ASK FATHER: Reciting the Office or reading silently

From a seminarian…


I am a seminarian and I pray the EF Office faithfully. I know I have read somewhere that even when praying alone the words should actually be pronounced (however quiet) and not read as completely silent. What prompts my question is that I see so many guys just reading the Liturgy of the Hours and their lips aren’t even moving. Do you know of any reference that would enlighten me on this issue?

Those of us Latins who are bound to say the Office fulfill the obligation by reciting either the Roman Breviary as it was during the Second Vatican Council (that is to say with the Breviarium Romanum of Saint John XXIII, the actual Vatican II Office) or with the Liturgia Horarum of Paul VI revised by St. John Paul II in 1985 with the New Vulgate.  And were I to participate in the singing of monastic office, any of the hours at, say, the wonderful Benedictine Monastery at Norcia or at Le Barroux, I would fulfill my obligation.

The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours says

103. The psalms are not readings or prose prayers, but poems of praise. They can on occasion be recited as readings, but from their literary genre they are properly called Tehillim (“songs of praise”) in Hebrew and psalmoi (“songs to be sung to the lyre”) in Greek. In fact, all the psalms have a musical quality that determines their correct style of delivery. Thus even when a psalm is recited and not sung or is said silently in private, its musical character should govern its use. A psalm does present a text to the minds of the people, but its aim is to move the heart of those singing it or listening to it and also of those accompanying it “on the lyre and harp.”

There is some recognition of silent recitation.

Recitation of the Office should be aloud, since it is official and mainly vocal prayer. This is why of yore and even now priests move their lips when saying their Office.  However, even when you don’t read aloud, there is a measure of subvocalization going on when reading.

That said, I am of the opinion that a priest fulfills his obligation even when not moving his lips, only reading silently.

And before someone asks, yes, priests and deacons can use mobile phone apps and websites for the Office.  They don’t have to be holding a book in their hands.  The Office is the text, not the book.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JARay says:

    I am interested that your opinion is that a priest fulfills his Office even when reading silently. I had the idea that one did at least have to move one’s lips. Although I am under no obligation to recite the Office I have always formed the words by moving my lips. Thank you for your opinion.

  2. A traditional view:

    “What kind of pronunciation is to be attended to in the recitation of the Divine Office? The pronunciation should be vocal—that is, there should be some sound, aliquis sonitus verborum, as St. Alphonsus writes (n. 162). Hence, to read the Breviary merely mentally or with the eyes only, does not satisfy the obligation. Although the reader may not hear the sound produced, he must be careful to form with his lips every syllable. This must be done, not necessarily in a throaty way. ”

    Note from an old breviary:

    “Because the Divine Office is vocal prayer, a mere mental perusal thereof does not fulfill the obligation of praying the Office: rather, each word thereof must be formed with the lips, even when any part thereof is ordered by the Rubrics to be prayed silently, . . . ”

    In short, this older view seems to be that “If it’s not said, then it’s not prayed.”

    [Good quotes.]

  3. Mike H says:

    This reminded me of a prayer by Blessed Card. Ildefonso Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, 1929-1954

    I close my eyes, and while my lips murmur the words of the Breviary which I know by heart,
    I leave behind their literal meaning,
    and feel that I am in that endless land where the Church,
    militant and pilgrim, passes, walking towards the promised fatherland.
    I breathe with the Church in the same light by day, the same darkness by night?
    I see on every side of me the forces of evil that beset and assail Her;
    I find myself in the midst of Her battles and victories,
    Her prayers of anguish and Her songs of triumph,
    in the midst of the oppression of prisoners,
    the groans of the dying, the rejoicing of the armies and captains victorious.
    I find myself in their midst, but not as a passive spectator;
    nay rather, as one whose vigilance and skill,
    whose strength and courage can bear a decisive weight
    on the outcome of the struggle between good and evil,
    and upon the eternal destinies of individual men and of the multitude.

  4. Fr. Daniel Kluge says:

    Tanquerel, [Tanquerey] Moral theolgy vol 3, 9th edition, 1931, #1072, p. 555:
    “Pronuntiatio verborum quae divinum officium constituunt, debet esse vocalis et integra: vocalis, quia est oratio non pure mentalis, sed publica. Non sufficit proinde ut sola mente vel oculis percurrantur, aut solo gutture recitetur, sed oportet ut motu linguae et labiorum vox aliqua saltem tenuis formetur. Non requiritur tamen ut audiri possit ab aliis, aut ipso recitante, sed sufficit ut clericus conscius sit se verba articulata pronuntiare.”

    [Another great quote. Rendered into English, “The pronunciation of the words which constitute the divine office, ought to be vocal and complete, for it is not simply mental, but public. Accordingly, it does not suffice that they be run through only with the mind or eyes, or recited only in the throat, but it is necessary that some voice, at least low, be shaped by the motion of the tongue and lips. It is not, however, required that it be able to be heard by others, or even by the one reciting, but it suffices that the cleric be conscious that he is pronouncing articulated words.” Certainly the pre-Conciliar writers were pretty much of one mind about this: at least move the lips and form the words.]

  5. cwillia1 says:

    Setting aside the question of meeting the obligation, we can consider praying vocally vs praying silently. We are bodily creatures. The God-Man took a human nature so that we could know the Father through Him. We develop intimate personal relationships with other human beings by speaking words, usually using our vocal cords. When we pray individually with words, we should vocalize, or if that is not possible we should whisper and if that is not possible we should move our lips and if that is impossible we should form the words mentally rather than just reading as if we were reading a book.

