But what, the reader will ask, have I to do with the Breviary? Only priests are concerned with it. Let us see. Perhaps you have more to do with it than you imagine. Is it a small matter that in this country alone more than eight thousand priests daily spend from an hour to an hour and a half in its recitation? Surely some others also must be benefited by so holy an exercise. But when it is remembered that the clergy of the United States form but a small fraction of those of the universal Church, the importance of this good work will be still more apparent.
Any attempt to explain the Breviary, the arrangement of its parts, and the changes for the different seasons, feasts, etc., would tend to confuse the reader rather than enlighten him, and will not, for that reason, be undertaken. But inasmuch as essays have been given on the treasures of the Missal and the Ritual, it seems fitting that something should also be said of the Breviary; and it is believed the reader will find that it is far from being an uninteresting volume.
The Breviary, it is unnecessary to state, is a book containing the offices which all priests and others in Holy Orders are obliged, under pain of mortal sin, to recite daily, unless exempted by a grave reason. It is divided into four volumes, similar to one another in general outline, and adapted to the four seasons of the year, as the whole in one volume would be too unwieldy for general use. The Office is known by several names. It is called the Divine Office, because it is recited in the divine honor; the Ecclesiastical or Church Office, because it is recited in the name and by the command of the Church; the Canonical Office, because it is said according to the sacred canons or laws of the Church; and the Breviary, for reasons that will appear in the sequel. But by far the most common name by which it is known among both the clergy and laity is simply the Office. It is composed of psalms, canticles, hymns; lessons from the Scripture, the lives of the saints, and the homilies or sermons of the Fathers; prayers, versicles and responses, with the frequent repetition of the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed; and it is divided into seven parts called the canonical hours. These are Matins, with Lauds, so named from the Latin word matutinum (morning), because in the primitive Church, and still with some religious orders, this part of the Office was said early in the morning; and it is required to be recited by all priests before Mass, unless hindered by a sufficient cause. Then come Prime—that is, first, because it was said at the first hour, or sunrise; Tierce, or third, from its being recited at the third hour, or nine o’clock; Sext. or sixth, which was said at the sixth hour, or noon; None, or nine, recited at the ninth hour, or three o’clock; Vespers, from the Latin word vespera (evening), because it was said in the evening; and Compline, or the completion, which was recited at bed-time, and served both as a fitting night-prayer and a completion of the Office.
It is to be remarked that the secular clergy and some of the religious orders and congregations are not bound to recite the Office precisely at these hours, being exempted by the nature of their pastoral duties or by their rules. They are permitted to say it at any time within the twenty-four hours of the day, and as much at a time as they may have the opportunity or the desire to recite , with the additional privilege of anticipating Matins and Lauds on the previous day, at any time after the middle of the afternoon, and in some countries after two o’clock. It may be further remarked that in the early days of the Church many of the faithful were accustomed to assist at the whole or a part of the Office, which was recited publicly in the church,— in choir, as it is called,—a custom which is still continued in many of the cathedrals and larger churches of the Old World.
According to the best authorities, the Office is substantially of apostolic origin, although it has undergone a gradual change till it has at length reached its present form. In the beginning it was composed almost entirely of the Psalms of David, which may be called the prayer-book of the early Christians; and they are the groundwork of the Office even at the present day. As time went on the Breviary gradually assumed its present form, the finishing touches being put to it at the recommendation of the Council of Trent. The first Breviary corrected by the Pope at the request of that august assembly was published in the year 1602. All persons obliged to the recitation of the Office were commanded to use this Breviary and no other, except such religious orders or churches as could claim for their own particular Office an antiquity of at least two hundred years. Previous to that time great latitude had been claimed by many bishops and religious communities in the arrangement of their respective Offices and reluctantly accorded by the Holy See.
The reason for adopting the name Breviary for the book containing the Office, and figuratively for the Office itself, has long been a subject of dispute. Some authorities maintain that it was so called from the fact that it is an abridgment, or epitome, of the Sacred Scriptures and the lives of the saints, the Latin word breviarium meaning an abstract or abridgment. Others will have it that the name had its origin from the shortening of the Office itself. The name was first used at the end of the eleventh century, when the Office was considerably abbreviated. The book containing the new Office was called the Breviary, or shortened Office, in contradistinction to the longer one. This seems to be the stronger reason for calling it the Breviary, and the true origin of the term; because when the two Offices were in use—as they were for a considerable Time—the new one would naturally be distinguished from the other by the name of Breviary, or abridgment.
