Catholic CornucopiadCheney

Part I: The Patristic Period

Chapter I: The Ante-Nicene Epoch

The Roman Breviary: Its Sources and History

I. We must not expect to find in the earliest years of the Christian religion a set form of prayer to be recited as of daily obligation by sacred ministers entrusted with the continuance of the apostles’ labours. It is true that the apostles, at the very time when they ordained the seven deacons, declared that they intended to devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word (Acts vi. 4), and so traced out a programme for their successors in the apostolate. But to what extent, or in what form, prayer was to be part of their apostolic labours we are not told. The book of the Acts and the epistles of St Paul show us plainly1 how the first Christians assembled together and gave themselves to the great duty of prayer, as it had been practised in the Jewish synagogues, but it is impossible to tell what were the days on which these assemblies took place, what formularies were recited, or what was the general character of the supplications offered up.

Dom Bäumer gives us the result of his researches into the apostolic period in the following words: “At the date of the final separation between the Christians and the synagogue, about the year 65 (the date when the first epistle to Timothy was written), the Apostles had adopted, in addition to the liturgy and the Mass, at least one hour set apart for prayer, and probably even two; i.e. Lauds (originally called Matins, because celebrated in the morning at dawn) and Vespers. Certain psalms, the reading of the Sacred Books, along with certain chants and prayers, not yet reduced to a fixed form, but composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, formed, with the preaching of the word, the basis of these devotional practices.”2

2. The Second Century, (a) Outside Jerusalem, where the first Christians could from the beginning take part in the daily services of the Temple, it does not seem that assemblies for Christian worship were held oftener than once a week. After the prohibition of the Emperor Trajan especially, it was necessary to confine these assemblies to the reunions on Sunday, to which the younger Pliny refers in his letter: “Affirmabant christiani quod essent soliti statuto die ante lucem convenire, carmenque Christo quasi Deo dicere, quibus peractis, morem sibi discedendi fuisse rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum.” The vigil before Sunday was connected with the remembrance of our Lord’s resurrection.

St. Clement of Rome, the disciple of the Apostles, merely says that regulations have been made touching the time and manner of the celebration of worship, without giving further particulars. It is plain, however, from the context, that he is referring to acts of worship other than the holy sacrifice of the Mass. A document dating from either the end of the first or beginning of the second century, the Doctrina Apostolorum, or Διδαχή, says in chapter viii. that there is one prayer which ought to be recited thrice daily by all faithful, i.e. the Pater Noster. Doubtless this was intended to supply the want of the daily reunions in the morning and evening, which could not take place without great danger, (b) We have no authentic information concerning the official prayer of the church for the years which follow until we reach the beginning of the third century. St. Justin Martyr does not expressly refer to it; Clement of Alexandria gives us to understand that in his day it was only private prayer which was in use, and regarded as of obligation. Tertullian’s evidence is more important and distinct: he bears witness to the existence of forms of liturgical prayer for morning and evening (Laudes vel Matutinæ et Vesperæ). From the details which he gives, we can gather with sufficient certitude that in the third century, both in the Latin and Eastern churches, the only official liturgical hours were Lauds and Vespers, but it is impossible to decide in any precise manner what were the constituent parts of these hours, or whether they were regarded as of obligation for all. In addition to this, we gather from Tertullian’s writings that divine service was held on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (the two latter “stations” probably came into existence later than the first), and that there was a festal season from Easter to Pentecost, when fasting was forbidden. He says nothing whatever of other festivals of our Lord. “The organization is obviously very rudimentary: the Passion, the festival of Easter with its preparation, the sacred period of fifty days, the Sundays, the ‘station’ days in the week, some anniversaries of martyrs and the departed, and nothing more.”3

We gather much the same scanty information from the writings of Origen († 251). In his work against Celsus, he speaks of “prescribed prayers” offered up by the Christians day and night with zeal, perseverance, and reverence, but this may mean nothing more than the private prayer rendered obligatory three times a day according to the Didache. In his De Oratione (ch. 12) he repeats that prayer ought to be made during the night, in accordance with the teaching of psalms 118 and 62, and after the example of St. Paul and Silas at Philippi (Acts xvi. 25). But this has reference to private devotion alone.4

With regard to the canons of Hippolytus (of which the authenticity is much disputed at the present day), which represent, in their primitive form, the discipline of the Roman church, as well as that of the entire Western Latin church at the beginning of the third century, they reveal the existence of a practice in full agreement with what Tertullian shows us was in force in the Latin churches towards the year 200. Perhaps the sole point of difference is that in Tertullian the morning common prayer (the office ad Gallicinium) was not prescribed for every day, while the canons of Hippolytus state the contrary.

