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The Divine Office, Part III: From St. Gregory the Great to Pius X

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This 1924 article is the third in a series by The Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey on the Divine Office. The contributions of the pontificates of St. Gregory the Great (590) through Pope Pius X (1903) are the focus of this installment.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


283 - 288

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, December 1924

Part III. From St. Gregory the Great to Pius X

From the middle of the sixth century, as we have seen, we meet with a definite and ordered distribution of the hours of Liturgical Prayer. Whatever had been, up till then, either vague, or excessive, had been determined, or moderated by St. Benedict, in whose Rule we find crystallized all the best traditions of the Church. We should be going too far were we to imagine that this great man improvised, all of a piece, that most symmetrical structure of Offices with which he has enriched the world. On the contrary, we find him speaking again and again of antiphons, hymns, responsories, collects, as things known to everybody, and already in daily use everywhere. His dispositions are only an adaptation of what he had witnessed in Rome. When the Monks of Monte Cassino took up residence near the Lateran Basilica, it seems scarcely credible that they should have attempted, or should have been per mitted, to say an Office totally different from that recited by the clergy attached to that Basilica, for there can be no doubt that the Monks attached to the Lateran celebrated their Office within its noble halls. There was but one text of the Office, and it was both Roman and Benedictine, the differences between them, if any, being almost negligible. (Cf. Dom S. Baeumer, Geschichte des Breviers, ch. III.)

With the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great we reach a period of supreme and lasting consequence for the Liturgy. That truly great Pope had been a monk, and Abbot of one of the Roman Benedictine monasteries. He was, therefore, thoroughly familiar with the order of the Divine Office established by St. Benedict. On ascending the Chair of Peter, in 590, one of his first cares was to regulate, with the fullness of Apostolic authority now vested by him, the various services and functions of the Church. The whole subsequent Christian tradition rightly looks upon St. Gregory as the father and founder of our Roman Liturgy. He did not improvise, — there already was a Liturgy — all that was needed was an authoritative fixation of the main elements of the Church's services, both as to matter and form. This was Gregory's contribution to the formation of the Liturgy. His biographer tells us that the work was done by the Pontiff, multa subtrahens, pauca convertens, nonnulla vero superadjiciens (Vita St. Greg. Migne, P. L. LXXV. 94). St. Pius V pays homage to the liturgical reforms of St. Gregory when he declares that the Roman Breviary is "divini Officii formula pie olim ac sapienter a summis Pontificibus, praeser tim Gelasio et Gregorio primis, constituta." Of the Benedictine Breviary, Walafrid Strabo says that it is "vicina auctoritati Romanae, et quia Beatus Gregorius vitam egregii Patris Benedicti describens, Regulam ab eo conscriptam, in qua idem Officium habetur, collaudans, sua auctoritate statutis ejus favere videtur" (De reb. eccl. 25).

Through the apostolic journeys of Benedictine missionaries, the Roman Office gradually spread over all Europe, with the exception of Gaul, where other uses had been long established. However, in the year 805 Charlemagne published an imperial edict compelling all the churches of the Empire to adopt the rites and chants of the Roman Church.

Roughly speaking, we may say that the Divine Office, as it was celebrated in the great Roman Basilicas from the days of St. Gregory the Great, is identical, at least in its broad lines, with the Office which we recite, day by day. Yet were there many and important differences. The psalms, for one thing, were frequently sung with an antiphon, that is, the antiphon was not only sung, or said, before the psalm was intoned, but, was repeated between each verse, as is still done at the Invitatory of Matins. The lessons, both those taken from the Scriptures and the Homilies of the Fathers of the Church, were of great length, since the whole Bible was read through in the course of the year. The legends of the Saints were likewise of considerable length. An immense number of manuscript books were required for the proper celebration of the Liturgy, whilst the memory, too, was heavily taxed. St. Benedict took it for granted that all his monks knew the entire psalter by heart. Those who did not know it were commanded to learn it in the intervals between the Night Office and Lauds.

It is evident that the first compilers of the Liturgical Office had but one thing in mind, namely, its recitation in common, by a considerable body of clerics and monks, under the presidency of the Bishop or Abbot. It should be borne in mind that in those early centuries of our era, the civilized world was not so densely populated as it is to-day. Rural and parochial clergy there was none, but each city, or even a village of some importance, had its own Bishop who lived in community with his clergy. The people scattered through the countryside were evangelized from this common center. When the sacraments were to be administered, or some local Saint was to be honored, the Bishop went forth from his Episcopal city, accompanied by his clergy, with whom he recited the canonical hours as he was wont to do in his cathedral church. On Sundays, and upon the great festivals of the year, the whole population of the neighboring hamlets and villages flocked to the episcopal city, or to any other place where the Bishop had set up his Cathedra for the time being. For this very reason St. Gregory the Great ordained that Bishops should not set up their Cathedra in monastic churches, because of the disturbance occasioned to the monks by the great affluence of people. Thus the entire religious and civic life of the people gravitated round the Episcopal city and its Cathedral church.

Such a system could only work satisfactorily so long as the numbers to be dealt with were relatively small. In those days dioceses were confined within narrow boundaries; also, in those troubled times, for the sake of security, the country folk were perforce compelled to live within easy distance of some important center.

In the twelfth and thirteenth century a great change came over Europe. Altered economic conditions imperatively demanded the creation of a parochial clergy. The priest with a cure of souls could no longer live as a member of a community. He must needs take up his residence among his people in village and hamlet. The solemn and public celebration of the Divine Office was no longer possible, except perhaps on some few days in the year, on the occasion of some festival which would cause a conflux both of priests and people. It was necessary to adjust the Choir Office to the new conditions, so as to render its private recitation possible for a busy parish priest living alone, at a distance from the Cathedral church.

