Prayer of the whole people of God, The Anchor, February 1, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
February 01, 2013

Back in December, I had dinner with a great Catholic couple who took me and four priest friends to Fernando’s in New Bedford in anticipation of Christmas.

During the course of dinner, Richard asked me to explain to him what the “breviary” — the book of prayers priests pray each day — is. Even though he’s been a close collaborator of priests for years, he had never had explained to him what’s involved in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. So I gave him a three-minute excursus of what’s involved as well as the level of commitment the Church requires priests to make with regard to praying it. He finished the mini-conversation by asking, “Don’t you think it would be good for lay people to know about all these prayers priests pray for them each day?”

This column is a response to that gentle suggestion. I also hope to convey in it the Church’s ardent desire for lay people to join priests and religious in making this beautiful prayer their own.

Priests, on the day they’re ordained transitional deacons, are asked by the ordaining bishop, “Are you resolved to maintain and deepen a spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the Liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?” By his “I am,” he commits himself to praying five times a day together with Christ the High Priest for the Church and the world.

Normally the daily prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours begins with the Office of Readings, which includes an invitatory psalm (like Psalm 95) to open one’s heart to prayer, a hymn, three more psalms, a lengthy reading of Sacred Scripture, and an extended commentary from a saint, pope or Church council. This is the longest part of the Liturgy of the Hours. Most priests begin their daily prayer with it, but it can be prayed any time during the day or even the night before.

The two most important moments in the Liturgy of the Hours are Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers), which involve a hymn, two psalms, two Scriptural canticles, a short Bible reading, various intercessions for God’s people, the Lord’s Prayer, and a closing prayer.

The other two hours are shorter and are prayed sometime around the middle of the day — the Church gives three options, mid-morning, midday and afternoon, from which a priest must pray one but may pray all three — and then at the end of the day when he prays Night Prayer or Compline, during which he examines his conscience and commends himself and God’s people, as Christ did on the cross, into the Father’s merciful hands.

The Church’s “Code of Canon Law” stresses the importance of the priest’s praying the breviary. In discussing a priest’s duties, it says that the priest is “earnestly invited” to celebrate Mass every day, an invitation to which Pope Benedict continually encourages every priest to respond wholeheartedly, considering that there is nothing greater a priest can do than to offer to the Father His Son’s own sacrifice for the salvation of the world.

When the “Code” turns to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, however, it says that priests are “obliged” to fulfill it daily. The breviary is a “must,” where daily Mass is a strong “should.” Pope Benedict reiterated the seriousness of this duty a few years ago in his 2010 exhortation on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (Verbum Domini), saying that all bishops, priests and transitional deacons are “obliged to pray all the Hours daily.” This is because a priest’s prayer is his “office,” his principal work or task, his greatest service for God’s people.

Praying the breviary isn’t always easy. Like the Rosary or any vocal prayer, there’s a danger that it can become routine, that one can finish saying all the words and look back and not remember anything he supposedly had prayed. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to talk about these difficulties all the time in his retreats to priests. For me, I’ve tried to defeat this temptation in various ways over the now 20 years I’ve been praying it: by saying it out loud, singing it, praying it in different languages, anything I can do to help my mind and heart align itself to the words being prayed.

There has also been the traditional difficulty of praying the breviary “on time” — for example, praying midday prayer around midday — which in busy priestly life normally means carrying the breviary with you to engagements so that you could pray it in a waiting room, in the car, and elsewhere on the go. Now it’s become much easier through the help of technology. There are great programs for smart phones and tablet devices — like iBreviary, Universalis, RC Calendar and others — that make it much easier to have the breviary with you at all times and pray it on time. These programs are also a great gift to those who are beginning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, because, rather than having to worry like those in yesteryear about fixing ribbons and flipping sections in a physical book when special feast days are being prayed, it puts everything in one continuous file so that one can pray without distraction.

Technology is also helping in other ways. One of my principal Year of Faith resolutions was to pray the breviary more slowly and with greater faith — and faith, as St. Paul says, comes through hearing. So since October I’ve been using another great smartphone app, Divine Office, to pray several hours of the breviary. This is a recording of all the parts of the Liturgy of the Hours for every day, with sung hymns, great lectors, and more, so that I’m able to listen to a high quality recitation of the breviary and pray and sing along with it. It’s also a huge help on my busiest days because I can also play one of the hours in the car to sanctify a traffic jam!

The Liturgy of the Hours is not supposed to be prayed only by bishops, priests, deacons and Religious communities that feature it as part of their communal prayer. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been calling all of the faithful to take it up and begin to pray it in their churches and in their homes.

The “Catechism” says that the Liturgy of the Hours is “intended to become the prayer of the whole People of God.” It encourages pastors to try to arrange for it to be prayed in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts and urges the laity to recite it “either with priests, among themselves or even individually” (CCC 1175).

In “Verbum Domini,” Pope Benedict expressed his hope that “this prayer become more widespread among the People of God, particularly the recitation of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer,” sure that this would lead “to greater familiarity with the Word of God on the part of the faithful.” He also recommended that parishes “promote this prayer with the participation of the lay faithful” (62).

Since prayer is faith in action, I would encourage all lay people during this Year of Faith to consider trying to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on their own, with their families, or with others in their parish. An easy start would be to download iBreviary or Divine Office. The door of faith is open and entering through the portal of the Liturgy of the Hours will help them not only sanctify the day but enter into the prayer of the whole Bride of Christ, together with Jesus the Bridegroom, to God the Father.