The Little Office 
of the 
Blessed Virgin Mary

Officium

Parvum

Beatae Mariae Virginis

 
(a page from a Medieval Book of Hours)
 
 
Background

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not the oldest of the short breviary texts; it can, however, claim the honor of being the most used and popular of them all. Its history is long, and separating the facts from legend can be difficult.

 

Until the Second Vatican Council, it was the liturgical prayer of hundreds of religious communities, mostly active, (and a few contemplative orders, as well), several Third Orders (lay members of the Carmelite, Dominican, Augustinian and other Orders and Congregations, for example), Oblates attached to Benedictine abbeys and convents, and thousands of other lay people, not affiliated with any Order, made use of it century after century. From its inclusion in the earliest hand written and illuminated Book of Hours in the early and high Middle Ages, to the printed Primers of the Reformation period and beyond, it was seen in every century. Prior to the Second Vatican Council (1963).  Every printed edition of the Roman, Monastic, Carmelite, Dominican breviaries (before the Council) included a version of the Little Office. And some locales maintained their own versions (such as the diocese of Braga in Portugal).
 

Some (Taunton, for example, who quotes Cardinal Bona quoting a 12th century writer, Peter the Deacon) say there was an Office of the BVM at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino mandated by Pope Zachary (whose papacy covered 741 through 752. But it is possible that it might have an even earlier history. What is of interest is that it was of monastic origin.
 

In many monasteries, additional prayers were gradually added to the Divine Office, in part because there was more time for choir monks (lay brothers and others took much of the burden of manual labor from them). In addition to praying for their benefactors, monks added votive offices of the Dead, of All Saints, and only later, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin and the Office of the Holy Cross.
 

Saint Peter Damian, a Camaldolese, (+1072) encouraged his monastic acquaintances to use the Little Office, and some say he even composed a form of it. From the monasteries, the devotion spread to the active (secular clergy), and gradually, to lay people who could read and afford the cost of a hand made Book of Hours (which contained the Little Office, generally, and perhaps the Office of the Dead and some of the other Little Offices, and some additional prayers).
 

In 1095, Pope Urban II, in a Council at Clermont called Christians to undertake the Crusades. At the same time, he ordered all clerics to add the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin to the Divine Office. And, for the first time, we see a Pope encouraging lay people to recite the Little Office. The clerical obligation remained in force until 1568, after the Council of Trent.
 

There was no single version of the Little Office. Each locale had its own "use", as did many of the religious Orders. There was a "Sarum" use (England), a "Parisian" use, a "Dominican" use, a "Carmelite" use, a "Cistercian" use, a "Carthusian" use, a "Braga" use, and of course, a "Roman" use, , among others.  And there was a "Bridgettine Office of Our Ladythough it is important to note that the Bridgettine text is not a "Little Office" but a complete office chanted in Choir, as a canonical obligation, by Bridgettine Nuns .   It should also be said that some of these uses never called their office the "Little Office", but simply, the Office of Our Lady. It was not until Pius V in 1568, that most of the uses were abolished and the Roman use took on the shape it retained until the Second Vatican Council. Pius V also released the clergy from the obligation of the Little Office (though some of the Orders retained the obligation for their own members).

By this time, the new invention of printing had become part of life, and lay people readily bought copies of the Little Office, sometimes printed alone, or sometimes included in a Primer (a devotional manual for lay people). In 1496, the Venetian Ambassador to England reported (in "A relation of the Island of England"):  

"Although they attend Mass every day and say many Paternosters in public (the women carrying long rosaries in their hands,, and any that can read taking the Office of Our Lady with them, and with some companion reciting it in the church verse by verse after the manner of churchmen)".

When active communities of Sisters and Brothers emerged, they, for the most part, prayed the Little Office. Most contemplative Orders of Nuns were in "solemn" vows and mandated to pray the Divine Office. The Visitation Nuns, founded by St. Francis De Sales, are one exception and prayed the Little Office. Benedictine Nuns and Dominican Nuns who came to America from Germany in the 19th century attempted to maintain their contemplative focus with a busy and active life of teaching, nursing work and other pastoral obligations. They were ordered to adopt the Little Office after a short time. The Bridgettine Nuns, who are also contemplatives in solemn vows, continue to have their own version of an Office of the Blessed Virgin. Some of the active communities began their life in common with the full Divine Office (e.g., the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters); the massive work undertaken by some communities soon prevented the complete celebration of the Divine Office, and the Little Office, or some other devotional form, was adopted.
 

