A Brief History of the Divine Office
By Divine Office, the Code of Canon Law
designates both the canonical hours and the monastic Mass, recited
either in cathedrals or collegiate chapters (can. 413), or in
religious communities bound to the pray the Office in choir (can.
610). These canonical hours are also prescribed for private
recitation by clerics possessing holy orders (can. 155), as well as
benefactors (can. 1475) and professed religious, whenever they are
unable to attend the common recitation.
As the Divine Office constitutes the
objective, public and permanent prayer of Holy Mother Church, its
effectiveness functions ex opere operantis ecclesiae, and
is thus essentially superior to other private prayers.
The Old Testament
The Book of Genesis (4:26) states that with
Enos (son of Seth, grandson of Adam) people began to invoke the Name
of the Lord, clearly indicating the beginning of public worship; so
the Magisterium of the Holy Church has always understood it.
When King Josiah of Judah (640 BC)
centralized the public worship in the Temple of Jerusalem, the
prayer of the chosen people was also standardized, thus prefiguring
the Divine Office of the New and Everlasting Testament.
At the time of Our Lord
By the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, the
Jews already had a well established routine for the worship of God.
It was binding on all except women, children, and slaves. This
worship consisted of prayers taken from Sacred Scripture, mostly
from the Pentateuch and the Psalter. They could be recited publicly,
in the synagogues, or privately, in a specially designated and/or
the highest place of a house.
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself used to pray.
St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, proposed the question:
"Would it behoove Jesus Christ to pray?" The reply is obviously
positive, because our Lord, being true God and true man, was able
and duty-bound as man to formally pray to God, in the exact measure
as the distinction between the two natures in the one Divine Person
generated a true human will hypostatically united to the Word of
God. If Our Lord had not been able to pray, he could never have
offered himself on the Cross, and restore us to supernatural life.
The Early Church
The first Christians, being outlawed,
worshipped publicly in the catacombs, where conditions were still
not suitable for composing a specific Divine Office for either
public or private recitation. There were, however, already some
official preparatory prayers for the Mass, and the Easter Triduum
also comes from these ancient times. In spite of this lack of
organized, official prayer, good Christians began to encourage the
custom of sanctifying the beginning and end of each day by prayer.
This developed further by adopting, on a purely private basis, the
tradition of elevating the heart to God at the third hour after dawn
(9 o'clock), the sixth hour (noon), and the ninth hour (three
o'clock). Those who abandoned the cult of the catacombs were
considered apostates. The prayers, ecclesial and public, elevated by
the Christians thrown to the beasts, constituted—after the infinite
merits of Our Lord and the superabundant merits of Our Lady and
Saint Joseph—the most esteemed supernatural light of the Communion
of the Saints; and even today this treasure radiates mightily upon
the earth. By the beginning of the fourth century, fervent prayers
were being recited in the ascetic and monastic communities at
various times of the day and night, and the Christian laity, under
the influence of monks and virgins, began to sanctify their life by
adopting these practices. Even the bishops themselves began to
preside over these prayers in the church. Since the fifth century,
the Office has been celebrated every day in the churches at the
canonical hours, with the participation and under the direction of
the clergy. Many times, the faithful, although they did not
personally attend the Office, demanded that it be celebrated
regularly in their churches, despite its being very inconvenient for
the clergy, as it implied sacrifices to which they were not
accustomed. There was already a perfect awareness of the
effectiveness of the public prayer of the Holy Church (Ex Opere
Along with the discipline of celibacy, the
fact that the secular clergy was required to recite the canonical
hours constitutes a legacy of ascetism.
The Divine Office and the Secular Clergy
In fact, the influence of the ascetics
(hermits), both men of God and virgins, was so great that it would
have jeopardized the authority of the secular clergy, were they not
to join the monks in the practice of celibacy and in the
consecration of the day by reciting the Canonical Hours. From this
time originates the obligation for the secular clergy to publicly
celebrate the Canonical Hours, night and day, in the churches and
cathedrals, in towns and villages; this obligation of the clergy is
confirmed, under severe penalties, by the (non-ecumenical) councils
of Toledo (400), Agda (506), and Orléans (511). Moreover, St. Basil
(4th century) had already commanded that any monks unable to attend
the common prayer for any reason, must recite it in private. St.
Benedict (6th century) did the same; and soon this obligation had
extended also to the secular clergy.
After the dissolution of common life within
the clergy, the Divine Office was hardly ever chanted in common any
more, except in cathedrals, collegiate churches, convents and
monasteries; nevertheless the clergymen, at least those with
benefits, remained bound to the private recitation of the Hours. The
Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) accused of irreligion the
clergymen, who, having spent the night in useless conversations,
rise up at daybreak to recite their Matins hastily (can. 17). The
Council of Trèves (1227) mandated every priest to possess a breviary
so that, even while traveling, he could recite the prayers (can. 9).
Until the eighth century, however, there was
no uniformity in the recitation of the Divine Office; the
metropolitan churches strongly influenced the subsidiary dioceses,
and the provincial councils sought to give the Office a certain
uniformity. There was, however, a tendency to recite the entire
Psalter within the space of a week.
