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 II. Some Rules Of Ascetic Theology For The Pious Recitation Of The Breviary.

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There are many reasons why we should recite the Divine Office devoutly, for (1) the words which we read are holy; (2) He to Whom we speak is God; (3) we speak in the name of Holy Church; (4) we are the associates of thousands on earth and in heaven who sing God's praises; (5) the purpose of our prayer is sublime; (6) it gives glory to God and draws down His grace and mercy on His Church; (7) and, finally, the recitation of the Office brings help and strength to those who repeat it fervently.


And, firstly, let us see what are the words of the Office. They are the words of God or of His Church. In the psalms, scripture lessons, gospel extracts, responses and antiphons, we have God's inspired word. In the prayers, sermons, homilies, hymns, and often in the responses and antiphons, as the Church is guided and assisted by the Holy Ghost, it may be, in a sense, true to say that these her words are divine. For what is more worthy of respect than the word of God? St. Augustine says that it is no less worthy of respect than the body of Jesus Christ. Non minus est verbum Dei quam corpus Christi (Sermon 300). How very careful should we be to treat the word of God with respect, worthily, attentively, and devoutly (digne, attente ac devote).

(2) To whom do we speak in our daily service of prayer? We speak to our Master, Whose very special work we are doing in offering up the great prayer. His adorable eyes are fixed upon us at this sacred duty. He listens to us, He reads our thoughts. He judges our intentions, our efforts and their fulfilment. He is the King of kings, the Almighty God. Mindful of His presence and majesty should we not try earnestly to bless His Holy name and to free our hearts from vain, evil and wandering thoughts? We pray ad benedicendum nomen sanctum tuum; munda quoque cor meum ab omnibus vanis perversis et alienis cogitationibus.

(3) In whose name do we speak? It is a great honour to be an ambassador for a great king and a mighty kingdom, guarding the interests of the fatherland in a foreign land. The priest is always such an ambassador. "For Christ, we are ambassadors," says St. Paul. In this work of daily recitation of the Office, we are ambassadors, not of some petty king or tiny state, but we represent the entire Church, the well-beloved spouse of Christ, to whose prayer He ever hearkens. Sonet vox tua in auribus meis; vox enim tua dulcis est (Canticle of Canticles, ii. 14). And St. Bernard says "Sacerdos publica persona et totius Ecclesie os." Hence, every priest is the ambassador of Christ and of His Church, the guardian of His interests. And as it is the duty of ambassadors to study carefully, to watch and further the interests of the kings whom they represent, it is a priest's duty to study carefully and further the interests of Christ's Church by the devout fulfilment of the great daily duty, the recitation of the Divine Office. History brands as traitors those ambassadors who through ignorance of the language of the foreign court, or through want of vigilant attention, allow the interests of their royal masters to suffer. What a punishment awaits the days and years of ignorant, careless or inattentive fulfilment of the great official work of a priest—the Divine Office.

Who are a priest's associates in this work? They are the thousands of priests and religious throughout the world who say the Hours, and who send up daily and nightly the great prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God. Secundum nomen tuum, sic et laus tua in fines terrae (ps. 47, v. ii). Dies diei eructat verbum et nox nocti indicat scientiam (ps. 18, v. 3). In this holy work of reciting the Hours, we are united with the angels and saints in heaven in honouring our common Creator; for, the Church herself reminds us of this ineffable honour in the hymn for the dedication of the Church:–

"Sed ilia sedes Coelitum Semper resultat laudibus Dumque trinum el unicum Jugi canore jungimur Almae Sionis aemuli."

"That house on high—it ever rings With praises of the King of kings; For ever there, on harps divine, They hymn th' eternal One and Trine We, here below, the strain prolong;, And faintly echo Sion's song."

What are the ends for which the Office is said? (a) To glorify God, (b) to help holy Church, and (c) to sanctify ourselves.

(a) "To glorify God," that is, to adore His infinite majesty, to thank Him for his innumerable and constant blessings, to satisfy His justice in expiating the sins of the world and to beg His grace and mercy. The ends for which the Office are said are the same as those for which Mass is offered, for the Office is the supplement of the Mass (Tronson).

(b) "To help holy Church." The Church militant has many and great needs. It is her mission to extend the Kingdom of Christ, and to do this great work she needs freedom from hostile laws, strength and courage to withstand tyrants and persecution, unity and peace amongst her children and pastors, zeal in her ministers and recruits for her militant forces. To obtain these results the Church relies very much on the devout recitation of the Office. Doubtless, it is for these purposes that the Church has confided to the care of her chosen ministers this public official prayer and has laid no such obligation on the laity. St. Alphonsus did not hesitate to say that if priests and religious said the Office as they should say it, the Church should not be in the deplorable state that it then was in. This Doctor of the Church adds "that by devout saying of the Office many sinners could be drawn from the slavery of the devil and many souls would love God with more fervour." The wants of the Church are greater now than they were ever before. Each devoutly-said Hour draws down God's blessing on His Church. What a vast number of blessings come from a life of daily recitation offered worthily, attentively and devoutly (digne, attente, ac devote).