St. Cyprian of Carthage bears witness to the fact that in the middle of the third century five stated times for prayer were recognised during the day (Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers) and one during the night. His words, however, do not make it clear whether or not he considered these five hours, singly or altogether, as a public office, celebrated by all in common. Finally, in the Acts of St. Saturninus of Toulouse (died about 250), we have authentic evidence to the fact that, apart from the feast of Easter, the anniversaries of certain martyrs were celebrated by the people with vigils, παννυχία, in the third century.

(c) As a result, we find that, during the years we have just passed in review, the canonical hours of Lauds, Vespers, and the nocturnal Vigil were solemnly celebrated by all in common in the assemblies of the Christians: (a) first, during the night between Saturday and Sunday—the Vigilia Dominicalis; (b) a little later, in the Wednesday and Friday in each week—the Vigiliæ Stationales (the name “station” is given for the first time in the Shepherd of Hernias to the fast observed on these days); (c) then, finally, on the anniversaries of martyrs. For this the faithful assembled in the cemetery where the martyr was buried, and hence the name Vigiliæ Cimiteriales. The other hours, Terce, Sext, and None, remained private forms of prayer, and were recited in common on the station days at most. Certain psalms, a lection from Holy Scripture, some prayers and exhortations, formed the ground-work of these hours.5

3. At the commencement of the fourth century we can trace the beginning of an evolution with regard to the liturgical hours, which had its origin in the Thebaid, the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria at that period inhabited by hermits and monks.

While the effects of this evolution were as yet unfelt, the Synod of Elvira in Spain, held about the year 300 and of great importance for the liturgical discipline of the West, passed no measure dealing with the organisation of the divine office. The documentary evidence furnished by the Fathers is very scanty.

(a) Eusebius of Cæsarea, in various passages of his Commentary on the Psalms, written between 327 and 340, speaks of the public chanting of the psalms in the liturgical office. The desire of the prophet in the 65th psalm has been fulfilled, he says, by the celebration of Easter and by the chant everywhere employed in the churches. With regard to the 91st psalm, Eusebius distinguishes between the celebration of the Eucharist and another hour of prayer observed very early in the morning, composed for the most part of psalmody along with a certain number of other prayers. From his comments on the 142nd psalm, it appears that for Eusebius the Laudes Matutinæ or morning office was, along with the holy Mass, of the greatest importance. Finally, in his commentary on the 64th psalm, it is clear that in his days Lauds and Vespers were celebrated everywhere in the church as public offices and most probably daily.6

In his Life of the Emperor Constantine, the same historian says that every day at fixed hours the emperor shut himself up in order to say his prayers; that he prepared himself for the Easter solemnity by austerities and fervent prayer; that he issued a decree to heads of provinces (præsides provinciarium) directing them to keep a strict watch over the observance of Sunday; and, finally, that he enjoined the celebration of the martyrs’ feasts and of the sacred seasons. These seasons, besides Epiphany, Ascension, and perhaps Pentecost, were the days of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord—one week before and one week after Easter.

(b) Thus we find at this date Lauds and Vespers celebrated daily in public. Easter was preceded by a nocturnal vigil, παννυχία, and so, probably, were the feasts of the martyrs as well. The remaining hours were matters of private devotion. They were mainly composed of psalms, lections, hymns, and short prayers.

(c) It is at this date, or perhaps a little earlier, that we must place the composition of prayers and hymns, partly in the form of antiphons, as part of the office. St Basil († 379) quoted as a dogmatic proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit one of these hymns, the Lumen hilare, still used in the office of the Greeks. He states that this hymn had been used at Vespers by his predecessors, and that for a long time it had been sung by the people without any one knowing by whom it had been composed. We find other quotations from hymns belonging to the first three centuries, but there is nothing to prove that they were used at the canonical hours.

