For explanations of each hour see the selection on the Right Hand Side of this page.
Return to Mary's Little Office.
Every priest is bound under the pain of sin to recite daily the Divine Office. This Office consists, for the main part, of psalms (usually thirty-three psalms or parts of psalms), hymns, canticles, a portion of Sacred Scripture, a short life of a saint (if a saint's day), and a homily of one of the Fathers of the Church on the Gospel of the day. Recited privately, the Office takes about an hour and a quarter if sung, it takes much longer.
Besides the Divine Office there is another Office known as the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. It can be traced back to the eighth century at least, since Pope Gregory II (715-731) and Pope Gregory III (731-741) ordered it to be recited by monks in addition to the Divine Office. When Pope Urban II (1088-1099) was seeking the help of our Lady in the crusade against the Turks, he recommended all clerics to recite this Office. Pope Pius V, in 1568, removed all obligation of the private recitation of this Office, but he exhorted all to continue the practice and enriched it with indulgences.
Quite distinct from either of these Offices is the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception which is the subject of this book, and which is the favorite Office of so many of our Children of Mary.
In the two other Offices we find Matins (morning prayer), Lauds (praises), Prime (prayer for the first hour of the day, viz. 6 a.m.), Terce (prayer for the third hour, viz. 9 a.m.), Sext (for the sixth hour, viz. midday), None (for the ninth hour, viz. 3 p.m.), Vespers (evening prayer) and Compline (final or night prayers). In the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception Lauds are not said.
We may here mention other Little Offices. St. Bonaventure, who died in 1274, composed a Little Office of the Passion of our Lord, and a shorter one of The Compassion of our Blessed Lady. Another Office with the same title as the latter is attributed to Pope Clement V (1305-1314), who granted forty days' indulgence to its recitation. The Hour Books and Primers in use before the Reformation contain a number of Little Offices (sometimes in Latin and in English) which were recited daily by our pious forefathers. There was a Little Office of the Holy Cross and a Little Office of the Holy Ghost.
According to a Provincial Synod of London, held in St. Paul's in 1328, the institution of the festival of the Conception of our Lady was due to St. Anselm. The Office for the feast was the same as that recited on the day of our Lady's Nativity, but the word 'Conception' was substituted for 'Nativity.' Into the lessons of the Office of the Conception there then crept the story of Abbot Elsi which was supposed to come from the pen of St. Anselm, but which we now know to be spurious.
Leaving aside long Offices of the Immaculate Conception (one was composed by Leonard Nogaroli, Protonotary Apostolic under Pope Sixtus IV; another, almost immediately after, by Bernardine de Busti, a Friar Minor of Milan, which was approved by the same Pontiff in 1480; and the Offices composed during the Pontificate of Pius IX), we find what are probably the earliest Little Offices of the Immaculate Conception in the Sarum Primers of 1531 and 1534. The former was in use especially among the Dominicans.
Some years later appeared the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception much as we have it to-day. Its authorship is unknown. Some have attributed it to St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a holy Jesuit lay brother. Certain it is that he recited it daily for the last forty years of his life (1577-1617), and, at command, it is said of our Lady herself, copied out numerous transcriptions of it for distribution among the students of the college at Palma in Majorca, where he fulfilled the duties of janitor or doorkeeper. However, Father Colin, S.J., the disciple and biographer of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, is of opinion that the Office was taken from the larger Office written by Bernadine de Busti, or composed by him, because in the actual Office recited by St. Alphonsus the apparitions described in the apocryphal letter of St. Anselm are included.
Shortly before the death of St. Alphonsus this apocryphal matter was excluded, and the office assumed almost its present form. As such, it was approved by Pope Paul V in 1615. When, after the death of the saint, the revelation made to him by our Lady in regard to the Office was made known, it gained widespread popularity. Among the printed editions that published by the Plantin Press at Antwerp in 1621 was perhaps the first. There it is found in a book of Little Offices collected by John Wilson, an English priest. The book had the approbation of four bishops and one archbishop. The Little Office itself was soon translated into several languages, Flemish, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Polish and Spanish. The earliest English translation may be that printed at Rouen in 1669.
In 1678 devout reciters of the Little Office were amazed to find it on the Index of Forbidden Books! This action was due to a certain Capizucchi, Master of the Apostolic Palace, who had received information from D. Michael Angelo Ricci, one of the Consulters of the Holy Office. The plea given was that it was falsely asserted that Paul V had approved of this Little Office, and that it contained an apocryphal indulgence. The decree of the too zealous Capizucchi (who was wrong on both points) caused universal dismay, especially in Germany and Spain. Leopold I, Emperor of Austria, and Charles II of Spain both petitioned Pope Innocent XI against the decree. The Holy Father referred the matter to five Consulters of the Holy Office, among whom were Ricci and Capizucchi themselves, with the result that the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception was taken off the Index, after a few changes had been made by Capizucchi himself ne van prohibitio videretur (!) The Holy Father himself directed that the words et immaculatam be read after sanctam in the prayer at the end of each hour. In this revised and approved form the Office was printed at Lucca in the following year (1679), and a copy was sent to Charles II of Spain. The same Pope Innocent XI in 1680 ordained the saying of this Office by the ecclesiastical students of Bavaria who were too young to recite the Officium Parvum Beatæ Virginis Mariæ. By a Brief given under the Fisherman's Ring on March 31, 1876, Pope Pius IX granted an indulgence of 300 days for each recitation of the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. Previous to this grant a slight verbal revision was made in one or two places. It is a strange fact that some English translations current to-day retain some of the readings that were current when the Office was put on the Index in 1678. We have therefore made the present edition conformable to the authorized form.
The above facts are taken mainly from an article in the Month for May, 1878, by Edmund Waterton, son of the famous naturalist. My attention was drawn to it by Father Geoffrey Bliss, S.J., who kindly sent me his valuable booklet (now out of print) on Some Titles of Our Lady in the Little Office of the Immaculate Conception. To him I express my deep gratitude. My thanks are also due to Father John McKee, who gave me valuable assistance in this work.
T. E. Bird
May 1, 1936