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Should Laity Pray the Breviary or the Rosary?

Perhaps this is not your question, but it is a question I have been asked by Catholics as they discerned what forms of vocal prayer to prioritize in their lives. We have a limited amount of time available to us individually and within the family circle, so the question is not merely theoretical. I hope that my answer will bring illumination for the mind as well as interior peace for the soul in quest of its highest good.

In ancient and medieval times, the laity often participated in the Divine Office. One of the goals of the Liturgical Movement in its better phase was to encourage the singing of Vespers in parishes and to promote the recitation of the office among the lay faithful, usually in translations or adaptations. In this project they were largely successful. At many parishes the singing of Sunday Vespers was simply taken for granted; since the psalms were always the same, the service was soon committed to memory. Then the neutron bomb of “liturgical reform” hit, and, in spite of Vatican II’s explicit endorsement of the parochial chanting of the Office, that laudable custom and progress was mostly wiped out. Slowly, we are seeing some promising signs that the Office may be returning once more to parish life, but it is happening almost exclusively in the traditional form or usus antiquior.

Of the thousands of pages that have been written in praise of the traditional Divine Office,[1] the simplest thing to say is this: from the time of the Apostles to the present, the Church has continually prayed the entire Psalter of David, which is (in the eyes of the Church Fathers) practically a fifth Gospel in its witness to Christ, and she has done this with the regularity of breathing, eating, and sleeping. The psalms have always been on the lips of holy men and women, in every public and private time of worship: every verse of every psalm,[2] recited in full each week, as established in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict—or sometimes each day, as in the hard-core Desert Fathers and some Oriental Orthodox.

Around these incomparably profound poems, which give moving expression to every aspect of the Faith and of the spiritual life, the Church has woven antiphons, doxologies, short readings, versicles, responsories, litanies, and orations. The Office is “the other” solemn public prayer of the Mystical Body of Christ, parallel to and supportive of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: it is the song of Christ and His Immaculate Bride, woven into the day as vertical threads into horizontal ones. For all these reasons, we should look upon the eight canonical “Hours” (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline) as the infrastructure that bears up the Christian spiritual and sacramental life. It is no mere “devotion.”

The importance of the Divine Office can be gauged by the simple fact that the praying of it is one of the main purposes of the religious life (at least, in its original and traditional conception). So crucial is it for some Christians to yield themselves up to God by the daily round of reciting the psalms that they forego marriage and family, personal property, and self-determination in order to free themselves up for that blessed task. They are beginning to do here on earth, and on behalf of the entire Church militant, what all of us will be doing in heaven, where the rapturous sight of God’s beauty will render our praises spontaneous and joyful beyond anything we can imagine. It is self-evident that we should try to enter into this psalmodic, ecclesial, heavenly prayer in some way. For starters, one could pray the Office of Prime in the mornings, or the Office of Compline before bed.

The perpetually chanted Psalter of David played a pivotal role in the growth of the Rosary. Because the layfolk generally didn’t know Latin like the monks or nuns and wouldn’t have been able to spend hours a day chanting in choir, the Rosary came to be seen as “the poor man’s psalter” whereby 150 Aves would be said in place of 150 psalms. Motivated by a desire to be united in a symbolic way with the structure of the monastic life, the layman’s Angelic Salutations would be his participation in the Davidic prayer of the New Israel.[3] Our Lady herself would have had the psalms on her lips as she pondered the Word of God and kept it, in training (so to speak) for her most exalted role as the tabernacle of the Most High, the ark of the New Covenant, the temple of the Holy Spirit. How fitting, then, that if we cannot do exactly as she did, we would instead turn to her, venerate her, and beg her intercession, heading the Aves with the Pater Noster and concluding each decade with the Gloria Patri, two prayers that link us directly to the liturgy of the Mass and the Divine Office.

In nearly all the apparitions of Our Lady in modern times that have received the Church’s approval, the Mother of God does not ask for the Divine Office, but for the Rosary.[4] Sometimes she merely holds a set of beads; but in the case of Fatima, the greatest Marian event, she expressly said, on May 13, 1917: “Pray the Rosary every day to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war.” On June 13, she repeated: “I wish you…to pray the Rosary every day…” On July 13, again: “I want you… to continue reciting the Rosary every day in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary, in order to obtain peace in the world and the end of the war, because only She can help you.” In fact, each subsequent appearance—August 19 (the 19th, because the children were detained by the mayor on the 13th), September 13, and October 13—she gave the same message. She really, really meant it. This was confirmed by her institution of the Five First Saturdays on December 10, 1925, of which the Rosary is a central component.

In short: we are not doing a favor for Our Lady when we pray the Rosary. She is doing us a favor. We are allowing her to give us something we need—her protection. We are obeying her explicit and repeated requests. We are taking on our lips the “angelic psalter,” blowing the trumpet of Gabriel. This is our most basic weapon, comfort, and banner. We must be unequivocal on this point: Never has the Church on her earthly pilgrimage asked the laity to pray the Divine Office with the same urgency or forcefulness as that with which the Mother of God in her heavenly glory has asked us to pray the Rosary.

