Divisions of the Breviary


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 Sunday 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 æstiva) 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 divísion 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.

7) 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.

Taken from the “Roman Breviary In English”
published by Benziger Brothers, Inc. in 1950.