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The Constant Prayer of Priests

Benedictus, Magnificat are the ‘hinges’ of the clergy’s day

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The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours refers to morning and evening prayer as the two hinges of the liturgical day. They are what are called the hinge hours, and in a sense, all priests live their days between the two Gospel canticles of these hours, the Benedictus and the Magnificat.

These two Gospel canticles — the first one of Zechariah and the second one of the Blessed Virgin Mary — along with the Our Father are the two constants of those hours of the office — day after day and year after year. As the liturgical year progresses, the various elements of the office change: the hymns, the antiphons and psalms, the readings and responsories, the intercessions and the concluding prayers. The only thing that stays constant are the Gospel canticles. They could, indeed, be referred to as the hinges of the hinges, so much so that one could say that the life of the priest rotates on these hinges. They are two constants in his life.

The Canticles and the Cosmic Christ

Priests, as all Christians who pray the office, pray the Benedictus and the Magnificat in a context that goes beyond the setting of the world in which they originated. They were written during the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament, but we pray them in the fullness of time, when Christ’s paschal mystery of redemption and final victory has already defined human history. Christ’s definitive victory over evil means that not only does the perspective of time change, but a new universalism also enters into the picture. God is no longer understood as simply the God of Israel, but God of all peoples and of all times.

The Benedictus

The priest, in his morning prayer, always prays, “Blessed be the Lord.” But it is not simply the God of Israel whom he blesses, the God who frees the Israelites from Egypt or Assyria or Babylon. He praises the God who has set his people free from the evil one — from our enemies and from the hands of all who hate us. Through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, it is not a slavery limited to life in this world that is overwhelmed. Rather it is a slavery in this life and in the next that is conquered and defeated as he sets us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him — holy and righteous in his sight.

Basically, God set us free to worship him, and so much of the life of the priest is devoted to worship. Presiding at liturgies and devotions, what has been called exterior worship, comprises a large part of his life. But there also exists the interior worship, the conversion of the heart, which is largely unseen but still very real. This is what St. Paul in Romans 12:1-2 would call spiritual worship and the renewing of one’s mind. Here, what really counts is becoming a new creation (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). The priest encounters that transformation, that spiritual worship, that becoming a new creation, both in hearing confessions and in going to confession himself. Worship, both exterior and interior, is the reason for the freedom that God bestows upon us.

Liturgy of the Hours
 
“I would like to renew my call to everyone to pray the
psalms, to become accustomed to using the Liturgy
of the Hours, lauds, vespers and compline. Our relationship
with God can only be enriched by our journeying toward
him day after day.”

Pope Benedict XVI, general audience, Nov. 16, 2011

“You, my child … will go before the Lord to prepare his way” (Lk 1:76). So much of priestly life is going before the Lord to prepare his way — preparing a place for the Lord to enter into the hearts and lives of the people entrusted to the priest’s care. John the Baptist was nothing less than the friend of the Bridegroom (cf. Jn 3:29), and in so many ways that is what the priest is. The priest hears again and again the voice of the Bridegroom in the sacred Scriptures — in the liturgy and in his private prayer. He encounters and is challenged by the word before he preaches that word. Finally, like John the Baptist, the priest knows that he is not the Messiah (cf. Jn 3:28) and that the Bride is for the Bridegroom and that the Church is for Christ. He brings people to Christ and rejoices as that relationship flourishes — even if it does so without him.

The priest’s morning is then characterized by praise of God for the blessing that God is and the blessing that the priest is called to bring to the world; he rejoices in a freedom that leads to worship both interior and exterior, and he delights in preparing a people for the Lord — even getting out of the way if that is what is needed for that relationship between Bridegroom and Bride to flourish.

The Magnificat

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (Lk 1:46). When evening comes, when much of the day’s work is done, the priest can reflect on the people whom he has encountered, whom he has helped, whose lives he has touched, and who have edified him in so many ways; because of all that, he recognizes the greatness of the Lord — and the impressiveness of the souls that proclaim God’s greatness. He might be tired, but it is a good tired, because in so many ways the world is better because of his people and because of him and his work.

Together with the Blessed Virgin Mary, he can say that his soul and his life proclaim the greatness of the Lord. In a sense, the veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and he is caught up in the goodness and beauty of God and his creation. That does not deny the very real suffering that the priest can encounter and be subjected to as part of his ministry. But experiencing that suffering is part of what it means to be a priest, and Colossians 1:24 is clear: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” His love for his people gives that suffering meaning, and the priest would have it no other way.

“All generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:48-49). The Mother of God is rightly called blessed by all generations. It is through her that the Word of God entered into the world, and it was in her womb that the Incarnation took place. The priest cannot but give thanks and marvel at the Incarnation of the Word, the event by which we are created anew. Central to the mystery of the Incarnation is the Blessed Virgin Mary, blessed is she who believed (cf. Lk 1:45). Blessed is she indeed. She is the Mother of all graces, the Mother of the Lord, who stood by his cross, and she is also the Mother of priests, the one who stands by us during times of blessings and also in our crosses. Great and marvelous things were done in her by the Almighty.

“The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever” (Lk 1:55). How amazing it is that the Son of God comes into our world. When we are confronted with the genealogy of Christ, it is striking when we realize some of those whom he chose to be his ancestors: idolaters, prostitutes, adulterers and a few kings whom one would not hold up as models of exemplary human behavior. In the Incarnation, God shows in a particular way his compassion. One could say that life has been passed down from Christ’s ancestors, beginning with Adam. But to be honest, the true life comes from Christ, not from Adam. Becoming a new creation means that the power of the Paschal Mystery and the life that flows from it reach back from Christ to Adam and not vice versa. This power and this life also move forward in history to reach all those who believe in Christ. “Be merciful, just as … your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).

As evening falls then, the priest instinctively reflects on the greatness of the Lord and what the Lord has done through him; he rests in a filial love and devotion to the Mother of priests, and he appreciates more deeply his call to exercise true compassion toward all who come to him.

The priest’s life, both in the morning and in the evening, hinges then on blessing and praise, which are really the only proper responses to the goodness and beauty of God’s activity in human history. Through no merit of his own, he has been called to be an instrument of grace. He has become another Christ, playing his own role in the salvation history of the people who have been entrusted to his care, and his priestly service in its time and in its place has served to help form a people whose lives are becoming their own canticle of blessing and praise.

FATHER KURT BELSOLE, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and director of liturgical formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

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‘Made holy by the praises of God’

“By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church’s ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; it is the very prayer which Christ himself, together with his body, addresses to the Father.

“Hence all who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ’s spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of the Church their Mother.

“Priests who are engaged in the sacred pastoral ministry will offer the praises of the hours with greater fervor the more vividly they realize that they must heed St. Paul’s exhortation: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:11). For the work in which they labor will effect nothing and bring forth no fruit except by the power of the Lord who said, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5). That is why the apostles, instituting deacons, said, ‘We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4).”

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), Nos. 84-86

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