Breviary Reform May Take Four to Ten Years

The structure and contents of the breviary — the book containing the official prayer of the Church which priests must recite daily — are to receive a thorough reform. Estimates of how long this process of revision will take vary from an optimistic four or five years to a more somber 10.

This work of reform, approved by the Fathers of the ecumenical council, will be the task of a post-council commission which has not yet even been appointed. It is expected that Pope Paul VI will establish this commission at the same time that he officially promulgates the council’s liturgy schema.

Of all the chapters of the schema on the liturgy, Chapter IV “About the Divine Office” was the object of perhaps the most lively discussion during the first session of the council last fall. The basic text was finally given general approval by an overwhelming majority, and then sent back to the council’s Commission on the Liturgy for improvement according to the views expressed by the Fathers on the council floor and in writing.

Some of these views were mutually exclusive, especially in the vexed question of language, so that the commission’s task was not an easy one. Consequently, the 13 major “emendations” presented to the council Fathers during this second session as well as the multiple minor textual revisions are in some instances a compromise solution between conflicting opinions.

The council Fathers, after accepting each of the proposed major amendments by large majorities, on Oct. 24 approved the entire chapter by a vote of 1,638 out of 2,236, while 552 Fathers voted in favor, but with reservations, and appended further suggestions for improvement. It has been the task of the Liturgical Commission to weigh these further suggestions, and to propose such of them as seem to correspond to the wishes of a substantial number of the council Fathers for a final vote preliminary to the definitive approval on the liturgy schema by the council, and its promulgation by the Pope — something all fervently hoped would happen before the close of this second session.

The length and warmth of discussion on the Divine Office by the council Fathers mirrored a widespread conviction that the breviary in many respects no longer fulfilling its intended role in the prayer life of the Church. Hence the chapter, in its first part, recalls the dignity of this prayer, by which Christ through His Church continuously praises the Father and intercedes for the salvation of the world. Significant is the clear statement that the Divine Office is first of all the prayer of the entire Church: priests and others have in the course of the centuries been deputed by the Church to pray officially in her name, but the faithful too, when praying it with a priest, are truly the voice of Christ’s Body on earth.

It was clearly understood, however, that mere exhortation about the value of the Divine Office is inadequate to cure the present malaise. A realistic reform of its structure and content is imperative, if it is to meet the prayer needs of contemporary priests, Religious and faithful.

The present arrangement of the breviary into eight Hours represents a monastic observance of “continuous prayer,” not at all suitable to those engaged in the active apostolate. Mere abbreviation of the total daily prayer would not reach the heart of the problem. The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the successive parts of each day. Meaningful reform must therefore preserve this basic principle, while making its application reasonably possible.

Only so can the temptation to bunch the Hours, which contradicts the intrinsic sincerity of this prayer form, be counteracted. This, incidentally, was also the conclusion of the Commission for the Reform of the Breviary instituted by Pope Pius XII, which, after questioning the Metropolitans of the Church, issued a memorandum on the subject in 1957.

Restoration of sincerity of prayer is therefore the first objective. The breviary must be so reformed that it will be the attractive and meaningful chief source of daily communing with God. Hence the solutions arrived at:

The original historic structure of the Church’s public prayer, which corresponds to the instinctive framework of man’s daily prayer service, must be given strong priority: Lauds is the morning prayer, and Vespers the evening prayer. All else is supplementary. Of chief importance among the remaining supplementary Hours is Matins, an Hour of meditative reading.

It was not, however, considered advisable simply to eliminate all the “smaller” Hours. A tradition of more than a thousand years cannot so casually be ignored. A compromise solution was therefore sought.

Some of the Fathers had suggested that Terce, Sext and None be combined into a new “midday Hour.” Others, that these three have an invariable text, and be so brief that they could be said by heart, thus consecrating the noontime by something like official “ejaculatory” prayers. The solution, of allowing a choice of any of these three Hours according to the time schedule and opportunities of the individual person, seems a happy one. So too is dropping of Prime since it duplicates the purpose of Lauds. Compline is retained, but can now be readily said by heart as a night prayer immediately before retiring, because the excellent Sunday Compline Psalms will be used throughout the week.

Matins presented a more complex problem. Outside of choir recitation, it may be recited at any convenient time, and its purpose as a meditative divine instruction is underscored by an expansion and better choice of Scriptural, patristic as well as later ecclesiastical writings, while its number of Psalms has been reduced.

The new structure of the Office will thus of itself bring about some abbreviation in its total length. The recommendation, moreover, that the entire Psalter be distributed over a period of at least two weeks — instead of over one week, as in the traditional Office — will contribute to the same end.

The essential community nature of the breviary, as the prayer of the entire Mystical Body, is emphasized by the expressed hope that, when opportunity offers, even those not bound to choral recitation (such as priests living together in a rectory) recite at least one or the other Hour in common. When members of Religious communities pray all or parts of the Office according to their respective constitutions, they are explicitly recognized as praying in the name of the Church.

This same recognition is extended to those communities who pray an approved “short breviary.” The laity is encouraged to adopt the Divine Office as their prayer, and parishes are urged to restore Vespers as a public divine service, especially on Sundays and feast days.

One of the most aggravating problems with regard to the breviary was that on days of major liturgical celebration, or of intensive pastoral work such as numerous confessions, the Office often had to be squeezed into odd (and tired) moments, and became a more than usually onerous burden.

This state of affairs will be alleviated by an extension of the commutation principle already applied in the new Holy Week Ordo, when, for instance, those taking part in the Easter Vigil were no longer obliged to recite the night Office of Easter Matins. Ordinaries, moreover, are empowered to dispense their subjects individually of the Office obligation or to commute it “for a just cause.”

The concluding paragraphs of the Chapter deal with the language question. The easier dimensions of the problem are solved neatly: superiors of nonclerical Religious may allow an approved vernacular version of the Office to be used, and anyone in major orders may absolve his obligation of reciting the Office when he prays it with members of the laity or with the above-mentioned Religious in the vernacular.

As regards the central problem of the average priest, the conciliar commission was faced with diametrically opposed views. In the discussion last fall, 4 cardinals and 14 bishops urged Latin only. On the other hand, 5 cardinals and 21 bishops asked for a generous allowance of the vernacular by the regional or national episcopal conferences. And others proposed middle-of-the-road suggestions.

The emendation presented this October to the Fathers, while stating that Latin is to be maintained as the normal language of the breviary, empowers Ordinaries to grant exceptions in individual cases, permitting those of their subjects for whom Latin constitutes a grave problem in praying their Office properly to pray it in the vernacular. The accompanying declaration, moreover, urges that the Ordinary apply this principle with paternal magnanimity.

It is generally known, moreover, that a number of bishops in their recent reservations asked for the elimination of the restrictive phrase, “in individual cases.” Whether this will be presented to the council floor, and if so, what the result will be, should probably be known by the end of November.

Because of the projected overall reform of the breviary, such items of the reform as laid down in general principles as the elimination of Prime, will most likely have to await publication of the new revised and reformed breviary.

The same delay, however, does not seem to apply necessarily to the approval of a vernacular text of the breviary by national episcopal conferences, which Ordinaries may then allow their individual subjects to use under stated circumstances.

Father Godfrey Diekmann, OSB

Father Diekmann, of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minn., is a leading American liturgical scholar, an official expert of the ecumenical council, and editor of Worship, monthly liturgical review.

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