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Guéranger and The Restoration of the Office

This was first posted on November 14, 2019

In the preface to his monumental work, The Liturgical Year (1841), Dom Prosper Guéranger speaks of the supernatural quality of the liturgical prayer of the Church known as the Divine Office. He laments the fact that, since the Protestant Reformation, this sacrificium laudis (sacrifice of praise) had been suppressed and only in rare instances was still prayed among the faithful. His whole aim in writing The Liturgical Year was to help the faithful to once again “follow [the Church] in her prayer of each mystic season, nay, of each day and hour.” Guéranger was not just writing to consecrated and religious. He desired to see all the faithful re-awaken to the power and beauty of the Church’s prayer.

Remember that Guéranger wrote this in the mid-1800s, pre-dating Vatican II by over 100 years. Needless to say, the desire to see the Divine Office restored as the “prayer of the whole people of God” was hardly an invention of the council (as some suggest). This is in accord with the very nature of the Church’s prayer. It has always been a public and communal offering. Though frequent participation in the Hours had waned among the faithful in his time, Guéranger says it was still common for lay people to “give up their worldly business, and cares, and take part in the Office of the Church.” He stated that, “when any affliction, or the desire to obtain a special favor, led them to the house of God, they were sure to hear, no matter at what hour they went, that untiring voice of prayer which was for ever ascending to heaven for the salvation of mankind.”

However, he still lamented the fact that the faithful had “grown too solicitous about earthly things to frequent the holy vigils and the mystical Hours of the day.” While the prayers of the Office were still offered in the churches and monasteries, it was only prayed by those “considered as solemnly deputed by the people.” Guéranger went on to warn that the Divine Office “would soon become powerless were the faithful not to take a real share in it, or at least not to associate themselves to it in heart.” He admonished them, “Be wise, then, ye children of the Catholic Church, and obtain that largeness of heart which will make you pray the prayer of your mother.”

While Guéranger insisted that the Office was the prayer of all the faithful, he understood this to be true within an ecclesial context. In other words, Guéranger would have considered the private recitation of the Breviary an anomaly, for it would have been a clear deviation from its public and communal nature. Yet, while the reformed Breviary has remained an obligation for clergy and has been received generously by the faithful (as so many bear witness to), its public and communal nature has been largely disregarded.

Perhaps some might argue that praying the Liturgy of the Hours unites our prayer with the faithful of every time and place no matter who is or is not physically present. This is not untrue. However, because its communal celebration manifests the praying Church more perfectly, its public celebration is always preferred. In the General Instructions, it says quite explicitly that the Liturgy of the Hours “is not a private matter but belongs to the whole Body of the church.” Further, because it “stands out most strikingly as an ecclesial celebration when… the local Church celebrates it,” such a celebration is “most earnestly recommended.”

It is also interesting to note those places in the General Instructions when private recitation of the Office is implicitly treated as an exception. One such place is in paragraph 28 where it reads, “Sacred ministers have the liturgy of the hours entrusted to them in such a particular way that even when the faithful are not present they are to pray it themselves with the adaptations necessary under these circumstances.” Not only does this imply that the norm is when the sacred ministers pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the faithful, but that there are even adaptations that must be made when they have to pray it privately.

Altogether, when it comes to our desire to see the Liturgy of the Hours restored to its rightful place within the life of the Church, I think we have a great advocate in Guéranger. Not only has he written so beautifully and eloquently on the nature and purpose of the Divine Office, but he also worked tirelessly to see it restored as the prayer of all God’s people. May we do the same. And may God grant us to see the day when Catholic churches once again resound with the venerable prayers and praises which Christ has left to His Bride.

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