Externals of the Catholic Church – The Breviary

“Why do you priests spend so much time in reading from a little black book?” Every priest has heard this question from his non-Catholic friends. The Catholic has a general idea that the priest is under an obligation to recite his Office every day, but few Catholics have any very clear notion as to what the Office is or why it is said.

The Church’s Public Prayer

The Office is a prayer, and the most efficacious prayer ever composed. It is the one great public prayer of the Church, as the Mass is her one great sacrifice. This does not mean that the Office is said necessarily in public, but that the priest who offers it is not acting in his own name but in the name of the Church, even though he may recite it alone and almost silently. It is a prayer offered by ministers of God, who have been raised to the most exalted dignity on earth, that they may praise God in the name of all mankind and ask for grace for all the Church’s children. It is said in the name of the Church and by her authority; hence it is the expression of her homage to her heavenly King.

When you see a priest reading his Breviary, did it ever occur to you that you have a share in that prayer, that you derive benefit from the recitation of that Office by him? He is taking part in the public prayer of the Church of which you are a member. Reflect, that in this country alone there are nearly twenty thousand priests, who daily spend more than an hour in offering this public prayer to God for the Church and for all her members – and the clergy of the United States form a very small fraction of those of the universal Church. All over the world, in monasteries and in cathedrals, the Divine Office is solemnly recited at stated hours, and every priest in every land lays aside his other duties at some time each day to raise his heart to God and to join in offering to Him the public homage of His Church on earth.

The Priest Is a Mediator

In every form of religion the priest has been considered as a mediator – one who is to stand, as it were, between God and man, who was not only to offer sacrifices, which is always the greatest act of divine worship, but also to pray for the people, to present their petitions to the Deity, and to solicit His favors for them. This was true not only of the Jewish faith but of every pagan creed. Everywhere the priest was the appointed man of prayer, selected to propitiate the powers of the unseen world.

The priests of the Church of Christ are “the dispensers of the mysteries of God,” as Saint Paul calls them. “Every high-priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that pertain to God.” This is the essence of the priestly character – that he is appointed to that dignity not for himself but for mankind.

The Catholic priest who says his Office, then, is not praying for himself alone. He is acting as a representative of all the members of the Church. He is your substitute, doing in your name what you and the generality of mankind have neither the time nor the inclination to do. He is uniting his prayers with those of the blessed in heaven in honoring the Creator of all things.

What is the Breviary?

The book which a priest uses for the reciting of his Office is known as a Breviary. Why is it so called? The word “Breviary” (from the Latin word “brevis,” short or brief) would seem to indicate that the contents are not lengthy – and many an overworked priest on a busy Sunday may well wonder why that word is used. For his consolation it may be well to state that the whole Office is really much shorter than it was centuries ago. About the year 1100 a considerable abbreviation was made in it throughout the Church, and the new office-book brought into use at that time was called a “Breviarium,” or abridgment. A further shortening of some Offices and a rearrangement of nearly all went into effect by direction of Pope Pius X, in 1912.

The Breviary contains the Office which all priests and all clerics in Sacred Orders are obliged to recite daily under pain of mortal sin unless they are exempted by a grave reason. It is made up of four volumes, adapted to the four seasons of the year, since all the Office in one volume would be too unwieldy for use.

These Offices are in Latin, and are made up of psalms, canticles, hymns, extracts from the Scriptures, brief lives of the saints, parts of sermons by the great Fathers of the Church (such as Gregory, Augustine and Chrysostom), many short prayers, versicles, responses, and the frequent repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed.

The Parts of the Office

It is divided into seven parts known as the Canonical Hours, and in the Middle Ages it was the general practice to recite each part at its own hour; but the secular clergy of our day and many of the religious communities are not bound now to observe this practice strictly. Each priest is obliged to say the whole Office of the day within the twenty-four hours of the day, but at any hour or hours that may be convenient, saying as much at a time as he may be able or willing to recite. Moreover, he has the privilege of “anticipating,” or saying a part of the Office after two o’clock of the preceding day if he sees fit to do so. Thus, he may, for example, say a part of Tuesday’s Office on Monday.

The first of the Canonical Hours is “Matins,” or the morning office, which was recited originally before dawn; it is followed by “Lauds,” or praises of God. The next division is “Prime,” or the first, because it was said at the “first hour,” or sunrise. Then “Terce,” or third, recited at the third hour, nine o’clock; “Sext,” or sixth, at noon; and “None,” or ninth, at three o’clock. “Vespers” is next, signifying the evening service, and then comes “Compline,” or the completion, which was said at bed-time.

The Office varies from day to day. It may be a Sunday Office or a week-day Office or the Office of a saint. In the latter case it is different according to the saint who is honored, the hymns, prayers, etc., being modified by the class to which he or she belongs – an apostle, martyr, confessor or virgin.

Suppose, for instance, that the Church is celebrating today the festival of a saint who was a martyr. Every priest all over the world recites thirty-three psalms, three canticles, eight hymns, nine prayers, the Our Father fourteen times, the Hail Mary seven times, the Creed three times and the Confiteor once. He reads three extracts from the Scriptures, three short chapters on the life of the saint, and three from a sermon by a Father of the Church, besides eight “capitula” (“little chapters”) of a few lines each, the “Te Deum” once, and a great number of short verses and responses taken mostly from the Bible.

The History of the Office

According to the best authorities, the Office, in some form at least, goes back to Apostolic times. In the beginning it was made up almost entirely of the Psalms of David, and they are the groundwork of the Breviary at the present day. In later centuries various prayers and “Lessons” were added, and a great number of new festivals was established; every religious order had its own mode of reciting the Office, and there was little attempt at uniformity. The Council of Trent revised the whole Office, and the Breviary authorized by that Council was published in 1602. This became practically universal, although some of the older monastic orders have been permitted to keep their ancient Offices, and a considerable diversity regarding die observance of festivals is allowed in different parts of the world.

Pope Pius X, of blessed memory, authorized a complete revision of the Breviary, as already mentioned. The new arrangement is such that all the Psalms of the Bible, 150 in number, are usually recited within each week, thus going back to the ancient idea of emphasizing the divine psalmody as the substance of the Office.

We see, then, the excellence of the Divine Office of our Church, recited daily by her priests. That public prayer has been offered up for many centuries. The greater part of it is the inspired Word of God, taken from the Old and New Testaments. It treats of the lives of the most illustrious saints of God in every age; it contains eloquent discourses by the great Fathers of the Church, and hymns as notable for their literary merit as for their pious sentiments. Except the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments, the Church possesses no treasure of grace so abundant as the Divine Office which her priests offer to God every day at her command.