Saturday, March 1, 2014

Prime Time for Martyrs

George Weigel writes about the untimely suppression of the Office of Prime from the Liturgy of the Hours for First Things--untimely because we really need one of great features of that Office, the Roman Martyrology:

The Catholic Church began compiling “martyrologies”—lists of saints, typically martyrs—during the first centuries after Constantine. In the pre-Vatican II breviary, a reading from the Roman Martyrology, or what we might call the Catholic Book of Witnesses, was an integral part of the Office of Prime, the “hour” recited after sunrise. The day’s date was given, followed by a reading of the names of the saints commemorated that day, with information about each saint’s origin and place of death—and, if the saint were a martyr, the name of the persecutor, a description of tortures endured, and the method of execution. It was a bracing way to begin the working day and a reminder of Tertullian’s maxim that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.

It is somewhat ironic that the loss of Prime from the Liturgy of the Hours—and thus the loss of a daily liturgical reading from the Roman Martyrology—coincided with the greatest century of persecution in the history of the Church. It’s a point well-established but little appreciated within American Catholicism: We have been living, and we’re living now, in the greatest era of persecution in Christian history. More Christians died for the faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined. And while the character of the persecutors has changed, from the lethal heyday of the twentieth-century totalitarianisms to the first decades of the twenty-first century, the assault on the Christian faithful today is ongoing, extensive, and heart-rending.

St. John Cantius Parish describes the Office of Prime, which was suppressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, on their website, quoting Pius Parsch:

Prime is the Church’s second morning prayer, quite different in tone from Lauds. Lauds is the ideal morning prayer, a “resurrection song” of all creation and of the Church. Prime is the morning prayer of a sinful human, a subjective prayer. The basic theme of Prime is dedication of and preparation for the day’s labours and conflicts. This theme runs through the whole hour.

There is no special reference to any chapter in the story of salvation. Thus, the theme of the canonical hour, preparing for the day, assumes the centre of attention, and indeed to such an extent that even on feast days, themes proper to the feast are generally suppressed at Prime. The hymn at Prime enlists all our efforts and abilities in the service of the Lord and arms us against imminent dangers—perfectly in harmony with Prime’s basic theme.

This hour also contains a rather lengthy invariable set of prayers that form the real essence of the morning prayer. After the psalmody (singing of the psalms) comes a conclusion which Prime has in common with the other little hours (Terce, Sext and None): chapter, responsory, versicle, prayer. The chapter “Unto the King eternal…” is an oath of allegiance to him who is sovereign in God’s kingdom. The responsory is a fervent plea for a realization of human weakness. The blind man of Jericho is sitting along the road as Jesus passes by, shouting at the top of his lungs. I am that blind beggar and the Lord is passing by this very day.

The beautiful prayer which follows never changes. It contains all the elements of a good morning prayer: thanks, petition, good intention, preparation for the coming day, and particularly the touching plea to be spared the guilt of sin throughout the day. With this prayer the first part of Prime closes, the so-called “office of the choir”.

The second part of Prime is the "office of the chapter" and it's then that the martyrology is read, reminding the community of the models of sanctity in the Communion of Saints.

For example, here is the Martyrology for today, March 1:

At Rome, two hundred and sixty holy martyrs, condemned for the name of Christ. Claudius ordered them to dig sand beyond the Salarian gate, and then to be shot dead with arrows by soldiers in the amphitheatre.

Also, the birthday of the holy martyrs Leo, Donatus, Abundantius, Nicephorus, and nine others.

At Marseilles, the holy martyrs Hermes and Adrian.

At Heliopolis, in the persecution of Trajan, St. Eudoxia, martyr, who, being baptized by bishop Theodotus and fortified for the combat, was put to the sword by the command of the governor Vincent, and thus received the crown of martyrdom.

The same day, St. Antonina, martyr. For deriding the gods of the Gentiles, in the persecution of Diocletian, she was, after various torments, shut up in a cask and drowned in a marsh near the city of Cea.

At Kaiserswerth, the bishop St. Swidbert, who, in the time of Pope Sergius, preached the Gospel to the inhabitants of Friesland, Holland, and to other Germanic peoples.

At Angers, St. Albinus, bishop and confessor, a man of most eminent virtue and piety.

At Le Mans, St. Siviard, abbot.

At Perugia, the translation of St. Herculanus, bishop and martyr, who was beheaded by order of Totila, king of the Goths. Forty days after his decapitation his body, as Pope St. Gregory relates, was found as sound and as firmly joined to the head as if it had never been touched by the sword.

And elsewhere in divers places, many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.

Omnes sancti Mártyres, oráte pro nobis. ("All ye Holy Martyrs, pray for us", from the Litaniae Sanctorum, the Litany of the Saints)

Response: Thanks be to God.
Blessed John Henry Newman wrote this translation of a hymn for Prime (Jam lucis orto sidere) while he was praying and fasting at the College at Littlemore in 1842:

NOW that the day-star glimmers bright,
We suppliantly pray
That He, the uncreated Light,
May guide us on our way.

No sinful word, nor deed of wrong,
Nor thoughts that idly rove;
But simple truth be on our tongue,
And in our hearts be love.

And, while the hours in order flow,
O Christ, securely fence
Our gates, beleaguer'd by the foe,—
The gate of every sense.

And grant that to Thine honour, Lord,
Our daily toil may tend;
That we begin it at Thy word,
And in Thy blessing end.

And, lest the flesh in its excess
Should lord it o'er the soul,
Let taming abstinence repress
The rebel, and control.

To God the Father glory be,
And to His Only Son,
And to the Spirit, One and Three,
While endless ages run.

If you have a Kindle and want to try out the Roman Breviary and the Office Prime, you may find it here.

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