Among the many topics covered by Verbum Domini, the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, we find particular emphasis placed on the Liturgy of the Hours.
Among the forms of prayer which emphasize sacred Scripture, the Liturgy of the Hours has an undoubted place. The Synod Fathers called it “a privileged form of hearing the word of God, inasmuch as it brings the faithful into contact with Scripture and the living Tradition of the Church”. Above all, we should reflect on the profound theological and ecclesial dignity of this prayer. “In the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church, exercising the priestly office of her Head, offers ‘incessantly’ (1 Th 5:17) to God the sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name (cf. Heb 13:15). This prayer is ‘the voice of a bride speaking to her bridegroom, it is the very prayer that Christ himself, together with his Body, addressed to the Father’”. The Second Vatican Council stated in this regard that “all who take part in this prayer not only fulfil a duty of the Church, but also share in the high honour of the spouse of Christ; for by celebrating the praises of God, they stand before his throne in the name of the Church, their Mother”. The Liturgy of the Hours, as the public prayer of the Church, sets forth the Christian ideal of the sanctification of the entire day, marked by the rhythm of hearing the word of God and praying the Psalms; in this way every activity can find its point of reference in the praise offered to God.
The Synod asked that this prayer become more widespread among the People of God, particularly the recitation of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. This could only lead to greater familiarity with the word of God on the part of the faithful. Emphasis should also be placed on the value of the Liturgy of the Hours for the First Vespers of Sundays and Solemnities, particularly in the Eastern Catholic Churches. To this end I recommend that, wherever possible, parishes and religious communities promote this prayer with the participation of the lay faithful.
Unfortunately, this is one form of liturgy that is rather unfamiliar to many parishes, at least the ones down here in South Texas (with some exceptions). When we see the word "liturgy", all too often, we immediately think of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and nothing else. While there may be some who are familiar with the Office, the assumption can be made that this particular prayer is reserved only to clergy and those in religious life. But, as Pope Benedict XVI shows us, that is not necessarily the case at all.
The Synod Fathers encouraged all pastors to promote times devoted to the celebration of the word in the communities entrusted to their care. These celebrations are privileged occasions for an encounter with the Lord. This practice will certainly benefit the faithful, and should be considered an important element of liturgical formation. Celebrations of this sort are particularly significant as a preparation for the Sunday Eucharist; they are also a way to help the faithful to delve deeply into the riches of the Lectionary, and to pray and meditate on sacred Scripture, especially during the great liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter. Celebrations of the word of God are to be highly recommended especially in those communities which, due to a shortage of clergy, are unable to celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice on Sundays and holydays of obligation. Keeping in mind the indications already set forth in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis with regard to Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, I recommend that competent authorities prepare ritual directories, drawing on the experience of the particular Churches. This will favour, in such circumstances, celebrations of the word capable of nourishing the faith of believers, while avoiding the danger of the latter being confused with celebrations of the Eucharist: “on the contrary, they should be privileged moments of prayer for God to send holy priests after his own heart”.
The Synod Fathers also recommended celebrations of the word of God on pilgrimages, special feasts, popular missions, spiritual retreats and special days of penance, reparation or pardon. The various expressions of popular piety, albeit not liturgical acts and not to be confused with liturgical celebrations, should nonetheless be inspired by the latter and, above all, give due space to the proclamation and hearing of God’s word; “popular piety can find in the word of God an inexhaustible source of inspiration, insuperable models of prayer and fruitful points for reflection”.
While in the first paragraph, the Holy Father does mention the issue of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest as one means of celebrating the Word, he still advocates the general promotion of the Liturgy of the Hours by the pastors (when he uses "pastors" here, he means bishops as well as priests). Pope Benedict certainly leads by example here. He publicly celebrates Vespers on several occasions, such as those for the Vigil of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, the First Sunday of Advent and the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. He also holds Vespers (along with a Solemn Exposition) during World Youth Day and as a part of many of his Aposotlic Voyages throughout the world.
I was talking to a friend of mine about the possibility of perhaps praying the Liturgy of the Hours when daily Mass is unavailable at the parish. He told me that folks would perhaps want to go to Mass in order to receive Holy Communion and would, therefore, find another parish where the Holy Sacrifice is available. However, I reminded him that there are two occasions during the year when the diocesan priests go on retreat and only a handful of parishes (two or three) have Mass. In these cases, the faithful could meet at the parish during the time that Mass would have been celebrated and then pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours could also be incorporated into a parish's Holy Hour.
Pope Benedict XVI states that the liturgy is the priveleged place for the Word of God. Perhaps now would be an opportune time to further enhance that privileged place by exploring the other form of liturgy that the Church offers us, the Liturgy of the Hours.