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The Breviary Made Simple

    The Roman Breviary is the modern compilation of many years of community and monastic prayer. We are told that the early Catholics "prayed seven times each day," and that, to a great degree, this prayer consisted of the chanting of the Psalms. Together with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the hours of the Divine Office sanctify the Church's day. The word "hour" refers to the recitation at relatively fixed times, and not to the length of any part of the Office.

    Each of the canonical hours has a time appropriate for its recitation. This is done wherever the Office is chanted or recited by a group. Insofar as possible, individuals who recite the Office should follow the same schedule. However, the law of the Church permits those who are required to pray the Office to do so at any time during the twenty-four hour period. The hour of Matins may be prayed the evening before. Sundays and important feasts have "First Vespers," which are prayed during the evening before the feast.


Approximate Time

Matins Midnight or before dawn
Lauds Sunrise
Prime Before work begins
Terce 9:00 A.M.
Sext Noon
None 3:00 P.M.
Vespers Evening
Compline At Bedtime
Table 1: Approximate Times for the Hours

    In learning to pray the Office it is necessary to understand the "structure of the hours, and where to obtain the Psalms and prayers required to "flesh out" this skeleton." For the beginner, not under obligation to recite the whole Office, it makes sense to start with one or two hours. When these hours are mastered, additional hours may be added.

    The hour of Compline makes a good beginning, since most breviaries print it in its entirety for each day of the week. When it is mastered, the beginner will want to add Lauds and Vespers. These have an identical structure, and are considered to be among the "Major Hours." The third Major Hour is Matins, a good one to add next, as it has many valuable readings. Prime has its own structure, similar to Compline, found in its entirety for each day of the week. The Minor Hours may be added last. They have identical structures.

Lauds & Vespers


Minor Hours

5 Psalms Invitiatory Hymn
Little Chapter and  Psalm 94 3 Psalms
A Hymn A Hymn Little Chapter
Canticle 9 Psalms Verses
Collect Our Father Collect
  Te Deum (on feasts)  
Table 2: The Structure of the Hours

    Detailed information on the structure of each hour may be found in the section of the Breviary know as the "Ordinary."

    And that brings us to a discussion of the other sections which make up the Roman Breviary:

    The Rubrics: These are directions for reciting the Mass and Office. They are helpful for refining a rudimentary understanding of the Office, and might be postponed until a little familiarity is gained. There are also rubrics scattered throughout the Breviary, wherever a bit of direction is required. These are often printed in red, whence their name.

    The Calendar: Tells us what feast will be offered on each day of the year in the Universal Church. Most dioceses and religious orders issue their own proper calendar, containing feasts of local significance. (eg: The Dedication of the Cathedral, the patron Saint, etc.)

   The Ordinary: Contains what we have been calling the "structure" of each hour. It is followed by a section which describes the changes made in the structure for the various seasons of the Church year. (eg: Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, etc.)

   The Psalter: This is the "meat" of the Breviary, containing the Psalms that will be read at each hour, each day of the week. It contains the complete hours of Prime and Compline, and the hymns and little chapters which are said when the Office is "of the Season," rather than "of the Feast." We will return to this distinction later.

     The Common of the Saints: There is a common for each type of saint: Apostles, Martyrs, Bishops, Confessors, Virgins, Holy Women, The Dedication of a Church, and the Blessed Virgin. These commons tell us what to add to, or replace, in the Psalter when the Office is recited in honor of one or another kind of saint.

      Office of the Dead: Except on All Soul's Day, these Offices may be added to the Office of the day. ie: they do not substitute for it.

   Proper of the Season: Contains the material which is added to the Psalter to form the Office for feasts related to the season of the year. (eg: Advent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.)

    As it may be inferred from the description above, the office appropriate to the day may come from either the season of the year (the seasonal or ferial cycle), or from the calendar date (the sanctoral cycle). For example, today might be the 3rd Wednesday in Lent (seasonal), or it might be March 19th, the feast of St. Joseph (sanctoral). Any given day can usually be found in both cycles -- it is always some day within some season, and most dates on the calendar have a saint associated with them. In order to determine which office is to be prayed, the Church has developed a system for assigning each possible office a rank. In the breviaries issued since Pope Pius XII an office is first (highest), second, third, or fourth (lowest) class. The rubrics give a moderately complicated system for determining what to do for any given seasonal rank coinciding with any other given sanctoral rank. The process can be avoided by simply using the diocesan calendar.

