The Hymns of the Divine Office

The poetic hymns of the Divine Office are attributed to various ancient authors, most of them saints of the Church: Ambrose (+397 A. D.), Pope Gregory the Great (+604 A. D.), Nicetas of Reesiana (+c. 415 A. D.), Prudentius (+413 A. D.), Venantius Fortunatus (+c. 600 A. D.), Paulinus of Aquileia and Paul the Deacon (+799 A. D.) from the eight century, Rabanas Maurus (+856 A. D.), Elpis, a woman author of the eighth century, as well as Thomas Aquinas (+1264 A. D.), Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (+1621 A. D.), Juan de la Concepcion from the seventeenth century, and a number of anonymous or unknown authors of the early Christian centuries, as well as from modern times, all of whom wrote in Latin.

The hymns are not scripture texts, but use scripture as their basis, so to speak, in order to weave thoughts that inspire us to reflect on God’s goodness to humankind, revealed in both sacred scripture and tradition. Hence, the hymns are not divinely inspired like the scriptures, but nonetheless they have always had an important place in the Divine Office of the Catholic Church.

Those who use the ancient hymns of the traditional monastic office either in Latin or in vernacular translation, can experience, for example, the work of God creating all things, sung about at Vespers in Ordinary Time. The Lord’s resurrection and the cycle of night associated with sin and the light of day with redemption in Christ, “the Sun of Righteousness,” are also made manifest in the hymns. They help us to enter more fully into the season we are celebrating in the Liturgical Year, be it Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, or Paschaltide and to focus our attention on Christ’s redemptive work on behalf of the human race.

It is a great loss to replace these rich and venerable hymn texts assigned to the Opus Dei with mediocre modern compositions of lesser value and depth. I believe an ideal monastic office would do all it can to include the ancient hymns handed down over the centuries, and to use them either in their original Latin or in faithful translations.

An argument might also be made for retaining the traditional Gregorian chant melodies as well, which change throughout the year according to the liturgical season, thus calling to mind immediately what time of year or day it is by the tunes being sung at the Divine Office.