Catholic CornucopiadCheney


The Roman Breviary: Its Sources and History

1. Here we bring to a close the history of the Roman Breviary, and the modifications and changes it has undergone during the course of centuries, and we may ask ourselves if there is any chance of a new revision in the immediate or more remote future? Some likelihood of it may be inferred from the fact that Leo XIII. in 1902 instituted a commission for the study of questions relating to the history of the liturgy. The alterations made in the rubrics by the pope in 1897 do not seem to answer to the desiderata frequently expressed since St. Pius V., and more especially under Benedict XIV. and at the Vatican Council. It is unfortunate that something was not done towards reinstating the ferial office, that the permission to recite the votive offices almost entirely frustrated the object Leo XIII. had in view; and it is unfortunate also that no new distribution of the psalter has been agreed on, in order to do away with monotony, and to reduce the length of the office for certain ferias, and especially for Sundays.

With a view to shortening some of the offices, it might well be suitable to cut down some of the legends of the second nocturn, especially in the offices of more modern saints. Their burden has become especially pressing since the decree limiting the transference of feasts when the legend of the saint replaces the ninth lection, for often two or three lections are run into one, each of them being as long as three ordinary lections.

In respect of the extracts from the Fathers, attention should be paid to certain criticisms and studies recently published. “In the majority of the offices added in our own days,” says Dom Morin,1 “it does not seem as if great care had been taken to select from sermons and homilies only such passages as are authentic. Thus, for example, in spite of its repeated revisions, the office, dogmatically so important, of the Immaculate Conception, has for the lessons of its second nocturn a passage from the famous composition, Cogitis me, attributed to St. Jerome, although the learned of the ninth century had already entertained doubts of its authenticity, and all critics without exception, from Baronius’ time, have rejected it as manifestly apocryphal. It is, in fact, a pious fraud of the learned abbot Ambrosius Autpert, one of the writers who have had the greatest influence on the development of Marian doctrine before Charlemagne.” “As the Roman church continues to make use of these passages,” adds Dom Morin, “they receive from this an authority to which their origin gives them no claim. This authority I, as a good Catholic, revere, and expressly leave out of the question in this study.” The article referred to extends over eight pages, full of critical observations upon the offices the recital of which is obligatory throughout the whole Latin Church.

As the Roman calendar becomes more and more filled, owing to new canonizations, the time will come when necessity will require some sort of selection to be made in confining the office to the better-known saints, or to those more famous from the power of their intercession or the devotion paid to them by the people.

2. The unity of liturgical tradition would not be affected by this, for, in fact, it has not suffered from those lawful changes through which the office has passed in the course of centuries. “The official prayer-book of the church has remained in its main features the same as prescribed by St. Pius V. Essentially his Breviary was the same as that of Innocent III. and the pontifical chapel of the thirteenth century, which, in its turn, was only an abridgement of the public office recited during the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries in the Roman basilicas, and the cathedrals of France, Germany, and England. This abridgement had reference only to certain parts, and hence the name Breviarium. Leo III, and Charlemagne never dreamed they were reciting any other office, a few additions apart, than that prescribed by St. Gregory the Great or his disciples. The work of Gregory was nothing else than a codification and abridgement of the canonical hours recited during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries in Rome, throughout Italy, and even in other countries. Thus the canonical hours are a magnificent growth of divine service, the germ of which had been planted in apostolic times: it is the living development of ritual devotions which have their root in the needs of the human heart and in the relations of the man and the Christian with his Creator and Redeemer.2

We conclude with the following words of Dom Bäumer: “The earthly psalmody, or, in other words, the praises of God uttered by the lips of priests and monks, either in their solitary cells or in the choir in church, are but the echo of those eternal songs which the elect, in union with the choirs of saints and angels, sing to the melodies of the heavenly Jerusalem before the throne of the Lamb. May we all find ourselves among the elect, that we may for ever be eternally associated with those choirs of blessed spirits. Here below in our exile let us practise with fervour that which is to be our endless occupation in the realms of bliss in our Father’s House.”

“Ut in omnibus honorificetur Deus, per Jesum Christum, cui est gloria et imperium in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.”3

1 “Les Leçons apocryphes du Bréviaire romain," article in the Revue Bénédictine in 1891, p. 271.
2 Dom Bäumer, Histoire du Bréviaire, vol. ii. p. 420.
3 1 Pet. iv. 11.