An important part of my vocation as a soon-to-be consecrated virgin in the world is praying the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the Divine Office) for the needs of the Church, particularly for the needs of my archdiocese. But because I don’t know very much about the demographic of my audience—although judging from my comment box, it looks like my readership spans from high school students to cloistered nuns—I’m not sure that everyone knows what I’m talking about when I make my frequent mention of the Liturgy of the Hours.
So here is my version of “Liturgy of the Hours 101,” or a very basic introduction to the public prayer of the Church. (So for those of you who are already chanting the Office seven times a day in choir—please bear with me!)
Like the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is liturgy, which means that it is the Church’s official prayer. (And in case anyone is interested, “liturgy” is derived from the Greek word leitourgia, which roughly translates into “the work of the people” or “public work.”) All non-liturgical prayer is technically considered “private” or “personal” prayer, regardless of whether or not it is prayed within a group context. Examples of private prayer would include the Divine Mercy chaplet, various novenas, silent/mental prayer, and even the Rosary.
Private prayer is still quite valid and valuable; however, the principal difference between liturgical and private prayer is that liturgical prayer is prayed in the name of the Church, where private prayer is essentially prayed in the name of the individual.
The purpose of the Liturgy of the Hours is the sanctification of time, as well as to provide a means by which the faithful can pray “without ceasing.” It is comprised of seven “hours” or “offices,” each corresponding to a different time of day: Lauds (Morning Prayer), Terce, Sext, and None (the Daytime Hours—Midmorning, Midday, and Midafternoon Prayer respectively), Vespers (Evening Prayer), Compline (Night Prayer), and the Office of Readings (also called Matins or Vigils, this was traditionally prayed in the middle of the night or shortly before dawn, although it can now be prayed at any time of day). All of the hours involve Psalms, Scriptural readings, and prayers; Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer also include intercessions, the “Our Father,” and a Gospel canticle.
The Liturgy of the Hours originated as a Christian adaptation of the Jewish custom of praying at fixed points during the day. In the early Church, it was celebrated regularly in the cathedrals, and was a focal point of Christian life. Later, the Divine Office would become a pillar and hallmark of monastic life, with subsequent elaborations and extensions. The second Vatican council simplified the structure of the Office and allowed for translations into the vernacular in order to make the Liturgy of the Hours more accessible to all who pray it—clergy, laity, and the consecrated.
Today, all of the faithful are invited to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours as far as they are able. However, certain people within the Church have specific obligations to pray the Office.
Diocesan priests and transitional deacons are bound to say the “full” Divine Office, which generally denotes five of the hours: the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, one of the Daytime hours, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer. Offering this “sacrifice of praise” is considered one of their more important priestly duties.
All religious are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (cf. can. 633 in the Code of Canon Law), but according to the proper law of their institutes. In active communities, this usually means the celebration of at least Morning and Evening prayer, which are often called the two “hinges” of the Divine Office. However, religious priests, because they are priests, have the same obligations as the diocesan clergy, and cloistered nuns are usually bound to say the full Office in choir. Permanent deacons pray the Office as is required by their individual dioceses, typically Morning and Evening Prayer.
There is no proscription in Canon Law as to how often consecrated virgins in the world should say the Office. But as the Rite of Consecration itself includes a “mandate” to say the Liturgy of the Hours, it could be surmised that this is a very important part of this form of consecrated life! In the preface to the rite, consecrated virgins are “strongly encouraged” to pray at least Morning and Evening Prayer. In my archdiocese, this is the requirement. However, my own OPINION is that as consecrated virginity in the world is essentially a contemplative vocation, consecrated virgins should be asked to recite the full Office just as diocesan priests do.
But to think of the Divine Office solely in terms of rules and regulations is to miss the point. Really, it is a privilege and a gift—and a great joy—to be able to pray in union with the whole Church.
I hope this helps some people—if anyone has questions, please do ask them!