Component Elements of the Breviary


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 (Quicumque), 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 cæli,” 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 offíciant, 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.

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