Introduction to the Roman Breviary

Author: Fr. William J. Lallou



THE LITURGY, or official public worship of the Church, comprises the holy sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacraments and Sacramentals, and the canonical hours, or official daily prayer of the Church. It is the latter which is contained in the Roman Breviary, par excellence, the prayer-book of the Church. There are prayers outside the Breviary, approved by the Church, enriched by her with indulgences, beloved as private devotions, but the Divine Office, contained in the Breviary, is the great official prayer recited daily by the Church as the mystical body of Christ, divine Head and human members together, to pay worship to God only second in importance to that supreme act of religious cult, the sacrifice of the Mass.

The word breviary, etymologically a compendium or abridgment, is applied to the liturgical work which contains the psalms and the hymns, the readings from Sacred Scripture and from the writings of the Fathers, the prayers and the responses, which are combined to form the canonical hours of the divine office of prayer recited daily throughout the world by priests and religious. Originally, several books were required for the celebration of Mass: the Sacramentary for the officiating priest, the Lectionary for the principal assisting ministers, and the Antiphonary for the choir. When these were assembled in one book, the volume was called a complete Mass-book (Missale plenum), our present Missal. So, also, when the various volumes anciently used in the recitation of the canonical hours: the psalter, other books of the Bible, selected writings of the Fathers, collections of prayers and hymns, were gathered together into one work, the volume came to be called a Breviary.

The origin of the canonical hours of the Divine Office, as they are recited daily in the Church, either publicly by chapters of canons or monks or privately by priests and clerics in major orders, dates back to the days of the primitive Church. Anciently, a vigil, or all-night watch service, preceded every Sunday. This consisted of evening, night, and early morning prayers and was bound up with the idea that Christ at His second coming might arrive on such an eve and the faithful were desirous of being found watching and praying to receive Him. By the fourth century this Sunday vigil had become a daily observance, though it no longer lasted throughout the night. Again, some of the faithful, and especially monks of the Benedictine observance, began to meet for pious exercises at each of the hours which divided the day into its principal sections, at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. Later, the remaining two canonical hours Prime and Compline, were introduced from monastic sources. So, we have a divine office of three groups of prayers: (1) the nocturnal group, represented today by the hours known as Vespers, Matins, and Lauds; (2) the day hours, now called Terce, Sext, and None; (3) a form of morning prayer called Prime and of evening prayer known as Compline.

What had at first been an all-night vigil became a watch service only from cock crow to sunrise with a preliminary office at the lighting of the lamps the night before. This last survives as Vespers of the Office, the early morning service being now represented by Matins, with its three nocturns, and Lauds. The public prayers at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, added, as has just been said, the Offices of Terce, Sext, and None. Morning prayer, Prime, was inserted between Lauds and Terce; and evening prayer, since Vespers did not come at the very end of the day, at bedtime, furnished the concluding hour of Compline. So, from sunset to sunset, as the extent of the day was reckoned by the Romans and the Jews, from evening to evening, seven times were there hours of prayer: Vespers, Compline, Matins and Lauds |despite their length counted as one hour), Prime, Terce, Sext, and None. This was in accordance with the verse of Psalm 118: "Seven times a day I gave praise to Thee." The component elements of this sevenfold daily service of prayer were, and still are, the psalms of the Psalter of David, readings of passages from the Holy Scriptures and the works of the Fathers of the Church, prayers recited by the presiding cleric, and metrical compositions, or hymns.

