As preparation for the Church Synod, Catholics across the world are being asked for their opinion on how the Church can be revitalised.  Has it been completely forgotten that this was one of the aims of the Second Vatican Council? 

It is to be lamented that the practice of the Divine Office has not become established as part of the liturgical life of a parish, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council had envisioned. For the most part, the celebration of the Divine Office has not fulfilled the intention of the Council.

If it had become part of the normal way the laity prayed together, not only would the psalms read at Mass be more familiar but a particular duty could be undertaken by laypeople with a desire to undertake a leadership role in the liturgy. Morning Prayer could precede weekday as well as Sunday Mass; Holy days of obligation could be marked by Evening Prayer of the feast, with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, even in the absence of a priest. This is normal practice in monasteries and convents but it could also happen in parishes.

While some parishes do have a few committed men and women who arrive early for Mass or remain afterwards and gather to pray Morning or Evening Prayer in unison, this is rare.

The programme for liturgical renewal undertaken by the Council not only covered revising the rites for the Mass and the sacraments, but also dealt with the daily prayer of the Church. In Liturgia Horarum published in 1970, the Holy Father, Paul VI asserted that the Divine Office should become the prayer of the whole Church as it had been in ancient times, and not just the prayer of the clergy and those in religious orders. Although lay people are not bound to celebrate the Office in its entirety every day, it is commendable that they join the praying Church at least twice daily. For this reason, the practice of saying Morning and Evening Prayer with Night Prayer was introduced to the laity by publishing the revised Office in the vernacular.

One of the benefits that came from the Second Vatican Council was the revision of the Divine Office. This is now known as the Liturgy of the Hours and has been made more accessible to lay people who should pray together, and as far as possible with a priest. When this is done correctly, the course of the whole day and night is consecrated to the praise of God. In this way, lay people as part of the universal Church as well as clergy and those in religious orders, can sanctify the day.     

When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we are lifted beyond ourselves and as members of Christ’s mystical body, we offer up our prayer to the Father in union with Jesus Christ. We are beyond ourselves in the sense that our prayer is that of the Church Universal; it is the voice of the Bride addressing the Bridegroom. 

The mystery of Christ, his Incarnation and Passover, which we celebrate in the Eucharist especially at the Sunday assembly, permeates and transfigures the time of each day, through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1174).

By this means, Jesus Christ continues his priestly work of salvation in the world. As members of his Body, we the faithful, pray to the Father with the Son. Sacrosanctum Concilium devotes a chapter to this form of praising God which is part of the liturgical celebration of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours “is truly the voice of the Bride herself addressed to their Bridegroom. It is the very prayer which Christ himself together with his Body addresses to the Father.” (SC 84).

The prayer of the universal Church that we now know as the Liturgy of the Hours goes back to the very earliest times. From the first century the Didache recommended that the Lord’s Prayer be recited three times each day. As the centuries progressed, the set times for prayer became more firmly established. Although still lacking fixed prescription, the early Church Fathers recommended that people pray at regular times. In addition to praise and adoration of God, there should be added a superstructure of statutory prayers and petitions. In the words of Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-c.225):

It is still good to establish a presumption that might reinforce the admonition to pray, and tear us away from our affairs for this duty as if by law, so that we might worship not less than three times per day in addition of course to our statutory prayers which without any behest are due at the coming in of daylight and night.

The very words of Christ our Lord to his apostles, gave the Church the understanding of the correlation of the Old and New Testaments in the light of the paschal mystery. This we learn from the account of the Lord’s meeting after his resurrection with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, in the prophets and in the psalms has to be fulfilled.” (Luke24:44) Here we have the words that led the Church to adopt the psalter.

The Constitution on the sacred liturgy describes how Jesus Christ took the psalter and made it his own, in singing praise to the Father, but in union now with all of humanity. This work is continued through the ministry of the Church: “The Church…is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the entire world” (SC 83)

The celebration of the Eucharist is the highest act of worship offered to God. In the Liturgy of the Hours, this worship is extended to all the hours of the day. As the earth turns on its axis this prayer never stops. Because the Church is universal, the prayer is the same throughout the world, and is continually being offered up as day follows night. The Gospel exhorts us to worship in spirit and in truth and as the Body of the risen Lord, we the people of God, are living stones gathered so that we can be built into a spiritual house.

In several of his General Audiences at the Vatican, Pope Saint John Paul led a catechesis on the psalms and canticles of the Office. His desire was “to encourage and help all to pray with the same words used by Jesus, which have been present for thousands of years in the prayer of Israel and of the Church.”

The potential value of the laity coming together for the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly in places were daily Mass is infrequent, should be appreciated. This is a means by which the liturgical life of a parish would be deepened and brought more into line with the Church Universal. The reformed liturgical rites provide for this by making the prayer of the Church available in the vernacular and at the same time rediscovering some of the riches of early Christianity. A parish could be revitalised by restoring the Liturgy of the Hours to their proper place as a liturgical celebration of the Christian people.

As Catholics part of our duty is to remind our priests and bishops of the teaching of the Council which sought this very thing – to revitalise the faithful but in doing so, to employ not a new programme but to look into the heart of the Church and find the answers there.

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