What is a Breviary?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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The Latin word brevis meas “concise” or “short.” It is from this Latin root that the word breviary was created. A breviary is a book of prayers and other religious texts used in both private and liturgical worship. In addition to prayers, breviaries include Psalms, religious readings, and hymns. The texts also include notes on how and when to use the passages. The reason that such a text is called a breviary is that it is an abridgement of a number of books.

A breviary is and very often has been a very useful text for traveling religious leaders and missionaries. Because missions have often taken such individuals on long and difficult journeys, it was often difficult to transport numerous religious tomes. A breviary, however, includes information on holding ceremonies such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals. A breviary also includes everything necessary to lead religious services for the community. Therefore, the text covered all of the basic needs of a religious leader, including passages that he could use in his own personal devotions, no matter where he was in the world.


Protestants and Catholics both often use breviaries in their daily devotions. Religious leaders also use these books as a guide for ceremonies and daily practices. Catholic breviaries published before 1974 included information on what was once known as the Divine Office. This information included directions about which prayers should be said in each hour of the day. In 1974, however, Pope Paul VI reformed this text. It is now known as the Liturgy of the Hours.

The specific hours which are meant to be dedicated to prayer and devotion are the result of an ancient practice. In the Old Testament, God instructed Aaronic priests to offer Him sacrifices in the mornings and the evenings. It is believed that the Divine Office was inspires by these rites. Furthermore, in the Psalms, David speaks about praising God seven times every day. These Psalms also likely reinforced the practices described in the Divine Office portion of the breviary.

Because breviaries have been in use for centuries and by different religious sects, there are many different versions of them. They have included different combinations of information and instructive texts and have been translated into many different languages. Breviaries have been printed in very ornate, highly designed versions; they have also existed in the plainest of formats. Despite the many different versions of the breviary, their general purpose of offering information on basic religious practices has remained the same.


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