This is a sort of “PSA” for Catholics who are unable to attend Mass right now…
These are strange times indeed, and we’re all being affected. Not having the daily comforts of casual social interaction are trying on their own, but for Catholics the present inability all over the globe to attend Mass is surely an unprecedented sacrifice for so many of us. Especially in this holy season of Lent and the coming culmination of the Liturgical Year at Easter, the lack of public celebration is and will be difficult to say the least. While priests, deacons, and lay ministers are reaching out all over the land, one ready support I haven’t seen many Catholics publicly recommending is the daily praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is a key way to participate actively in the common celebration of the Church’s public prayer.
Certainly, nothing takes the place of the Sacrifice of the Mass and Communion, but many don’t realize that the Liturgy of the Hours (the weekly and yearly rounds of prayers said at set times throughout the entire day and night) is also the Church’s liturgical action—the leitourgia or “work of the people” in Greek. The Liturgy of the Hours is a rich tapestry of meditations on the Scriptures and the whole drama of salvation history. Just as much as the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Hours is the public prayer of the Church.
For lay Catholics right now, the Liturgy of the Hours is a tremendously important resource. Not only is it the public prayer of the Church, but, more specific to our current situation, the Liturgy of the Hours can also be celebrated fully and efficaciously by all the faithful (no need for Holy Orders!). And it is a common act even when celebrated “alone.”
The “The General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours” describes the essentially communal nature of this prayer: “In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church exercises the priestly office of its head and offers to God ‘unceasingly’ a sacrifice of praise . . . this prayer is ‘the voice of the bride herself as she addresses the bridegroom; indeed, it is also the prayer of Christ and his body to the Father.’ ‘All therefore who offer this prayer are fulfilling a duty of the Church, and also sharing in the highest honor given to Christ’s bride, because as they render praise to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of Mother Church'” (§15). In this way, the Liturgy of the Hours enables us all to perform the liturgy even in our present state.
Admittedly, for many the psalms and canticles can be hard to “make their own” prayer. What if the Hours present me with a psalm of exultation and I’m worried or depressed? What if they offer me one of the penitential psalms but I’m actually in a joyful mood?
Interestingly, this hurdle is one of its finest virtues in our socially distanced times. For, as the Instruction says, “The person who prays the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours prays not so much in his own person as in the name of the Church, and, in fact, in the person of Christ himself. If one bears this in mind difficulties disappear when one notices in prayer that the feelings of the heart in prayer are different from the emotions expressed in the psalm . . . [In the Liturgy of the Hours] the public cycle of psalms is gone through, not as a private exercise but in the name of the Church, even by someone saying an Hour by himself. The person who prays the psalms in the name of the Church can always find a reason for joy or sadness, for the saying of the Apostle applies in this case also: ‘Rejoice with the joyful and weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15). In this way human frailty, wounded by self-love, is healed in that degree of love in which the mind and voice of one praying the psalms are in harmony” (§108). In being difficult to think of as exclusively “my” prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours opens us to the larger reality of the Church, to the common nature we all share in Christ, and the ways in which each individual member contributes to the Body of Christ and complements the other members.
In the season of Lent and into the season of Easter especially, the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours offer us much to chew on, to form minds and hearts as we enter more deeply into the holy seasons. If we know the Hours and have fallen away, maybe it’s time to come back. If we’ve never prayed them before, maybe we can use this strange time as a surprising invitation to a whole new way of prayer. In the absence of Mass, I can’t think of a better means to feel like a vital member of the Church, celebrating and offering up the “sacrifice of praise” (Hebrews 13:15) even in these difficult circumstances.