The daily recitation, or chanting, of the canonical hours began as a public service in the church or in the monastery chapel. In the beginning the psalms were sung by a solo voice, or several voices, the congregation making occasional answers in the form of a familiar response. Later, the entire body took part in the chanting, the participants being arranged in two choirs, alternately chanting the verses of the psalms. Readers ascended the pulpit for the lessons, to which the others listened, or perhaps answered with verses, which became the present responses of the office. The presiding priest, or abbot, had his own special part in the prayers, represented today by the blessings and orations and versicles reserved to the officiant. The hymns of the Office are metrical compositions of later introduction than the psalms and readings, and were sung by specially competent chanters or alternately, stanza after stanza, by the two choirs of the general body. So the Office is recited today by chapters of canons in cathedral and collegiate churches and by companies of monks or nuns in monasteries and convents, where there is the obligation of the Divine Office. In late medieval times, especially consequent upon the spread of the Franciscan Order, it became the custom for individuals who were unable to attend the public assemblies in the church to recite the canonical hours privately. To make provision for such individuals as well as to provide the necessary text for the Divine Office in poorer religious houses and in country churches, compilations of the various books involved began to be made so that a single volume would suffice for the recitation of the entire office. This compendious handbook became known as the Breviary and it came into general use from the XII Century, though examples of such compendia date from the preceding century. When, by order of the Council of Trent, standard editions of the liturgical books, required in public worship were issued and made of universal obligation, the official Roman Breviary was that of Pope St. Pius V, published in 1568. This has remained the exemplar for all editions of the Breviary since that time, though there have been several revisions of the book. The last revision was that of Pius X, in 1911, and this is the Breviary in use today.


Though occasionally the Roman Breviary is issued in a single volume, called a "Totum," it usually appears in four volumes each containing the Offices of about one-quarter of the ecclesiastical year. These four are:

1) The winter volume (pars hiemalis) comprising the Offices of Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphany, up to and including the Saturday before the First Sun. day of Lent. In the calendar of the fixed feasts, this part extends from November 26 to March 12.

2) The spring volume (pars verna) containing the Offices of Lent and Paschaltide to the Saturday of the Pentecost Ember Week, inclusive. In the fixed calendar, this period begins with February 7 and lasts to June 19.

3) The summer volume (pars aestiva) with the time after Pentecost up to the Fifteenth Sunday, inclusive. For the fixed feasts, this section runs from May 18 to September 2.

4) The autumn volume (pars autumnalis) covering the year from the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost till the day before Advent, August 28 to December 2 of the fixed calendar.

It will be noted that this division of the Breviary into four books is made on the basis of the temporal cycle of the ecclesiastical year, that which varies from year to year, largely because of the five-week variation of the date of Easter. This arrangement necessitates, in succeeding volumes, a certain repetition of the Offices of feasts which are fixed to the days of the month of the civil calendar. The third and fourth volumes involve also a repetition of some of the Sundays after Pentecost, as the regulations governing the readings from Sacred Scripture are dependent upon the weeks of August September, October, and November rather than on the succession of the Sundays after Pentecost.

The considerable prefatory matter usually found in the winter volume, is issued as a separate brochure. This introductory portion contains the rules for the computation of Easter and the general directions for the ordering of the Office, under the caption: "General Rubrics of the Breviary." This latter section is the one quaintly entitled "The Pye" in the Marquess of Bute's famous English translation of the Breviary, which appeared in 1879. These directions should be carefully studied by all who would learn well the intricate structure of the Office.

Each of the four volumes is arranged in accordance with the following pattern:

1) An introductory section, containing the calendar with the fixed feasts, hosted for the months of the year, and certain convenient tables for finding the movable feasts.

2) The Ordinary of the Office, comprising those prayers and directions which are common to all Offices.

3) The Psalter, with its one hundred and fifty psalms, distributed over the various canonical hours for the seven days of the week. For reasons of utility, much of the preceding section is here repeated and combined with the divisions of the Psalter.

4) The Proper of Time, in which are found the variable portions of the Office arranged in the sequence of those days which depend upon the movable cycle of Easter and the less movable time of Advent.

5) The Proper of the Saints, which comprises the variable parts of the Office peculiar to the Feasts of the Saints, which are all fixed to the days of the month of the civil calendar.

6) The Common of the Saints, embracing those portions of the Office which are not special for the feasts of individual Saints.

6) Various appendices with the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin the Office for the Dead, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Litany of the Saints, etc.

