Saint John XXIII: the Divine Office & the Council

Giovanni XXIII

Good Pope John
The Apostolic Exhortation Sacrae Laudis (6 January 1962) is, to my mind, wonderfully revealing of the piety of “Good Pope John”. There were and there are many, both in the Church and in the secular media, who would have us believe that Papa Roncalli was a revolutionary, a modernist, an iconoclast. Nothing could be further from the truth. How exactly did this misrepresentation of Pope John XXIII become so prevalent?   It was, it seems to me, a question both of image and of personal style. Pope John XXIII differed in a number of very obvious ways from his predecessor, the Venerable Pope Pius XII. Whereas Pius XII was thin and hieratic–looking, John XXIII was rotund and grandfatherly — not only Papa, but also Nonno. Although both Popes were seasoned diplomats, Pacelli’s diplomacy was aristocratic in style; Roncalli’s diplomacy had the shrewdness of the Bergamasque peasant. Pacelli was convincing; Roncalli was winning.

His Piety
The piety of Pope John XXIII was liturgical, priestly, and devotional. (Do not miss Pope John’s lovely proposal that priests pray the Divine Office together with their Guardian Angels!) It was, at once, lofty and childlike.  Sacrae Laudis reveals his profound understanding of the sacred liturgy in the life of the Church and, in particular, of the uniquely exalted quality of the Divine Office, the Church’s daily sacrifice of praise. In reading the holy Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Divine Office for the Council, it becomes clear that he had no intention of overturning the liturgical practice of the Roman Church as it had developed organically, over the centuries, under the gentle guidance of the Holy Ghost. Thus does he write:

The Breviary is in very truth a perennial and inexhaustible fount of supernatural light and grace. Small wonder, then, that the Breviary serves this Second Vatican Council as a source-book, as is evidenced in the reports of the careful, unremitting work of the various preparatory Commissions. It is a mine of purest doctrine and wisest counsels of ecclesiastical discipline, admirably adapted to present needs. We are therefore justified in Our assertion that in entering upon a new era we have preserved our ancient heritage intact. It is an era which seems to hold the promise of a great spiritual advance.

The Great Debacle
I, for one, am gripped by a certain irony in reading these words. A mere ten years after his splendid Apostolic Exhortation, the very Divine Office that Pope John XXIII extolled in glowing terms had been hacked apart and, out of its dismembered parts, reassembled into something entirely different. Without any respect for the law of organic continuity that had — until the dodgy iconoclastic operations of certain liturgical experts in high places in the 1960s — wisely restrained even the most questionable earlier liturgical reforms, the creation of the reformed Liturgia Horarum, instead of fostering the ongoing renewal of liturgical piety, announced its demise. One of the most bitter fruits of the post–Conciliar liturgical reform (never intended by Pope John XXIII) was the widespread abandonment of the breviary by diocesan clergy, the virtual silencing of countless choirs in the mendicant Orders, and among the monastic Orders, the degeneration of choral prayer into a chaotic diversity of forms that, in no way, reflect the letter or the spirit of Saint Benedict’s liturgical legislation.

The Dismembering of the Divine Office
The imprudent options set forth in the reformed Liturgia Horarum (1971), certain flawed principles of the Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae (1977) of the Benedictine Confederation, and the  Loi–Cadre approach taken in other monastic Orders, all contributed, in various ways, to the wholesale dismantling of the Divine Office as it had developed, flourished and, when necessary, been pruned back in the course of history. To readers desiring to go into the question more deeply, I recommend the late Professor László Dobszay’s works, The Bugnini Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform and more particularly for what concerns the Divine Office, The Restoration and Organic Development of the Roman Rite.

The Full Splendour of the Church’s Countenance
The aim of the Council was, wrote Saint John XXIII, “to seek to recapture some of that ardor displayed by the Church in her youth, and thus to restore to her the full splendour of her countenance”.  We can certainly pray, even now, through the intercession of “Good Pope John” this aim of the Council will, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, be realised even at this late hour in spite of the accumulated contradictions, disappointments, and failures of the past fifty years. The full splendour of the countenance of the Church will not be restored until the prayer of the Church is restored to its rightful place and until her bare ruined choirs, warmed and illumined by the flames of a living liturgical piety, begin to resound again with the sound of many voices.

