Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: During Holy Week and Christmas, priests who celebrate the vigil Masses are exempt from celebrating the Evening Prayer I of the feast. My question is: I celebrate evening Masses on Saturdays, one at 5 p.m. and another at the mission church at 7 p.m. By the time I get back to the rectory it is about 9 p.m. Am I obligated to celebrate the Evening Prayer I of the Sunday? — G.O., Mobile Archdiocese, Alabama
A: The indications regarding the exemption for those celebrating these vigil Masses is particular to these particular celebrations. If this were a general permission, then the rubrics would have no need to single them out.
One possible solution for our reader is to pray the vespers in the early afternoon. Although respecting the times of the hours is important, it is less important than actually praying them. If a priest foresees that he will have no time to pray an office until it is very late and he will be very tired, then it is better to pray them while he can give all his attention.
At the same time, it is not excluded that our reader might be exempt but for reasons other than the fact of celebrating these evening Masses.
The Congregation for Divine Worship published a response to a doubt regarding the extension of a priest’s obligation to pray the Divine Office (Notitiae 37 (2001), 418). Here are some excerpts from this reply:
“Question No. 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 No. 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.).”
Some bishops, based on this document, have specified in more detail the occasions when a priest is dispensed from all or part of the office. These indications, if they exist, are usually provided when the priest receives his faculties for ministry. Insofar as the bishop’s indications correspond to the general provisions above, they may be applied universally. Insofar as they are specific to the diocese, for example, when the bishop dispenses from the office whenever a priest concelebrates with the bishop, then they apply only within the diocese.
A priest should always strive to pray the full Office for, as the above document reminds us, this is not just an act of piety but an integral part of his priestly ministry. The above norms, however, will allow him peace of mind if on some occasions he is unable to do all because of the burden of pastoral activity.
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.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.