SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
July 11, 2011
In your previous column on Our Lady of Good Counsel, you mention that a pope "granted an office" or "approved a new Mass" for Our Lady. Can you tell me what the significance of "an office" is in this context.
Special Offices and Masses were given by popes as a sign of approval and high esteem for particular churches, shrines, devotions. These Offices and Masses included specific prayers to the saint or feast so honoured. By the very act of visible papal approval, these Offices and Masses gave greater importance to those who received it.
After Vatican II, the Church simplified and reduced the numbers of these specially-designated Masses and Offices. However, Masses for major feasts, such as the feast of St. Joseph, are still celebrated.
As Catholics, our first official and highest form of prayer is the Eucharist or Mass. Some parts of the Mass remain the same while other parts change.
The second official prayer of the Church is the Divine Office or Breviary or Prayer of the Hours, or Morning and Evening Prayer. These names all refer to the same prayer which during the centuries was modified in various ways.
The Office is not surpassed by the rosary, another important Catholic prayer. Its 150 "Aves" substituted for the Office for illiterate people.
Why do we call these prayers an "Office"? My dictionary defines an Office first of all as a "duty, charge, function or task attached to a particular post or station" and then "an act of worship of prescribed form."
These definitions can be applied to the Divine Office, a set form of prayers of praise and worship consisting of psalms, hymns, Scripture readings and prayers which were attached especially to clergy.
We know from Scripture that the early Christians went to the synagogue to pray at specific times: "Peter and John . . . to the Temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon" (Acts 3.1). Peter went up on the roof to pray at the sixth hour and the disciples went to the Temple to pray at the ninth hour.
Early Christians continued to observe this practice of praying periodically throughout the day to sanctify their day and keep their focus on God.
The usual prayers conducted for the faithful of the early Church who generally could not read were morning and evening prayers.
This was a simple form of the Office, sometimes called the cathedral form because it was the parish prayer. It consisted of a few frequently repeated psalms and prayers. It was enhanced with the use of candles, incense and other symbols to convey the meaning of praise and worship.
The longer form of the Divine Office or Breviary, basically the only form most of us knew before Vatican II, was developed in monasteries where monks had time to pray frequently and at set hours during the day and night. The psalms varied so that all of the 150 psalms were prayed.
In the Middle Ages, as the influence of monastic life on the Church increased, the monastic form replaced the cathedral form. Because the ordinary people did not have the leisure to come together for prayer several times a day and often couldn't read, the Prayer of the Hours became the exclusive prerogative of the clergy.
Contemplative sisters usually prayed the Office many times during the day and at night. Active sisters generally used a simpler form such as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin which had a similar structure to that prayed by the clergy.
They gathered fewer times of day, praying two or three Hours at the same sitting. "Hours" refers to the different sets of prayers designated for a specific time, for example, Terce the third hour, Sext the sixth hour and None the ninth hour.
Why does the Office rank next to the Mass in the official prayers of the Church? When we pray the psalms, we are united in faith with our Jewish and Christian ancestors who prayed the psalms. Jesus prayed the psalms, even as he hung on the cross.
In addition, the psalms speak a whole range of emotions which ring true for all ages. Many of them begin with lamenting or complaining about the current situation but they never fail to end with an expression of faith and trust in God.
Some are totally songs of praise, an often-forgotten aspect of our relationship to God.
Today, the Church encourages all to join in singing the praises of God through the words of the psalmist at least in the simplified form of Morning and Evening Prayer.
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