Little Office, What is

Q: What is the Little Office?

A: The Little Office is a way of living in praise and reflection of the principal moments of each day Four types of the Little Office will be explained in this article. The best known is the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although lesser-known, the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception and the Little Office of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are still available, while the Little Office of the Compassion of Our Blessed Lady is not. In the past, Jesuit-run Sodalities required its members to pray the Rosary or to recite one of these Little Offices daily. These Marian Little Offices make ours her ardent love, joyous praise and deep faith in the mission for and alongside her Son Jesus Christ.

1) Like the Breviary or Liturgy of the Hours, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary comprises a Morning and Evening prayer, a Midday and Night prayer before retiring. The Midday prayer is made up of three hours said at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. Each of these six hours (Lauds, Prime, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline) is composed of a hymn, some psalms, scripture readings, intercessions and a concluding prayer. The traditional hour of Matins (nocturnal hour of prayer) was transformed into a time of meditation. In all of these texts emphasis is given to the person of Mary, not in isolated fashion but integrated into the history of salvation.

Since the publication of the revised Liturgy of the Hours in 1971 the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary has undergone some notable adaptations to restore its popularity and harmonize it with the official prayer of the Church. It has a long history beginning in the ninth or tenth century. The exact origin and authorship is not known. It was possibly meant to coincide with the "Votive Masses of Our Lady on Saturday," composed by Alcuin, and represented an abridgement of the "Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary" found in the Divine Office, another name for the breviary. The form of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary varied; it was revised and recommended by Peter Damian (d.1072), adapted for their use by Cistercians and Camaldulensians, Carmelites and Dominicans, and utilized by the secular clergy. This Little Office was used by many lay people. It became part of the famous Book of Hours in honor of Mary, and a popular prayer book for members of Third Orders. A standard form was determined in the sixteenth century which had very little variety according to the liturgical seasons and days of the week.

The 1952 version of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary allowed for psalms, canticles, hymns, responsories, short readings, antiphons, and different prayers for each of the six liturgical seasons. There were twenty-eight Marian feasts included, each one of them with proper antiphons for the Benedictus (Canticle of Zacharias) and Magnificat (Canticle of Mary). Vatican II in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy made any Church-approved Little Office part of the public prayer of the Church (#98).

2) The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception retains most of the “hours” or prayer times of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, i.e. Matins, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline; only Lauds is omitted. Each prayer time is brief for this Office with a repetitive opening, two verses of a hymn, some verses specific to that hour, and then a standard closing with some verses and a prayer.

The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception can be found in Sarum Primers, prayer books for the laity as early as 1531. As late as the 1430’s, the earliest versions simply substituted “conception” for “nativity” in the office for the Nativity of Our Lady. A few years later, Leonard Nogaroli wrote the first Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, called the Sicut Lilium (“as the lily”) for its opening line. Nogali’s Little Office was approved and indulgenced by Pope Sixtus IV, who did the same for another version by Bernardine of Busti. By 1577, the Salve Mundi Domina (“Hail, Queen of the world”) version was written and became the most popular because of the Our Lady’s command in visions to Bl. Alphonsus Rodriguez. With the removal of three readings from an unapproved private vision, Pope Paul V approved this version on July 27, 1615, granting an indulgence for the closing prayers. However, in 1678 it was briefly placed on the Index of forbidden books before being revised and then re-approved by Pope Innocent XI, who even recommended it in 1680 for the Bavarian seminarians too young for the entire Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On March 31, 1876, Pope Pius IX indulgenced the praying of a slightly revised version of this Little Office (Waterton, 97-101).

3) The Carmelites have their own Little Office of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that was revised according to the II Vatican Council. This Little Office provides the special prayers for the feasts of Carmelite saints. It uses the same daily set of psalms but with variations for other parts of the office. For example, the intercessions for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are grouped for Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday, Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and Saturday, while some antiphons have options, and the concluding prayer is seasonal.

4) There are two types of the Little Office of the Compassion of Our Blessed Lady—one written by St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) and another by Pope Clement V (1305-1314). (Waterton, 96-97).


Bibliography

Coppens, Charles. A Brief Commentary on the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1916. (Hours, p. 9)

The Little Office of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Kent, England: Carmelite Press, 1974.

Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the Carmelite Rite. Chicago: Carmelite Third Order Press, 1952.

Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Dominican rite). Dublin: Dominican Publications, 1961. 

Vest-Pocket Manual of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Prayer Book. Revised ed. New York: Fr. Pustet, 1912. (p. 24-25 for Sodality comment)

Waterton, Edmond. “History of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception.” The Month and Catholic Review 33 (May 1878): 96-108.

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