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The Divine Office as Liturgy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is good reason why a preliminary word may be useful to explain why we should talk about the Divine Office as Liturgy.

For one thing, it seems more obvious that the Office is a prayer. Of course it is prayer, as all the Psalms and the Hymns and the Orations so clearly indicate. True, we have to remind ourselves that the Office is mainly a prayer of praise and intercession: of praise to acknowledge who God is and adore His divine majesty and of intercession to acknowledge who we are, helpless creatures who depend on Him for the very breath we breathe, lest we stifle in body or choke in spirit. We need Him like the air we inhale; or better, His grace is the air we must inhale if we are not supernaturally to suffocate.

It is also not hard to recognize the Divine Office as a form of sacrifice. It demands so many surrenders of body and soul that no one can easily question that to say the Office properly, or, in fact at all, we must give up our time and convenience and preference and give of ourselves. In fact, in the measure of this giving up as a form of giving of self, we are not only saying the Office but living it. And it is living the Divine Office that is so pleasing to God.

But we return to our original postulate: that there is special need to see how the Divine Office is indeed a form of the Divine Liturgy. So concerned is the Church to have us know this that she has now consciously given us two equally valid names for the same spiritual exercise, namely, the Divine Office and the Liturgy of the Hours.

In order to cover the essentials of an immense subject, let us look at it in stages, as follows:

  • What is the Sacred Liturgy?

  • How is the Divine Office a form of the Sacred Liturgy?

What is the Sacred Liturgy?

We begin with the Church's own definition of the Liturgy. It is rather long, but we shall then immediately break it down into its components:

"The Sacred Liturgy is the public worship which our Redeemer as Head of the Church renders to the Father as well as the worship which the community of the faithful renders to its Founder, and through Him to the heavenly Father.

"It is, in short, the worship rendered by the Mystical Body of Christ in the entirety of its Head and members."

We see, therefore, that the Sacred Liturgy is in essence the worship that the whole Mystical Body, Christ as Head and we as members, offer to the Divine Majesty.

The operative element in the Liturgy, then, is its social character: that it is the worship of the whole Mystical Body in every sense of its corporate entirety.

In order for worship to be liturgical, so the Church teaches us, it must be an action that involves the totality of the Christian community including as its first participant the one who is the invisible Head of the community, namely, Jesus Christ.

If we would further refine the meaning of the Liturgy, we should add that what makes the Liturgy liturgical is also its priestly character.

After all, Christ has three roles as Head of the Mystical Body:

  • that of teacher or prophet

  • that of ruler or king and

  • that of priest or sanctifier.

The Liturgy, properly so called, concerns the third of these three messianic roles, namely, the priestly function whereby He fulfills especially His name of Jesus, which means the Savior of the world.

Since the Liturgy is the Liturgy because it involves the whole Christ – Head and members – it is therefore the priestly role that we join in with Christ whenever we participate in the Liturgy. By the priestly role we mean the role of offering to God in expiation for sin and in order to sanctify the people of God.

Summarily, then, we should say that whenever prayer or sacrifice is liturgical, it has these two qualities always present in its composition:

  • it is social and not merely individual and

  • it is by presupposition priestly or salvific and sanctifying.

The Divine Office as Liturgy

One reason, no doubt, why there has been some doubt in some quarters about the liturgical nature of the Divine Office is because of the great stress on the Eucharist as Liturgy.

And, in fact, in the Eastern Churches the Mass is often simply called leitourgia, or the Liturgy.

There may also be another, less noble reason for confusion here. This is that sadly the Divine Office has been so neglected, so widely, in so many circles – among priests and religious and, tragically, among cloistered contemplatives – that to speak of the Office as Liturgy seems to some to be strange. Yes, it becomes strange to people whose faith has weakened in its appreciation of what the Church now tells us to start calling the Liturgy of the Hours.

As we approach our subject more closely and answer the question of how the Office is Liturgy, we reply: It is the Liturgy because it is the public, that is, corporate worship of God. And it is the Liturgy because this social (or corporate) worship is priestly, i.e., given to God for the salvation and sanctification of mankind.


We should not be surprised that God wants us to worship Him socially, since we are not only individual persons but also social beings.

What may not be so plain is that when we worship God socially, which means liturgically, we do so on every level of our societal existence. And each of these levels is fully verified in the Liturgy of the Hours. We might synthesize this social character in five terms, and explain each term in sequence as follows:

  • We say the Divine Office together as a body.