Although it was popular and much used, the Little Office had one drawback, i.e., no real variety. There were seasonal adjustments for 3 seasons only, but primarily, it was the same office every day. For many religious (and lay people), especially in the years of 20th century liturgical renewal and interest, this was not enough. In 1953, Augustin Bea, SJ (later Cardinal) prepared a version which he called "amplior"; he expanded the seasons from 3 to 6, and added 28 feasts which had their own particular antiphons and prayers. The Pope (Pius XII) encouraged communities to adopt this edition. Even so, several permissions were given by Roman authorities to adopt one of the other short breviaries.
 

For religious communities which had a distinctly Marian focus in their spirituality and who wanted more variety than even the Bea edition of the Little Office provided, in 1955, the Congregation for Religious encouraged the use of a new Office of Our Lady, a full breviary, prepared by the Monks of the Abbey of En Calcat in France. This Office of Our Lady included the entire Psalter prayed over two weeks, a full seasonal and sanctoral cycle, and very importantly, daily readings. (See "Office of Our Lady")

 

The Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council added a new dimension to the Little Office(s). The Little Office(s), whether prayed out of obligation or out of devotion,  were now to be classified as liturgical prayer, and those who prayed them would be participating in the official liturgy of the hours of the church.   By 1966, however, religious and lay people were encouraged to adopt at least the Morning and Evening Prayer from the Divine Office. This was the beginning of the end of the Little Offices. Interest in, and use of, the Little Office(s) virtually died. When the Liturgy of the Hours was published, beginning in 1973, it did not include a version of the Little Office of the BVM.
 

However, versions of the Little Office, based on the structure of the new Liturgy of the Hours, began to appear. The Calced Carmelites in England published the Little Office of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1974, and it has been reprinted twice, the most recent time in 1991. In the United States, an entirely new edition of the Little Office was prepared by Fr. John Rotelle, an Augustinian; it appeared in 1988. Some older editions (pre-Council) were reprinted several times, due to demand, and continue to be popular.
 

The future of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin (and the other Little offices) is unknown. For the moment, it appears that the Liturgy of the Hours, in one of its short forms (in the Americas, Christian Prayer or Shorter Christian Prayer) has replaced them.
 

The Shape of the Little Office

The version of the Little Office reformed in Pope Pius V's breviary was used until 1911. Glenn Gunhouse has provided the text, both in Latin and in English, at his Hypertext Book of Hours site.   It is different from other Little Offices (e.g., Holy Cross) in that it is a complete office, with all the elements of the Divine Office: psalms, antiphons, canticles, readings, prayers, hymns, versicles, etc. Some of the other offices which use the "Little Office" name do not one or more of these elements, e.g., psalms. Eric Steinhauer has published some of them at his Liturgia Horarum site, as has Michael Martin, at his site,  Orationes cottidianae.
 

In Pius X's 1911 Breviary reform, the Little Office was also reformed, though it continued to be based on the text of the office of the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Divine Office. That basic shape was retained until the Second Vatican Council's breviary reforms.
 

Of the older other "uses", only a few remained, and several of these were variations of the Roman Rite: lay affiliates ("Third order" members) of the Dominicans and Carmelites prayed their own versions of the Little Office. The Benedictines had a "monastic" version of the Little Office, which was also very similiar to the Roman use; the Cistercians had their own use, and chanted the Little Office in choir, in addition to the Divine Office. The Carthusians, by statute,  pray the Office of Our Lady in the privacy of their cells, though it is prayed with the same care and ceremonial as is used in choir for the Divine Office in the monastery church. The Bridgettine Office, similar to the Little Office, was different, however. Among other things, psalms and antiphons varied from day to day, as did the readings at Matins, which were portions of the Sermo Angelica (the revelations by an angel to St. Bridget of Sweden while she was in Rome).  The internet offers even more information in various uses.
 

Each version has its own purpose - while praising God, it honors the Blessed Virgin's place in the Church and in the life of those who pray the office text. 
 

The Little Office contained Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  After Pius X's reform in 1911, the structure followed the pattern on the new Psalter:  each hour, except for Lauds and Vespers, had three psalms (Lauds having 4 psalms and an OT canticle, and Vespers having five psalms)
 

 

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updated August 11, 2000
added February 26, 2000