With regard to the division of the Office into seven parts, or hours, there can be no doubt that, as it was at first composed almost exclusively of the psalms of the Royal Prophet, so it was divided in accordance with his pious custom, as expressed in his own words: “Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee, O God!”1 And though it was some time before all the several parts were formed, yet traces of some, at least, of the hours are found even in the days of the apostles. Nor is the opinion of some writers improbable, that the apostles, being converts from Judaism, adopted a division of prayer then in vogue among the Jews, the more devout of whom had learned from their great prophet-king to divide the day’s devotions into seven parts, or at least to have a certain number of fixed times for prayer.2 But be that as it may, it is well known that in the times of the apostles the day was divided into certain hours of prayer.3 Nor did the apostle; permit the most important duties, even those of charity, to interfere with their devotions, so highly did they value communion with God.4 Tertullian, who flourished in the latter half of the second century, calls the third, sixth, and ninth hours the Apostolic Hours; the Apostolic Constitutions, which date no later at most than the third century, speak of Prime; and St. Cyprian, who lived in the third century, mentions Vespers.5 According to one authority, Compline was added by St. Benedict, in the sixth century;6 but another authority,7 perhaps more deserving of respect, speaks of it as existing as early as the time of St. Ambrose, or in the latter half of the fourth century.
So much for the origin and divisions of the Office; two points yet more interesting remain to be discussed: the excellence of the Office as a form of prayer, and the part the laity have in the fruits of its recitation.
The excellence of the Office is derived from several sources, the first of which is the matter of which it is composed. The greater part of it is the inspired word of God, taken from the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments. Besides, there are abridged lives of the most illustrious servants of God in every age; extracts from the homilies and sermons of the Fathers of the primitive Church; hymns as remarkable for their authorship and literary merit as for the sublime truths and pious sentiments which they express; canticles which, for the beauty of their thought and language, have elicited the admiration of the learned of all times; and prayers that will never be equalled for their brevity, and tenderness and comprehensiveness of expression. “Many private prayers,” says St. Liguori, “do not equal in value only one prayer of the Divine Office, as being offered to God in the name of the whole Church, and in His own appointed words. Hence St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi says that, in comparison with the Divine Office all other prayers and devotions are of but little merit and efficacy with God. Let us be convinced, then, that after the holy sacrifice of the Mass the Church possesses no source, no treasure, so abundant as the Office, from which we may draw such daily streams of grace.”8 We may say with perfect confidence that the Office is the most efficacious form of prayer ever composed. Nothing approaches it in efficacy but the adorable sacrifice of the Mass, which, though accompanied with prayers, is not itself a prayer, but a sacrifice. The better to be convinced of this important truth, let us glance for a moment at the parts of which an Office is composed; and let us take the Office of a confessor and bishop, which is one of the shortest, and may for other reasons be regarded as one of the best samples. It is composed of thirty-eight psalms, counting the divisions of the one hundred and eighteenth psalm, three canticles, eight hymns, nine prayers, the Lord’s Prayer repeated fourteen times, the Hail Mary seven times, the Apostles’ Creed three times, and the Confiteor once, when recited by one person alone. There are three lessons from the Sacred Scripture, three from the life of the saint whose feast is being celebrated, and three from a homily of one of the Fathers on the gospel read in the Mass of the saint, with an absolution before each three and a blessing before each one. Then there are eight little chapters, the Te Deum once, the antiphon of the Blessed Virgin twice, and a great number and variety of versicles and responses, taken for the most part from the Scripture. The mere devout recitation of these by any person must call down innumerable graces.
But another source of excellence of the Office is that it is recited 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 petition for graces for all His children. Nor is this all. The Office is recited in the name of the Church, and by her authority; and hence it has all the influence with God that the spouse of His divine Son can give it, with the merit, too, of obedience on the part of those who recite it. It is the one great public prayer of the Church, as the Mass is the one great sacrifice of the Church. And here it is well to pause and explain what is meant by a public prayer in the language of the Church. It is not necessarily one that is said in public, even by the highest dignitary of the Church, but one that is recited in the name and by the authority of the Church. Hence, for example, if an archbishop were to recite the Rosary in his cathedral, and be responded to by a crowded audience, it would not be public prayer in the meaning of the Church; while it would be a public prayer for a priest, or even a subdeacon, to recite his Office alone in his room: because the one acts in his own name, the other in the name of the Church.
Again, the Office is so excellent a form of prayer that no indulgence is granted for its recitation, as there is none granted for hearing Mass; and this is, perhaps, the best evidence we could have of its surpassing excellence. Much more might be said on this point, but this, it is believed, will be sufficient to impress the reader with the idea that the Office stands alone, and far above all other exercises of devotion. But what benefits do you, kind reader, derive from the recitation of the Office by the clergy? This is a matter in which you are especially interested, and in which it is possible a pleasing revelation may be made to you in the concluding portion of this essay.
