Biennial Lectionary for the Office of Readings 1

The Second Vatican Council is famous for its renewed emphasis on Scripture in Roman Catholic Worship. Sacrosanctum Concilium 51 recommended that “the treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly”during the celebration of the Eucharist.  The renewed lectionary with a 3 year Sunday cycle and a 2 year weekday cycle is undoubtedly one of the success stories of modern Catholic liturgy. However, the liturgical use of Scripture is not limited to the Eucharistic Celebration. The other sacraments all contain Scripture readings as a constituent part of the post-Vatican II rituals.

Besides the use of Scripture in the sacraments, the Church also has another preeminent place where Scripture is proclaimed, the Liturgy of the Hours. The constant recitation of the Psalms forms the backbone of an authentically Christian spiritual life.  But the Bible as a whole receives perhaps its most significant and complete liturgical treatment in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Unfortunately, the renewed Liturgy of the Hours has not yet had the same level of popular acceptance as the other renewed liturgical books promulgated in the wake of the Council. But given that the renewal proposed by an ecumenical council often takes a century to be appropriated by the Church, I would suggest that the renewed edition of the Liturgy of the Hours may well yet become a success story and a central pillar of Catholic spirituality.

There is no shortage of people who complain about the current Liturgy of the Hours, whose ICEL translation into English was published in 1975 as TheDivine Office Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Council Ecumenical Council and Published by Authority of Pope Paul VI The Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Rite. The Irish edition was published the year before and a translation for English-speaking Africa of the second Latin edition was published in 2009. A partially-revised and updated English translation is currently being prepared by ICEL and is currently working its way through the USCCB translation process.

In this post, I do not intend to criticize the current Liturgy of the Hours, but I agree with Robert Taft’s general analysis that

The real problem [with the Liturgy of the Hours] is not so much the limitations of the office itself, as the incompetence of those unable to celebrate it properly and the indifference of those who fail to celebrate it at all.

[Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and its Meaning for Today.  2nded. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press: 1993), 316.]

One particular treasure of the renewed Liturgy of the Hours is the biennial (i.e. two-year) lectionary of the Office of Readings. Unfortunately, this is not very well known. Here I simply want to inform readers of the existence of this lectionary.

(A younger version of the author with Fr. Farnés)

I was introduced to this subject by the late Fr. Pere Farnés Scherer (1925-2017). Farnés was a Catalan priest who had studied liturgy under Dom Bernard Botte. He was involved in the conciliar renewal of various Latin editiones typicae of the renewed liturgical books. He was one of the founders of the Centre de Pastoral Litúrgica in Barcelona (Spain), as well as being the founding editor of the Spanish liturgical journalLiturgia y Espiritualidad. He was very involved in the preparation of the Spanish editions of many of the current liturgical books and, as his mother was from a prominent German-Mexican family, he was also quite involved in the preparation of various liturgical editions used in Latin America. He was particularly involved in the preparation of the various Spanish and Catalan editions of the Liturgy of the Hours. The rector of my seminary in New Jersey knew Farnés and invited him to give a number of courses to the seminarians. My own love of the liturgy and general vision of the liturgy owes a lot to Farnés.

One topic that Farnés never tired of promoting was the biennial lectionary of the Office of Readings. Today, most of the official editions of the Liturgy of the Hours contain a one-year Lectionary for the Office of Readings. However if one consults the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours 143-152, which is at the start of Volume One of most editions of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Office of Readings is described as being as having a biennial cycle of readings, similar to the biennial lectionary that is currently used for weekday Masses.

When Sacrosanctum Concilium spoke of the Office of Readings in number 92 it stated that “Readings from sacred scripture shall be arranged so that the riches of God’s word may be easily accessible in more abundant measure.” This conciliar mandate led the group responsible for the preparation of the Office of Readings to compile a biennial lectionary. However, Bunigni informs us in his chronicle of The Reform of the Liturgy that the final draft edition of the Liturgy of the Hours was “an imposing mass that would require very large and cumbersome volumes.” Therefore for “technical considerations … it was decided to create an annual cycle by selecting from the two-year cycle the parts best suited to each liturgical season” even though the original biennial cycle should still be “regarded as preferable” (p. 536).

The way that Farnés told it, when the final manuscript version of the Latin editio typica of the renewed Liturgy of the Hours was presented to the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the head printer told the editor that there was no way he would print a book that big. This resulted in the group that had spent a couple of years preparing the biennial lectionary being given a week to cut it down to a markedly inferior one-year lectionary that is still today found in most editions of the Liturgy of the Hours.

Since the mid-1990’s, I have been using a form of the original biennial lectionary and I can testify that it gives a more complete and spiritually nourishing exposure to Scripture. It is obvious that as twice as much Scripture is used, it gives a much wider selection. The one-year lectionary is notable for not including any meaningful selection from the Letter to the Romans and the Acts of the Apostles, perhaps the most important New Testament books apart from the Gospels themselves.

On a purely official level, the biennial lectionary is one of the final parts of the renewed liturgy that has yet to be published. Along with some other bits and pieces (such as the Psalm Prayers and the Office of Tenebrae), it will form the bulk of Volume 5 of the editio typica of the Liturgy of the Hours. This volume was due to be published “shortly” after the 1971 publication of the first four volumes. Needless to say, although it is still rumored to be almost ready, one would not be advised to hold one’s breath waiting for its publication. Howeve,r the biblical references for the first readings were published in Notitiae 12 (1976): 238-248, 324-333, 378-388.

In fact, various official and semi-official options for the Second Reading are available.  In my next post, I will outline some of the many options and resources that are available for those who would wish to adopt this spiritual practice giving them time to make preparations to adopt this lectionary before the new liturgical year begins on December 1, 2018.