    Obviously, we can’t pray out loud in many public settings. People will think we are nuts.

  6. Charles E Flynn says:

    I am now completely convinced that Evelyn Wood speed reading techniques are forbidden.

  7. It might be suggested that praying the Divine Office vocally–as apparently was required in pre-conciliar practice–does not necessarily mean praying it audibly (i.e., out loud). I understand that one can pray vocally–forming each word completely in mouth/throat–without pronouncing it audibly so as to be heard. One listening to my own private recitation might hear a whisper (if that), but I perceive myself to be pronouncing each Latin word carefully and correctly. And perhaps some people can vocalize words in this way without moving their lips.

  8. JohnRoss says:

    I think it’s sad that the Divine Office hasn’t been integrated into parish life the way it is among Eastern Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, who celebrate it liturgically in church.

    My Melkite parish goes all out during Great Lent.

  9. Fr. Daniel Kluge says:

    It seems clear that the Church’s moral experts, yes, writing before “the” council, say that the office must be actually spoken (enunciated) even if not heard (audible). Tanquerey (sorry for the typos, I was in a hurry this AM for obvious reasons) is very careful to present legitimate differences of opinion or interpretation when they exist, and yet treats this as a settled matter. These experts are not commentating on an ecclesiastical positive law. It should not then be surprising that no such law has since been written. Nor are they writing about a rubric, so similarly, it should not be surprising that no such rubric has since been written. Instead, they are writing about what is objectively required by the understanding of the cleric “saying” his office, and so the answer, that it must be ‘said’ but not necessarily ‘heard’ makes perfect sense. I think it inappropriate, then, to characterize this in a pre-/post-conciliar view. For instance, the law changed in 1983 for several things; this was not one of them, for it was never written into ecclesiastical positive law; therefore, the difference in the two codes has nothing to do with the question. Similarly, there should be no difference in rite, that is, in between the “traditional” rubrics and the NO rubrics, between the rules for the Roman Breviary and those for the Liturgy of the Hours, as this is not a rubrical question. If neither the changes of the law nor the changes in the rubrics touch the issue, then it seems that these moral theologians, of eminent respect and approval, must be either right or wrong with regard to both the manner of praying the BR and the LotH, indistinguishably. They are not answering the question, ‘what does it take to fulfill the traditional office as opposed to the NO office?’, but, ‘what does it take to fulfill the office at all?’. If there are few or no similarly respected moral theologians who advocate the validity of purely mental ‘recitation’, then it would seem that the cleric is bound to the opinion of the great majority of trusted authorities. Morally speaking, of course, one’s culpability depends on how much he knows, and so those clerics who are, in actuality, not ‘saying’ their office but simply ‘thinking’ it because they were never taught any different would not be guilty of failing to fulfill their duty; and yet, objectively, this failure would–does–affect both the cleric and the Church for whom and in whose name he prays.

  10. JesusFreak84 says:

    I tend to keep my mouth still if it’s late and I’m exhausted or if I REALLY don’t want people thinking I’m crazy. (I’m autistic and have enough problems with the latter, unfortunately =- ) As a laywoman, my prayer of the Office doesn’t change much whether I’m reading East or West (and yes, I do use both. The Office is supposed to underpin our liturgical prayer, so when I lived near an EF parish, I was praying the EF office–now that I attend a Ukrainian-Catholic parish pretty much exclusively, I use the Eastern office.)

  11. Magash says:

    As a Secular Franciscan I am bound to say the Office by my promises of profession. I have always verbalized the Psalms and Antiphons and silently read the readings. It is nice to know that my inclinations have been correct, even in the face of a lack of formal guidance in this area.
    Amazingly I started this practice long before I discerned for the Franciscans at the advice of one of my teenage mentees, who pointed out to me the benefits of spoken prayer to spiritual well being. Tis a poor teacher who can’t learn from his students.

  12. Imrahil says:

    Dear cwillia1,

    that is so, but then the simple fact is that reading eye-only is much quicker (spontaneous guess: takes about one third of the time) than actually vocalizing however silent.

    So, obligation is the one thing, but as one not obliged I’ll rather read eye-only. It still is a long prayer.

    Still, as a point of interest, rev’d Fr Kluge and others,

    does this obligation – for those who are obliged – to pronounce rather than read-only also include the readings; and if so, only Scripture or also the sermons and life-descriptions of saints; and what about the martyrology? (I’ve picked up somewhere that the martyrology is not obligatory even for clerics, but that could be wrong.)

  13. Imrahil says:

    Dear JohnRoss,

    we used to do that at least in Holy Week… for that’s what the Tenebrae are, Matins and Lauds.

    Maybe, to give clerics and others bound to say the office an incentive and still draw some faithful, the Church should allow the anticipation of Lauds here again (which used to be the case until the 1950s or so – of course this anticipation isn’t anything wrong, the question is only whether clerics have to re-pray them next day).

  14. Jarrod says:

    For the laity reciting an office alone, what is the right way to handle the V and R parts? So far, I just read them both aloud and omit the “oremus” (since I’m alone) – is that right?

    Another (possibly dumb) question – is the orans posture appropriate for a layman in such a setting (or even when leading a small group of other laymen), or is it only proper to the celebrant at a Mass? I know we’re not to do it in Mass, don’t get me wrong – I’m just not sure if it’s more of a “priest posture” or a “leading in prayer posture.”

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