(c) "The benefit of the person who recites the Hours." The third end for which the canonical Hours are offered is for the benefit of the person who recites them. St. Alphonsus wrote, "If they said the Office as they ought, priests themselves should not be always the same, always imperfect, prone to anger, greedy, attached to self-interest and to vanities.... But if they recited the Office, not as they say it with distractions and irreverences, but with devotion and recollection, uniting the affections of the heart with so many petitions which they present to God, they should certainly not be so weak as they are, but would acquire fervour and strength to resist all temptations and to lead a life worthy of priests."

Another blessing springs from the attentive recitation of the Breviary—viz., the daily withdrawal from the world and its cares which must be banished from the soul which speaks with God. For, as St. Alphonsus writes, the saying of the Hours devoutly, gives occasion to pious souls to elicit many acts of virtue, acts of faith, of hope, of charity, of humility, etc. For one psalm, says the saint, moves all the powers of the soul and causes us to elicit a hundred acts. And in the Breviary are found the most beautiful formulae of adoration and praise, the psalms above all other parts of the Office being wonderfully rich in magnificent praise of God's attributes. Where can such sublime forms of prayer and praise be found as in Psalms, 8, 9, 17, 18, 21, 23, 28, 29, 33, 45, 46, 49, 54–to name but a few?

Finally, the attentive recitation of the Breviary is a source of light and of grace and of merit. How many lights in prayer spring from these divine words; how many maxims enter the soul, how many beautiful prayers are said, and if they be well said, they would obtain for priests treasures of grace, according to Christ's infallible promise, "Ask and you shall receive"? A person can merit several degrees of glory by one devout recitation of the Office, what an abundance of merit may be gained by the devout recitations in a life of twenty, thirty or forty years! And it was this thought of lost opportunities and of the great treasures within the reach of priests, which caused St. Alphonsus when an old man, to study the Breviary psalms and to write his well-known work.

Nor was St. Alphonsus alone in his opinion of the great means of sanctification which the Breviary affords to priests. St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1663) was asked by Monsignor Claver, Bishop of Potenza, to point out a means for the greater sanctification of the priests of his diocese. The saint replied, "Monsignor, if you wish to sanctify your priests strive to procure two things for them, that they say the Office piously and that they say Mass with fervour. Nothing more is necessary to ensure their salvation" (Life of St. Joseph Cupertino by Bernini). The words of the wonderful Franciscan, whose life was a marvel of piety, were repeated a century later by St. Leonard of Port Maurice (1671-1751) and are often quoted as his own.

In every age of the Church earnest souls drew great sweetness and consolation from reading the psalms or from reading the canonical Hours. Writers dealing with this part of priestly work quote the words of eminent servants of God, They quote St. Augustine, St. Gregory Nazianzan, St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Bologna, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis De Sales and St. Alphonsus. It would make this section of this book too long to quote the words of these saints. But the words of St. Francis De Sales seem to have a special force. "Sometimes I am so low-spirited," wrote the Saint, "by business and events, that I do not know where to turn nor at what end to begin: but during the Office nothing annoys me, I have not even distractions, I imagine that I am in heaven singing with the angels the praises of my Creator; and on leaving the choir I find often that the mighty problems which had given me trouble are cleared away and, solved in an Instant." Biographies of God's servants record many great favours bestowed on priests who recite the Breviary piously. Cardinal Bona, recording a vision vouchsafed to St. Bernard, tells how the saint saw an angel beside each choir monk, recording his disposition of soul. Some angels wrote in letters of gold, others in letters of silver, others in ink, others in water, and others held their pens but wrote nothing. Our Lord explained to the saint the meaning of the vision; the writing in gold typified charity and the fervour of the recitation; the writing in silver denoted devotion but little charity or fervour; the words in ink-writing signified careful attention to the full verbal recitation but to little else; the words written in water meant distraction and little attention to the meaning or to the words; and the angels who wrote nothing watched the insolence of those who were voluntarily distracted. The vision has furnished the theme of much pious writing and a theme for Christian painters. It shows how God watches over the daily work of priests, while His angels record in golden or silvern letters the work of pious recitation, or perhaps hold their pens at rest.

What means should be used to promote pious recitation?


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