Liturgical New Year’s Resolution Part II


  1. I never could understand why the publishers of the elegant office books weren’t involved in bringing forth the Liturgia Horarum. The Vatican printing press did issue an AEG LH, but I’ve only seen Volume I. They also published a lovely AEG edition of the Antiphonale Graecum, but I’ve only seen the first volume. I must admit that the othe three volumes are decent especially when compared with their LH volumes.

    1. Hi Gus,

      My next post will give some examples of the different options for the ways one could adopt a Biennial Lectionary, including some with responsories, so hold tight.

  2. I would very much welcome the completion of this work in English, even if it proved unpublishable in print. These days the limitation of printed volumes can be largely overcome by electronic publication. Indeed the Universalis app provides me, on request, with both the psalm prayers and a two year cycle. This would, I imagine, enrich the spiritual life of clergy, and of laity who choose to use it..
    However, the Office has to achieve a number of things for different purposes.
    The Monastic Office is the work of dedicated monks whose lives centre on it.
    Clergy are required to say it, probably privately, as a spiritual discipline.
    Laity can and do choose to use parts of it for the same purpose, over the years the extent to which I use it has varied considerably.
    Cathedrals and other large churches, may choose to use parts for public worship.
    I know from experience that even small churches can use parts daily, the parish in which I live had Morning Prayer half an hour before Mass on weekdays for several years, and at less than 200 Sunday worshippers is quite small.
    But the format is complicated and difficult to sustain. Compare it with what Cranmer devised for the Church of England. The whole Book of Common Prayer and the Psalter can be printed (admittedly in small print) into a book which fits in my shirt pocket. By comparison what has in the past been provided to RC laity is the Angelus, and the Rosary. We need somehow to extract from LOTH a form suited to parish worship which is no more demanding on parishoners than is Mass. A single sheet of paper provides all that the parishoner needs for Mass, and therefor they do not need it, they have it committed to memory.
    My hobby horse:- significant numbers of adults are functionally illiterate, estimates for native English speakers run at 20%. The Church MUST NOT exclude these people from participation.

  3. The discussion around popular celebrations of the LOTH focuses on the complexity of the breviary. Nobody expects a congregation to manage a Missal, and neither should be expect them to use a breviary. If there are longer variable texts they require at Mass, then many options are taken: hymnals and hymn numbers on hymn boards, leaflets, etc. The only variable texts the people require for LOTH are: hymns, psalms, canticles. These can all be provided in one book and with a hymn board to point to the ones being used. All the hours can be celebrated in this way.

    1. It’s insulting peoples intelligence by saying that they can’t handle a missal or breviary. I have my grandmother’s well worn missal and hymnal. She could only read on an elementary school level yet the pages of the old Mass, in Latin on one side and Polish on the other, are well worn from being used, while prayer cards mark the Propers for most holydays and her favorite saints. She couldn’t handle a missal? Her weekly attendance at Sunday vespers, sung in Polish, is well documented by those pages in her hymnal.
      This is yet another form of clericalism or elitism by professional churchmen. Congregations are expected to understand the “new light” about the new Mass yet they aren’t given the credit that they can follow along in the book it’s printed in? And with shoddy catechesis and preaching, it’s a miracle that anyone knows anything. Let’s be honest, the Mass now is nothing to follow along with compared to the old Mass. While on the other hand, the breviary is now more complex and harder to follow than before. Well done.

      1. “with shoddy catechesis and preaching, it’s a miracle that anyone knows anything”
        Quite right, and add teaching to that list. In my grandmothers day an elementary education was about reading to understand, calculating to avoid being cheated, and writing clearly enough to be understood*. These days schools keep children four to six years longer, and fail to reach the same goals.
        Functional illiteracy is about not being able to follow an argument, or instructions, in writing. Not about the intelligence to grasp and remember instructions explained verbally. In the UK it often follows from a failure to teach grammar.
        * And learning useful facts by rote, my grandmother had a good stock of Latin roots from an elementary education in rural Ireland.

  4. I have used the 2 year cycle of readings for many years, However the major problem was that there was no official set of patristic readings to match them. Some 6 or 7 years ago I came across a set of such readings produced by Stephen Holmes. I then put those together with the biblical readings and published a set of 4 volumes, 2 for each year, which gave a complete 2 year lectionary for the LH. (Its available on Lulu and over the years it has sold quite a lot of copies, so it must be meeting a need!!)

  5. Then there is this, which has been around for some time:

    The English Benedictines also produced a set of volumes for the two-year lectionary, A Word in Season, Augustinian Press, 2nd edition 1999. These contain the Scriptural references but not texts; and texts of second readings, mostly patristic, but a number from more contemporary sources. These volumes also contain responsories for each reading. Copies of some volumes are available from Stanbrook Abbey bookshop and occasionally come up on AbeBooks. There is an especially good representation of English spiritual writers.

    More information about other projects including LuLu at

    1. Thanks Paul

      I’ll be including more practical suggestions in my second post later in the week, including the resources you mentioned.

  6. I currently use the Pluscarden Abbey lectionary and Celebrating Sundays by Stephen Holmes in terms of patristic resources.

    I am aware of other resources such as A Word in Season (Augustinian Press), Christian Readings (Catholic Book Publishing) and Journey with the Fathers (New City Press ) that I have been tempted to purchase. But I am hesitant because I wonder how many of the selection from each series “overlap” and recycle similar readings and worry that material would heavily be reused. I realize that this concern is probably out of the scope of your upcoming post, but if you are able (or any other readers) are able to address the issue, I would greatly appreciate it.

  7. Re: Publications “A WORD IN SEASON” and “CHRISTIAN READINGS” — Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours. . . .
    I own both these collections, and am willing to share with an interested person[s]..
    Person has only to contact me.

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