expression of Marian devotion, all the more appropriate in this great Fatima year. We are, above all, reminded of Charles de Koninck’s great Thomistic tract on Marian devotion, Ego Sapientia. Consider this passage, one of many great passages in the little book:

Order is of the very notion of wisdom. It is at the same time one and many, stable and mobile. Wisdom can be said of the principle as such, of the sapiential order in so far as this principle stands as root of the precontaining of the order of which it is the principle. Mary is, with her Son, at the very origin of the universe; she is as the root of the universal order: Ego sum radix—I am the root. That which God wishes principally in the universe is the good of order. And this order is the more perfect in so far as its interior principle is more profoundly rooted in God. Now, Mary is the purely created principle of this order, purely created principle closest to God and the most perfect conceivable. As principle of the sapiential order, she participates in the unity and the very unicity of this principle: she is at once emanation and immanence; her power extends to all things, which take from her their incessant innovation. We think, in effect, of vital immanence as a constant renewal from within, and in their relation to the first principle things are in being by an always innovative procession. In effect, the being which things would hold from themselves would be nothingness. Una est columba mea, perfecta mea; Et cum sit una, omnia potest: et in se permanens omnia innovat—One is my dove, my perfect one. And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself the same, she reneweth all things.

Daughter of the eternal Father, mother of the Son, spouse of the Holy Spirit, she is rooted in the Trinity, and she ties up the order of the universe, in a radically new way, which is in God according to the procession. Collum tuum sicut turris eburnea—Thy neck is as a tower of ivory. (Wis. VII, 4.)

As De Koninck demonstrates in his Primacy of the Common Good, it is only in submission to the common good—to order—that man finds his dignity. One may say, perhaps a little polemically, that Marian devotion is, therefore, necessary for man to achieve his fullest dignity. How much better, then, to express one’s devotion to Our Lady in a manner approved both by competent authority and the vote of history? This is the first great value of the Little Office: as a wonderful form of Marian devotion.

Second, it is a participation in the liturgical prayer of the Church. We are reminded here of Benedict XVI’s letter to the bishops that accompanied Summorum Pontificum:

In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture.  What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.

We shall see that the Parvum has been considered for nearly a thousand years as an integral part of the Church’s prayer, coming in time to be obligatory upon clerics. While that has not been the case generally for some time, the Little Office “remains sacred and great for us too.” There is perennially an argument about whether recitation of any office by the laity constitutes a liturgical act—that is, an act of public prayer—of the Church, but we see no need to explore those arguments. It is enough to say that Our Lady’s office is a prayer, long approved by the Church for both devotional and liturgical use. Indeed, when one prays the Little Office, one joins a tradition stretching back a thousand years.

The Parvum has its early origins in the time of St. Benedict of Aniane, who introduced at his monastery of Inde, the practice of saying a Pater and the Credo at all of the altars of the church before taking their places in the choir and reciting fifteen psalms and some prayers. (The custom of saying the Pater, the Ave, and the Credo before the Office endured until 1955, when it was suppressed by Pius XII.) In his essay on the medieval Primer in the posthumous Liturgica Historia, Edmund Bishop observes that Benedict’s fifteen psalms were almost certainly the so-called Gradual Psalms. Eventually, the prayers said or sung expanded from the Gradual Psalms to include the seven Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, and various other commemorations. Some of these devotional accretions took the form of the great Office; notable among these is the Office of All Saints, apparently modeled on the Office of the Dead. By the second half of the tenth century, Bishop tells us, these accretions were binding on monks throughout Europe, de facto if not de jure. At about this time, the Parvum appears almost out of nowhere.

