by Mary Bazzett
The Liturgy of the Hours is further proof of the Catholic
Church's deep Jewish roots. Formerly more commonly known as
the "Divine Office" or "breviary," these prayers have a long
and venerable history that stretches back to apostolic
times. In the early days of the Church, the first Christians
were Jewish, and the Acts of the Apostles depicts them not
only participating in the breaking of the bread, but also
going to the synagogue and Temple to worship. This included
traditional prayer services at the third, sixth and ninth
hours of the day, our 9 o'clock in the morning, noon and 3
o'clock in the afternoon.
Pentecost—the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles—was
at the third hour (Acts 2:15). Peter prayed on the housetop
at the sixth hour (Acts 10:9). And Peter and John went to
the Temple to pray at the ninth hour (Acts 3:1).
These hours of prayer were adopted by the early
Christians and correspond to prayer times for what was later
called the Divine Office, specifically to Terce, Sext and
None, respectively (coming from the Latin for third, sixth
But the Divine Office's major hours for prayer were
morning and evening "Lauds" and "Vespers"—which corresponded
to the morning and evening sacrifice in the Temple.
The early Christians adopted these two times which, since
then, have been principal daily periods of prayer. In fact,
at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), they were called
the "two hinges upon which the daily office turns." That's
why "they are to be considered as the chief hours."
The word Lauds literally means "the praises." The name
comes from the last three psalms (148-150, known as the
"laudate psalms") which—for centuries—were prayed each
morning. Among the themes of Vespers is "the evening
sacrifice." Psalm 140 reads, "Let my prayer rise like
incense before you, the lifting of my hands like an evening
sacrifice," referring to Jewish Temple worship.
Because of their belief in Christ, the early Christians
eventually were expelled from the Temple and synagogues.
That was when they developed their own prayers around the
same times, said individually or in common, to sanctify the
hours of the day and night. In this way, the early Church
obeyed Christ's directive to "pray always and never lose
heart" (Lk 18:1), as well as St. Paul's exhortations to
"pray always" (1 Thes 5:17), and "with gratitude in your
hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired canticles to God"
From earliest times, the Church has done exactly that,
using psalms and other biblical texts. The best known of
these is the prayer of Christ himself, the Our Father, which
the Didache, an early Church document, instructed Christians
to say three times a day.
But they prayed not only during the day but also at
night. Paul and Silas prayed and sang songs of praise to God
in prison at midnight (see Acts 16:25). This time of prayer
corresponds to matins, originally prayed between the first
and second hour of the day, or midnight and 1 a.m. The
theologian Tertullian (c.160-c.222) advised Christian women
to be careful to marry men who also were Christians, because
pagan men would not understand their getting up in the
middle of the night to praise God.
The history of the early Church's prayer times is
difficult to follow after the first century, largely due to
the periodic destruction of documents during persecutions.
By the fourth century, however, under the Roman emperor
Constantine (d. 337), practices of the faith—including
communal daily prayers—became legal and, because of that,
public. The persecution of Christians had ended, and the
faithful found themselves free to gather without fear around
their bishop for what became known as the "cathedral
This name comes from the Greek word "cathedra,"
meaning seat. It referred to the official seat that a bishop
occupied, symbolizing his teaching authority. (Today a
diocese's cathedral has a special chair for its bishop.)
Since lay people had daily work and families to care for,
the cathedral office was by necessity brief, consisting of
perhaps a psalm, antiphon (short verse from a psalm or
sentence from the Bible), Scripture reading, homily and
A later development was the "monastic office." The rise
of the monastic movement —first with the desert Fathers and
later with Western monastic orders, such as the
Benedictines—resulted in a much longer and more elaborate
Divine Office. (St. Benedict, the "father of Western
monasticism," died around 550.) Monks had more time than lay
people for formal prayer and their early offices were very
lengthy, the entire 150 psalms being prayed every day in
Over time, the cathedral office as a communal liturgical
celebration died out in the Western Church. Monasteries in
urban centers became closer to the dominant influence on
liturgical development, and the office consequently became
the long, complex monastic office. It was seen more and more
as the exclusive duty of priests and Religious, and among
the former was not usually prayed in common. The increased
demands of clerics in the Middle Ages made the need for a
shorter, reformed office evident.
In "monasteries, it was common for monks to use a number
of large books for the Divine Office. They might have a
psalter (book of psalms), another book for antiphons, a
Bible, a hymn book and yet another volume containing the
non-scriptural readings required. This worked fine for
clerics who lived and prayed in one location, but the newer,
more mobile clerics, such as the Franciscans, needed to
travel light. (St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the
Franciscans, died in 1226.) For them the Vatican devised a
condensed version of the office. Its name—"breviary"—comes
from the Latin word for "abbreviated." The Franciscans
spread the use of the breviary throughout Europe and beyond.
Over time, the breviary came to be regarded more as a
prayer book for Religious than as a liturgical form of
prayer for the whole Church.
The reform of the Liturgy of the Hours has been ongoing
since the 1500s, with Pope Pius X utilizing the
liturgical-renewal movement, and the Second Vatican Council
eventually revising and streamlining the office, resulting
in a simpler, more flexible liturgy.
Canon law still requires priests to recite the Liturgy of
the Hours each day: Lauds, Vespers and three other sets of
Now those two major "hinge" prayers include an
"invitatory" psalm, a hymn, the reading of a number of
psalms and a passage from Scripture (which vary depending on
the liturgical season), the Our Father, antiphons,
intercessions, a blessing and dismissal. Lauds has the
Canticle of Zechariah (from Lk 1:68-79) and Vespers has the
Magnificat (based on Lk 1:46-55).
Since the council, the Church has reaffirmed the public,
communal nature of the Liturgy of the Hours as the prayer of
the entire Church and has underlined the need for lay
participation in it. (One-volume editions, and even shorter
versions of the office, are available in Catholic
In fact, since the revision of the Divine Office after
Vatican II, lay people have been encouraged to participate
in the Liturgy of the Hours, either with the priest, among
themselves or even individually.
When they do, they join with the entire Church throughout
the world in its common prayer, sanctifying the day and
night, giving praise and worship to God in a rich and
beautiful tradition of our Catholic heritage.
Mary Bazzett writes from Combermere, Ontario, where
she is editing the writings of Catherine De Hueck Doherty,
foundress of the Madonna House Lay Apostolate.
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