In November, Pope Benedict XVI said that there is one prayer that he wishes all Catholics would learn to use. Can you guess what it is? 

Guess again — not the Rosary. Nope. Not the Divine Mercy chaplet either. 

Here are some hints. This prayer is nearly as old as the Church itself. Most laity have no idea what it is, but your pastor says it every day. 

Give up? 

It’s the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as The Divine Office. 

Ancient roots

The Liturgy of the Hours is a repeating four-week cycle of psalms, biblical canticles, prayers and Scripture readings that has been part of the Church’s public prayer — in one form or another — almost from the beginning. The prayers vary in accordance with the liturgical season and also — like the Mass — to commemorate the feasts of the Church calendar. 

It is prayed at morning, midday, evening, night, plus a “floating hour” that can be done at any time. Normally, laypeople who pray the hours only use one or two of these. The two principle hours of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are especially encouraged by the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is in a book known as the breviary. The title on the breviary says Christian Prayer: the Liturgy of the Hours. It is also available on a number of websites and mobile applications. 

The term “hours,” by the way, does not refer to the length of the prayers, which take perhaps 10 minutes to say. These short sets of psalms, readings and petitions are spaced throughout the day in order to sanctify the various parts of our day, hence the name “hours.” 

The Acts of the Apostles refers several times to Peter or other apostles going to the temple to pray at morning, evening or afternoon. Early Christians developed this Jewish custom, adding New Testament elements to the Old when they gathered for daily prayers. Desert hermits and monastics expanded the daily hours of prayer. St. Benedict, with his vision of liturgical prayer as the “work of God,” laid the foundation for the Hours as they exist today, although there have been many revisions since his time. 

Not just for monks

For many years before the Second Vatican Council, the Liturgy of the Hours was seen as the spiritual territory of clergy and religious. The breviary was completely in Latin. Each of the hours took longer to say, since the entire 150 psalms were recited or chanted over the course of each week. Cloistered orders, such as the Carthusians, Carmelites and Benedictines, saw (and still see) the Liturgy of the Hours as their primary spiritual work, assembling in chapel every few hours around the clock to pray, even rising at midnight to do so. Active religious and parish priests also had to devote considerable parts of their day to the Hours, although they were dispensed from chanting it, and from having to say the prayers at rigidly fixed times of day. 

Vatican II revised the Liturgy of the Hours in the late 1960s. It was simplified in several ways in order to make it easier both for busy priests and for the laity. Vernacular language was encouraged. The hours were shortened, so that the cycle of psalms (known as the Psalter) is now recited over the course of a month rather than a week. The Scripture readings became more varied, and the liturgical hours were arranged to more fully coordinate with the seasons of the liturgical year. 

Pope Paul VI expressed the wish that the revised Liturgy of the Hours would become “the prayer of the whole people of God,” recommending that it be prayed in parishes and by individuals at home.  

Blessed John Paul II also promoted the Liturgy of the Hours. Not only do the psalms express “every sentiment of the human heart,” he said, but also, quoting Sacrosanctum Concilium, he reminded Catholics at an April 2001 general audience that when we pray the Hours, “Jesus attaches to himself the entire community of mankind and has them join him in singing his divine song of praise.” Blessed John Paul devoted Wednesday general audiences for several years to catechesis on each psalm and canticle of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Pope Benedict continued this series after Pope John Paul’s death, and has called for greater lay participation on several occasions.

Digital revolution

Finally, more than 40 years after its revision, the Liturgy of the Hours is starting to gain ground among the laity. Its growing popularity has happily intersected with the digital revolution. Although today’s version of the Liturgy of the Hours is simpler than its older form, it still takes patience to learn to navigate a printed breviary, with its many sections and ribbon markers. The advent of online breviaries and mobile breviary applications now makes the Liturgy of the Hours accessible to everyone. Some of these even include audio versions of the hours so that beginners can hear how the prayers are meant to be done, and have a “virtual community” to pray with (see sidebar on resources). 

Try it. You might like it. 

Daria Sockey blogs at Coffee&Canticles — the Divine Office in Your Life (www.dariasockey.blogspot.com).