For a detailed description of the seven hours of the Divine Office, the introductory section of the winter volume, entitled "General Rubrics of the Breviary," should be studied. Many complications are incident to the recitation of the Office and they are for the most part the result of the constant conflict between the calendar of movable feasts (The Proper of the Time) and the calendar of the fixed feasts (The Proper of the Saints.) As Easter may come as early as March 22 or as late as April 25, it will be seen that constant adjustments must be made each year between fixed and movable feasts. For this reason, a book of directions, called the "Ordo," is published every year containing minute guidance for reciting the Office during the course of that year.

Originally, the Divine Office was much simpler in structure than it is today and the comparatively small number of Saints' days reduced to a minimum the conflict between fixed and movable feasts. There was a succession of psalms followed by readings from Scripture, these latter being supplemented by accounts of the martyrdom of Saints and passages from the writings of the Fathers. As time went on, these fundamental elements of the Office were divided by prayers and responses and hymns, which were varied for day and season, until the recitation of the Canonical Hours became so complicated that a process of simplification was introduced in the XIII Century. A more sweeping reform was proposed under Benedict XIV (1741-1747) but it was not carried out until the pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914) and then only to a limited extent. The Breviary of Pius X is the standard text at present, though the book is constantly receiving additions as Offices are assigned to the feasts of newly canonized saints.


The Psalms. The basis of the Divine Office is the Psalter of David, whose one hundred and fifty psalms are ordinarily recited every week. The antiphons, responses, and versicles in the various hours are also very largely taken from the Psalter, so this book of the Bible furnishes the greatest percentage of the text of the Office. The psalms give poetic expression to the entire gamut of religious thought and emotion from sobs of contrition to songs of confidence, from elegies of dejection to paens of delight. No cry of sorrow could be deeper than the "Miserere," (Ps. 50). No petition for mercy could be more poignant than the "De profundis," (Ps. 129). No hymn of joy could be more exultant than the last three psalms of the Psalter (Pss. 148, 149, 150.) In the interests of clearer understanding of the text the psalms in this edition of the Breviary are presented in an English translation of the new Latin version of the Psalter, authorized by Pope Pius XII.

Similar in structure to the psalms are certain canticles of the Old Testament, which are assigned to Lauds of the Office, and three canticles from the Gospels, the "Magnificat," the "Benedictus," and the "Nunc dimittis," which are recited every day, respectively, in the hours of Vespers, Lauds, and Compline.

"The Readings, or Lessons." Second only to the psalms in the textual content of the Breviary come the readings from Sacred Scripture and from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. The Scriptural readings are selected so that all the books of the Bible are represented in the lessons of the first nocturn of Matins, and in the course of the year both Old and New Testaments are covered at least in summary fashion. The Gospels are read only in short excerpts in the third nocturn, serving as introductions to the homilies, or commentaries on the Gospels, taken from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Lives of the Saints are assigned as lessons for the second nocturn on their feast days. The longer readings, which are those just described, are known as lessons and appear only in Matins of the Office. For the other hours, shorter passages, usually from Sacred Scripture, are assigned and these are called Little Chapters (Capitula.)

"Prayers." The prayer, or oration, proper for each day of the Office, is the collect of the Mass of that day and is said near the close of five of the seven Hours. Prime and Compline have special orations of their own, which are invariable day after day. For information concerning the prayers said as Commemorations, reference should be had to the explanations in the "General Rubrics of the Breviary" Among the prayers of the Office should be included certain petitions and responses (Preces) which are recited especially on days of fasting and penance. Our more familiar forms of vocal prayer, the "Our Father," the "Hail Mary," and (less frequently) the Apostles' Creed, are repeatedly recited in the Office.

"Hymns." The original hymnbook of the Church was the Psalter, and the earliest hymns were compositions in imitation of the structure of the psalms. Later, more definitely metrical stanzas were written and these are the hymns which appear in every hour of the Divine Office. Some of these are identical day by day, but most of them vary with the season or the feast.

To the elements just enumerated as component parts of the Breviary should be added: the "Te Deum," which concludes Matins on feast days; the Athanasian Creed (Ouicumque), which is recited at Prime on ordinary Sundays; and the anthems of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which are varied fox the seasons of the year as terminating prayers of the Office. Two of these anthems, are the familiar "Regina caeli," the Angelus of the Easter time, and the even more familiar "Hail, holy Queen."