  • We say the Divine Office in a community of spirit.

  • We say the Divine Office with the whole Church.

  • We say the Divine Office through Jesus Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body.

  • We say the Divine Office for all of mankind.

1. How do we say the Office as a body? By coming together to pray and sing as a body. We gather in one place; we begin at the same time; we pronounce the same words; we physically join our voices in recitation and song; we follow the same ritual; we perform the same gestures. In a word, we are visibly and sensibly – perceptibly – doing the same act of divine worship as a corporate entity.

2. How do we say the Office as a community? You might answer, we do so by being together and praying together in a body. Not quite. There is such a thing as being together in body without necessarily being together in spirit.

There is a phrase in the Acts of the Apostles that epitomizes this perfectly. St. Luke describes the early Christian community by saying, "The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul."

That's it. Union of heart and soul in loving charity is what constitutes a community, as distinct from being merely a corporate body.

And our Divine Office is that much more liturgical as we who participate are more united in heart and soul.

3. How do we say the Office with the universal Church? We do so by our careful, even sedulous, concern to follow the prescriptions and directives and ritual that the hierarchical Church under Peter gives us to observe whenever we pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

These directives are not few, and they are precise. They allow, of course, for a number of options – familiar to all of us from the Eucharistic Liturgy.

Here let me be as clear as I possibly can be. Since the Second Vatican Council decreed a revision of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Holy See has been frequent, and lengthy, and precise in its directives on how the Sacrifice of the Altar should be celebrated. It has also been, perforce, very clear at times on how it should not be celebrated. Yet as the faithful are so often telling me, they too often witness such a jumble of ritual idiosyncrasies and such individualism among priests and ministers at the altar that not a few Catholics have been disheartened to the point of despair at what they rightly regard as a public scandal.

I have witnessed Masses at which the priest was in street clothes, in fact, in shabby sweater; where there was no penitential rite, no oration, no offertory, no preface, where the Consecration was his own version – no semblance of a Canon approved by the Church – and where the whole spectacle was depressing in the extreme.

Why do I say this? In order to make sure that those of us who celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours know, and know well, what the Church expects of us when we come together to pray together with the universal Church in the Divine Office.

I assume that you will not only want to know but want to observe the Church's directives as perfectly as possible. Only in this way will we be saying or singing the same Divine Office as our fellow believers throughout the Catholic world; and insure in the process the infusion of God's special grace because of our obedient, liturgical humility.

4. How do we say the Office through Jesus Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body? One might object by replying that that is not our business. Christ takes care of that. Yes and no.

Of course Christ remains and acts as the Head of the Mystical Body, whether we even advert to the fact or not. He is our Head; we do not make Him such.

Nevertheless, speaking doctrinally, faith tells us there is such a thing as greater or lesser efficacy to our prayers, depending on how closely we join ourselves with Christ when we pray.

What does this mean? It means that every act of virtue that makes us more like the Savior; every self-sacrifice performed in imitation of Him; every pain endured in order to become assimilated to Him; every self-denial offered to Him – makes our Liturgy of the Hours more pleasing to God and more beneficial to souls.

Why? Because Christ is surely our Head, but we must become more and more truly His members. By the mortification of our self-love we are vivified with His Spirit. And in the degree that we die to ourselves we enable – what a strange expression! – we enable Christ to act as our Head because we are not interfering with the flow of His grace through us who are meant to be His living members.

5. How do we say the Divine Office for all of mankind? Notice what this means. It means that the Office is a societal prayer of worship not only because, de facto, we are members of the human race. It means that it should be a societal prayer for all the human family.

Again, however, we may object that every prayer is beneficial to others. So why emphasize other people as beneficiaries of our recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours?

Not quite. There is such a thing as having intentions in prayer; of offering, as we correctly say, our acts of worship and sacrifice for definite purposes, for specific needs – in a word, for others.

This is not make-believe. In a mysterious way that we cannot really explain, God honors our motives when we pray.

What should all of this mean in our estimate of the Divine Office as beneficial to the world of the human family? It should mean that we are to be as aware as we can of this fact when we pray the Liturgy. We should actualize our intentions every day and, if possible, every time we are praying the canonical hours.

It is a wholesome custom to have certain intentions, both our own and those of the Christian community, for which we overtly and expressly say the office or any part of the same.