This was the time when the Mendicant Orders arose. They spread rapidly throughout Europe, precisely because their vocation and purpose was so eminently adapted to the new needs of the world, namely, the preaching of the Gospel from place to place. The monk residing in his monastery could still devote the best of his time and energy to his chief work in life — the Opus Dei. The friar's need, and for that matter, the parish priest's — was, not the numerous volumes in use in a monastic, or cathedral choir, but some small book which he could easily carry about on his many displacements. It is then that Breviaries first appear, more or less in the shape in which we know them. "Breviaria sua in quibus possint horas suas legere, quando sunt in itinere," says a Council of Treves in 1227. By order of Gregory IX, Haymo, General of the Friars Minor, composed an abridgment of the Canonical Offices — in short, a Breviary — which Nicholas III (1277-1280) imposed on the Roman Basilicas. Thus were the older, longer Offices gradually supplanted by the new Breviary, even the monks falling in with the new trend towards shorter services. However, the Roman Basilicas, and in particular that of the Lateran, clung tenaciously to the old forms. For this reason Gregory XI (1370-1378) that is, a full century later, ordained that, in order that harmony might exist between the head and the members, the Lateran Basilica should sing the night and day Offices juxta rubricam, ordinem, sive morem sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, seu capellae Domini nostri Papae. This decree is important, inasmuch as, for the first time in history, the principle is laid down that the Ordo Curiae, or Capellae Papalis, is to be considered as the mos Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae and the standard to be copied by other churches. (Cf. Baeumer, Brevier, p. 321.)

Notwithstanding this decree, local churches, as well as religious Orders, held fast by their own traditions. The Office of the Capellae Papalis had not been imposed on the Universal Church and so the door had been left open to further changes and innovations. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at, that a variety of offices and breviaries should have been the result of the latitude left for the play of private likes and dislikes.

When the Council of Trent met, one of the questions with which the Fathers meant to deal was that of the reform of the Breviary. However, the subject only came up for discussion towards the close of that illustrious assembly. A commission was appointed to study the whole question of uniformity in the celebration of the Divine Offices. A new Breviary, the fruit of its labors, was published by St. Pius V, and rendered obligatory by the Bull Quod a nobis, July 9, 1568.

We are all familiar with this Breviary, since it is the one that was placed in our hands on the day of our ordination to the subdiaconate. It has undergone no substantial alteration since 1568, until the Pontificate of Pius X. The Bull of Pius V abolished all local breviaries which could not lay claim to an antiquity of at least two hundred years. A great many feasts of Saints and Octaves were likewise suppressed, so as to ensure the more regular recitation of the ferial Office. Apart from the feasts of our Lord, the new Breviary counted only some sixty doubles, about thirty or forty semi-doubles and thirty-three simples. Thus it came about that the ferial Office could be celebrated on some two hundred days. However, the immediate successors of the great Dominican Pope re-established many feasts suppressed by him, thus once more displacing the ferias. During the Pontificate of Urban VIII many of the Breviary hymns were tampered with — notwithstanding the venerable antiquity of most of them — on the plea of correcting their defective Latinity, or prosody. We shall have more to say on these corrections when discussing the Breviary hymns.

The last, and to us the most interesting alteration, or innovation, in the sacred psalmody has been brought about by that great and holy Pontiff, Pius X. Up to his Pontificate, especially during the reign of his illustrious predecessor, Leo XIII, the feasts of Saints had been greatly multiplied. Even the Sunday Office had to yield place to the Saints, so that the celebration of a Sunday Office was a rare occurrence, outside the closed seasons of Advent, Septuagesima and Lent. The most obvious consequence of this frequency of saints' days was the repetition of the same psalms. Some psalms were said almost daily, others were never heard in choir, and remained comparatively unknown to the majority of those who are bound to say Office. Moreover, the clergy had a legitimate ground for complaining, in that the longest Offices — if the Sunday Offices were said — coincided with these days, when their parochial duties made the heaviest claim upon their time and energy. A return to older, simpler and shorter forms of Liturgical Prayer had become imperative. However, the change was to be brought about in such wise that the honor due to the saints should suffer no loss, whilst the ferial Office should once more come into its own. It is clear to all that this ideal was most happily realized. The Octave of Christmas set an obvious precedent which needed but to be followed on a larger scale. Thus we now happily combine the cultus of the saints, with which we have been so long familiar, whilst we are at the same time enable to enjoy the rich feast spread before us in the ferial and Sunday Offices. Moreover, a fairly successful effort has been made to secure the integral recitation of the psalter in the course of each week. Yet, far from adding to the priest's daily burden, he has, on the contrary, been relieved from a task which at times it was almost beyond his power to bear.

After these sketchy and all too summary preliminary details, we shall now study each of the constituent parts of the Breviary. It is an indispensable study for the priest. The more we endeavor to understand this glorious book, the more we realize the truth of the words which St. Celestine I wrote to the Bishop of Gaul, more than fourteen centuries ago: "Orationum sacerdotalium sacramenta respicamus, quae ab Apostolis tradita in toto mundo atque in omni Ecclesia Catholica uniformiter celebrantur, ut legem credendi statuat lex supplicandi" (Cf. Denzinger, Enchirid.).

© Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

See also:

The Divine Office: Introductory

The Divine Office: Formation

The Divine Office: Matins — Prayer at Night

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