What Should Be Prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours

And More on the Washing of Hands

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am writing this note concerning the obligation of praying the Office of Readings for the benefit of those who subscribe to the «spirituality of the minimum.» All those who pray regularly the Divine Office (and unfortunately there are a good number from among those consecrated to God in a special way who do not even care to pray) seem to accept that lauds and vespers are obligatory perhaps because they are identified as the «chief hours» in the General Instruction on the Liturgy of Hours. They feel the other hours are optional, including the Office of Readings, though they might concede that these «greatly assist spiritual progress» as stated in the General Instruction. May I request you to kindly clarify whether they are obligatory or optional? — S.D., Old Goa, India

A: First of all, we must distinguish among those who have an obligation to pray the Divine Office.

All Latin-rite priests and transitional deacons have the grave obligation, undertaken in the moment of ordination, to pray the entire Liturgy of the Hours: «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?» (cf. Roman Pontifical, Rite of the Ordination of Deacons).» This is confirmed by No. 29 of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours and Canon 276, §2.3, of the Code of Canon Law.

This comprises: the Office of Readings, morning prayer (lauds), one of the three hours during the day (terce, sext and none), evening prayer (vespers) and night prayer (compline).

Permanent deacons pray that part of the office determined by the competent local authorities, usually lauds, vespers and compline.

Non-clerical religious and other consecrated souls pray that part of the office as determined by their particular legislation and personal commitments.

Some orders of monks and religious have their own particular version of the Divine Office that is usually more extensive than that of the universal Church.

There may be some other realities in the Church. For example, it is probable that clergy pertaining to the new Anglican ordinariates follow their own traditions in this respect, although some may also adopt the Liturgy of the Hours.

The importance of the obligation for clergy stems from the nature of the mission itself as an intercessor for souls. Hebrews 5:1 expresses it beautifully: «For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.»

For this reason, on Nov. 15, 2000, the Holy See issued an extensive «reply to a doubt» (Prot. No 2330/00/L) regarding the obligation of the Divine Office and recalled that «The integral and daily celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is, for priests and deacons on the way to the priesthood, a substantial part of their ecclesial ministry.»

With respect to the extent and possible exceptions to this general rule, the Congregation for Divine Worship offered the following clarifications:

«Question #1: What is the mind of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments regarding the extension of the obligation of celebration or reciting daily the Liturgy of the Hours?

«Response: Those who have been ordained are morally bound, in virtue of the same ordination they have received, to the celebration or the entire and daily recitation of the Divine Office such as is canonically established in canon 276, § 2, n. 3 of the CIC, cited previously. This recitation does not have for its part the nature of a private devotion or of a pious exercise realized by the personal will alone of the cleric but rather is an act proper to the sacred ministry and pastoral office.

«Question #2: Is the obligation sub gravi extended to the entire recitation of the Divine Office?

«Response: The following must be kept in mind:

«A serious reason, be it of health, or of pastoral service in ministry, or of an act of charity, or of fatigue, not a simple inconvenience, may excuse the partial recitation and even the entire Divine Office, according to the general principal that establishes that a mere ecclesiastical law does not bind when a serious inconvenience is present;

«The total or partial omission of the Office due to laziness alone or due to the performance of activities of unnecessary diversion, is not licit, and even more so, constitutes an underestimation, according to the gravity of the matter, of the ministerial office and of the positive law of the Church;

«To omit the Hours of Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) requires a greater reason still, given that these Hours are the ‘double hinge of the daily Office’ (SC 89);

«If a priest must celebrate Mass several times on the same day or hear confessions for several hours or preach several times on the same day, and this causes him fatigue, he may consider, with tranquility of conscience, that he has a legitimate excuse for omitting a proportionate part of the Office;

«The proper Ordinary of the priest or deacon can, for a just or serious reason, according to the case, dispense him totally or partially from the recitation of the Divine Office, or commute it to another act of piety (as, for example, the Holy Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, a biblical or spiritual reading, a time of mental prayer reasonably prolonged, etc.).

«Question: What role does the criterion of’veritas temporis'(correspondence to time of day) play concerning this question?

«Response: The answer must be given in parts, to clarify the diverse cases.

«The ‘Office of Readings’ does not have a strict time assigned, and may be celebrated at any hour, and it can be omitted if there exists one of the reasons signaled out in the answer indicated under number 2 above. According to custom, the Office of Readings may be celebrated any time beginning with the evening hours or nighttime hours of the previous day, after Evening Prayer (Vespers) (Cf. GILH, 59).

«The same holds true for the ‘intermediate hours,’ which, nevertheless, have no set time for their celebration. For their recitation, the time that intervenes between morning and afternoon should be observed. Outside of choir, of the three hours, Mid-Morning Prayer (Tertia), Mid-Day Prayer, (Sexta) and Mid-Afternoon Prayer (Nona), it is fitting to select one of these three, the one that more easily corresponds to the time of day, so that the tradition of praying during the day, in the midst of working, be maintained (Cf. GILH, 77).

«By itself, Morning Prayer (Lauds) should be recited during the morning hours and Evening Prayer (Vespers) during the evening hours, as the names of these parts of the Office indicate. If someone cannot recite Morning Prayer (Lauds) in the morning, he has the obligation of reciting it as soon thereafter as possible. In the same way, if Evening Prayer (Vespers) cannot be recited during the evening hours, it must be recited as soon thereafter as possible (SC 89). In other words, the obstacle, which impedes the observation of the ‘true time of the hours,’ is not by itself a cause that excuses the recitation either of Morning Prayer (Lauds) or of Evening Prayer (Vespers), because it is a question of the ‘Principal Hours’ (SC, 89) which ‘merit the greatest esteem’ (GILH, 40).

«Whoever willingly recites the Liturgy of the Hours and endeavors to celebrate the praises of the Creator of the universe with dedication, can at least recite the psalmody of the hour that has been omitted without the hymn and conclude with only a short reading and the prayer.»

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Follow-up: Hand Sanitizer at Communion Time

In line with the question on the use of hand sanitizers (see Dec. 18), a German reader asked why the priest washes his hands after the offertory. He says: «The lavabo after the offertory, in my opinion, dates from the time when the priest brought animals and food for his support. Coming after the handling of the bread and wine and a precious chalice, the lavabo is misplaced. If anything, it would be appropriate as a penitential rite at the beginning of the service.»

Our reader espouses a theory of the origin of the lavabo rite that was popular a few years ago, that the rite was originally practical and was required because of flour dust in order to physically clean the priest’s hands. Only later was a spiritual meaning given to the rite.

Thus, some argued, the advent of pre-prepared hosts had rendered the rite obsolete. This theory, while coherent, has the disadvantage of being wrong.

Further research into the ancient rites has shown that the rite of washing of hands (dating from the fourth century) is older than the procession of gifts, and even after this practice was introduced, the celebrant often washed his hands before, not after, receiving them.

The rite has always had the sense of spiritual purification and it validly retains this meaning today. It is a significant rite and expresses the priest’s need for purification before embarking on the great Eucharistic Prayer.

It is true that all have made the act of penance at the beginning of Mass, but the Roman rite for many centuries has had other prayers of purification for priests during the course of the rite.

Most of these have been eliminated or reduced in the ordinary form, but some, such as the washing of hands at the end of the offertory rites, have been retained and may never be omitted at any Mass.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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