When some uniformity began to be introduced,
it was founded on the Benedictine Rule, on the traditions of the
great Roman monasteries and Vatican basilicas, St. John Lateran and
St. Mary Major. In these basilicas the chapter (capitulum) in fact
began as regular clerics and only later became secular.
The Growing Need for a Breviary
For a complete recitation, several
accessories were necessary: the Psalter, the Book of the Prophets,
the Book of the Law (Pentateuch), the Antiphonary, the Responsorial
and Hymnal, the Passional with the Acts of the Martyrs (later called
the Martyrology), as well as the Sanctoral. Now, at a time when
literary production was wholly dependent on copyists (there was no
press back then), it is understandable how this large compilation of
books would be extremely inconvenient in the private and itinerant
recitation of the Office. Thus it was that the notion of a Breviary
was devised, from the Latin word Breviarium, meaning “summary. And
in fact, it did represent a shortening of the Office, as the Office
of Our Lady, the Office of the Dead, and the Penitential Psalms were
no longer added. It was at this time also that the process began of
suppressing the temporal cycle in favor of the sanctoral.
The Breviary of the Curia – a natural
outgrowth of the Office of the Basilicas and Monasteries of Rome -
was spread under Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), Gregory IX
(1226-1241) and was imposed at Avignon in 1337 by Pope Benedict XII.
The Renaissance had detrimental effects on
the Breviary's natural development. The so-called Breviary of
Quiñonez that was in force for 40 years starting in 1535, gained
great popularity; its Offices were all of the same length, each with
three Psalms. This was a Breviary better suited for reading rather
than prayer, and was more in line with the new Lutheran customs than
with Catholic tradition. Cardinal Caraffa, the future Pope Paul IV,
a great defender of the Faith, forbade its circulation.
At the Sacred Council of Trent strong
complaints were issued against the Breviary of Quiñonez. The council
appointed a commission to make corrections, but these were never
realized as the Council closed and the matter was handed over to the
The Council of Trent
The Breviary of the Council of Trent was
promulgated by a bull of July 9, 1568; this preserved the tradition
of the complete recitation of the Psalter during the week,, while
restoring the balance between the temporal and sanctoral cycles. At
the same time, the Breviary of Quiñones was outlawed. The same
prohibition was enforced for all breviaries that did not have papal
approval, or which were less than two centuries old. Pope St. Pius V
forbade any modification, suppression or addition, to the Breviary
of Trent. However, in 1602, by the Bull of Pope Clement VIII, the
same Breviary of Trent appeared with notable additions to the
Sanctoral. Pope Urban VIII, in 1631, also promulgated a new edition.
Pope Benedict XIV (eighteenth century) also attempted a reform of
the Breviary but did not succeed, the same thing happening with
Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII.
The Reform of Pope St. Pius X
The reform of Pope St. Pius X aimed to
restore the beautiful tradition of the recitation of the entire
Psalter in one week, which the earlier Popes had been unable to
The multiplication of the feasts of the
Saints—136 in 1568 had become 266 by 1911—had as a consequence the
repetition of the same Psalms, excluding those that are the most
beneficial for the soul. Earlier Popes had tried to solve this by
pruning the Calendar. On the other hand, St. Pius X completely
restored the Psalter by distributing it differently; moreover, he
eliminated patristic texts of legendary character and reformulated
the Sanctoral by reducing into a single celebration certain related
feasts, eliminating others, or reducing their rank to simple
(simplex) or just a commemoration. He also strictly prohibited the
introduction of new feasts in the Calendar. In this context, St.
Pius X also intended most of Sacred Scripture to be read during the
liturgical year. St. Pius X restored Sunday to its ancient dignity,
giving precedence to the temporal cycle of great supernatural
Mysteries of the Faith over the Sanctoral. All these reforms were
promulgated in the Bull Divino Afflatu of November 1, 1911.
Kalendars of the Breviary
The Breviary contains only the feasts of the
Universal Church; however, each diocese may have its own particular
Offices, which are administered by and disciplinarily dependent on
the respective bishops, while remaining subject to the approval of
the Holy See.
The Beginning of the Destruction of the
The two World Wars of the 20th century
inflicted severe suffering on the Christian people. Pope Pius XII
promulgated numerous indults by attenuating the Eucharistic fast and
making the timing of the Holy Mass more flexible. In this general
framework of simplification, the same Pope also made alterations to
the Divine Office, reducing all semidouble celebrations to
commemorations, decreasing considerably the number of vigils and
octaves (maintaining only those of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost),
suppressing many of the prayers and preces, and confining the Final
Antiphon of the Blessed Virgin to the end of Compline; the Creed of
St. Athanasius was maintained only on Trinity Sunday. Although these
changes were deliberately designed to remain temporarily within the
bounds of orthodoxy, the fact is that they were extremely
inopportune, coming as they did as part of a corrupted liturgical
movement aimed at destroying the liturgy. By a process of
gradualism (see the reforms of Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI
elsewhere on this page), the enemies of the Church and the Liturgy,
led by Annibale Bugnini, set the Divine Office, as well as the Mass
itself, on the inexorable path to destruction.