    The calendar will help determine which office is to be recited on a particular day, but the rank of the feast remains important in order to know where to obtain each section of the individual hours. The rules for doing this are given in the General Rubrics section (Nos. 167 -170 in the 1960 edition). The beginner may start out with the following guidelines:

    1) Look first at the Proper (of Saints or of the Season, as appropriate to the calendar). Follow any directions given there. Any elements missing from the Proper are taken from the Ordinary of the Season (seasonal feasts only), and then from the Psalter.

    2) First class feasts are printed almost completely in the Proper, or give explicit directions for obtaining what is missing. (The reader will always have to obtain Psalm 94, the Te Deum, the Benedíctus, and the Magníficat from the Ordinary.) The Psalms for Lauds, the Little Hours, and Compline will usually be those of Sunday.

    3) Second class feasts resemble those of the first class, but the Psalms of the minor hours will come from the weekday Psalter.

    4) Third class feasts take the Psalms and Lessons from the weekday. If the feast is that of a saint, the first two lessons are those of the season and the third lesson will be that of the saint.  Chapters, Hymns, Antiphons, and Collect(s) will come from the Proper or Common of Saints.

    5) Fourth class offices of saints are prayed as third class, or as ferials, as specified in the calendar.


Where to find things that have been abbreviated:

    Since many things in the Breviary are repeated weekly, daily, or even hourly, they are often not printed in full at each occurrence. For example, The Magnificat, or Canticle of the Blessed Virgin is recited every evening at Vespers. In order to save space, most Breviaries print it only once, in the Ordinary. Some may also print it again in a fly-leaf or removable card.

    A few things are found only where they make their first appearance in the Office. For example, after the first Psalm of Sunday's Matins most breviaries print the Glória Patri in full, and indicate that it is also to be recited after every other Psalm in the Psalter (with one or two exceptions). Likewise, seasonal rubrics are often printed only once, at their first occurrence.


Missing Feasts, or the lack of the appropriate volume of the Breviary

    It sometimes happens that the office to be prayed is not found in one's edition of the Breviary. Sometimes the volume appropriate to the season is not available. The following suggestions may be of help:

    1) Saints' feasts may be prayed by taking all of the necessary elements from the appropriate Common. For instance, the Feast of Our Lady of Consolation may be prayed by taking the texts given in the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    2) Various mysteries do not lend themselves to being prayed from any Common. For example, the finding of the Holy Cross, St. Peter's Chair at Antioch, or an office in honor of an angel. It is reasonable to utilize the prayers from a similar office on these feasts. In the examples given above, one might resort to the offices for the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14), St. Peter's Chair at Rome (Feb. 22), and the feast of the Guardian Angels (Oct 2).

    3) The most difficult feasts to substitute are those of our Lord. When this is necessary, it is sometimes possible to borrow elements from the Common of the Season (eg: Passiontide, Ascensiontide, etc.) which are printed at the beginning of each volume.

    4) A feast not in one's Breviary may be found in the Missal, which will contribute a distinctive collect.

    5) Butler's Lives of the Saints, or Dom Guéranger's The Liturgical Year, will serve as a good source for the Lessons for the feasts of the saints.


    Remember, above all, that the Breviary is prayer. It is not a contest to see how quickly one can "get it all in." Occasionally re-reading the Rubrics is worthwhile. The beginner would do well to seek the guidance of an experienced priest or religious to ensure that the Office is being said properly. But emphasis must be on devotion, rather than scrupulosity.

As with all prayer, the Divine Office is profitably said with four objectives in mind:

* We pray to adore God for His greatness.

* We pray to thank Him for His goodness.

* We pray for His forgiveness.

* We pray to ask Him for the things necessary to our well being and salvation.


    Always start with the calendar. Bear in mind the "class" of the day. Find the office of the day in the Breviary, and look for any unusual directions before beginning. Mark the sections you expect to use with ribbons.

The most common are Third Class Feasts (most weekdays outside Lent, Easter-week and Pentecost-week) unless differing directions are given in the proper of saints:

Matins: 9 Psalms from the psalter for the day of the week; 2-3 readings from the occurring scripture; 3rd reading from the proper of saints if given; Te Deum; Collect from the proper of saints. (If Lauds follow immediately, omit collect, ending of Matins, and opening of Lauds.)

Lauds: 5 Psalms from the psalter for the day of the week; little chapter, hymn, antiphon from the common of saints unless given in the proper; Benedictus; collect(s) from the proper.

Prime: From the psalter for the day of the week.

Terce, Sext, None: From the psalter for the day of the week; little chapter and responses from the common of saints; collect (1) from the proper.

Vespers: 5 Psalms from the psalter for the day of the week; little chapter, hymn, antiphon from the common of saints unless given in the proper; Magnificat; collect (1) from the proper.

Compline: Entirely from the psalter for the day of the week.


Oremus et pro invicem.
A Monk


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