From the foundation of the world, as we learn from both sacred and profane history, certain persons were set apart to be, as it were, intermediaries between the people and God, not only to offer sacrifices, which was always the greatest act of divine worship, but also to pray for the people, to present their petitions before the divine presence, and to solicit such spiritual and temporal favors as might be desired. This is true not only of the Church of God in all times—whether patriarchal. Jewish, or Christian—but it is also true of the heathen nations, as is learned from the histories of ancient Egypt, Chaldea, Greece, and Rome; and even from our own aboriginal tribes, that had their medicine-men, whose services were so frequently demanded to propitiate the powers of the unseen world.
As regards the Jewish religion, the passages going to prove that the priests prayed, as well as offered sacrifice for the people, both individually and collectively, are so numerous that quotation is uncalled for; but nowhere is this more pathetically inculcated than in the following passage: “Between the porch and the altar the priests, the Lord’s ministers, shall weep, and shall say: Spare, O Lord ! spare Thy people; and give not Thy inheritance to reproach, that the heathens should rule over them.”9
The graces of the Redemption being more numerous, and flowing from more copious fountains, than those of the former dispensation, it is naturally to be expected that the priests of the New Law, the dispensers of the mysteries of God, as St. Paul calls them, should be entrusted with a more high and sacred office, and be vested with more ample powers : as the same apostle writes: “Every high-priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God.”10 In so far as this relates to the recitation of the Office, we shall again appeal to the authority of St. Liguori, one of the most learned, as well as one of the most holy, men of modern times; and in appealing to him we feel a security seldom accorded by the Holy See to the writings even of a saint—that, namely, that no person can be molested for adhering to an opinion in theological matters advanced by him. Although the little work from which the subjoined extracts are taken was written for priests, and although the extracts themselves are only remotely applicable to the laity, yet, as they go to show both the excellence of the Office, and the fact that it is recited for the benefit of the whole Church, and not for that of the clergy only, as is too generally supposed, they will be given as they stand:
“To those,” says the saint, “who are deputed by the Church to recite the Canonical Hours two very great and important offices are entrusted—that of praising and glorifying God and that of imploring the divine mercies upon all Christian people. . . . The Church has appointed her ministers to sing the Divine Office that men on earth may join with the blessed in heaven in honoring their common Creator. ... As seculars are constantly distracted with the affairs of the world, Holy Church has appointed her ministers to implore for themselves and for all the people of Christ the assistance of His divine majesty through the different hours of the day. For this end the Office is divided into seven canonical hours, that there may be always some praying for all, and in the best form of prayer; inasmuch as the Divine Office is nothing less than a memorial drawn up for us by God Himself, through which He may more readily hear our prayers, and succor us in our necessities.” And, addressing priests, he continues: “Consider that the Church charges you as her ministers to go and praise the Lord, and to implore His divine mercies for all mankind. ... In a word, think that you are going to speak to Him of your own welfare and of that of the whole Church ; and reflect that He then regards you with greater love, and listens more propitiously to your petitions.”11
Have you not now, kind reader, an answer to your question: What have I to do with the Breviary? When, then, you see a priest recite his Office, whether in the leisure that a limited amount of parochial duties places at his disposal, or in the moments snatched from rest, sleep, or the multifarious and distracting parish work of a large congregation, do not fail to remember that you, without any effort or exertion on your part, are sharing in his prayers; and let your heart well up with sentiments of gratitude to God, whose infinite wisdom has ordered all things with such love for you, and with thankfulness to the good priest, who has perhaps deprived himself of much-needed rest that he might approach the throne of Divine Mercy to present your spiritual and temporal necessities there, wholly unknown to you. Not until the day of the final reckoning will you understand how deeply you may be indebted for signal graces to some priest, who perhaps refused your urgent invitation to dinner, tea, or an excursion, that he might say his Office with more leisure and recollection. The recitation of the Breviary is only one more evidence of the truth that priests are not ordained for themselves, but for the people.
1 Psalms, cxviii. 164.
2 Daniel, vi. 10.
3 Acts, iii. 1; x. 9.
4 Acts, vi. 4.
5 “Catholic Dictionary,” article Breviary.
7 Wapelhorst, p. 351.
8 “Sacerdos Sanctifcatus,” pp. 128, 129.
9 Joel, ii. 17.
10 Hebrews, v. 1.
11 “Sacerdos Sanctifactus,” pp. 126-135.