A liturgical devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in imitation of, and in addition to, the Divine Office.
It is first heard of in the middle of the eighth century at Monte Cassino. According to Cardinal Bona, who quotes from a manuscript of Peter the Deacon (twelfth century), there was, in addition to the Divine Office , another "which it is customary to perform in honour of the Holy Mother of God, which Zachary the Pope [d. 752] commanded under strict precept to the Cassinese Monastery." This would seem to indicate that some form of the Office of Our Lady was already extant and, indeed, we hear of an Office in her honour composed by St. Ildephonsus, who lived about the end of the seventh century. The Eastern Church , too, possesses an Office of the B.V.M., attributed to St. John Damascene (c. 730). But though various Offices in honour of Our Lady were in existence earlier, it is probable that the Little Office, as a part of the liturgy, did not come into general use before the tenth century; and it is not unlikely that its diffusion is largely due to the marked devotion to the Blessed Virgin which is characteristic of the Church in England under the guidance of St. Dunstan and St. Ethelwold. Certainly during the tenth century, an Office of the Blessed Virgin is mentioned at Augsburg, at Verdun, and at Eisiedeln; while already in the following century there were at least two versions of her "Hours" extant in England. In the eleventh century we learn from St. Peter Damian that it was already commonly recited amongst the secular clergy of Italy and France, and it was through his influence that the practice of reciting it in choir, in addition to the Great Office, was introduced into several Italian monasteries. At Cluny the Office of the B.V.M. was not introduced till the end of the eleventh century, and then only as a devotion for the sick monks. In the twelfth century came the foundation of the Orders of Cîteaux and Prémontré, of which the latter only retained the Little Office in addition to the Divine Office. The Austin Canons also retained it, and, perhaps through their influence, in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it developed from a private devotion into part of the daily duty of the secular clergy as well. By the fourteenth century the recital of the Little Office had come to be an almost universal practice and was regarded as obligatory on all the clergy. This obligation remained until St. Pius V removed it by the Bull "Quod a nobis" of 1568. At the present time, however, it is recited on certain days by several of the older orders, and it serves, instead of the Greater Office, as the liturgical prayer of lay brothers and lay sisters in some of the contemplative orders, and of the members of most of the congregations of women engaged in active work.
Down to the Reformation it formed a large part of the "Primer or Lay-folk's Prayer-book", and was customarily recited by the devout laity, by whom the practice was continued for long afterwards among the persecuted Catholics. Today it is recited daily by Dominican, Carmelite, Augustinian, and by large numbers of the Franciscan, Tertiaries, as well as by many pious laymen who desire to take part in the liturgical prayer of the Church. It is worth noting that the form of the Little Office of Our Lady has varied considerably at different periods and in different places. The earlier versions varied very considerably, chiefly as regards the hymns and antiphons used: in England in medieval times the main differences seem to have been between the Sarum and York Uses. Since the time of St. Pius V, that most commonly recited has been the version of the reformed Breviary of that pope. In this version, which suffers somewhat from the classicism of the sixteenth century, are to be found the seven "Hours", as in the Greater Office. At Matins, after the versicles follow the invitatory "Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum" with the "Venite" then the hymn "Quem terra, pontus, sidera"; then three groups of psalms, each with their antiphons, of which one group is said on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays, the second on Tuesdays and Fridays, the third on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Next follow three lessons with responsories and (except in Lent and Advent ) the "Te Deum". At Lauds, there are the eight psalms of the Divine Office for Sundays, sung to five antiphons. Then the Little Chapter, and the hymn "O Gloriosa Virginum". Next a versicle and the canticle "Benedictus" with its antiphon. Lastly, the prayer and commemoration of the saints. In each of the four Little Hours the hymn "Memento rerum conditor" immediately follows the versicles; then three psalms are recited, under one of the antiphons of Lauds ; then are said the Little Chapter, versicles, and a prayer. At Vespers, after the versicles and five psalms with their antiphons, follow the Little Chapter, the hymn "Ave Maris stella", a short versicle, and the canticle "Magnificat" with its antiphon; then the prayers as at Lauds. Compline begins with special versicles, then follow three psalms without antiphons, then the hymn "Memento rerum conditor", a Little Chapter, a versicle, the canticle "Nunc Dimittis", versicles, a prayer, and the Benediction. After the hours are recited the "Pater Noster" and the proper antiphon of Our Lady for the season. This last, the antiphons of the psalms and canticles and the Little Chapters are the only parts of the office that vary with the seasons. Pope Leo XIII granted (17 Nov., 1887), to those who recite the whole Office of Our Lady, an indulgence daily of seven years and seven quarantines, and a plenary indulgence once a month; to those who recite Matins and Lauds only, a daily indulgence of three hundred days; and (8 Dec., 1897) to those who recite Vespers and Compline only, and for each Hour, an indulgence of fifty days.
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