The Office of Workers and Fighters: Praying Prime

For many years, as a Catholic praying Pope Paul VI’s Liturgy of the Hours, I had no idea that a liturgical office called Prime — or, for that matter, a liturgical book called the Roman Martyrology — even existed. As I discovered the traditional Latin Mass, I also discovered the Roman Breviary, the monastic Divine Office, and a host of other hidden treasures. Just as these discoveries had been influential in John Henry Newman’s conversion from Anglicanism, so too did they prove to be in my rediscovery of the fullness of Catholicism, which the postconciliar reforms had covered over with whitewash.

The little “Hour” of Prime (it takes between 10 and 15 minutes to recite) is one of the most consistently documented components of the Divine Office in its formative phase in the first half of the first millennium. Dating back to the fourth century, Prime consists of a hymn, a small number of psalms or psalm segments under a single antiphon, a short reading, a short responsory, a versicle (in the monastic version), and a collect. The psalms used are as follows, with Vulgate numbering:

Prime in the Roman Office of Pius X Prime in the Monastic Office
Sunday: Ps 118 (four sections)

Monday: Pss 23, 18

Tuesday: Ps 24

Wednesday: Pss 25, 51, 52

Thursday: Pss 22, 71

Friday: Ps 21

Saturday: Pss 93, 107

Sunday: Ps 118 (four sections)

Monday: Pss 1, 2, 6

Tuesday: Pss 7, 8, 9[i]

Wednesday: Pss 9[ii], 10, 11

Thursday: Pss 12, 13, 14

Friday: Pss 15, 16, 17[i]

Saturday: Pss 17[ii], 18, 19

“Prime & Compline Catholics”

The traditional Hour of Lauds is a more leisurely office of praise and rejoicing, while Prime, which comes later in the morning, is the office par excellence of the laborer — the one about to throw himself into the day’s work, and the coincident struggle with evil. One might call it the office of workers and fighters.

The Liturgical Movement in its healthier phase promoted a greater awareness of the Divine Office. Due to its brevity and the appropriateness of its themes, Prime was widely prayed by laity before the Council. Some people called themselves “Prime & Compline Catholics” because they would use these two fairly short offices as their morning and evening prayers each day. As Dom Mark Kirby explains:

Back in the late 1940s and 50s, when, in synergy with the liturgical and biblical renewals, the Benedictine Oblateship was enjoying something of a springtime, it was not uncommon for Oblates to pray the Hours of Prime and Compline each day, leaving the Great Hours of Matins, Lauds, and Vespers, and the other Little Hours of Tierce, Sext, and None to their brethren in the cloister. Prime and Compline were often promoted as the ideal Hours for working folk. I remember my old friend and mentor Adé Béthune telling me, almost 40 years ago, that as a young Benedictine Oblate working as a lettercutter in the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, she and her friends would pause to pray Prime and Compline together. Adé’s contemporaries, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty of Madonna House, would also have been devoted to Prime and Compline. [i]

Attempted Suppression

In spite of its antiquity, popularity, and pivotal function within the sevenfold structure of the daytime Divine Office, Prime was suppressed without explanation by order of the Second Vatican Council — perhaps the most notorious sign of the inherently flawed project of Sacrosanctum Concilium. As Wolfram Schrems explains in his important article “The Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy: Reform or Revolution?,” neither a pope nor an ecumenical council has authority to abolish a liturgical rite of immemorial tradition. Thus, the fact that Sacrosanctum Concilium attempted to suppress the office of Prime (as opposed, e.g., to merely regulating who must say it, or when and how it should be said) is sufficient to demonstrate the presence of a radical constructivism at the heart of this document, a subordination of tradition to autocratic voluntarism [ii].

Nevertheless, Prime continued to be celebrated by some Benedictines, since the Council did not dare to legislate directly against the venerable Rule of the patriarch of Western monasticism, and it has always been celebrated in the Eastern rites, showing (once again) that the reform moved the Latin Church farther away from, not closer to, the East.

Going to the Office

Happily, as with all things traditional, Prime is making a comeback. A new generation of “Prime & Compline Catholics” can experience the beauty of these Hours together with a subtle joy that comes from making use of a monument of tradition that was supposed to have been obliterated without trace. Summorum Pontificum’s revival of the preconciliar Roman Breviary is a further application of Benedict XVI’s general principle: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place” (Letter to Bishops, July 7, 2007).

