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Canonical Hours

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By canonical hour is understood all the fixed portion of the Divine Office which the Church appoints to be recited at the different hours. The term was borrowed from the custom of the Jews, and passed into the speech of the early Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles we see that prayer was designated by the hour at which it was said ( Acts 3:1 ). The observance from being optional having become obligatory for certain classes of persons in virtue of canons or ordinances promulgated by the Church, each portion of the Divine Office was called a canonical hour, and the whole of the prayers fixed for a certain day took the name of canonical hours. This term was extended to apply to the book or collection which contained these prayers, hence the expression "book of hours". The Rule of St. Benedict is one of the most ancient documents in which the expression, canonical hours is found; in chapter lxvii we read "ad omnes canonicas horas". It passed into common speech about the next century as may be judged from St. Isidore of Seville ("De ecclesiasticis officiis", I, xix, in P. L. LXXXIII, 757), etc. The article BREVIARY treats the various parts which compose the Divine Office , together with their origin and the history of their formation; under each of the words designating them details will be found concerning their composition, the modifications they have undergone, and the questions raised with regard to their origin (see COMPLINE); here we shall deal only with the obligation of reciting them imposed by the Church on certain classes of people, an obligation which recalls, as has been said, the very qualification of canonical.


After having devoted a few lines to the present discipline of the Church on this point, the origin and successive development of the obligation will be treated at length.

A. Present Discipline of the Church

This is set forth by all moral theologians and canonists. They treat more or less extensively of the character of this obligation, the conditions required for complying with it, and practical instances of infraction or negligence. All modern authors derive their inspiration from St. Alphonsus Liguori (Theologia Moralis, VI, n. 140 sqq.). The general thesis on the existence of this obligation and the persons whom it concerns may be formulated thus: the following are bound each day to the recitation, at least private, of the canonical hours: (a) all clerics in Holy orders ; (b) all beneficiaries; (c) religious men and women, who are bound by their rule to the office of choir (Deshayes, "Memento juris ecclesiastici", n. 430). According to the terms of this pronouncement there must be considered (1) the obligatory character of this recitation; it deals with a precept of the Church which aims at binding to this duty certain classes of persons whom she makes her representatives with God. The obligation is founded on the virtue of religion; its infraction may be a mortal sin if the omitted part is notable. (2) The validity of private recitation, but in this case the person who recites it must actually pronounce the words, for it is something more than mental prayer. (3) The persons obliged to recite the hours: (a) All clerics in Holy orders, that is, all who have received the sub-diaconate or one of the superior orders, for, since the twelfth century, the sub-diaconate has been incontestably ranked among Holy orders (Innocentius III, cap. "Miramur", 7, "de servis non ordinandis"). All are bound unless legitimately dispensed by the sovereign pontiff even though they are excommunicated, suspended, or interdicted. (b) All beneficiaries, that is, all who enjoy a perpetual right to derive revenue from the goods of the Church, by reason of a spiritual charge with which the Church has invested them, even though they are merely tonsured ; this obligation binds under pain of losing their right to the benefice, in proportion to the extent of their omission, conformably to the statute of the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512-17). (c) Lastly, religious, both men and women, bound by their rule to the office of choir, from the instant they have made solemn profession in an order approved by the Church.

As for the solemnly professed, everyone agrees that they are bound to recite the Office whether in choir, or in private (if they cannot assist at choir), even when they are not yet in Holy orders ; this is the meaning of the ancient custom observed in religious orders, and a reply of the Penitentiary has definitively consecrated this interpretation (26 November, 1852). But Pope Pius IX having (17 March, 1857) decreed through the Congregation of Regulars that, in future, solemn vows should be preceded by a trienniate of simple vows the question arose whether during this trienniate the religious are bound to the recitation of Divine Office. The doubt submitted by the general of the Dominicans to the Sacred Congregation on the condition of regulars received a negative reply. This reply, nevertheless, maintained for those religious the obligation of assisting at choir (6 August, 1858). Whence it follows that for religious with simple vows exemption from Office bears simply on private recitation when they cannot assist at choir. Such is, in brief, the condition of canonical legislation on the obligation of reciting the canonical hours in as far as concerns persons.

B. Origins and Successive Development of this Obligation

(1) The official prayer of the Church called in the Bible "the sacrifice of the lips" was from the early times of Christianity confided to persons charged with praying for the whole Christian people. It may be said that the obligation imposed on a class of persons is found in germ in the confiding by the Apostles ( Acts 6:4 ) to the deacons of the external care of the community, the Apostles themselves reserving the duties of prayer and evangelical preaching.

