Divine Office – Divinum Officium

The Divine Office

A Study of the Roman Breviary

Part II.—Rules From Moral and Ascetic Theology for the Recitation of the Breviary.

Chapter I. Moral And Ascetic Theology.

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Authors generally give six causes which excuse a person from saying the Hours: lawful dispensation, important work, grave illness, grave fear, blindness, want of a Breviary. They are recorded in the well-known lines:–

"Quem Papa dispenset multus labor opprimit aeger Qui timet aut occulus, officioque caret."

1. The obligation of reading the Office is imposed by the Church and the Pope can dispense in it even without cause. Bishops can give temporary dispensations.

2. A grave occupation excuses from the whole or from a part of the Office. Thus, missioners giving missions or parish retreats are excused from the whole Office; so, too, are priest combatants in the battle line; but when in rest camps they are bound to say the Hours. A priest engaged in saying his Office, if he receive an urgent call to a dying person may not have time to finish his Office before midnight. He is exempt from the part of the Office omitted and does not sin by the omission. The proposition claiming exemption from the Office for those engaged in great studies was condemned by Pope Alexander VII. The biographers of Lamennais trace the beginning of his downfall to his exemption from his daily Office.

A difficulty arises sometimes as regards the full or partial or non-exemption of those who foresee that serious occupation which cannot be neglected must arise to prevent the recitation of the Hours. In such cases priests are bound to recite the Office, or as much of it as possible, within the limits of the current day. In doing this they may anticipate the times fixed for the recitation of the small Hours, and they may anticipate Vespers and Compline by reciting them in the forenoon. If a priest foresees that he may not be able to recite Matins for next day he is not bound to anticipate, as there is no obligation to anticipation; the obligation is "recital between midnight and midnight." It is becoming to anticipate, if possible, so that the Office may be full and entire. If before midnight there be a cessation from necessary professional work (e.g., hearing confessions), a priest is bound to finish his Office for the day or to say as much of it as time allows. If, however, there be time merely to take a necessary meal before midnight (e.g., to prepare for a late Mass on next day, Sunday), and not time to eat and to recite, the obligation of saying the Hours ceases.

A grave illness exempts from the saying of the canonical Hours. Hence, those seriously ill, those who fear the saying of the Office may upset them in their weak state, and convalescents from a serious illness, are excused from saying the Hours. In this matter the advice of a spiritual or a medical adviser should be faithfully carried out by patients. St. Alphonsus teaches that invalids and convalescents may be allowed to say Mass and yet not be bound to say the Office, as the saying of Mass does not fatigue them so much as the saying of the Office (St. Alphonsus, n. 155).

A grave fear exempts from the saying of the Office. A priest amongst furious persecutors of the Church should be excused from any recitation of his Hours which he fears may draw on him cruel or severe punishments.

Blindness makes the recitation of the Office a physical impossibility. Even very defective sight, although not total blindness, exempts from the obligation of saying the Office. In all such cases a formal declaration of exemption should be sought. Some theologians hold that such priests, if they have committed to memory a notable part of the psalms, should repeat that part from memory. The new psaltery makes such memorising an extremely difficult feat and no obligation for such a repetition from memory can be imposed.

Want of a Breviary excuses from the recitation of the Office. For example, if a priest setting out on a long journey forgets to take his Breviary or leaves it in a railway carriage, and cannot procure another, or cannot procure another without, great inconvenience, he is exempt from the obligation of his Office; and the omission being involuntary is sinless. The wilful casting away of a Breviary, as an excuse for not being able to read the Office, is gravely sinful; and unless the sinful desire be retracted there may be question of many mortal sins of wilful omission to fulfil the obligation, as the omissions are then wilful in cause. Priests travelling are unable sometimes to recite the proper Office of the day, as their Breviaries lack something (e.g., the proper prayer or the lessons of the second nocturn). The Sacred Congregation of Rites (December, 1854) decided "Sacerdos peregre profectus cui molesti difficiliorque esset officii recitatio cui et pauca desunt in libro officii praesentis, nempe oratio et legenda, valet de communi absque obligatione propria deinde ad supplementum recitandi... atque ita servari mandavit." The psalms as arranged in the new psalter must always be said for a valid recitation of the Office (v. Divino Afflatu).

What is a priest bound to do, who from a grave cause cannot find time to recite the whole Office but only a part of it?

St. Alphonsus gives the rule, "If you can recite a part equivalent to a small Hour, you are bound to do so under pain of mortal sin. But if you cannot read or repeat a part equivalent to a small Hour, you are bound to nothing, as a part so small—less than a small Hour—taken separately, is considered inappreciable for the end the Church's law of recitation has in view."


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