84. Night prayer is the last prayer of the day, said before retiring, even if that is after midnight.
That norm, from the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, implies that the prayer of Vespers (Evening Prayer) shall have concluded before the clock strikes midnight. And there are many stories from “back in the day” of priests who would be pulled over on the side of the road, saying their breviary by the light of the car’s headlamps, in order to fulfill their obligation in time (i.e., by midnight).
The burden to pray the breviary is not nearly as great now as it was then — the modern Liturgy of the Hours pales in comparison with the old Divine Office, taking only about a third of the time each day to recite. But it is still the case, sometimes, that a busy priest may find himself running up against the clock to fulfill his obligations in time. Priestly life can be very frenetic, and there are some days that… well, there are some days!
Those who have familiarized themselves with the great old moral manuals — in this case, I am thinking of the one by Fr. Heribert Jone — may be delighted to find that “midnight does not always mean midnight”, in the sense that we often think. Each of us lives in a time zone, and we are accustomed to setting our clocks by whatever the time is for the entire zone. But the movement of the sun is of course slightly different across the entire zone. The sun may have already set in the eastern part of a given time zone, while there is still an hour or more of sunlight in the western part. Our moral obligations, at least privately speaking, go by the sun, not by the man-made time zone.
Oh, but there’s more…
There are also modern constructs like “daylight savings time”, when we artificially force ourselves ahead by an hour for part of the calendar year in order allegedly to gain productivity — or something. But “daylight savings time” does not enter into our moral obligations. The sun is still the sun, regardless of where we artificially set our clocks. Our moral obligations (that are connected with time) go by the movement of the sun, not the movement of fashions, ideologies, or tedious positive laws that otherwise affect our lives.
But what obligations does a priest have that have to do with time? They are relatively few anymore. It used to be that the Eucharistic fast began at midnight. Therefore, a priest who was working within the framework of modern life and perhaps sometimes “came up against the clock” was happy to know when midnight really was wherever he was, so that he could give himself the time needed. The principal obligation a priest has now, connected with the clock, is that of reciting at least through Vespers by midnight. (And that obligation is only implied, as indicated above — not set out as clearly as it should be, taking for granted, perhaps, that that is how things were always done.)
So when is midnight where I am? To determine this, you need to use a solar time calculator. Here is a link to just one: HERE. From there you need to know things like the longitude and latitude of where you currently are, which you can easily find online nowadays.
(I recommend using an online calculator like this; the table scanned above from the old manual has some inaccuracies and also some nuances that are easy to miss and perhaps complex to calculate. Just use an online calculator!)
What I find when I calculate solar time for Birmingham, Alabama is that right now, on the date I calculated it, we are about nine minutes behind our “time zone time”. In other words, when it is 12:00am on the clock, the position of the sun indicates that in Birmingham, it’s really 12:09am. (Obviously, because of the tilt of the earth’s axis and its revolution around the sun throughout the year, the time variance will change; I can’t just add nine minutes to “clock time” on any date of the year, but need to do a fresh calculation for the given time/date.)
So given that it is also daylight savings time at present — when we force the clock ahead an hour — that means that when it is 12:00am on the clock, it’s technically 11:09pm in Birmingham (add nine minutes, then subtract an hour — again this calculation is only valid for the present day!).
That means that I could fulfill my legal and moral obligation with regard to the breviary up to 12:51am (on the clock time) during central daylight time on today’s date!
However, if you read the small print on the scan of a page from Jone above carefully, you will see that a priest “may” follow solar time (what it calls “true local time”) in private recitation. That means: if it is to his advantage to do so. In other words, he may also simply follow what the clock says. He can go simply by what time his phone says it is. It’s up to him.
So for some, depending on where they are located within their time zone, there may sometimes be an advantage to following solar time. For others, it may be more advantageous to follow what we might called “standardized local time” — the time on one’s mobile phone clock.
To many, this will seem like so much hair-splitting. But for a priest who is taking his obligations seriously and is sometimes running against the clock, the above may actually help him preserve a peaceful conscience in what are otherwise challenging conditions. I would be concerned if any priest were routinely approaching his obligations from the perspective of, “What is the absolute minimum I need to do to get by”.
So no, I don’t plan to start staying up till 12:51am to finish my prayers during this time of the year! But at least I know that if I have a crazy day, as occasionally happens, I have a bit of extra time to get things done – without failing to fulfill my priestly obligations and thereby possibly sinning.*
* Leaving aside the other moral principles that may be applied with regard to the fulfillment of one’s obligations to the Divine Office, such as conditions that might excuse one from all or part of it — that is for another post, perhaps.