Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XV. The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin is based on the Divine Office, which the reverend clergy and some religious Orders are bound to recite daily; and an acquaintance with the latter will throw considerable light on the former.1 The compilation of the Little Office has been attributed to St. Peter Damian; but Cardinal Bona, a very reliable authority on the subject, holds that it existed in the beginning of the eighth century, and that St. Peter Damian only restored its use. The Council of Clermont, held under Pope Urban II. in 1096, made the recitation of the Little Office obligatory on the clergy; but secular priests have been freed from that obligation by the bull of Pope St. Pius V., Quod a Nobis, of July 9, 1568. It is not the intention to speak in this essay of the obligation of those who are bound by rule to the recitation of the Little Office,—their several constitutions regulate that matter for them,—but only of what is required of those who recite the Office out of devotion. While the latter do not sin in omitting it, or any part of it, they may sustain spiritual loss in not complying with all that the Church requires in its recitation.

With regard to the language in which the Little Office is to be recited, we must distinguish between the general law of the Church and the special indults that have been granted by the Holy See to certain places or religious communities. This question is one of considerable importance, inasmuch as it affects the indulgences granted to the recitation. After much discussion on both sides,2 it has been finally settled by a decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of September 13, 1888, in reply to two doubts proposed to that learned body. The first of these was whether the faithful reciting the Little Office in the vernacular gain the indulgences granted by the Sovereign Pontiffs, especially by the decrees of April 30, 1852, and December 29, 1864, provided the translation has the approbation of the ordinary of the diocese. And the second doubt was that, in case the first were answered in the negative, would it be advisable to have these indulgences extended to the recitation of the Office in the vernacular. Both questions were answered in the negative. This settles the matter, and renders it certain that the indulgences granted to the Little Office can be gained by those only who recite it in Latin.

We are here reminded of the importance which many of the saints, and notably St. Francis of Sales, attached to the recitation of prayers in the liturgical language of the Church. Only a special indult from the Holy See can secure the indulgences in any other than the language of the Church, which is equivalent to saying that the Church desires all her liturgical prayers to be recited in her liturgical language—the Latin. Such indults have been seldom granted, and only two have come under my notice. A custom existed in Chili, and probably still exists, of reciting the Little Office in Spanish, the language of the country; and the bishop of the diocese of the Immaculate Conception presented certain doubts to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, because books containing the Office in Spanish were printed and in use among the people, and others were offered for sale. For these reasons he asked to know whether the Spanish Offices could be used without losing the indulgences. The reply of the Sacred Congregation, dated August 20, 1870, was that the custom could be tolerated, provided the bishop saw that the Office in Latin was printed on parallel columns with the Spanish. The question regarded the tertiaries; and it was further asked whether they would sin by reciting the Office in the vernacular, since they were bound to the recitation. Again, a Redemptorist Father in Belgium, the better to encourage devotion to the Blessed Virgin, had the Little Office translated into French, and printed side by side with the Latin text. But, having some doubt as to the licitness of his action, he had recourse to the Sacred Congregation of Rites for advice in the matter. That august body referred the question back to the bishop, by a decree of September 4, 1875, charging his conscience with seeing that the Office was that approved by the Church, on which condition the book was permitted to be printed and used.

The rubrics, or rules, for the recitation of the Little Office do not state definitely at what precise hours the different parts are to be said; but we can learn this from analogy, by examining the rules laid down for the recitation of the Divine Office; for the Little Office, which does not bind under pain of sin, cannot have a stricter law for its recitation than the Divine Office, which does bind under pain of sin, and of mortal sin. And the several Papal decrees granting indulgences to the recitation of the Little Office have added no new obligations regarding its recital. The different times at which the Divine Office was formerly recited, and is yet by those who are bound to its recitation in choir, have given names to the several parts, or “hours,” as they are called; but this imposes no obligation as to time on those who say the Office out of choir, whether they are bound to its recitation or not. The Divine Office must be recited every day by those on whom that obligation is binding; and this day is calculated mathematically—that is, exactly from midnight to midnight, with the privilege of anticipating Matins and Lauds the previous afternoon or evening, beginning at any time after half the time has elapsed between midday and sunset. But the bishops of this and some other countries have faculties for granting permission to those who are bound to the recitation of the Office to begin Matins and Lauds at two o’clock in the afternoon. Hence the same can be done by those who are bound to the recitation of the Little Office; and if by those upon whom it is an obligation, much more by those who recite it out of devotion. As to the recitation of the rest of the Divine Office, St. Liguori says—and all theologians agree with Him—that the Little Hours of Prime, Tierce, Sext, and None may be recited at any time in the forenoon, and Vespers and Complin any time after midday. Anyone who finishes the recitation of the Office before midnight does not sin; and anyone who says the Office at any time within the twenty-four hours, with the additional privilege of anticipating Matins and Lauds the previous evening, even though he anticipates or postpones the hours without any reason whatever, commits no more than a venial sin, no matter how early or how late the recitation may be; and he is not bound to repeat any part. Hence if a person were to rise at midnight and recite the whole Office, including Complin, without any reason, he would be guilty of only a venial sin; and if he had any valid reason for doing so, he would commit no fault whatever. On this point St. Liguori says that, in order to recite the Office earlier or later than the time indicated by the names of the several hours, any cause of either utility or propriety will suffice—sufflcit quævis causa utilis vel honesta. What is true of the Divine Office is, for a greater reason, true of the Little Office, when said out of devotion. It is superfluous, however, to say that, inasmuch as the Church has appointed particular times for the recitation of the Office for those who are bound to it, it is desirable, though not of obligation, for all who say it to conform as near as may be to that order.

