The Liturgical Life of Nuns: the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Sometimes the liturgical life of nuns is overlooked.  Many orders of nuns participate daily in the recitation of the Mass and Office.  Some convents in the monastic tradition have a daily sung conventual Mass and they sing the Breviary.  Alternatively, others have historically recited the daily the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Officium Parvum Beatae Mariae Virginis), also known as, "The Hours of Our Lady" or "The Hours of the Virgin."  This oft forgotten office is part of the liturgical prayers of the Latin Church.  Indeed, it is a liturgical devotion that the Church imposes upon many of her children, including some religious communities of sisters.  It is a shorter version of the ever-varying Divine Office which clergy and monks in solemn vows are bound to recite daily, sometimes in choir.   

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a treasure that has guided the spiritual lives of many sisters for centuries.  Various editions have in the past included the Office of the Dead and additional prayers.  The content of the offices probably developed as a monastic devotion over one-thousand years ago, perhaps by the Benedictines.  The history of the office is fascinating, described in detail on its Wikipedia page.

The monastic edition for nuns is in Latin and includes a ceremonial.  Most printed editions in English are designed for private use, recited in Latin or the vernacular.  There is a partial indulgence granted to those reciting the Little Office (cf. the Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, no. 22).      

I recommend this affordable edition in Latin and English that is available here from our good friends at St. Bonaventure Publications.  It is based on a popular 1904 edition in Latin and English that was produced for English-speaking Catholics.  This edition is free of the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pope St. Pius X in 1911.  The Little Office itself was last revised by the Holy See in conformity with the norms of the typical edition of the Roman Breviary that was published in 1961.  It is therefore today technically part of the 1962 edition of the Roman Breviary.      

As a simplified and abbreviated version of the Breviary, the Little Office offers a much simpler cycle of psalms, hymns, scripture readings and other prayers.  The daily variations occur in Matins.  The text of the other offices remain mostly the same from day to day with slight seasonal variations such as in Advent and Christmastide.  The Gospel antiphons also change in Eastertide.  The Little Office was once historically a core text of the medieval book of hours.        

Young nuns were typically introduced to the Little Office during their postulancy.  There they would become accustomed to the rhythm of the community, with its hours prayed together and in private.  Below is a general example of the horarium for the recitation of the Little Office in convent life: 

Matins: 2 am (or previous evening or in the morning)

Lauds: 7 am 

Prime: 8 am 

Terce: 9 am

Sext: 12 pm

None: 3 pm

Vespers: 6 pm

Compline: 9 pm    

It must be emphasized the Little Office is already part of the Divine Office.  It is therefore perfect for many communities of sisters for obvious reasons as a substitute for the breviary.  It is still part of the public prayer of the Church, a public act of the whole Mystical Body.  It is nice to see various traditional convents of nuns that are rising up again, some perhaps bound by their Rule to pray the Little Office daily, together with the entire Church as members of a Divine Society.  Laity are also encouraged to pray the Little Office alone or in the context of daily family prayer; an easy and proven method of prayer that has survived the centuries.    

The above photo if of my old friend Sr. Mary Louise Matt, CSJ.  She was the daughter of Alphonse Joseph Matt (1903-1973), the editor of famous Catholic weekly, The Wanderer.  Her brother Alphonse Joseph Matt, Jr. (1931-2019), later became editor in 1973.  Mary Lou was born in St. Paul, Minnesota and grew up in the corner house at 1943 Palace Ave.  She attended Nativity of Our Lord elementary school, Derham Hall high school and the College of St. Catherine.  She was granted special permission through the good graces of her pastor at Nativity, Bishop Byrne, to enter the convent of the CSJ sisters at the age of seventeen before her high school graduation.  She had been in Fr. Richard Schuler's girls choir at Nativity.  She was a faithful nun who prayed the Little Office her entire life.  She is dearly missed.  May her example and perseverance inspire many young women to the consecrated life and may her memory be eternal.  In Paradisum!

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.