Perfect for Passiontide: The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary

“Lord, open my lips/And my mouth shall declare your praise.”

Book of Hours, c. 1460
Book of Hours, c. 1460 (photo: Register Files)


It’s hard to believe, but we’re already into the fifth week of Lent.

As one priest once asked me, “How have your Lenten resolutions going?” If you’re looking for something extra during these last two weeks of the Lenten season, I have a suggestion: Take up the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And if you’re wondering “What is ‘the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary?’” then there’s no better time to find out than during the remaining days of this penitential season.

The Little Office is exactly what it sounds like — a short group of Psalms and Scripture readings (as opposed to “the Greater Office” or “the Divine Office”) that pretty much stays the same each day.

And good news: The Little Office, unlike the Divine Office or the Liturgy of the Hours, did not get hacked to pieces after the Second Vatican Council. Surprisingly, in fact, readings were actually added to the “Hinge Hours” — Morning Prayer (“Lauds”) and Evening Prayer (“Vespers”) — in the newer edition.

Even better news: There’s a revised English/Latin Version of the Little Office, so you can pray and practice your ecclesiastical Latin according to the 1962 rubrics.

One of the things that makes the Little Office so appealing is that it reminds us of the humility of Mary and the humility we should have when we approach God. Sure, Jesus said, “Come to me,” but as St. Louis de Montfort has pointed out we humble ourselves a bit more by approaching Jesus through his blessed Mother.

Thus, the Little Office is a “Gateway of Grace” to Jesus through Mary. And it is also a gateway into one of the most ancient liturgies of the Church: The Divine Office.

The genius of the Little Office is that it retains the gestalt or structure of the Liturgy of the Hours, but truncates the “hours” so that they are much shorter and easier to memorize than the Divine Office. For example: all the Liturgical Hours are present in the Little Office: Vigils/Matins (Office of Readings), Lauds (Morning Prayer), Prime (in the 1962 edition), Terce (Midmorning Prayer), Sext (Noon Prayer), None (Midafternoon Prayer), Vespers (Evening Prayer) and Compline (Night Prayer). However, unlike the greater office, they remain the same and are almost bite-sized.

Further, each day is dedicated to a different aspect of Mary’s role in the economy of salvation, so there’s a daily theme to meditate on: Sunday is Mother of the Church; Monday, the Immaculate Conception (which ties in nicely with devotion to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal);  Tuesday, the Annunciation; Wednesday, the Visitation; Thursday, the Birth of Jesus; Friday, Our Sorrowful Mother (good to combine with the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary); and Saturday is the Assumption.

Since the parts of the Little Office do not change (or in the case of the 1962, change much), one does not need the obligatory Ordo or Calendar to figure out what page you are on, literally or figuratively.

And at $13.95 (for the Vatican II edition) or $34.95 (for the 1962 version), the Little Office is a welcome addition to any Catholic’s spiritual library without breaking the bank.

As with most prayers, the hardest part is getting started.

The beginning is always the same: after the Sign of the Cross, the Office begins with “Lord, open my lips/And my mouth shall declare your praise.” At this point, you can either begin with the Office of Readings (Psalm 95, followed by a hymn, then Psalms 24, 46 and 87, followed by a versicle, St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 3:22-4:7, and then either part of a sermon by Saint Aelred, with responsory, or a short part of Lumen Gentium, nos. 61-62, followed by a responsory, and the closing prayer and the final “Let us praise the Lord/And give him thanks.”

The entire Office of Readings takes 12-15 minutes — on Sundays outside of Lent, add an extra 90 seconds for the “Te Deum” at the end.

The other option for any early birds out there is to begin Morning Prayer as above (“Lord, open my lips…”/ Psalm 95 with its response and hymn), and then turn to the day of the week. For example: on Mondays, Psalm 118, a Canticle from the Book of Daniel (3: 52-57) and Psalm 150 are said, with their antiphons. Next one of three very short biblical readings: either Micah 5:3-5, Zephaniah 3: 14-15 or Sirach 24: 17-21. Next comes either a reading from St. Athanasius or St. Aelred or Lumen Gentium, followed by one of two responsories, and then the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) and its antiphon. Morning prayer concludes with five Intercessions, the Our Father and a concluding prayer. In total it takes less than 15 minutes.

The Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary is slightly different (and a bit longer) in its 1962 iteration, so I encourage anyone who is going to try this prayer for the first time to start with the post-Vatican II book (which is less than 200 pages), and then if they want to delve more deeply into it, explore the 1962 version.

In either case, one will have found one of the treasures of the Church, and a worthy adjunct to the Holy Rosary. As Theo Keller wrote in the 2006 introduction to the reissue of the Latin Little Office:

There is the question of the attraction to the Little Office. Why is it so popular? First, it is a question of Marian Devotion. People who are devoted to Mary as Mother of God and Mediatrix of Grace find the Little Office an easy approach, simply and direct, much like the Rosary, though the Little Office is a liturgical form. Second, the daily repetition of the Little Office is a familiar comfort.

I like that: “A familiar comfort.” After all, isn’t that what Mary herself offers us in her most Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart?