Divine Office – Divinum Officium

The Divine Office

A Study of the Roman Breviary

Part I.—General Questions On The Divine Office.

Chapter II. Short History of Divine Praise in General and of the Breviary in Particular.

Previous Chapter I. Idea of the Breviary. | IndexChapter III. Excellence of The Rom…  Previous



From all eternity the Godhead was praised with ineffable praise by the Trinity—the three divine Persons. The angels from the first moment of the creation sang God's praises. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus, Sabaoth. Plena est omnis terra gloria ejus (Isaias vi. 3).

Cardinal Bona writes that Adam and Eve blessed and praised God, their Creator. For God created the first human beings, and "created in them the knowledge of the Spirit of God that they might praise the name which He has sanctified and glory in His wondrous acts" (Ecclesiasticus xvii. 6-8), Every page of the Old Testament tells how the chosen race worshipped God. We read of the sacrifices of Cain, Abel, Enoch, Noe; of the familiar intercourse which the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob had with God. Recorded, too, are the solemn songs and prayers of Moses thanking God for His guidance in the freedom from the slavery of Egypt (Exodus xv.). David, under God's inspiration, composed those noble songs of praise, the Psalms, and organised choirs for their rendering. He sings "Evening and morning and at noon I will speak and declare and He shall hear my voice" (Psalm 54, v. 18); "I rose at midnight to give praise to Thee" (Psalm 118, v. 162); "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Psalm 118, v. 164).

The Prophet Daniel, a captive in Babylon, prayed thrice daily, his face turned to Jerusalem. The Israelites, captives in Babylon with Nehemias, "rose up and read in the book of the Law of the Lord their God, four times in the day, and four times they confessed and adored the Lord their God" (II. Esdras ix. 3). Hence, the Jewish day, made up as it was with sacrifices, libations, oblations, purifications, and public and private prayer, was a day of prayer. In these public meetings they sang God's praises, sang of His glory and of His mercy. Sometimes they spoke with loving familiarity, sometimes they prayed on bended knee, sometimes they stood and pleaded with outstretched hands, pouring out the prayers inspired by God Himself.

In the New Law our Saviour is the model of prayer, the true adorer of His Father. He alone can worthily adore and praise because He alone has the necessary perfection. Night and day He set example to His followers. He warned them to watch and pray; He taught them how to pray; He gave them a form of prayer; He prayed in life and at death. His apostles, trained in the practices of the synagogue, were perfected by the example and the exhortations of Christ. This teaching and example are shown in effect when the assembled apostles were "at the third hour of the day" praying (Acts ii. 15); when about the sixth hour Peter went to pray (Acts x. 9). In the Acts of Apostles we see how Peter and John went at the ninth hour to the temple to pray. St. Paul in prison sang God's praises at midnight, and he insists on his converts singing in their assembly psalms and hymns (Ephes. v. 19; Col. Iii. 16; I. Cor. xiv. 26).

What form did the public prayers, which we may call the divine office, take in the time of the Apostles? It is impossible to say. But it is certain 10 that there were public prayers, 20 that they were offered up daily in certain determined places and at fixed hours, 30 that these public prayers consisted principally of the Psalms, hymns, canticles, extracts from Sacred Scripture, the Lord's Prayer, and probably the Creed, 40 that these public prayers varied in duration according to the will of the bishop or master who presided.

"The weekly commemoration of Christ's resurrection, the yearly recurrence of the memory of the great facts of Christ's life, the daily sanctification of the hours of the day, each led the Christian to draw upon the hours of the Psalter, and when, gradually, fixed hours for daily prayer passed beyond the home circle and with groups of ascetics entered the public churches, it was from the Psalter that the songs of praise were drawn, and from the Psalms were added a series of canticles, taken from the books of the Old and the New Testaments, and thus, long ages before any stereotyped arrangement of the Psalms existed, assigning particular Psalms to particular days or hours, the Psalms were feeding the piety of the faithful and teaching men to pray" (The New Psalter–Burton and Myers). In this matter of public prayer, it is hard for us to realize the "bookless" condition of the early Christians and their difficulties. It was twenty-five years after the Ascension before the first books of the New Testament were written, and many years must have elapsed before their wide diffusion; hence, in their bookless and guideless condition the early Christians were advised to use the Psalms in their new devotional life (Ephes. v. 19; Col. iii. 16; St. James, v. 13).

The first clear evidence of a division of the Psalter for use in the Western Church is found in the work of St. Benedict (480-543). He had spent his youth near Rome, and keeping his eye on the Roman usage he assigned the Psalms to the various canonical hours and to different days of the week. The antiphons he drew from existing sources, and of course the canonical hours were already in existence. In his arrangement, the whole Psalter was read weekly, and the whole Bible, with suitable patristic selections, was read every year. He also arranged the Sunday, Festal and Ferial offices. For the recitation of the offices of a saint's day, St. Benedict arranged that the Matins shall have the same form as a Sunday office–i.e., three nocturns, twelve lessons and responsories, but the psalms, antiphons and lessons are proper to each saint. This arrangement interrupted the weekly recitation of the whole psalter, and caused great difficulty in later times; for when the feasts increased in number the ferial psalter fell almost into complete disuse.

St. Benedict's arrangement of the psalms and his other liturgical regulations spread rapidly, but the Roman secular office never adopted his arrangement of the psalms, nor his inclusion of hymns, until about the year 1145. In some details each office shows its independent history. It is a matter of dispute among liturgists whether Prime and Compline were added to the Roman secular office through the influence of the Benedictines (Baudot, The Roman Breviary, pp. 19-26).

The period following the death of St. Benedict in 543 is a period of which little is known. "We repeat with Dom Baumer (vol. i., pp. 299-300) that the fifth century, at Rome as elsewhere, was a period of great liturgical activity, while the seventh and eighth centuries were, viewed from this point of view, a period of decline" (Baudot, op. cit., p. 53). The labours of St. Benedict probably were continued and perfected by St. Gregory the Great (590-604). His labours are summed up by Dom Baumer (Histoire du Breviare, vol. i., pp. 289, 301-303): "It is he who collected together the prayers and liturgical usages of his predecessors and assigned to each its proper place, and thus the liturgy owes its present form to him. The liturgical chant also bears his name, because through his means it reached its highest state of development. The canonical hours and the formulary of the Mass now in use were also carefully arranged by him." "The whole history of the Western liturgy supports us in maintaining that these books received from the great Pope or from one of his contemporaries a form which never afterwards underwent any radical or essential alteration." The Roman office spread quickly through Europe. The enthusiasm of Gregory became rooted in the monasteries, where the monks learned and taught, with knowledge and with zeal, his liturgical reforms. Two important reforms of monastic practice are interesting as showing further progress in the evolution of the Roman Breviary. St. Benedict of Aniane (751-821), the friend and adviser of Louis the Pious, became a reformer of Benedictine rule and practice. His rule aimed at a rigid uniformity, even in detail. And the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle (817) helped him to establish his reforms. As a result of the saint's exertions the Penitential Psalms and Office of the Dead were made part of the daily monastic office. The Abbey of Cluny, founded in 910, supplied a further reform tending to guard the office from further accretions.

Did Hildebrand, Pope Gregory VII. (1073-1086), labour for liturgical reform? Liturgical writers give very different replies. Monsignor Battifol (History of the Roman Breviary, English edition, p. 158) maintains that Gregory made no reform, and that "the Roman office such as we have seen it to be in the times of Charlemagne held its ground at Rome itself, in the customs of the basilicas, without any sensible modification, throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries and even down to the close of the twelfth." Dom Gueranger holds that Gregory abridged the order of prayers and simplified the liturgy for the use of the Roman curia. It would be difficult at the present time to ascertain accurately the complete form of the office before this revision, but since then it has remained almost identical with what it was at the end of the eleventh century. Dom Baumer agrees with his Benedictine brother that Gregory wrought for liturgical reform. Probably Pope Gregory VII., knowing the decadence which was manifest in liturgical exercises in Rome during the tenth and eleventh centuries, decided to revise the old Roman office which, although it had decayed in Rome, flourished in Germany, France, and other countries. Hence, in his Lenten Synod, 1074, he promulgated the rules he had already drawn up for the Regular Canons of Rome, ordering them to return to the old Roman rite. Thus he may be counted as a reformer, but not as an innovater nor an abridger. But his reform fell on evil days. The great struggle between Church and State about lay investitures had a baneful influence on liturgy, even in Rome itself. The times seemed to call for a modernised (i.e., a shortened) office. The "modernisers" respected the psalter, the curtailment was in the Lectionary. The modernising spirit showed itself in the arrangement and bulk of the office books. The Psalter, Antiphonary, Responsorial, Bible and Book of Homilies were gradually codified. Even then, a very large volume was the result. After a time the chant, which absorbed much space, was removed from the volume, but the resulting volume, noticeably smaller, was not yet small enough. In time, only the opening words of the antiphons, responsories and versicles were printed, and to the volume thus turned out was given the name Breviary. The Curial Breviary was drawn up in this way to make it suitable for persons engaged in outdoor pursuits and journeys. It gradually displaced the choir office in Rome, and Rome's example was universally followed.

This Curial Breviary was adopted by the Franciscans in their active lives. They changed the text of the Psalter only, Psalterium Romanum, to the more approved text, the Psalterium Gallicanum. The improved Curial Breviary was imposed on the churches of Rome by the Franciscan Pope, Nicholas III. (1277-1280), and henceforth it is called the Roman Breviary. Thus we see that the book used daily by priests got its name in the thirteenth century, although the divine office is almost from Apostolic times.

But liturgy is a progressive study, a progressive practice capable and worthy of perfecting. And the friars strove for the greater perfection and beauty of the new Breviary. They added variety to the unity already achieved and yet did not reach liturgical perfection nor liturgical beauty. They loaded the Breviary by introducing saints' days with nine lessons, thus avoiding offices of three lessons. And by keeping octave days and days within the octave as feasts of nine lessons, they almost entirely destroyed the weekly recitation of the psalter; and a large portion of the Breviary ceased to be used at all. The Franciscan book became very popular owing to its handy form. Indeed its use was almost universal in the Western Church. But the multiplication of saints' offices, universal and local, no fixed standard to guide the recital, and the wars of liturgists, made chaos and turmoil.

Liturgical reform became an urgent need. Everyone reciting the canonical hours longed for a great and drastic change. The Humanists, Cardinal Bembo (1470-1549), Ferreri, Bessarion, and Pope Leo X. (1513-1521) considered the big faults of the Breviary to lie in its barbarous Latinity. They wished the Lessons to be written In Ciceronian style and the hymns to be modelled on the Odes of Horace. Ferreri's attempt at reforming the Breviary dealt with the hymns, some of which he re-wrote in very noble language, but he was so steeped in pagan mythology that he even introduced heathen expressions and allusions, His work was a failure. The traditional school represented by Raoul of Tongres, Burchard, Caraffa, and John De Arze loved the past with so great a love that they refused to countenance any notable reforms, A third school, the moderate school, was represented by Cardinal Pole, Contarini, Sadolet and Quignonez, a Spanish cardinal who had been General of the Franciscans. The work of reform of the Breviary was undertaken by Cardinal Quignonez (1482-1540). He was a man of great personal piety and possessed a love for liturgy and an accurate knowledge of its history, its essentials, and its acquired defects. After seven years' labour at the matter and form of the Breviary, his work, Quignonez's Breviary (Brevarium Romanum a Francisco Cardinali Quignonio) appeared in 1535. It was for private use only, and was not intended as a choir manual. Yet so popular was his work that, in 1536, six editions had appeared, and in thirty-three years (until its suppression by St. Pius V,) it went through no less than a hundred editions. Its immense success shows how much the need of Breviary change and reform was felt by the clergy. The book, too, had an important influence on shaping the Breviary produced by Pius V. (1566-1572). Quignonez's book was reproduced with the variations of the four earliest editions, by the Cambridge University Press in 1888. It is an interesting study in itself and in comparison with later breviaries.

But it was felt by scholars that Quignonez's reforms were too drastic. Tradition was ignored. The labour for brevity, simplicity and uniformity led to the removal from this Breviary of antiphons, responses, little chapters and versicles, and to the reduction of lessons at matins to three, and the number of psalms in each hour was usually only three. His work had as a set principle the grand old liturgical idea of the weekly recitation of the whole psalter. The quick and almost universal demand for Quignonez's Breviary indicated the need of a reform and the outline of such a reform. The Pope, who commissioned Quignonez to take up breviary reform, requested the Theatines to take up similar work. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) took up the work of reform. But the Council rose before the work had made headway, and the matter of reform was finally effected by St. Pius V. (1566-1572), by his Constitution, Quod a nobis (1568).

The Reformed Breviary of 1568 is, in outline, the Breviary in our hands to-day. The great idea in the reform was to restore the weekly recitation of the whole psalter. Theoretically, the Breviary made such provision, but practically the great number of saints' offices introduced into the Breviary made the weekly recitation of the psalter an impossibility. The clergy were constantly reading only a few psalms out of the 150 in the psalter. The rubrics, too, were in a confused state. Changes were made in the calendar by suppression of feasts, by restoring to simple feasts the ferial office psalms, and by reducing the number of double and semi-double feasts. But in the body of the Breviary the changes were few and slight. The lives of some saints drawn from Quignonez's work were used, St. Gregory's canon of scripture lessons was adopted and the antiphons, verses, responses, collects and prayers were taken from the old Roman liturgy. The antiphons and responses were given in the older translation of St. Jerome owing to their suitability for musical settings. And the text of the psalms was the Psalterium Gallicanum, which had been in use in the Roman Curial Breviary,

But the Pian reform was soon to be followed by a reform of the Breviary text, in accordance with the Sixtine Vulgate, the Clementine Vulgate, and the Vatican text. Clement VIII. (1592-1605) published his edition of the revised Breviary in 1602; and thirty years afterwards Urban VIII, (1623-1644) issued a new and further revised edition, which is substantially the Breviary we read to-day. He caused careful correction of errors which had crept in through careless printing; he printed the psalms and canticles with the Vulgate punctuation, and he revised the lessons and made additions. He established uniformity in texts of Missal and Breviary. But the greatest change made in this new edition was in the Breviary hymns, which were corrected on classical lines by Urban himself aided by four learned Jesuits (see Note, Hymns, p. 259).

"The result (of their labours) has always given rise to very different judgments and for the most part unfavourable. It seemed to be exceedingly rash to regard as barbarous the hymns of men like Prudentius, Sedulius, Sidonius, Apollinaris, Venantius, St. Ambrose, St. Paulinus of Aquileia and Rabanus Maurus and to desire to remodel them after the pattern of Horace's Odes.... It is only fair to give them the credit, that out of respect for the wishes of Urban VIII. they treated these compositions with extreme reserve, and while they made some expressions clearer they maintained the primitive unction in a large number of passages" (Baudot, The Roman Breviary, part iii., chap. ii.).

The commission appointed by Clement VIII. in his work of revision and reform included Baronius, Bellarmine and Gavantus. The commission of Urban VIII. included, amongst other famous men, the famous Irish friar minor, Luke Wadding (1588-1657).

The need of revision, rearrangement and reform of the Breviary was in the mind of every Pope, and nearly every one of them took some step to perfect the historic book. In the eighteenth century Benedict XIV. (1740-1758) contemplated Breviary reform in some details, particularly in improving the composition of some legends and of replacing some homilies of the Fathers. He entrusted this work to Father Danzetta, S.J., but when the learned Jesuit's labour was presented to the Pope, so grave and so contrary were the reasons there put forth, that the Pope thought it well to abandon the thought of reform. Father Danzetta's notes are marvels of research and learning. They are to be seen in Ruskovany's Coelibatus et Breviarium, vol. v. They show to the ignorant and the sceptical, the dangers and difficulties which all Breviary reformers have to contend with.

Pope Pius VI. (1775-1799) returned to the project of Breviary reform. Dom Gueranger tells us that the plan of reform was drawn up and presented to the Congregation of Rites, but the actual reform was not entered on. Pope Pius IX. (1846-1878), at the request of Monsignor Sibour, Archbishop of Paris, appointed a commission to revise the Breviary, but their report caused the work to be abandoned. Petitions for reform were sent to the Vatican Council, but very little resulted. Leo XIII. (1878-1903) enriched the calendar by adding the names of many saints; he added votive offices, corrected the Breviary lessons for the feasts of a number of Popes, and, in 1902, he appointed a commission to deal with the hagiography of the Breviary and with its liturgy; but his death in the following year ended the work of the commission,

The unsatisfactory condition of the rules for the recitation of the Divine Office were apparent to everyone. Scholars feared to face Breviary reform, the difficulties were so innumerable and so immense. However, with wonderful courage and prudence, Pope Pius X. (1903-1914) tackled the work. He resolved not to adopt a series of minor changes in the Breviary, but to appoint an active commission of reform, whose first work should be a rearrangement of the psalter which must bring back the recitation of the Divine Office to its early ideal—the weekly recitation of the whole psalter. The problem which faced Pope Pius X. in 1906 was the very same problem which faced his predecessor St, Pius V. (1566-1572), more than three hundred years ago. St. Pius tried to solve the problem by a reform of the calendar, but the solution produced no permanent effect. Pius X. and his commission went to the root of the difficulty, and by a redistribution of the psalms have made the ferial and the festive offices almost equal in length, and have so arranged matters that the frequent recitation of every psalm, and the possible and probable recitation of every psalm, once every week, is now an accomplished fact; and the old and much-sought-after ideal—the weekly recitation of the whole Psalter—is of world-wide practice.