The basic structure of the Breviary shows that the Divine Office was meant to be a public choral service. Certain parts were to be recited, or chanted, alternately by two sections (choirs) of those participating. Other portions were to be read by a solo officiant, and still others were designed as answers to be said in concert by the entire body to prayers or readings of a leader. When it became the custom for those unable to join in the public recitation to say the Office privately, the present more common practice arose whereby the individual must recite the entire Office himself, instead of dividing his participation by reading some parts and listening while fellow participants recite other parts.


The chief claim for the pre-eminence of the Canonical Hours over all other forms of prayer is that the Breviary contains the official, liturgical prayer of the Church. Whether the Office be recited publicly in choir or privately by an individual, it is not a private prayer, but the daily service of public praise, rendered to God, as prescribed by the Church. Those who recite the Divine Office do so in the name of all the faithful and for the benefit of all the members of the mystical body of Christ. The laity have had little opportunity to make the acquaintance of the treasury of prayer represented by the Breviary. Formerly, Vespers, often unfortunately in a rather truncated version, used to be a regular Sunday service in parish churches, but this practice has become almost obsolete. In some places, the faithful have become somewhat familiar with Matins and Lauds of the last three days of Holy Week, the "Tenebrae" Office in most cathedrals and in some other important churches. This present English translation of the Divine Office will make available to the laity, not well conversant with Latin, the opportunity to participate, day by day, in the liturgical prayer of the Church. Nor will this version, it is hoped, be without use to the clergy and others who are bound to the recitation of the Breviary. The English text should prove convenient for comparison with the Latin original to throw light on passages of difficult interpretation

The words which are pronounced in the recitation of the Divine Office are chiefly from the inspired writings of the Bible. Most of the prayers are venerable compositions, centuries old. The Readings from the works of the Fathers express the traditional thought of the Church. The hymns are examples of lofty, spiritual poetry. NO other prayer is endowed with such special grace. No other can equal its rank as the authorized, official prayer of the Universal Church. Moreover, through the consistent use of the Missal and the Breviary we are enabled to live again the mysteries of Christ as they are presented to us in the seasons of the ecclesiastical year. Mass and Divine Office are liturgically interrelated. The latter furnishes the setting for the Mass, as the gold of the ring is the setting for the precious jewel of its stone. When the Office is chanted in common the Mass of the day is inserted during the course of the Canonical hours, usually after Terce The daily Mass and the daily Office form the liturgical mirror which reflects, day after day, year after year, the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ as the Church unfolds them, feast by feast and season by season. All the interior formation of man is effected by the better knowledge of Our Lord, His life and His works and His words The daily thoughtful reading of the Breviary cannot fail to bring one into better acquaintance with "The mystery which hath been hidden from ages and generations but is now manifested to his Saints" (Col. 1, 26). In the Divine Office, we sing to God a twelve-month hymn of praise in lasting memory of the life of Christ on earth and constant recognition of His life in heaven as we commemorate His life and His death, His resurrection and ascension, His life in glory in heaven and His eucharistic continuance in life on earth.

Associated with the annual cycle of the liturgical commemoration of the mysteries of Jesus Christ is the yearly cycle of the feasts of His Saints. In the celebration of the Saint's days, we worship God indirectly as "wonderful in His Saints" and we seek the intercession of those whose lives were models for our imitation in their devoted service of God, "the crown of all Saints." The recitation of the Divine Office, both as the direct cult of God and the indirect worship of Him paid through the honor shown His Saints will, in the words of the present Holy Father's great encyclical letter, "Mediator Dei," give us a part in that sacred liturgy on earth which is a preparation for the heavenly liturgy, in which along with Mary, the glorious Mother of God, and all the Saints, we confidently hope to sing eternally "to Him who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb, blessing and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength forever and ever" (Apoc. V, 13).


Taken from the "Roman Breviary In English" published by Benziger Brother, Inc in 1950.