To aid these her representatives in their sublime task, the Church, assisted by the Holy Ghost, has composed for them the Breviary, which is an abridgment of the prayers, instructions and exhortations that in the course of centuries were admitted into the official liturgy. But since the Breviary would be too difficult for those whose active life does not allow them sufficient leisure for so long a prayer, the Church has substituted, in the case of many religious congregations and of Tertiaries living in the world, the shorter Office called The Little Office of The Blessed Virgin. This Office is modeled on the Greater Office of the Breviary, having the same number of Hours and the same liturgical components; but it is much shorter, and, unlike the Breviary Office, varies little throughout the year.
While the origin of this or that part of Our Lady's Office may be well known, the same cannot be said of the Office as a whole; for we do not know who it was that first gathered together various psalms, antiphons, lessons, etc., and formed them into this Office. Some writers have held that the Office of the Blessed Virgin goes back to the early centuries of the Church and even to the times of the Apostles, but the best authorities regard such an opinion as unfounded. Devotion to the Mother of God existed from the beginning, but that particular form of devotion to her known as The Little Office was subsequent to the Divine Office on which it was modeled and to which it was intended to be a supplement or substitute. St. Idelphonsus, who lived about the end of the seventh century, is said to have composed an Office in honor of Our Lady, and the Eastern Church possesses an Office of the Blessed Virgin ascribed to St. John Damascene (c. 730). From the time of St. Benedict of Aniane, who died in 821, a number of devotions began to be added to the monastic Office, and among these we hear of various Little Offices, such as those of the Blessed Trinity and of All Saints, the Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Vigils of the Dead. The first appearance of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, however, cannot be traced further back than the latter half of the tenth century, when it is mentioned in connection with Bernerius of Verdun (c. 960) and St. Ulrick, Bishop of Augsburg, who died in 973. At the same period a supplementary Office of Our Lady was said by the monks of Einsiedeln on the Saturdays from Easter to Advent. In the eleventh century the practice of reciting the Cursus Beatæ Mariæ Virginis spread to many monasteries, and after the middle of that century St. Peter Damian, the energetic propagator of this devotion, says that the Little Office was already commonly recited among the secular clergy of Italy and France. The new Orders founded in this part of the Middle Ages generally retained the Office of The Blessed Virgin in addition to the Large Office, and finally during the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it developed from a private devotion into a daily duty of all the clergy.
In the Dominican Order the Constitutions required that the Office of the Blessed Virgin should be recited immediately upon rising in the morning; and we find the Little Office inserted in the Breviary of the Order, whose office text goes back to the year 1256. Among the Dominican Saints who were specially noted for their devotion to Our Lady's Office may be mentioned: St. Antoninus, who recited it daily on his knees; Bl. Margaret of Hungary, who found in it one of her greatest delights; Bl. Ambrose of Siena, who knew this Office by heart when he was only seven years old; Bl. Francis de Capillas, who was reciting it when assassinated in his prison.
In 1568 Pope St. Pius V removed the general obligation of saying the Office of the Blessed Virgin as part of the Breviary, though among many religious this Office continued to be said either as a supplement to the Large Office on certain days, or as the daily substitute for it. As a private devotion Our Lady's Hours enjoyed an ever-increasing favor throughout the Middle Ages.
There were current during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries pious stories whose moral was the special blessings that follow from the faithful performance of Our Lady's Office, and from some of these we can see how the practice of saying Mary's Hours observed in the monasteries was being imitated by pious members of the laity who had the necessary education. St. Louis, King of France, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary recited the Little Office daily, and in England the private recitation of this Office had so grown in favor by Caxton's time that he speaks of it as the first morning devotion that might be expected of every piously reared youth. A visitor to England in 1500 was much impressed at seeing the faithful reading the Office of the Blessed Virgin "in the church, verse by verse, in a low voice, after the manner of religious."
The two earliest copies known to us of The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, found in manuscripts of the eleventh century that are now in the British Museum, seem to have been intended for private recitation. But the great profusion of prayer books for the laity that have come down to us from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries proves beyond a doubt how widespread among the faithful was the use of Our Lady's Office. Almost invariably the principal part of these prayer books is the Office of the Blessed Virgin, which is preceded by a page richly adorned and bearing the title: "Here begins the Office of Our Lady." In England these manuals of devotion were called "Primers," because they were also used as the first reading books of the children in school. It seems, then, that Our Lady's Office was in those days the first book put into the hands of children, and we can understand why Pope St. Pius V spoke of it as a recognized special devotion of little ones. Down to the time of the Protestant Reformation hardly any other book of devotion seems to have enjoyed great favor among the people, but the demand for the Hours of the Blessed Virgin was so great that the editions of it printed were almost innumerable. The first liturgical book known to have been printed in England was one of these prayer books, which was issued by Caxton in 1477. Unfortunately there began in the sixteenth century a decline in the devotion to the Little Office which has continued to our own times; and while this Office has not ceased to be published for layfolk even down to the present, and while we read that even as recently as 1915 it was recited regularly by the native Christians in some parts of China and Tonquin, the fact remains that today it is all too little known among Catholics at large.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the greater devotion of the people to the Office of the Blessed Virgin during the Middle Ages is the fact that they had been instructed in it from their earliest years. For admirable as are the contents of this Office, their meaning is often far from being obvious; and hence to them can aptly be applied what was said of the words of Holy Scripture by the Ethiopian in the Acts of the Apostles (VIII. 30, 31): "How shall I understand unless some one explain to me?" Even great numbers of religious who recite this Office daily and as a part of their religious duties do not understand the meaning of the most of the words they are uttering, though they have a translation in the vernacular. Of course it is true that since they pray in the name of the Church and have the intention of praising God they fulfill their obligation and gain merit thereby; but for want of understanding what they say, they are deprived of the abundant spiritual nourishment which the Office contains. Moreover those who do not understand the words of the Office they are saying are subjected to additional burdens in the discharge of this duty, for they are not only more exposed to the danger of distractions, but are also under a continual strain in trying to preserve the good intention of prayerful disposition which are necessary to make prayer more fruitful.
In order, therefore, that all who make use of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, whether they be religious or people in the world, may derive the utmost spiritual benefit from its recitation, this present work has been produced. What St. Francis de Sales said of the Sisters of the Visitation can be said of all other communities that recite the Little Office, viz. that it is the very soul of their devotions. It is our hope, then, that this explanation of the Office of Our Lady may not only be a positive help to those who are accustomed to say the Little Office, but that it may also contribute to a general revival of interest in this devotion to Mary which was do dear to the faithful in ages past.
C. J. Callan, O. P.
J. A. McHugh, O. P.