Thoughts on the Divine Office

Originally published as “More thoughts on the divine office” , 18 December 2008.

Already on a few occasions I’ve written about the breviary, but I want to go in a different direction without rehashing too much of what I’ve already thought.

As I’ve written before, and as one could guess, I do not like the new Liturgy of the Hours in any way shape or form. I just fail to see it as an expression of prayer akin to what has always been adopted by the Church, east and west, from the most ancient times. It is modeled after the Quignonez breviary, which had 3 psalms for every office, and was suppressed because it made the prayer of the Church too short and placed psalms without regard for their historical replacement or the tone of the psalm with the time of day. The 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, drawing on the consensus of liturgical judgment, said concerning Quignonez:

In the light of tradition and of liturgical principles the only possible verdict in that Quignonez’ Breviary, being constructed on a priori principles, violating most of the liturgical rules, must be condemned…. Every hour had three psalms; and in consequence of this severe regularity, there disappeared the deep and historical motive which gave to each hour its own characteristics. (source)

It wasn’t because Quignonez was evil, he was in fact a great churchman, and effected the release of Pope Clement VII from Charles V’s de facto imprisonment. Moreover, he resisted the trends of the time to restore Latin to pagan usage in order to conform with antiquity. Rather, it was condemned because he made a “Novus Ordo” of sorts with the breviary. We don’t even have a breviary quite as good as his for the Novus Ordo and on top of that it doesn’t even have all the psalms. The concept of vigils, or Matins, as it existed in the ancient breviary which made it through the middle ages, was wrecked in the Quignonez version, and likewise in the 1970 version. Three psalms scarcely carries the ancient tradition, although it should be admitted, the two readings in themselves are about the length of the readings of the 2nd and 3rd nocturnes which are divided up in the traditional schema.

The principles of the divine office, the liturgical laws and the characters of the hours were of ancient usage. When St. Benedict laid out what was to become the Monastic Breviary in his rule, he himself was drawing on ancient tradition, particularly Roman tradition (and ironically, is the only breviary today which maintains the ancient Roman Tradition.) This is one reason of course why I pray the Benedictine Breviary, the division of Psalms is roughly the same as St. Benedict laid out and as his early monks prayed. Though it has changed and suffered additions over the years, it is substantially a product of ancient tradition. Akin to praying the ancient form of Mass, there is something both humbling and inspiring about praying the same breviary as ancient and medieval monks did. Another benefit to the Benedictine Breviary is they did not modify their hymns during the reform of Urban VIII, and hence have maintained their ancient style. Moreover, it did not suffer any changes to the psalter during St. Pius X’s reforms, so many features which it drew from the Roman office, such as the Laudes psalms (148-150) are still said at the end of Lauds (from which that hour gets its name), and the use of Psalm 50 every day. The length of psalms in the Benedictine and pre-Pius X Roman Breviary are interesting. The Benedictine breviary for example begins Lauds every day with Psalm 66, and then Psalm 50 are prayed. Two psalms and the canticle differ each day, and then the Laudes Psalms are said. The only difference in the Roman breviary is Psalm 66 was not said. So the hour generally has 8 psalms, and more on Sunday (although they’re short). Vespers in the Benedictine is generally only 4 Psalms, unlike 5 in the Roman. Matins was 12 Psalms in the Roman Breviary and 12 in the Benedictine, which was then followed up by 4 scriptural canticles.

Another interesting thing is that Compline was the same every day, and the tone of those psalms was always defense in the night. The little hours in the Benedictine breviary are exactly the same Tuesday through Saturday, and after a while you start to memorize them. This allows one to better meditate on the thought of the psalms (plus, only monks are going to have the time).

The Pius X reform of the Roman Breviary starts a trend which ends up in the Novus Ordo, though St. Pius X could scarcely have imagined it. First off, while changes had been effected to the breviary throughout time, the Roman Psalter was thought to be in its integrity even older than the Canon of Mass in its current form. The idea of permanence in the liturgy was impugned, and it opened the door to further changes on the principle that Pius X had changed the breviary. However while the change in the distribution of Psalms ought to be a concern, the character of the hours largely remained the same, although now somewhat uniform. 5 Psalms for Lauds, 5 Psalms for Vespers, only 9 for Matins, while all the readings remained the same. The little hours now received psalms that were once said at Matins or at Lauds, so that they would change every day. All of these were motivated by pastoral changes. Yet these rubrics left in place a very important pastoral principle, that the priest could divide up the hour of Matins (which is very lengthy) so as to better accomplish the work of a parish priest. According to a good priest I know, one of the changes made by Bugnini when he served in the congregation of rites before Vatican II, was to eliminate this rubric and require priests to say the whole of Matins in one block and not divide it. Functionally, this meant that priests had to lock up a whole hour of prayer into the divine office. That is one thing for a monk or a country priest, but a priest in a large parish of many souls could have a problem.

