Divine Office

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

Divine Office


This expression signifies etymologically a duty accomplished for God; in virtue of a Divine precept it means, in ecclesiastical language, certain prayers to be recited at fixed hours of the day or night by priests, religious, or clerics, and, in general, by all those obliged by their vocation to fulfil this duty. The Divine Office comprises only the recitation of certain prayers in the Breviary, and does not include the Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. "Canonical Hours", "Breviary", "Diurnal and Nocturnal Office", "Ecclesiastical Office", "Cursus ecclesiasticus", or simply "cursus" are synonyms of "Divine Office". "Cursus" is the form used by Gregory writing: "exsurgente abbate cum monachis ad celebrandum cursum" (De glor. martyr., xv). "Agenda", "agenda mortuorum", "agenda missarum", "solemnitas", "missa" were also used. The Greeks employ "synaxis" and "canon" in this sense. The expression "officium divinum" is used in the same sense by the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (800), the IV Lateran (1215), and Vienne (1311); but it is also used to signify any office of the Church. Thus Walafrid Strabo, Pseudo-Alcuin, Rupert de Tuy entitle their works on liturgical ceremonies "De officiis divinis". Hittorp, in the sixteenth century, entitled his collection of medieval liturgical works "De Catholicæ Ecclesiæ divinis officiis ac ministeriis" (Cologne, 1568). The usage in France of the expression "saint-office" as synonymous with "office divin" is not correct. "Saint-office" signifies a Roman congregation, the functions of which are well known, and the words should not be used to replace the name "Divine Office", which is much more suitable and has been used from ancient times. In the articles BREVIARY; HOURS, CANONICAL; MATINS; PRIME; TERCE; SEXT; NONE; VESPERS, the reader will find treated the special questions concerning the meaning and history of each of the hours, the obligation of reciting these prayers, the history of the formation of the Breviary, etc. We deal here only with the general questions that have not been dwelt on in those articles.


The custom of reciting prayers at certain hours of the day or night goes back to the Jews, from whom Christians have borrowed it. In the Psalms we find expressions like: "I will meditate on thee in the morning"; "I rose at midnight to give praise to thee"; "Evening and morning, and at noon I will speak and declare: and he shall hear my voice"; "Seven times a day I have given praise to thee"; etc. (Cf. "Jewish Encyclopedia", X, 164-171, s. v. "Prayer"). The Apostles observed the Jewish custom of praying at midnight, terce, sext, none (Acts, x, 3, 9; xvi, 25; etc.). The Christian prayer of that time consisted of almost the same elements as the Jewish: recital or chanting of psalms, reading of the Old Testament, to which was soon added reading of the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles, and at times canticles composed or improvised by the assistants. "Gloria in excelsis" and the "Te decet laus" are apparently vestiges of these primitive inspirations. At present the elements composing the Divine Office seem more numerous, but they are derived, by gradual changes, from the primitive elements. As appears from the texts of Acts cited above, the first Christians preserved the custom of going to the Temple at the hour of prayer. But they had also their reunions or synaxes in private houses for the celebration of the Eucharist and for sermons and exhortations. But the Eucharistic synaxis soon entailed other prayers; the custom of going to the Temple disappeared; and the abuses of the Judaizing party forced the Christians to separate more distinctly from the Jews and their practices and worship. Thenceforth the Christian liturgy rarely borrowed from Judaism.


The development of the Divine Office was probably in the following manner: The celebration of the Eucharist was preceded by the recital of the psalms and the reading of the Old and New Testaments. This was called the Mass of the Catechumens, which has been preserved almost in its original form. Probably this part of the Mass was the first form of the Divine Office, and, in the beginning, the vigils and the Eucharistic Synaxis were one. When the Eucharistic service was not celebrated, the prayer was limited to the recital or chanting of the psalms and the reading of the Scriptures. The vigils thus separated from the Mass became an independent office. During the first period the only office celebrated in public was the Eucharistic Synaxis with vigils preceding it, but forming with it one whole. In this hypothesis the Mass of the Catechumens would be the original kernel of the whole Divine Office. The Eucharistic Synaxis beginning at eventide did not terminate till dawn. The vigils, independently of the Eucharistic service, were divided naturally into three parts; the beginning of the vigils, or the evening Office; the vigils properly so called; and the end of the vigils or the matutinal Office. For when the vigils were as yet the only Office and were celebrated but rarely, they were continued during the greater part of the night. Thus the Office which we have called the Office of evening or Vespers, that of midnight, and that of the morning, called Matins first and then Lauds, were originally but one Office. If this hypothesis be rejected, it must be admitted that at first there was only one public office, Vigils. The service of eventide, Vespers, and that of the morning, Matins or Lauds, were gradually separated from it. During the day, Terce, Sext, and None, customary hours of private prayers both with the Jews and the early Christians, became later ecclesiastical Hours, just like Vespers or Lauds. Complin appears as a repetition of Vespers, first in the fourth century (see COMPLIN). Prime is the only hour the precise origin and date of which are known--at the end of the fourth century (see PRIME).

