I am a secular priest and my ministry takes me to rural areas often. When I travel, I sometimes neglect the breviary due to the hectic and irregular schedules I am not in control of. When I am away and forced to squeeze in so much activity in so little a time, it’s impossible to stick to the prayer schedule I follow in the parish. I tried bringing along the slim “Christian Prayer” but even that would remain untouched during my rural sorties. During a retreat, the visiting retreat master “ dispensed” me from regularly praying the breviary when I am traveling. My fellow diocesan priests, however, are not of same mind on this. What does Canon Law really stipulate?
The Liturgy of the Hours or Breviary
The Code of Canon Law gives a concise theological description of the liturgy of the hours (commonly called The Divine Office or more briefly the breviary):
Can.1173 ¾ Fulfilling the priestly function of Christ, the Church celebrates the liturgy of the hours. In the liturgy of the hours, the Church, hearing God speaking to his people and recalling the mystery of salvation, praises him without ceasing by song and prayer and intercedes for the salvation of the whole world.
The Second Vatican Council dedicated the whole Chapter IV of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (4.XII.1963) to The Divine Office, and the following quotations from the document provides us with a fuller theological understanding of the matter:
--The divine office, in keeping with ancient Christian tradition, is so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God (n.84).
--Hence all who take part in the divine office are not only performing a duty for the Church, they are also sharing in what is the greatest honor for Christ’s Bride; for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God’s throne in the name of the Church, their Mother (n.85).
--The divine office, because it is the public prayer of the Church, is a source of piety and a nourishment for personal prayer. For this reason, priests and others who take part in the divine office are earnestly exhorted in the Lord to attune their minds to their voices when praying it (n.90).
--Pastors of souls (i.e., parish priests and chaplains) should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts. The laity too are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually (n.100).
--In accordance with the age-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office. But in individual cases the Ordinary has the power to grant the use of a vernacular translation to those clerics for whom the use of Latin constitutes a grave obstacle to their praying the office properly (n.101, 1).
The Obligation to Recite the Liturgy of the Hours
The liturgy of the hours is the public prayer of the whole Church, and all the faithful are deputed to celebrate it. In other words, as Vatican II explained, when a Catholic faithful prays the breviary, he or she is doing so in the name of the whole Church, such that in all hours a clamor or prayer and praise rises up to the Heavenly Father from the Bride of Christ, which is the Church. However, the different ranks of the Catholic faithful are called to celebrate this liturgy in different degrees of obligatority, as expressed in c.1174 of the Code:
Can.1174, ¾ §1. Clerics are obliged to carry out the liturgy of the hours according to the norm of c.276, §2, n.3; members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, however, are bound according to the norm of their constitutions.
¾ §2. Other members of the Christian faithful, according to circumstances, are also earnestly invited to participate in the liturgy of the hours as an action of the Church.
1) Those who have received Holy Orders (i.e., clerics or sacred ministers) ¾ are obliged according to c.276, §2, n.3:
--Priests as well as deacons aspiring to the priesthood are obliged to fulfill the liturgy of the hours daily in accordance with the proper and approved liturgical books;
--Permanent deacons, however, are to do the same to the extent it is determined by the Conference of Bishops.
2) Members of institutes of consecrated life (and by extension this applies, mutatis mutandis, to the so-called secular- or third-orders or tertiaries of such institutes) and societies of apostolic life (which Canon Law equiparates to institutes of consecrated life) ¾ are only bound according to the norm of their constitutions.
3) Other members of the Christian faithful (and this includes the laity) ¾ are only earnestly invited to participate in the liturgy of the hours as an action of the Church.
What of our busy parish priest with rural pastoral work?
In the case of an ordained minister, the obligation to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours is laid down as a serious obligation, although the norm does not affect all the hours equally: it affects principally the Morning Prayer (lauds) and the Evening Prayer (vespers), which they should not omit except for a grave cause.
According to a 1987 rescript of the then Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, the individual cleric may resort to epieikeia in individual cases of real imposibility. Among the possible exempting reasons is of course the legitimate dispensation by the competent ecclesiastical authority, since the obligation to celebrate the liturgy of the hours is not of divine law but rather of ecclesiastical law. In this case, the legitimate authority is the cleric’s proper Ordinary, not just any retreat master or confessor. Furthermore, there exists a possibility of substituting the liturgy of the hours with other prayers, according to what is expressly laid down by one’s proper Ordinary.
But more than what is laid down by strict juridic obligation, perhaps the busy and traveling cleric might do well to consider the very purpose of the liturgy of the hours and his own vocation to sanctify the temporal realities as a priest. In effect, might not such a hectic schedule¾which prevents him from even praying the major parts of the breviary¾be tantamount already to activism? Might it not be already yet another case of getting too busy in the vineyard of the Lord, and neglecting the more fundamental duty of loving and praising the Lord of the vineyard¾which is what the breviary is all about? In the end, when there is genuine love, such will be expressed in many ways other than the strict celebration of the liturgy of the hours¾and that is what the interior life is all about.
 Ref. Notitiae, 249 (1987), p.250.