Bishop pulls together “the scanty early notices” of the Parvum. In sum, we learn from these sources that there was some special prayer or other devoted to Our Lady, which certainly looks like the Parvum by the end of the tenth century. (Though this conclusion is by no means uncontested.) The earliest example cited by Bishop comes from the biography of St. Udalric, bishop of Augsburg, in which the biographer notes that Udalric, having set aside many of the heavy burdens of his office in his old age, added to the great Office a cursus in honor of Our Lady, in addition to cursus in honor of the Holy Cross and All Saints. He also prayed the whole psalter every day. Bishop says Udalric threw himself “almost unreservedly into prayer and acts of devotion” (emphasis supplied). One wonders what an unreserved life of prayer and devotion would have looked like. At any rate, this would have been, by Bishop’s reckoning, in the early 970s. We do not know what Udalric’s cursus in honor of Our Lady was, and we shall see that this mystery forms a key part of the debate over the precise antiquity of the Parvum.

In the chronicle of Hugh of Flavigny, a story is reported about how Berengarius, bishop of Verdun, began his day with lengthy prayers before matins was sung. One morning, Berengarius entered the cathedral, only to trip over Bernerius, the provost of the cathedral, who was prostrate on the floor praying matins of Our Lady. This also would have been in the middle of the tenth century, or within ten or twenty years of Udalric’s cursus in honor of Our Lady. And at about the same time, Bishop tells us, the Einsiedeln Customs introduced an office of Our Lady into the public worship of the Church. Foreshadowing the later practice of the universal Church, the monks of Einsiedeln added a votive office of Our Lady on Saturdays, in addition to the ferial office. (Unless a feast occurred.) Based on this evidence, coming but a few decades after Udalric, we are inclined to say that there was some kind of office, likely modeled on the great Office, in honor of Our Lady, even if it was not along the lines of the Little Office later known throughout Europe.

We come now to the famous testimony of St. Peter Damian, who, writing about 1053, note that it was customary in a certain monastery to sing the hours of Our Lady in choir, following the hours of the great Office. According to Bishop, the practice must have been known at the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino at the same time. Peter the Deacon wrote, about a hundred years later, that Pope Zacharias, in the eighth century, had required the monks of Monte Cassino to sing the office of St. Benedict in choir before the great Office and the Office of Our Lady after. Bishop suggests that the custom must have been of some long standing when Peter wrote, though perhaps not such long standing that Peter felt free to omit the authority of the injunction to sing the additional offices. That is, the Office of Our Lady had not been around so long that there was no grumbling about it. Once again, this evidence supports the conclusion that the Little Office emerged toward the end of the tenth century and became a widespread devotion by the middle of the eleventh.

However, in his 1949 essay on the Parvum, Msgr. William Lallou points to the eleventh century evidence of St. Peter Damian as “the first mention we have” of the Parvum. Following the great Battifol, Lallou contends that the earlier ninth and tenth century evidence—marshaled by Bishop—is evidence of suffragia, not officia plena. However, we fail to see the inconsistency in the evidence of Bishop. Peter Damian, writing in the middle of the eleventh century, says that the devotion was popular in northern Italy. This seems consistent with the evidence of Augsburg and Verdun, showing the Little Office emerging in the middle of the tenth century. One could well imagine the Parvum spreading steadily over the intervening century, and by the time of Peter the Deacon a hundred or so years later the Little Office must have seemed venerable, even if some monks could reasonably contend that it was a relatively recent addition to the day’s prayers. But the difference is only one of a hundred years or so. Whether it emerged in the 950s or the 1050s does not make a huge amount of difference in 2017.

To be completely honest, this is one of our favorite aspects of the Parvum. It seems to have come out of nowhere sometime toward the end of the tenth century, and, within a couple of hundred years, it was obligatory for clerics throughout the western Church. It has also outlasted most of the other devotional offices from that time, notably the Office of All Saints. One can intellectually trace the development of the Parvum back to Benedict of Aniane’s imposition of the prayers before matins of the great Office. One can also discuss the general tendency of that time to add devotional offices to the great Office. But neither point seems to explain the speed with with the Little Office emerged and became obligatory or the fact that the Little Office has outlasted most of the other devotions of its age. The Little Office has a little mystery about it. It is possible to get somewhat mystical about these things, though we will resist the temptation for you, dear reader.