The recitation of Prime today is a “sign of contradiction,” a refusal to accept the bad hermeneutic underlying Sacrosanctum Concilium. By taking up Prime, we enter into a spiritual alliance with thriving traditional religious orders and communities that have humbly and joyfully rejoined the great stream of liturgical prayer offered by monks, nuns, oblates, and associates from the earliest centuries until the Council of Rupture. In this way Prime also becomes symbolic of our struggle against false and harmful reform as well as our hope for better times — times that we ourselves are responsible, at least in part, for bringing about by our deliberate acts of recovery.

Where Do We Find It?

Good resources are available for those who wish to pray (or chant) Prime and Compline.

The most affordable choice is the Angelus Press Divine Office book, which contains Prime, Sext, and Compline for all seven days of the week (Sext functioning here as midday prayer), with, additionally, Lauds and Vespers for Sunday.[iii] The Rolls-Royce option is a complete bilingual Roman Breviary, which will of course give you the entire Divine Office, not just Prime and Compline. For those wishing to pray the Benedictine office, the Monastic Diurnal is the all-inclusive book for the day Hours (i.e., everything but Matins).

Online at, you can generate particular Hours of the Divine Office on your computer or mobile device.

Clear Creek used to offer a Prime & Compline booklet, but it seems to be out of print. It’s also worth mentioning as an option the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which follows the same basic structure for the Hours but uses different psalms and readings.

My Daily Prayer Vitamin

As an oblate of St. Benedict, I have prayed the same weekly cycle of three psalms a day over the course of several years. This has carried me to a point where the words of the psalms are planted deep within my soul, written on the fleshy tablets of the heart; I have them basically by memory and glance at the page to remind me. All the other parts — the hymn, the antiphons, the chapter, the versicle, the oration — these are all memorized. This is the great boon of well chosen repetition, a principle Holy Mother Church followed for nearly twenty centuries until the rupture.

I have noticed three phases in my use of Prime (and Compline, too). The first phase was just a matter of getting familiar with the Latin psalms, understanding their meaning, forming the words properly on my lips. The second phase was more of a struggle: once the prayers had become second nature, I caught myself at times running through them unthinkingly, so I had to choose to slow down, take my time, and ponder what I was saying. The third phase is that these psalms now immediately put me in the presence of God: they illuminate, resonate, comfort, and challenge.

Prime helps me to achieve that stabilitas mentis or stability of mind that is the internal image of Benedictine stabilitas loci, committing oneself to a given place, not wandering around homelessly. If I happen to miss it because of some mischance or other, the day feels a bit off-balance, unstable, and unmoored. How great a blessing it is to build one’s prayer life on solid rock!

(I should mention here, for completeness’ sake, that on major feastdays and for saints of special personal significance, such as my patrons, I try to make time to pray Lauds instead. In the monastic usage, Lauds comprises 7 psalms, the Benedicite, and the Benedictus, so it definitely needs planning ahead.)

In next week’s article, I will look at the Roman Martyrology, Prime’s age-old companion.

[i] Dom Mark also says elsewhere in similar manner: “I have long been of the opinion that Prime and Compline are the working man’s Hours of the Divine Office. Brief and, for the most part, invariable, they correspond to the natural rhythm of the working man’s day and family life. My dear and venerable friend, artist Adé de Béthune, another Benedictine Oblate, used to pray Prime and Compline, as did many Catholic layfolk prior to the Second Vatican Council. The push to make Lauds and Vespers the daily prayer of ordinary people in the world was, I think, the idea of an elite who had never asked the folks in question what really worked for them. Prime and Compline on workdays and Lauds and Vespers on Sundays and when one has the leisure to devote to them.”

[ii] This is the point at which traditional Catholics part ways with organizations like Adoremus, which includes in its professed principles: “Adoremus fully and unreservedly accepts the Second Vatican Council as an act of the Church’s supreme Magisterium (teaching authority) guided by the Holy Spirit, and regards its documents as an expression, in our time, of the word of Christ Himself for His Bride, the Church,” and “Adoremus accepts the liturgical changes approved by appropriate Church authorities since the Council as the legitimate exercise of the Church’s disciplinary authority over the Liturgy. Adoremus seeks a more authentic observance of the liturgical norms approved since the Council.” But a Council that dares to abolish a traditional liturgical rite of outstanding antiquity and universality undermines any confidence the faithful can have in its program of reform. The results — a grab bag of arbitrary antiquarianism, pet novelties, and dumbed-down content — speak for themselves.

[iii] It gives the fixed texts for Sunday Lauds and Vespers, not the changing antiphons.

Image: Don Christner via Flickr.

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