The Origin of the Breviary


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 offíciating 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 offíciant. 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.

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