As we said, the Parvum became obligatory along with the other accretions to the great Office, though not without some controversy. Msgr. Lallou notes:

As time went on into the fourteenth century, there was opposition to the burdening of the already long office with rather lengthy epilogues, like the seven penitential psalms, the gradual psalms, the office of the dead and the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. The last named was to be said, in addition to the canonical hours, on every day of the year, except the greater festivals, the last three days of Holy Week, the octave of Easter, and the feasts of our Lady herself. The Constitutiones Lateranenses of Gregory XI (1370-78) prescribed that the office of the hours of the Breviary of the Curia was to be sung (cum nota) and then followed every day by the recitation (sine nota) of the office of the Blessed Virgin. The Franciscans were accused of multiplying feasts of nine lessons in order to get rid of the obligation of adding to the office the penitential and gradual psalms and the office of the dead. They were also charged with growing laxity in the observance of the daily recital of the office of our Lady. So, it is not surprising that in the proposals for the reform of the Breviary, made especially in the sixteenth century, there was always included that of suppressing additions to the office which made it unduly prolix and increased its complexity.

(Footnote omitted.) It has been the goal of the modern reformers of the Office, beginning with St. Pius X in 1911, to make the obligation of the Office lighter rather than heavier. This tendency was finally fulfilled after the Second Vatican Council, with the wholesale revision of the Office into the Liturgy of the Hours. It is, therefore, interesting to see the antecedents of that process about five hundred years earlier. One does wonder—we wonder, at any rate—what this modern reduction of the Office means, especially since the accretions to the Office were motivated by piety and devotion.

Strangely enough, while the reformers were trying to make the great Office lighter, they were also trying to make the Little Office heavier. We shall not rehearse the full shape of the Little Office in its post-Tridentine form, except to say that it is generally unvarying throughout the year. In Advent and Christmastide, there are some variations. The reformers, however, wanted to lengthen the psalter used in the Little Office, add additional observances of the seasons, add some saints’ feasts, and use Cardinal Bea’s translation of the psalter. The repetition of the Parvum was no doubt a black mark against it. Happily for the Little Office—if unhappily for the Church—the collapse of the traditional Office following the Council meant that attention was turned away from the Little Office.

Despite the fact that the office in honor of Our Lady first emerged on the continent, it has become peculiarly associated, at least in our mind, with England. Bishop suggests that the English must have known the Parvum at about the same time as St. Peter Damian discussed its popularity in Italy, given the English devotion to Our Lady, only briefly chastened by the Norman Conquest. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Parvum was once again an English devotion. And it continued to spread, forming a central part of every literate Englishman’s devotional life through the medieval Primer. This continued even into the time of the so-called English reformation, despite the best efforts of the Tudor regime to suppress the devotion. In both the repetition and in the connection to penal times in England, one is reminded of Blessed Ildefonso Card. Schuster’s comment on the Office:

I close my eyes, and while my lips murmur the words of the Breviary which I know by heart, I leave behind their literal meaning, and feel that I am in that endless land where the Church, militant and pilgrim, passes, walking towards the promised fatherland. I breathe with the Church in the same light by day, the same darkness by night; I see on every side of me the forces of evil that beset and assail Her; I find myself in the midst of Her battles and victories, Her prayers of anguish and Her songs of triumph, in the midst of the oppression of prisoners, the groans of the dying, the rejoicing of the armies and captains victorious. I find myself in their midst, but not as a passive spectator; nay rather, as one whose vigilance and skill, whose strength and courage can bear a decisive weight on the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and upon the eternal destinies of individual men and of the multitude.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is, we think, the other great value of the Little Office, to join in prayer so many Catholics throughout history and to express with them love of and devotion to Our Lady.


A word on the Baronius edition: if you decide to purchase one of these, make sure you purchase a recent printing. The fifth edition is dated 2015. The early editions were marred with some fairly serious errors, such as wrong hymns and switched antiphons in the offices of Advent and Christmastide. To their great credit, Baronius appears to have taken notice of the errors and corrected them in subsequent printings.