(2) We will summarize here the chapters in which Thomassin gives the history of prayer and the development of this obligation ("Vetus et nova ecclesiæ disciplina", Part I, II, lxxii sqq.; Roskovany has treated the same subject in "Coelibatus et Breviarium", v, viii, xi, xii). During the first five centuries, although the Christian body under the presidency of the bishop and priests took part daily in the Divine Offices, clerics were under a stricter obligation to assist thereat; if they were prevented by some other duty they were under obligation to supply the omission by private recitation. Witness for the Church of the Orient in the fourth century this text of the Apostolic Constitutions : "Precationes facite mane et tertia hora, ac sexta et nona vespera atque in gallicinio" (VIII, xxxiv, P. G., I, 1135). The same chapter adds that if the assembly could not take place in the Church because of the infidels, the bishop should assemble his flock in some private house, and if he could not, each one should discharge this pious duty either alone or with two or three of his brethren. Thus, says, Thomassin, from the infancy of the Church there has been a Divine Office composed of psalms, prayers, and lessons, this office has been publicly chanted in the churches or oratories, the ecclesiastics were charged with presiding at the prayer in union with the bishop, the faithful were included in the same obligation of piety, and if prevented from assembling these prayers had to be said in private. The liturgical prescriptions of the Council of Laodicea (c. 387) which appear to be borrowed from the Liturgy of Constantinople are an echo of these practices ( Hefele - Leclercq, "Histoire des conciles", I, 994). The anchorites, disciples of St. Pachomius, the monks of Egypt and the Thebaid derived inspiration from this legislation of the Church regarding prayer (see Sozomen, "Hist. Eccles.", P. G., LXVII, c. 1071; Cassian, "De coenobiorum institutione", P. L., XLIX, c. 82-7).

In this way the idea of the Church is manifested; if she no longer formulates in precise terms the law of prayer for clerics and monks she lets it be understood to what extent she holds them bound. Clerics are by their ordination attached to the service of a church; the principal function of the ministers in each church is the Mass and public prayer ; this public prayer consists in the recitation of the Divine Office. It must be remarked further that the material subsistence of clerics is assured them by the Church as a consequence of their ordination, but on condition that they assist at Divine Office ; those who fail will have no part in the daily distributions. For the Western Church the same conclusion is drawn from the manner in which the Fathers express themselves when they speak of public prayer (see some of their testimony in this respect under BREVIARY). In their eyes, in the measure in which they are formed and developed, the canonical hours are as the attestation and result of the continual prayer of the Church ; clerics have so many more reasons for taking an active part, as they have more liberty and leisure, and it is in great measure to this end that an honest livelihood is assured them. From the fifth century councils formulated laws on this subject with sanctions and penalties; such is the fourteenth canon of a provincial council of the province of Tours held at Vannes, in Brittany, in 465. (Hefele-Leclerq, "Histoire des conciles", II, 905; see also Baumer, "Histoire du Bréviaire", I, 219. For Spain may be mentioned various decisions of a council held at Toledo about 400. Hefele-Leclerq, op. cit., II, 123.)

(3) Sixth to eighth century.--Decisions multiplied especially in the West obliging clerics to celebrate publicly the Divine Office. To-day the "statuta ecclesiæ antiqua" are most commonly ascribed to the sixth century and the Church of Arles in Gaul, though long attributed to the fourth Council of Carthage (398); canon xlix ordains "that a cleric who without being sick fails in the vigils should be deprived of his benefice " (Hefele-Leclerq, "Histoire des conciles", II, 105). Particular councils followed in great numbers and, while displaying solicitude in establishing uniformity in the order of psalmody and the Office, made regulations for their worthy celebration by priests, deacons, and the other members of the clergy. The monks, called upon to supply the insufficiency of the clergy in the accomplishment of this duty, had likewise to abide by these decisions; indeed, on many occasions they were instrumental in their preparation. Among these councils may be quoted that of Agde in 506, that of Tarragona in 516, that of Epaon in 517, etc. In these councils the aim was to follow the Eastern and the Roman usages. The monastic rules had not waited for these rules to promote the worthy celebration of the hours; it is known what importance St. Benedict attached to what he called the Divine work par excellence: "Nihil operi Dei præponatur", we read in ch. xliii. This sketch of the obligation of priests and clerics to take part in the celebration of the Divine Office may be concluded by citing the decree promulgated by Emperor Justinian I in 528; "Sancimus ut omnes clerici per singulas ecclesias constituti per seipsos nocturnas et matutinas et vespertinas preces canant" (Kriegel and Hermann, "Corpus juris civilis", Leipzig, II, 39).

As to the private recitation of the Divine Office, Thomassin ("Vetus et nova ecclesiæ disciplina", part I, II, lxxiii sqq.) gives the proofs which establish its obligatory character as early as the fifth century for priests and clerics ; Grancolas in "Commentarius historicus in Breviarum romanum" relies on the testimony of St. Jerome. For what concerns monks, we have a more certain testimony in the Rule of St. Benedict . Ch. l prescribes that those who work outdoors or who are travelling should accomplish God's work at the hour appointed, and in whatever place they are, to the best of their ability. Therefore, they were merely dispensed from the lessons, but recited by heart the psalms, hymns, and shorter prayers. Dom Ruinart (Preface to works of Gregory of Tours, P. L., LXXI, 36-40) assures us that in the works of Gregory of Tours proofs are to be found attesting the fidelity of ecclesiastics of every degree to the recitation of the hours in private when they could not assist at public Office. These persons did not consider themselves free to omit this recitation.

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