Sacræ Laudis
On the Divine Office for the Council
An Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John XXIII 
to All the Clergy throughout the World
who are at Peace and in Communion with the Apostolic See

The Breviary and the Council
Now, apart from the daily Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the highest form of liturgical prayer, there is, as you know, no more exalted prayer for a priest than the recitation of God’s praises in the Divine Office. We therefore consider it incumbent upon Us now to urge all those who have the obligation of saying the Office to make of this very special form of prayer a fitting preparation for the Council. We ask them to observe the greatest care in their daily recitation of these prayers. For wherever they are said, whether in the magnificent surroundings of a great church or in an unpretentious chapel, publicly in choir-and this We must consider the best way of reciting the Breviary-or alone in private, these prayers are always a sacrifice of praise, offered to God in the name of the universal Church. What reason, then, can withhold you, Venerable Brethren and dear Sons, from giving Us this year the generous aid for which We ask, so that God may look with kindness and favor on this great event which Christians are eagerly awaiting with joyous expectation? It is an aid which all must give. All, We say, from the newly ordained subdeacon who in his first zeal and fervor savors the delights of the Divine Office and finds such exhilarating joy in its recitation, to the old and revered priest to whom these prayers bring such exquisite peace that he seems almost to enjoy in advance that heavenly bliss that awaits him in the company of the Saints.

Divine Mediator
For a priest must be reckoned not merely a “dispenser of God’s mysteries” as he is, for example, when he offers the Sacrifice of the Mass-but also a mediator between God and men. Like the divine Redeemer whose image he mirrors, he is “taken from among men, appointed for men in the things pertaining to God.” St. John Chrysostom gives us an excellent commentary on these words. “The priest”, he says, “takes up a middle position between God and mankind. God’s blessing he brings down to us ; our prayers he takes up to God.”

The Marks of the Church
The Divine Office, therefore, is a most excellent form of prayer, a priestly prayer. And this exhortation of Ours to priests to say it for the profitable outcome of the General Council, so universally desired, strikes Us as being altogether consistent with the four marks of the Church. It is an effective reminder, that is, of those marks by which Jesus Christ wished His Church to be recognized. She is and always has been, in all the twenty centuries of her history, one, holy, catholic and apostolic. She glories in unfailing vitality and longs to lavish the riches of her own life on those communities of Christians who have parted from her in the course of the years and have not yet returned to their original unity. There is indeed diversity in the Divine Office which priests say every day. It is recited in different rites and different languages. It varies in different dioceses and religious orders. But it forms nonetheless a divine, majestic poem of surpassing beauty, taken on men’s lips and giving worthy utterance to the praises of God. It is the prayer of the whole human family redeemed by Jesus Christ, the Word of God the Father, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, became Man, was crucified, and rose triumphant from the grave. Source of light and grace As he turns the pages of this poem, the devoted priest grows ever more assured of the glory that will one day be his. He learns of the joy that comes from truth. He accepts life’s daily discipline and wins comfort and strength in hardships and distress. But what abundant spiritual joy is his when, intent on this divine work, he begins to realize something of the Church’s catholic spirit breathed from the pages of his Breviary.

The Breviary: a Source-Book of the Second Vatican Council
There is no part of the Office that is not radiant with light and redolent with song. There are psalms bringing spiritual joy, wise counsel, and peace beyond telling. With these are interwoven passages from other books of the Old Testament, from the four Gospels-so rich in doctrine- from St. Paul’s Epistles full of high truths-and other writings of the New Testament. With contents such as these, the Breviary is in very truth a perennial and inexhaustible fount of supernatural light and grace. Small wonder, then, that the Breviary serves this Second Vatican Council as a source-book, as is evidenced in the reports of the careful, unremitting work of the various preparatory Commissions. It is a mine of purest doctrine and wisest counsels of ecclesiastical discipline, admirably adapted to present needs. We are therefore justified in Our assertion that in entering upon a new era we have preserved our ancient heritage intact. It is an era which seems to hold the promise of a great spiritual advance. Certain it is that the expected magnificence of this advance and its beneficial results will be due solely to the glorious and immortal King of ages and peoples, Jesus Christ.