On the publication of the new Psalter, Pope Pius announced that a commission would undertake a complete revision of the Breviary, a matter of great importance and one which must demand long years of care and study to accomplish. A member of the committee which re-arranged the Psalter, Monsignor Piacenza, tells us that such revision must embrace:–

1. A reform of the calendar and the drafting of rules for the admission of feasts into the calendar of the universal Church;

2. The critical revision and correction of the historic and patristic texts;

3. The removal of spurious patristic texts;

4. The remodelling of the rubrics;

5. The institution of a new form of common office for confessors and for virgins to facilitate the lessening of the number of feasts of saints, without diminishing the honour due to them (Burton and Myers, op. cit., p. 144).

We may sum up, then, all that has been said in this long section by stating that from Apostolic times there was public prayer, thrice daily. The Jewish converts, having the psalms committed to memory needed not, nor could they have in those bookless days, a psalter script. In the third century, morning, evening, and night offices are mentioned. Compline was in existence in the time of St. Benedict. "From the seventh century onwards, ecclesiastical writers, papal decrees and conciliar decrees recognise the eight parts of the office, which we have seen took shape during the sixth century, and regard their recitation by priests and monks as enjoined by positive law. During this period, or at least at its commencement, Lauds and Vespers alone had a clearly defined structure and followed a definite arrangement. As far as we can see, St. Gregory arranged the little hours for Sunday only, and their arrangement for week days was left to the care of the bishops and metropolitans, or even of abbots. This was also the case, in many instances, with regard to Matins, for the number of psalms to be recited thereat was not definitely fixed. As regards the little hours—Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline—the freedom of the competent ecclesiastical authorities was as yet unconfined by canonical restrictions. Chrodegang (766) was first to follow the usages of the Benedictines of the Roman Basilica, in prescribing for secular clergy the celebration at Prime of the officium Capituli (i.e., the reunion in the chapter for reading the rule or, on certain days, the writings and homilies of the Fathers). The rest of the chapter–i.e., all that follows the confiteor in Prime as a preparation for the work of the day, seems to have been composed in the ninth century.... Under Charlemagne and his successors variations in the canonical hours completely disappeared" (Baudot, op. cit., pp. 63-65).

On this foundation was built up the Office, to which additions were made, and of which reforms were effected, up to our own time.

"For us, traditional liturgy is represented by the Roman Breviary of Urban VIII., a book which constitutes for us a Vulgate of the Roman Office.... The thing which renders this Vulgate of 1632 precious to us is that, thanks to the wisdom of Paul IV., Pius V., and Clement VIII., the differences between it and the Breviary of the Roman Curia of the thirteenth century are mere differences of detail: the substantial identity of the two is beyond dispute. The Breviary of Urban VIII. is the lineal descendant of the Breviary of Innocent III. And the latter in its turn is the legitimate descendant of the Roman canonical Office, as it was celebrated in the basilica of St. Peter at the end of the eighth century, such as it had gradually come to be in the course of the seventh and eighth centuries, a genuinely Roman combination of various elements, some of them Roman and some not, but of which some, at all events, go back to the very beginnings of the Catholic religion" (Battifol, op. cit., p. 353).


NEXT SECTION: Chapter III. Excellence of The Rom… Previous

Previous Chapter I. Idea of the Breviary.


The Divine Office: A Study of the Roman Breviary

Tutoriel pour la Messe Tridentine en Latin (Français) | Tutorial on the Tridentine Latin Mass (English)
Online Tutorial for Priests | Rubrics of the 1962 Roman Missal | Learning to Serve at the Altar

Spirituality of the Tridentine Mass | Liturgical Books and Resources | Sacred Music of the Liturgy
From Sacristy to Altar | The Liturgical Year

What's New | Frequently Asked Questions
Letter from the SuperiorSite Dedication | Contact Us | How You Can Help

Copyright © 2018. Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. All Rights Reserved.