Inasmuch as God is everywhere, any place or posture that is proper or becoming for the recitation of other prayers will suffice also for the Little Office, though it is needless to remark that some places and postures are more becoming than others, and less exposed to distractions. On these points the general good sense of pious Christians will serve as a safe enough guide.

Attention is required for the performance of every human act, and this is more especially true of such as have an immediate relation to the supernatural. This attention is manifestly of two kinds: external and internal. External attention consists, as is self-evident, in avoiding whatever might interfere with the pious exercise on hand, as talking, writing, etc. Internal attention is threefold: spiritual, by which the mind is directed to God as the end and object of all adoration and praise; literal, which consists in fixing the mind on the meaning of the words read; and material, which regards the mere correct pronunciation of the words. Any of these forms of attention will suffice for the fulfilment of the obligation of reciting the Office; but spiritual attention, for obvious reasons, is the most perfect and the most to be desired. 3

Although in the recitation of the Little Office the several parts or “hours” should follow one another in the order in which they are placed, this is not essentially necessary for the fulfilment of the obligation of reciting it; and any reasonable cause will justify an inversion of the order. For example, a person has not the office-book at hand, and knows certain parts by heart; or he is asked by another to recite it with him, and begin at an hour which he has not yet reached. Even if the order were inverted without any reason, a person would not be bound to repeat any part of the Office, though he were obliged to its recitation.

With regard to the interruptions permitted in the recitation of the Little Office, the rule holds good which is laid down for the Divine Office. Any reasonable cause—advantage to self or others which cannot conveniently be deferred to another time; civility, charity, making a note of anything that might be on the mind and that might otherwise be forgotten, making ejaculations—though not a meditation and the like—suffices. A person is not bound to repeat any part of the Office lie has gone over, no matter where he interrupts it, if the sense be complete.4 Hence he may interrupt it in the middle of a psalm or a lesson. But since these are short in the Little Office, it is better to begin them again. Persons should be careful to avoid scruples in this matter, as those who laid down these rules under stood their responsibility, and the rules can be followed with absolute safety.

It remains to speak of the indulgences granted to the recitation of the Little Office. I shall premise by saying that these indulgences are granted only to the recitation of the Office in Latin, and as it is found in the Roman Breviary, unless there is a special indult from the Holy See.5' And though an Office should be modelled after that in the Breviary, and approved by the bishop of the diocese where it is recited, the indulgences are not attached to it.6 The following are the indulgences with the conditions that have not been already mentioned. Pope St. Pius V., by a bull of July 9, 1568, granted to all the faithful who are bound to the recitation of the Little Office, on the days prescribed by the rubrics of the Roman Breviary, provided they say it with devotion, an indulgence of one hundred days. The same Pontiff, by a bull of April 5, 1571, granted to all who shall say this Office through devotion an indulgence of fifty days; and to those who shall say any prayers contained in the same Office, with devotion, an indulgence of fifteen days.7

In order to still further increase devotion to the holy Mother of God, His Holiness Pope Leo XIII., by a decree dated November 17, 1887, granted to all the faithful of both sexes, who shall have recited the Little Office—with only one nocturn in Matins, and the rest complete—for an entire month, a plenary indulgence, to be gained on any day of the month which each person may select, provided that, being truly penitent, he shall on that day go to confession and receive Holy Communion, and shall pray according to the intention of the Holy Father. And, secondly, he granted an indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines,8 to be gained once a day by all who shall, with at least contrite heart, recite the Little Office. Also an indulgence of three hundred days, to be gained once a day by all who shall, with the same pious dispositions, recite Matins and Lauds daily. These indulgences are granted in perpetuity, and are applicable to the souls in purgatory.9

1 See “The Treasures of the Breviary,” pp. 47 et seq.
2 See “The Pastor,” vol. vi. pp. 307-313, for a summary of this discussion.
3 Kongins, “Theologia Moralis,” N. 1126.
4 Kongins, “Theol. Mor.,” NN. 1118 et 1122.
5 Beringer, “Die Ablässe,” (the German Raccolta), p. 81.
6 Decreta Authentica S. Cong. Ind. et Rel., N. 367, ad 3.
7 Raccolta, N. 88.
8 The quarantines have reference to the Lenten fast. Accordingly, an indulgence of seven years and as many quarantines, for example, means the remission of a temporal penalty corresponding to seven years of canonical penances, joined to the special austerities of seven Lents.— Maurel, p. 52, note.
9 “The Pastor,” vol. vi. pp. 309, 310.