Catholics and Cons

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Saturday, July 09, 2005


Canonical hours:
Are ancient divisions of time (also called "offices"), developed by the Christian Church, serving as increments between prayers.

In the book of Acts, Peter and John visit the temple for the afternoon prayers. Psalm 119:164 states: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws."

This practice is believed to have been passed down through the centuries from the Apostles. In 525, St. Benedict wrote the first official manual for praying the Hours, and the Vatican wrote the first official breviary in the 11th century.

Already well-established by the ninth century, these canonical offices consisted of eight daily prayer events and three (or four) nightly divisions (called "nocturnes", "watches," or "vigils"). Building on the recitation of psalms and canticles from Scripture, the Church has added (and, at times subtracted) hymns, hagiographical readings, and other prayers.

The daily events were:
(at dawn) Matins ("MATT'-inz") called "Orthros" in Eastern Churches
(at dawn) Lauds ("lawds") later separate from Matins in the West; aka "Morning Prayer" or "The Praises."
(at ~6 AM) Prime (the "first hour")
(at ~9 AM) Terce (the "third hour")
(at Noon) Sext (the "sixth hour")
(at ~3 PM) Nones (the "ninth hour")
(at sunset) Vespers (aka "Evensong" or "Evening Prayer")
(at bedtime) Compline ("COMP'-lin", aka "Night Prayer")

Catholic usage in the Roman Rite following the Second Vatican Council

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church's Roman Rite simplified the observance of the canonical hours and sought to make them more accessible to the laity, hoping to restore their character as the prayer of the entire Church.

The office of Prime was abolished, and the character of Matins changed so that it could be used at any time of the day as an office of Scriptural and hagiographical readings. Furthermore, the period over which the entire Psalter is recited has been expanded from one week to four.

Formerly referred to popularly as "The Divine Office", and published in four volumes according to the meteorological seasons "Spring", "Summer", "Fall", and "Winter", the Church now publishes the related liturgical books under the title "The Liturgy of the Hours", and issues them in four volumes according to the liturgical season: "Advent and Christmas", "Lent and Easter", "Ordinary Time Vol. I", "Ordinary Time Vol. II".

Current Catholic usage focuses on two major hours and from three to five minor hours:

Morning prayer (Lauds)
Evening prayer (Vespers)
the Office of Readings (formerly Matins)
Daytime prayer, which can be one or all of
Midmorning prayer (Terce)
Midday prayer (Sext)
Midafternoon prayer (None)
Night Prayer (Compline)

The major hours

The major hours consist of Morning and Evening Prayer (or Vespers). The character of Morning Prayer is that of praise; of Evening Prayer, that of thanksgiving. Both follow the same format:
a hymn, composed by the Church
two psalms, or one long psalm divided into two parts, and a scriptural canticle (taken from the Old Testament in the morning and the New Testament in the evening)
a short passage from scripture
a responsory, typically a verse of scripture, but sometimes liturgical poetry
a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke: the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus) for morning prayer, and the Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) for evening prayer
intercessions, composed by the Church
the Our Father
the concluding prayer, composed by the Church

The minor hours
The daytime hours follow a simpler format:
a hymn
three short psalms, or, three pieces of longer psalms; in the daytime hours it is usual to begin one part of the longest psalm, psalm 119
a very short passage of scripture, followed by a responsorial verse
the concluding prayer
The office of readings expands on the format of the daytime hours:
a hymn
one or two long psalms divided into three parts
a long passage from scripture, usually arranged so that in any one week, all the readings come from the same text
a long hagiographical passage, such as an account of a saint's martyrdom, or a theological treatise commenting on some aspect of the scriptural reading, or a passage from the documents of the Second Vatican Council
on nights preceding Sundays and feast days, the office may be expanded to a vigil by inserting three Old Testament canticles and a reading from the gospels
the hymn Te Deum (on Sundays and feast days)
the concluding prayer

Night prayer has the character of preparing the soul for its passage to eternal life:
a hymn
a psalm, or two short psalms, or simply Psalm 91
a short reading from scripture
the responsory In manus tuas, Domine (Into Your Hands, O Lord)
the Canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis, from the Gospel of Luke, framed by the antiphon Protect us, Lord
a concluding prayer
a hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus
In each office, the psalms and canticle are framed by antiphons, and each concludes with the traditional Catholic doxology.

Liturgical variation

In addition to the basic four-week cycle of prayers for each of the canonical hours, the Church also provides an alternate collection of hymns, readings, psalms, canticles and antiphons, for use in marking specific dates on the Roman Calendar, which sets out the order of celebrations for the liturgical year. These alternate selections are found in the 'Proper of Seasons' (selections for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter), and the 'Proper of Saints' (selections for feast days of the Saints). A breviary is generally keyed to help the user navigate these overlays in the liturgy.


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