At all events, during the course of the fifth century, the Office was composed, as to-day, of a nocturnal Office, viz. Vigils-- afterwards Matins--and the seven Offices of the day, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin. In the "Apostolic Constitutions" we read: "Precationes facite mane, hora tertia, sexta, nona, et vespere atque galli cantu" (VIII, iv). Such were the hours as they then existed. There are omitted only Prime and Complin, which originated not earlier than the end of the fourth century, and the use of which spread only gradually. The elements of which these hours are composed were at first few in number, identical with those of the Mass of the Catechumens, psalms recited or chanted uninterruptedly (tract) or by two choirs (antiphons) or by a cantor alternating with the choir (responses and versicles); lessons ( readings from the Old and New Testaments, the origin of the capitula), and prayers (see BREVIARY).

This development of the Divine Office, as far as concerns the Roman liturgy, was completed at the close of the sixth century. Later changes are not in essential points but rather concern additions, as the antiphons to Our Lady at the end of certain offices, matters of the calendar, and optional offices, like those of Saturday (see LITTLE OFFICE OF OUR LADY), or of the dead (see OFFICE OF THE DEAD), and the celebration of new feasts etc. The influence of St. Gregory the Great on the formation and fixation of the Roman Antiphonary, an influence that has been questioned, now appears certain (see "Dict. d'archeol. et de liturgie", s. v. "Antiphonaire").

While allowing a certain liberty as to the exterior form of the office (e.g. the liberty enjoyed by the monks of Egypt and later by St. Benedict in the constitution of the Benedictine Office), the Church insisted from ancient times on its right to supervise the orthodoxy of the liturgical formulæ. The Council of Milevis (416) forbade any liturgical formula not approved by a council or by a competent authority (cf. Labbe, II, 1540). The Councils of Vannes (461), Agde (506), Epaon (517), Braga (563), Toledo (especially the fourth council) promulgated similar decrees for Gaul and Spain. In the fifth and sixth centuries several facts (see CANON OF THE MASS) made known to us the rights claimed by the popes in liturgical matters. The same fact is established by the correspondence of St. Gregory I. Under his successors the Roman liturgy tends gradually to replace the others, and this is additional proof of the right of the Church to control the liturgy (a thesis well established by Dom Gueranger in his "Institutions Liturgiques", Paris, 1883, and in his letter to the Archbishop of Reims on liturgical law, op. cit., III, 453 sq.). From the eleventh century, under St. Gregory VII and his successors, this influence gradually increases (Baumer-Biron, "Hist. du Breviaire", especially II, 8, 22 sqq.). From the Council of Trent the reformation of the liturgical books enters a new phase. Rome becomes, under Popes Pius IV, St. Pius V, Gregory XIII, Sixtus V, Gregory XIV, Urban VII and his successors, Benedict XIV, the scene of a laborious undertaking--the reformation and correction of the Divine Office, resulting in the modern custom, with all the rubrics and rules for the recitation of the Divine Office and its obligation, and with the reformation of the liturgical books, corrected in accordance with the decisions of the Council of Trent and solemnly approved by the popes (Baumer-Biron, "Hist. du Breviaire").


BONA, De divina Psalmodia, ii, par. 1; THOMASSIN, De vet. eccl. disc., Part I, II, lxxi-lxxviii; GRANCOLAS, Traite de la messe et de l'office divin (Paris, 1713); MACHIETTA, Commentarius historico-theologicus de divino officio (Venice, 1739); PIANACCI, Del offizio divino, trattato historico-critico-morale (Rome, 1770); De divini officii nominibus et definitione, antiquitate et excellentia in ZACCARIA, Disciplina populi Dei in N. T., 1782, I, 116 sq.; MORONI, Dizionario di erudizione storico ecclesiastica, LXXXII, 279 sqq.; BAUMER-BIRON, Histoire du Breviaire (Paris, 1905), passim; CABROL, Dict. d'archeol. et de liturgie, s. vv. Antiphonaire, Breviaire; GAVANTI, Compendio delle cerimonie ecclesiastiche, the part devoted to the rubrics of the Breviary, sections on the obligation, omission, and in general all the questions concerning the recitation of the Office; ROSKOVÁNY, De coelibatu et Breviario (Budapest, 1861); BATIFFOL, Origine de l'obligation personnelle des clercs a le recitation de l'office canonique in Le canoniste contemporain, XVII (1894), 9-15; IDEM, Histoire du Breviaire romain (Paris, 1893).

FERNAND CABROL Transcribed by Elizabeth T. Knuth

Dedicated to the monks of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

Taken from the New Advent Web Page (www.knight.org/advent).

This article is part of the Catholic Encyclopedia Project, an effort aimed at placing the entire Catholic Encyclopedia 1913 edition on the World Wide Web. The coordinator is Kevin Knight, editor of the New Advent Catholic Website. If you would like to contribute to this worthwhile project, you can contact him by e- mail at (knight.org/advent). For more information please download the file cathen.txt/.zip.