An unlikely liturgist

In 1845 when John Henry Newman entered into full communion with the Catholic Church it was considered remarkable that he managed to figure out how to pray the breviary by himself, without the need to be initiated by an expert. This was a feat that was not repeated in the case of any of the other Oxford dons who entered the Catholic Church![1]

Since Newman’s day the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Rite has been comprehensively revised on two occasions. Both of these revisions significantly simplified the rubrics. The first revision was published under Pope Pius X in 1913. The second revision was prepared after Vatican II popularised the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours in people’s everyday languages and simplified the whole liturgy.  However the current edition is still a somewhat complicated arrangement. Indeed it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that most people are very off put by the complicated structure of the Liturgy of the Hours when they first encounter it, and many people feel intimidated by the volumes. 

However new technology, that nobody could even imagine when the Liturgy of the Hours was last revised in the late 1960’s, has made it much easier for anybody to pray the full Liturgy of the Hours today, and the popularization of these technologies has created a new type of liturgical leader.

In this post I give a short introduction to an unlikely leader of the contemporary liturgical movement. Martin Kochanski, the owner and founder of Universalis Publishing. Martin is not a trained theologian or liturgist. He is more of an accidental liturgical leader, yet his influence on a practical level surpasses that of many chairs of liturgy in various theological departments. Martin studied his secondary school in the Benedictine Abbey of Downside and went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Mathematics and Philosophy. Upon graduation he entered the field of computer software writing software for the business community.

In 1995 Martin came across a second hand set of the Divine Office (as the UK version of the Liturgy of the Hours is entitled) in the Bookshop of Downside Abbey where he was attending the Easter Retreat. Many Catholics consider it to be a prayer book for “professional Catholics” like priests and nuns and feel that laypeople should go for a simpler prayer book, if they desire to pray more. However Martin, being a software engineer, was fascinated by the repetitions and combinations of the four-week psalter, the different cycles, seasons, calendars, commons and hours. Immediately he thought that this could be much more accessibly arranged in digital format, removing the complication that gets in the way of prayer and devotion.

He started Universalis with the aim of harnessing computer technology to help in enriching the spiritual life of Christians, specifically by making the liturgical and devotional resources of the Catholic Church available on the new electronic media. The Liturgy of the Hours is available on the website and as apps, downloads and e-books, and so is the Mass: both the readings at Mass and the unique “Mass Today” page which combines the Order of Mass with the prayers and readings in one continuous stream. You can buy a Universalis app for around £10 (about $13.25) or, for twice that, a code giving you everything: apps for iPhone/iPad and Android, and programs for Mac and Windows, and e-books. Even if you are not in a position to pay, you can still get the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass readings for yesterday, today and the week ahead, for free, directly on the web site.

Visitors to the Universalis web site include priests, laity, the young and the old. They come from all denominations: some have not heard of the Breviary before; some cannot afford the books; and some are blind and cannot use them. 

Universalis has never been advertised, but over three and a half thousand people a day visit the site, reading a daily total of fifty thousand pages. The visitors include Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists. They come from all over the world, including a nun from Hong Kong whose work takes her on journeys “to a country where religion is very much controlled by the government,” where it is risky to carry a breviary but a laptop computer arouses no suspicion; and in Belgrade one user found time to email a question as the NATO bombs were falling. There are Universalis users to be found in U.S. missile sites and at the BBC; seminarians use it as they are being taught the Breviary, and in many parts of the world it is much in evidence at meetings of the clergy. The blind and almost blind read it in half-inch-high letters or in Braille.

Martin encourages everyone to try Universalis which, in his words  “is not only addictive but also liberatingly discreet. You can always avoid satirical comments from your friends by pretending you are surfing for something quite different.” He points out that “as we embark on the third millennium, it becomes more important than ever that we should obey the Lord’s command and pray without ceasing, tosanctify time, the world, and ourselves.The Universalis Web site has been created, to give us all, wherever we are, at all times, the chance to participate in the Church’s universal prayer. One click – one bookmark – and we can pause for a moment in our busy lives and contemplate what really matters.”

This post is simply an introduction to an often-overlooked aspect of liturgy and undoubtedly a good news story that can give an element of positivity to our discussions of liturgical matters. Next week I will share some questions that I put to Martin when I recently met him in London.


[1]Donald A. Withey, John Henry Newman, The Liturgy and the Breviary: Their Influence on his Life as an Anglican (London: Sheed and Ward, 1992), 13.

3 comments

  1. Agree it is revolutionary. I would never have prayed the LOH without discovering Universalis 15 years ago or so. I have to give a shout out to my next discovery : the website and App “Divine Office”. I consider it even better because it is full audio with a small group of people leading the office (pretty much the same group of voices many times, so you feel you get to know them). It is as close to your own virtual participation in group public prayer of the divine office that you are going to get – complete with sung hymns and chanting in morning and evening prayer. Unfortunately, in their wonderful zeal they moved a bit too fast and have some copyright problems. So they had to freeze for existing users (exceptions for priests, religious and disabled). Luckily I was in early and am grandfathered. You might want to visit the site and donate to help them as they endure the costs of remediating the copyright issues. That would great because they really don’t get any support from the Institutional Church. Here is there website. https://divineoffice.org/welcome/

  2. Thank you, Father O’Donoghue, for reminding me of how grateful I should be to Martin Kochanski. I’m not a cleric or a religious but rather one of the vast number of laypeople for whom Vatican II wanted to open up the treasures of the Liturgy of the Hours (“Sacrosanctum Concilium” 100); consequently I don’t have to use an approved version under pain of sin but instead can let Martin be my permanent hebdomadary. If I’m not fond of one or another of his psalm translations (or of the choice of psalms), I can set down my smartphone, open a bible or psalter, and follow my own preference.
    I hope others will try out Universalis. You do have to put up with Martin’s resistance to inclusive language (men of all sexes, please try to show some charity) and some very long biographies of, possibly, every last Catholic martyr of the English Reformation. But I think he’s doing a great service to the church at large.

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