16 September 2008

Pope Benedict in Paris and Father Flanagan of Boys Town

A deacon – in the old days a sub-deacon – makes only two specific commitments at his ordination. One is to live a life of celibacy – I’m talking about what are sometimes called ‘transitional’ deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church – and the other is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, often called the Breviary, the Divine Office or simply The Office.

An aside. I would love to meet a fundamentalist Protestant who accuses Catholics of not honouring the Bible and point out to him that priests and religious each day pray a minimum of 15 psalms, or portions of psalms, and canticles and read five extracts from the Scriptures as they pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Then you can add the two or three readings at Mass along with the responsorial psalm. I doubt if even the most ardent fundamentalist or ‘Born Again’ Protestant could match that.

I’ve always found the Breviary to be a bedrock in my life as a priest. I have one friend, an American single woman, who prays the whole breviary each day, including the Office of Readings. I know of one national figure in Britain, a married woman, who does the same, as I learned from a priest who knows her. The Office gives a rhythm to the day, to the week and to the year.

And in these days of Interfaith Dialogue, the Liturgy of the Hours parallels what faithful Muslims do, pray five times a day at set times, no matter what other activities they may be engaged in. I have been edified to see Muslims at airports and on ships here in the Philippines take out their prayer-mats, go to a quiet corner, face Mecca and pray. By the same token, I’ve seen Filipino Catholics, from bishops to very poor lay people, take out their Rosaries in the same places and in buses and quietly pray, without any ostentation.

What set me thinking along these lines was what our Holy Father said at Vespers in Paris on Saturday: Even now the word of God is given to us as the soul of our apostolate, the soul of our priestly life. Each morning the word awakens us. Each morning the Lord himself "opens our ear" (cf. Is 50:5) through the psalms in the Office of Readings and Morning Prayer. Throughout the day, the word of God becomes the substance of the prayer of the whole Church, as she bears witness in this way to her fidelity to Christ. In the celebrated phrase of Saint Jerome, to be taken up in the XII Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next month: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (Prol. in Is.). Dear brother priests, do not be afraid to spend much time reading and meditating on the Scriptures and praying the Divine Office! Almost without your knowing it, God’s word, read and pondered in the Church, acts upon you and transforms you. As the manifestation of divine Wisdom, if that word becomes your life "companion", it will be your "good counsellor" and an "encouragement in cares and grief" (Wis 8:9).

I know the truth of the words of Pope Benedict that I've highlighted.

Another aside. In pre-Vatican II days many priests prayed the Office at one go and didn’t see any intrinsic link between the name of the particular hour, eg, Lauds or Morning Prayer, and the time they actually prayed it. The emphasis was on fulfilling a serious obligation. And priests took this obligation seriously. Monasteries followed the proper times. When the Breviary was reformed we were encouraged to pray the hours at the appropriate times. I remember back in the 70s having a friendly argument with a now-deceased Columban of the ‘old school’, ie, ‘strict Irish parish priest’! – who simply couldn’t see why we should pray the Breviary at the 'proper' times. What was important for him was fulfilling the obligation. He wasn’t against anyone who wanted to pray Morning Prayer in the morning and Evening Prayer in the Evening but for him the time had no significance.

And just now I came across this little item in a review by Norman Fulkerson of The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard OCSO (1858-1935), a book I read during my seminary days:

While walking across the campus one day Jean Baptiste happened upon a priest praying his breviary. This priest was unaware of the impression he was making on the economics student. "His bearing, full of respect and religion, was a revelation to me," said Dom Chautard, "and produced in me an urgent need to pray from then on, and to pray in the way this priest was praying. The Church appeared, concretized, so to speak, in this worthy minister, in communion with his God."

This reminded me of something said by one of our teachers in the seminary, Fr William Halliden, one of three brothers who became Columbans – a fourth was a diocesan priest. He told us of his astonishment while watching the movie Boys Town when Father Edward Flanagan, played by Spencer Tracy, excused himself and said to someone, ‘I have to pray now’ and took up his Breviary. (The movie came out 70 years ago). Until then, Father Halliden, ordained the year after the film was issued, had seen the Divine Office as an obligation, but not particularly as a prayer.

Fr Edward Flanagan, above.

Spencer Tracy playing Father Flanagan, below.
All of this reminds me that it's time now for Evening Prayer.


Anonymous said...

I am a lay person and I have been praying the Office for a few years now. Except holidays and other rest days I can't manage all the prayers. I do Readings, Morning prayer, evening prayer and night prayer although sometimes one gets distracted by "life" and living it. But I try to be conscientious.

It certainly did/has changed my prayer life for the better. It is a whole structure of discipline to hang one's prayer life on. It brings a lovely rthymn to the day and produces little 'arrows' of prayer all the day long from pondering on the days psalms, antiphons, scripture and so on.

"The Divine Office - Go on, make your day"

la mamma said...

An interesting post, Father, thank you. I've just found your blog via the Hermeneutic of Continuity. I pray parts of the office daily and have done since I was 19 (I'm now 33) but recently went on holiday (for a week) without it. Now I don't suppose you know what it's like not to pray the office for a week so I'll tell you; it's odd and absence certainly does make the heart grow fonder - I was so happy to get back to it!

Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Fabulous post as ever Fr Sean..

Michelle Therese said...

I love the Divine Office! I have the 4-volume American set as I'm an American and it's the most familiar to me. I'm still building up the discipline though ~ some days I'm all over the Divine Office and other days I either totally forget or I say, "Oh, I have to put this aside and do this or that..." (I live on a farm and sometimes things crop up!) My hope is that I come to pray the Divine Office throughout the day without forgetting! GOD BLESS!
~Michelle Therese

Fr Seán Coyle said...

Michelle Therese, I love your statement I live on a farm and sometimes THINGS CROP UP!' I would hope so - and more than 'sometimes'!

I spent most of June 1990 looking after the parish of Skagway, Alaska: http://bangortobobbio.blogspot.com/2008/09/start-change-with-prayer-grace-before.html

Asperges Me said...

I know this to be a very late addition, please forgive me for this, but I was moved by the appreciation for the Opus Dei of the Divine Office.

I've kept to praying the Breviary from even before I converted to the Catholic Church, beginning with the monastic office, switching to the Liturgy of the Hours, and as of Septuagesima this year, I've begun praying the 1960 breviary daily. I've always felt compelled to pray the entirety of the office, and that holds with the traditional breviary for me as well. As the psalmist says, "Septies in die laudem dixi tibi," seven times a day I spoke your praise.

The thought of tossing out the clear significance of the arrangement of the breviary, the clearly evening themed psalms of Vespers, and the even more so night themed psalms of compline, particularly on Sundays, a trend found through all the hours and days, is something that I can't understand. I feel an obligation (of a different sort than Father as you mentioned) to pray the whole office and to sanctify the hours of the day and give God his due through the day and help remind me of what comes first.

Obviously I know that most people aren't capable to keep that sort of rhythm up, especially with children while working a full time job as well, though as long as I'll be able, I will find great joy, comfort and solace in praying the hours, and at their proper time.

Bless you Father for keeping to the breviary and not seeing it (as I've heard too often) as a ball and chain . . . you will be in my prayers.

Benedicam Dominum in omni tempore, semper laus eius in ore meo!