As far as possible these should be large intentions, world-wide in scope and affecting not just our own little preferences or needs, but the grave cosmic trials and sufferings of a suffering mankind. We ought to offer the Divine Office for:

  • the Church's hierarchy that the Bishops may be courageous proclaimers of the word of God;

  • the Church's priests that they may live what they profess to be, co-offerers of themselves with Christ and co-victims with Him who is the great High Priest;

  • the Church's religious that they may give witness of holiness and of eternal values to a world that is so immersed in pleasure and often so oblivious of God;

  • the Church's mothers and fathers that they have the wisdom and strength to rear the children God gives them in His teaching, in spite of the terrible pressures against the Christian family in the world today;

  • those who are suffering persecution for Christ and Christian virtue behind the Iron Curtain that they may not break down under the avalanche of cruelty by which they are oppressed;

  • the hundreds of millions who daily go to bed hungry, the millions who are starving, the millions who are ill and diseased and have no access to medical aid;

  • the millions in countries like America who seem to have everything, but often lack everything that can satisfy the human heart; the lonely and bereaved and rejected, and those caught behind the prison bars of the mind.

What we must arouse ourselves to realize is that when we pray the Liturgy, we cannot take for granted that because God knows the needs of the human race, we should not bother. Oh no! He wants us to be conscious of these needs and offer our humble worship of intercession to move His mercy to meet these universal needs. After all, this is one of the main reasons why in His Providence He allows so many people to be in want: that our self-centered hearts might be turned from ourselves and center their concern on others who, no less then we, have been redeemed by His Precious Blood.

Priestly Worship of God

Our second focus of reflection on the Divine Office as Divine Liturgy is on the priestly quality of the Liturgy. We have the Church's word for the fact, based on faith, that when we say the Liturgy of the Hours we are engaging in a priestly function, in union with Christ the first High Priest.

What are we saying? We are affirming two things:

First that Christ is exercising His sacerdotal office through us, the members of the Mystical Body. This takes place because God has so willed it, and we are happy to be thus privileged to belong to the royal priesthood of Jesus' Christ.

Second, assuming that Christ has incorporated us in His priestly office, He nevertheless expects us to do our sacerdotal part.

In virtue of our Baptism, we are enabled to share in this priestly service in a way that approximates what the ordained human priest does at the altar when he offers Mass.

We are to be priestly, after the pattern of Christ the Priest, by offering with Him, to the heavenly Father, what revelation calls the clean oblation of a dedicated heart.

After all, what is priestliness if it is not self-surrender to the will of God?

Accordingly our saying of the Divine Office will also be the offering of the Divine Office – provided we yield our wills to the loving but ever-so-demanding will of God.

Faith exhausts the vocabulary of belief in describing what this priestliness means:

  • It means resignation to the will of God. What He asks of us, we resign ourselves to fulfill, no matter what the cost.

  • It means abandonment to the providence of God. Trusting blindly in His care for us, we do not ask why; we let ourselves be led by the sure hand of God.

  • It means conforming to the mind of God. Often we do not understand the reasons that God has. No wonder; His thoughts are not our thoughts. No matter. I do not see, but I believe, and I yield my judgment to the wisdom of God.

To some, perhaps, it may seem rhetorical to be talking this way. But it is not rhetoric or poetry. It is the truth.

All the theological learning in the world will not make our participation in the Liturgy – whether of the Eucharist or of the Hours – more effective unless we come to the Liturgy with priestly hearts, that is, with hearts that are humbly submissive to the Heart of Jesus, which is the Heart of God.

But given this humble subordination to the will of God, we shall do more good for souls and be more effective in winning grace for those in need – with special emphasis on priests in need – than we could ever dream was possible.

Then our liturgical prayer of the Hours will be what its name signifies: a sacrifice of praise from the farthest east to the farthest west, where the name of the Lord is honored by us, who have consecrated ourselves to belong exclusively to Him.

God is ready, I might almost say eager, to meet the desperate needs of mankind. But He wants us, His chosen souls, to live as we pray, to be what the words we sing or recite proclaim: persons totally given to God, through whom He can then work the wonders of grace He intends, if only we let Him, through our unworthy selves. Among the deepest thoughts ever conceived by the mind of man, born of experience among the saints, is that we are channels of grace to our fellowmen. But we are effective in this providential role only to the extent that we place no selfish obstacle in the way.

Copyright © 2003 by InterMirifica

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