What conclusions may we draw?

First, there is no greater prayer in and of the Church than her public divine worship, the “opus Dei” as the tradition calls it. This prayer—be it the Mass, the sacramental rites, or the round of psalmody—has an incomparable dignity and spiritual value that no personal or private prayer, as such, can ever rival. It is right, therefore, that religious dedicate themselves to it in a solemn manner; it is right that clergy do the same, with some adjustments; and it is praiseworthy for a Catholic layman to set aside time to do some portion of the breviary, either in company with others or by himself. This is the Church’s liturgical prayer, which is nobler and more powerful than devotional prayers: it is the sacrificium laudis, the “sacrifice of praise,” the voice of the Immaculate Bride in union with her Divine Spouse, the Eternal High Priest.

Second, there is a special importance in our times to the Holy Rosary; and, for a layman, this importance causes it to take precedence.[5] Think of it this way: in a time of peace, one might emphasize cultivating the fine arts, but in a time of war, one learns to shoot a gun or build a wall. The arts are nobler, but the fighting and bricklaying are more necessary. As in the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Exile, so today: we carry a shovel in one hand and a sword in the other (cf. Neh 4:15–20). But we do not neglect what is the greater, or treat it as a thing of little account; we pursue it when and as the Lord gives us the ability.

The title of this article therefore suggests, to some extent, a false dilemma. If we have a good understanding of the dignity of the Church’s liturgy, to which the breviary or Divine Office belongs, then we will want to incorporate it into the public prayer life of our parishes and the personal round of our prayers at home, to the extent possible (and that extent is certainly much more than is currently realized: think of all the time we waste on social media, texting, TV series episodes, when we could be cracking open a breviary!). At the same time, if we appreciate the heaven-commended and Church-confirmed power of Our Lady’s Rosary, we will not rest until we have found a reliable place for it in our lives—be it as a communal prayer in the family circle, or as a prayer we recite privately on the way to and from work. When we look more critically at how we are spending our time, we will find fragments that can be gathered up and put to a better use. We will find more time for God.

As a Benectine oblate, I try to follow, as best I can, a certain “plan of life” that has evolved over the course of many years: Holy Mass; two parts of the Divine Office (usually Prime and Vespers, with the little hours if I can manage it); Adoration; and the Rosary in the evening. Not all of this always happens, but on a good day the pieces fall into place. I’ve found it to be the right balance and combination for me in this phase of my life.

In my opinion it is helpful for a layman to think of the horarium as a “work in progress.” Try different things—patiently, not too ambitiously, and without jiggling the variables too much—and see what works best for you and your family, given your circumstances. Start with one thing, to be done at a certain time of day, and commit to it; attempting to do too much all at once can be a recipe for frustration and discouragement. When a certain practice is stably present, consider adding another. As long as all your materials are traditionally Catholic, you will find your way, over time, to the right plan of life.



[1] I am speaking only of the pre-Vatican II Divine Office, or of other popular preconciliar devotions like the Little Office of Our Lady, both of which remain in print. The Monastic Diurnal is also in print, which has the day hours of the psalter as prayed by Benedictines (minus Matins or the Night Office). The post-Vatican II Liturgy of the Hours, aptly nicknamed the “Liturgy of the Minutes,” does not even deserve the title “Divine Office,” so far removed is it from the letter and spirit of the practice of the Church of all centuries and regions. An excellent commentary on the Roman Breviary is that of Pius Parsch.

[2] I say, every verse of every psalm—not just most verses of most psalms, as in the Liturgy of the Minutes: see my article “The Omission of ‘Difficult’ Psalms and the Spreading-Thin of the Psalter.”

[3] If one reaches back into the Middle Ages, one can find rosaries that are made up of dozens of mysteries; there are even some in which each Hail Mary is dedicated to a separate mystery! It took time for the devotion to achieve its settled form of 15 mysteries grouped into decades of 10 Aves. St. Louis de Montfort recommends to his readers that they take up other topics for meditation if this will be helpful to them. So John Paul II was not doing something totally novel when he introduced the Luminous Mysteries. On the other hand, having 20 mysteries, adding up to a total of 200 Aves, manifestly throws off the beauty of the symbolism of 150 Hail Marys that correspond to 150 psalms in the Divine Office. It is also harder to pray 20 mysteries in one day—for those who wish to do the entire rosary in a day—than to do 15 mysteries.

[4] All of the following quotations come from “The Fatima Message.”

[5] In a long interview with Fr. Augustin Fuentes in 1957, Sr. Lucia said the following: “The Most Holy Virgin in these last times in which we live has given a new efficacy to the recitation of the Rosary… There is no problem, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the Holy Rosary. With the Holy Rosary, we will save ourselves. We will sanctify ourselves. We will console Our Lord and obtain the salvation of many souls” (cited in Marianna Bartold, Fatima: The Signs and Secrets [Lapeer, MI: Keeping It Catholic, 2014], 147). The message of Akita said the same: see ibid., 151.

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