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Lesson Three: Rites and Ranks

The way in which the Divine Office is recited differs according to whether the day is a feast or feria (weekday).  As explained below, there are three "rites" under which the Office may be said.  In addition, the very nature of the Church's Kalendar causes feasts to conflict with each other.  For instance, if the Feast of St. Matthew falls on a Sunday, which is celebrated?  Is one feast somehow commemorated in the Office of the other, ignored entirely, or transferred to another day?  This issue has caused the Church to assign feasts a "rank," so that such conflicts can be resolved.  This lesson provides an overview of both "rite" and "rank," and where further information for specific feasts can be found.


It is only natural that the various celebrations of the Church Year should differ in magnitude.  As a result, certain elements of the Divine Office change slightly depending on whether the day is an ordinary feria, a minor saint's day, or a major feast.  Thankfully, the manner in which the Office changes is very minor.

There are three rites by which the Office is said -- the simple, the semidouble, and the double rite.  The simple rite is used on all feriae; the semidouble on minor feasts; and the double rite on most well-known saint's days and on major feasts.

In all cases, the Breviary will indicate the rite of the feast next to the entry of the day, e.g. "XXI Sunday after Trinity, sd" or "St. Martin, d" mean "semidouble" and "double" rite, respectively.  There are gradations within the double rite, such as "greater double," "Double of the I Class," and so on -- but these do not change the manner in which the Office is said.  They only serve as "ranks" for the purpose of resolving conflicting feasts, as explained below.  The Office on all days of the Church Year is therefore either simple, semidouble, or double rite.

Fortunately, only five principal components of the Office change with the rite, and they are easy to learn.  Not all of these distinctions will make sense now, but rather will become apparent as each Hour of the Divine Office is learned, and the reader should not stress himself or herself to memorize them now.  At this stage, the goal is merely to familiarize oneself with the need to pay attention to rite as each part of the office is learned.

1. Antiphons -- The Psalms recited at the Major Hours (Matins, Lauds and Vespers) are each buttressed about by an antiphon, i.e., a short verse said before and after the Psalm.  One will note that every antiphon has an asterisk in the middle, just like every Psalm verse.  This asterisk signifies a "caesura," or pause, to be observed in reciting the verse.  However, each antiphon before and after a Psalm also contains a dagger.

In Offices of simple and semidouble rite, the antiphon is said only up to the dagger before the Psalm, and is said in full after the Psalm.

In Offices of double rite, the antiphon is said in full both before and after the Psalm.  This is easy to remember if you think of the antiphon being "doubled" on "double rite" feasts.

2. Common Commemorations -- In the offices of Lauds and Vespers, after the Collect of the Day and any commemorations of conflicting feasts have been recited, a Common Commemoration is usually said.  This Common Commemoration can be found on pages A6-A7 of the Breviary.

In Offices of simple and semidouble rite, the Common Commemoration is said at Lauds and Vespers.

However, in Offices of double rite, the Common Commemoration is omitted.

3. The Preces -- A series of short versicles and responses is said at the conclusion of the Little Hours (Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline).  These are called the Preces.

The Preces are said kneeling in Offices of simple rite ("ferial Preces"), and are said standing in Offices of semidouble rite ("dominical Preces").

The Preces are omitted in Offices of double rite.

4. Two Vespers -- The Christian Church has inherited the Jewish custom of reckoning days from sunset to sunset.  As a result, it is possible for a feast to have two Vespers assigned to it, i.e., to begin with Vespers on Tuesday, continue through all the Hours of Wednesday, and end with Vespers again on Wednesday.  When this occurs, Vespers is said to be "doubled."

Ordinary and lesser feasts do not have this phenomenon, and instead begin with Matins and end with Vespers of that same day.  Therefore, in Offices of simple rite, Vespers is not doubled; but in Offices of semidouble or double rite, the feast begins with "I Vespers" and continues until "II Vespers" of the following day.

5. Nocturns -- This will become more understandable after the lesson on Matins, but the Matins office consists of groups of Psalms and lessons called "Nocturns."  On days of simple rite, Matins has only one such Nocturn, while on semidouble and double feasts, Matins has three Nocturns. Caveat: In order to shorten Matins and prevent overuse of certain lessons, the Breviary allows Matins to be said with one Nocturn on most semidouble and double feasts as well, so this change occurs more rarely than one would ordinarily imagine.

While this all may seem daunting at first, with time these variations will become second nature.  A quick glance at the letter next to a feast's title will indicate whether it is of simple, semidouble or double rite, and these changes will also be reinforced in each lesson dealing with specific offices.


The Christian Church inherited a lunar calendar from the Jews, upon which our seasonal feasts are reckoned: Easter, and with it Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Septuagesima and the like.

However, the Christian Church also celebrates saint's days on their calendar date, meaning that the feast of All Saints, while always on November 1, may conceivably occur on a Sunday.  Consequently, there can be "clashes" between the Church's lunar, seasonal calendar and its solar, sanctoral calendar.  To solve this problem, feasts are assigned a specific rank.  Because rank and rite both derive from importance, the terminology of both is shared.

Feasts may "clash" in two ways.  They may occur on the same day, called "occurrence."  Or, due to the fact that Vespers is sometimes doubled, the II Vespers of an ending feast may conflict with the I Vespers of a feast which is just beginning.

A day's Office may be ranked, in ascending order, as one of the following: simple, semidouble, double (also called lesser double), greater double, Double of the II Class, or Double of the I Class. 

The easiest way to find an Office's rank is simply to look at its entry in either the Proper of the Season (C Section) or Proper of the Saints (E Section).  Thus, the feast of St. Gertrude (November 16) on page E544, is a double.  Should it occur on a Sunday, which would be celebrated?  Further, would St. Gertrude's feast be omitted, commemorated in the Sunday Office, or transferred to the next available day?

The answer to this question can be found in the two Tables provided on pages xlviii and xlix of the Breviary.  One Table assists with problems of occurrence (two feasts occurring on the same day) and the other with problems of concurrence (I Vespers of an incoming feast conflicting with II Vespers of an outgoing feast).

By using the first Table, we can follow the horizontal line for "lesser double" (the rank of St. Gertrude's Office) until it crosses the vertical line for a "lesser Sunday."  By so doing, we find the instruction, "Office of 2nd, Commemoration of 1st."  This means that the Sunday Office takes precedence over St. Gertrude's, which is commemorated.

The manner of making commemorations will be treated in the lessons for Lauds and Vespers -- the two services in which commemorations are made.

Again, these principles will be returned to, specifically applied, and reinforced in the lessons for individual offices, where they can be put into practice.  In the meantime, the reader should continue reciting Compline as often as possible, familiarizing himself or herself with the weekly Psalter and the Ordinary of the Offices, which are the only two sections of the Breviary needed for the Compline office.

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