This had a practical affect: to create disdain amongst the clergy for the office, which is exactly what Bugnini wanted. That is why when the Novus Ordo breviary rolled around, so many priests willingly accepted it because now: 3 psalms and 2 readings which can be anticipated the day before in the evening or said later in the day!

And if we look at the Novus Ordo breviary, the 1974 liturgy of the hours, there are some very unsavory things about it. Like the Quignonez, ever hour now has 3 psalms (except Compline which has one but inexplicably 2 psalms for Saturday and Wednesday). Moreover, one of the biggest problems with the Pius X psalter, that Psalm 50 is not said every day as is customary, is included. Unlike the Pius X psalter which required Psalm 50 during penitential periods, the Novus Ordo does not, except for Ash Wednesday, require Psalm 50 to be said on a day other than its placement, which is Friday every other week. This bothers me on a number of levels. A friend of mine who was recently ordained, in discussion on this topic, exclaimed “If you stop praying for mercy in the morning, what is going to happen in terms of pride during the day?” Like so many other things, you will stop getting it. It is the same with the Leonine prayers after Mass, or the use of additional collects praying for the Church before Bugnini suppressed them. If you stop praying for the defense of the Church, or from liberation against persecution, can you guess what is going to happen? You will stop getting defense, you cease to see even effective leadership bringing discipline from within. Ask and it shall be given, but what happens if you don’t ask?

This is the problem with many of the changes in both the breviary and the Mass.

Another problem with the Novus Ordo Liturgy of the Hours, is the new Vulgate has no decree behind it of infallibility in faith and morals. The Vulgate most recently promulgated under Pope Clement VIII on the other hand, has that guarantee both from the council of Trent and the Popes on document. John Paul II never extended such authority to the new Vulgate promulgated under his reign. Therefore if you are praying the LOH or the Pius XII psalter, your text is not even assured to be free from error in faith and morals as the traditional breviary and clementine psalter is! Imagine praying the new Vulgate for 4 weeks, shudder!

A lot of people complain about the four week psalter, but this doesn’t present a problem other than its novelty. There is nothing wrong in theory or even per se in practice with saying a four week psalter, except that the Fathers of the Church east and west when they required the faithful to attend the divine office being sung in the Churches, chose a one week psalter not a four. What is important about that is the early Bishops intended it to be done by lay people who had to work as well as pray, and they chose to accomplish the psalms in one week. The reason for this was so the faithful would be familiar with the Psalms and incorporate their prayers into their day. What better prayers are there than those which are scriptural and inspired by the Holy Ghost? It is for this reason the Traditional Mass incorporates so many of the psalms into the Holy Mass, many more than in the Novus Ordo.

The worst element about the Novus Ordo breviary, is the bidding prayers contained at Lauds and Vespers. I’m generally of the opinion that they are worse in Latin than they are in English, because ICEL polishes some of them up. There you have lame, dated, social justice petitions included in a banal manner in the Church’s official prayerbook. Contrast that with the breviary petitions formerly said on certain days at Lauds and Vespers (not every day), with prayers for the Pope, prayers for the Church, prayers for conversions, for defense from unjust persecution, etc. A holy priest I know looked at that in Seminary and questioned his vocation, because in his words “I could not say that nonsense every day of my life, whereas when I looked at the Traditional Breviary, I knew I could do that.”

Thus, even with the problems of the Pius X reform, I would still see that breviary accepted rather than the 1970 Liturgy of the Hours, which is just a mess of liturgical experimentation (replete with “original texts” in various languages not included in the editio typica). The solution in my view, is to permit a certain amount of freedom in which edition of the breviary that priests pray. In other words, allow them to go back to earlier forms of the Roman breviary, or to the monastic breviaries of different orders. Ideally of course, one would want the Bishop to regulate it according to the breviary which he prays, but the result of that is “well, pray the LOH that I pray.” If he does that is. I was invited once to a vocations get together at a chancery, and the Bishop’s breviary was at a table in a hallway. What sparked my curiosity was the fact that it was the wrong color for the season (as the LOH is multi-colored). I moved it, and a sharp outline of dust surrounded it. Told me everything I needed to know!

Fac responsum tuum hic...

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