4. As a conclusion to this first stage of our inquiry, a word must be said concerning the liturgical year and the cycle of Christian festivals which seems to have grown up in the first years of the fourth century. Easter was the Christian festival par excellence, Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, being nothing else than a weekly repetition of this solemnity. Wednesday and Friday were fast-days throughout the entire year, with the exception of the paschal season (which extended to Pentecost), and on these days, after prayer made in common in the church (statio militiaæ Christi), Mass was celebrated at the hour of None. In certain places a fast was observed for one week after Pentecost. We have conflicting evidence concerning the forty days before Easter. It seems, nothing had been definitely established before the third or, perhaps, the fourth century. It belonged to each bishop to publish his own regulations for his diocesans. The fifth canon of the Nicene Council is the most ancient evidence extant for the observance of Lent as a time of preparation for the reception of baptism, or for penitence and spiritual recollection. The Embertides were at first a purely Roman institution of uncertain origin. Dom Morin in an article in the Revue Bénédictine,7 thinks Mgr. Duchesne’s hypothesis (Origines du Culte chrétien, p. 223) cannot be adopted. This is to the effect that the Embertides are a survival of the ancient Roman liturgical week, a real fast being substituted for the half-fasts of the ordinary stations (Wednesday and Friday). But then, how could St. Augustine say in one of his letters that in his days, when the Embertides were in existence in Rome, the Christians of that city still retained the custom of fasting on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of each week? This gives grounds for believing, says Dom Morin, that the Embertides were in existence for some time before the ancient observance of the liturgical week fell into disuse. They appear to have been instituted as an offset to some pagan religious usages observed in Rome during the first centuries of our era. The Liber Pontificalis, which attributes their institution to Callixtus I. about the middle of the third century, says they were observed “ter in anno.” At first no trace of an Embertide is found in Lent. As a matter of fact, the pagan solemnities were held only thrice in the year, their date being left to the choice of the priests, and publicly announced beforehand. In the Christian liturgy, the services for all the Embertides contain gospel lections relating to the casting out of devils, with the exception of the Embertide in December, which is wholly occupied with the approaching advent of the Redeemer. The aim of the church was to contrast those passages of Scripture which show us the evil spirit compelled to depart from man, with the pagan worship, in which she saw a public homage rendered to the devil. Up to the middle of the sixth century, Rome was alone in her observance of Embertides. The Ascension and Pentecost were celebrated perhaps from before the end of the third century. It is not easy to decide whether Christmas was observed as a feast distinct from the Epiphany at the beginning, or only after the middle, of the fourth century. “Towards the end of the third century,” says Mgr. Duchesne,8 “it became an established custom to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Christ, but not everywhere on the same day. In the West the 25th December was chosen, in the East the 6th January. These two usages, at first distinct, became at last combined, so that both were celebrated throughout the world, or nearly so.”

Feasts of martyrs have been celebrated since the second century. Every church, no matter how unimportant, had its diptychs, its calendar, or its fasti, as Tertullian calls them. The most ancient of these lists which has come down to us is a list of the anniversaries of the Roman bishops or popes, and of a considerable number of the martyrs, celebrated in Rome. It was composed by a certain Philocalus (hence it is called the Philocalian Calendar) before the middle of the fourth century (about 336), and represents the festivals of the Roman church at the restoration of public worship among the Christians after the Diocletian persecution. It comprises twenty-four feasts of martyrs (six of them being popes), and twelve memorials of popes as well.

1 Acts xx. 7; 1 Cor. xiv. 26, 28; 1 Tim. iv. 13; Ephes. v. 19; and Col. iii. 16.
2 Histoire du Bréviaire, i. p. 58.
3 Dictionnaire d’Archéologie chrétienne et du Liturgie, i. 299, art. Afrique.
4 Migne, Pair. Gr., xi. 1359-1360 and 451.
5 Dom Bäumer, i. p. 78. Batiffol, Histoire du Bréviaire romain, pp. 14-15; Eng. trans, pp. 13-14.
6 Cf. Migne, Patr. Gr., xxiii. 647-648.
7 1897, p. 337 et seqq..
8 Origines du Culte Chrétien, p. 259.