Charity, Prayer and Sacrifice
In exhorting Our priests to pool the fruits of their devotion for the success of the coming Second Vatican Council, Venerable Brethren and dear Sons, We return once more to the thought of those wise men whom the Catholic Church is honoring today. As we see them representing all mankind in the worship of Christ, the subject of our meditation is not so much their example of faith and love, as the gifts they offered, gifts which have a significance beyond their actual, material substance. For gold is the symbol of charity, incense of prayer, and myrrh of self-sacrifice. And these gifts are well illustrated by the daily Office said by the priest with the intention of winning from God the richer favors of His grace for the coming Council. Charity is there, provided the priest says these prayers with attention and devotion; such instruction do they give, such food – for thought. The fragrance of incense is there, as the priest devotes himself to these prayers unsparingly. Choice, sweet-scented myrrh is there : those onerous, priestly duties, so often done in the midst of hardships, ill-health and anxiety. We are therefore confident that all priests everywhere will respond to this appeal of Ours, and show themselves willing to give the aid We ask for the desired success of the General Council.

Pope John’s Own Office
And as a further incentive to priests the wide world over to enlist in this crusade of prayer, We assure them that the humble shepherd of Christ’s universal flock is united with them every day in this intention. In the early morning hours when all is peaceful and still, he takes upon his lips the words of the universal Church, and offers this magnificent prayer for the intention that he has so much at heart, the success of the General Council. It is in the strength of this prayer that he goes about the daily duties of his state.

The Prayers of the Saints
Let Us end this exhortation by referring to a wonderful and inspiring passage in the Apocalypse. It describes a divine liturgy celebrated in the temple of Heaven, and priests particularly can derive from it much food for meditation. “There was another angel that came and took his stand at the altar, with a censer of gold; and incense was given him in plenty, so that he could make an offering on the golden altar before the throne, out of the prayers said by all the saints. So, from the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up in God’s presence, kindled by the saints’ prayer. Then the angel took his censer, filled it with firebrands from the altar, and threw it down on the earth; thunder followed, and mutterings, and lightning-, and a great earthquake.” From this glorious scene we learn of the great influence which, in God’s kindly providence, the prayers of the saints have on the affairs of the world. And the prayers of the saints are the prayers of the Church.

Unity an Inspiration
It is precisely because We think so highly of the supernatural power of the Church’s prayers, and of the Office especially, that We invite all who have the obligation of saying these prayers to offer them for the Council’s success. The aim of the Council will be to seek to recapture some of that ardor displayed by the Church in her youth, and thus to restore to her the full splendour of her countenance. “This in itself will provide an outstanding example of truth, unity and love. May those who are separated from this Apostolic See, beholding this manifestation of unity, derive from it the inspiration to seek out that unity which Jesus Christ prayed for so ardently from His heavenly Father.”

Venerable Brethren and dear Sons, when We began this exhortation We looked forward to this opportunity of speaking as it were personally to each one of you, wherever you may be. And now We leave you, joyfully aware of those ties which have bound us so closely with one another: the ties of our common faith, devotedness and love. But what We look forward to most of all is your steadfast resolve to unite your prayers with Ours, not only during these months which precede the General Council, but also–and most especially- during the days when that great gathering is in session.

A suggested prayer In order to express our united intention in a common formula of prayer, We suggest that before reciting the Office of the day you say the following:

Acceptum tibi sit, Domine Deus, sacrificium laudis, quod divinae maiestati tuae offero pro felici exitu Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani secundi, et praesta, ut quod simul cum Pontifici nostro Ioanne suppliciter a te petimus, per misericordiam tuam efficaciter consequamur. Amen.

Accept, Lord God, the sacrifice of praise I offer to your divine majesty for the success of the Second General Council of the Vatican. United in intention with John our Pope I offer it. Mercifully grant that we may indeed gain what we beg for so humbly. Amen.

Praying the Divine Office with One’s Guardian Angel
In connection with this proposal, there is another suggestion We would like to make, which which seems to Us particularly appropriate. We offer it to priests for their consideration. The Catholic Church teaches us that it is a fact-and a most consoling one that God, the Father of all, has commissioned a special angel to keep watch over each one of us who have received baptismal initiation. Let us then ask our guardian angels to be with us as we say our daily Office, helping us to recite it worthily, attentively and devoutly, that it may be acceptable to God, profitable to ourselves, and a source of spiritual edification to others.

Finally, Venerable Brethren and dear Sons, anticipating your eager response to Our appeal, We beg the all-holy and eternal God to give you an abundance of divine grace. In earnest of which, and as a pledge of Our good will, We lovingly impart to one and all Our Apostolic Blessing. Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, on the sixth day of January, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the year 1962, the fourth of Our pontificate. JOHN PP. XXIII