Masters of the Universalis

The breviary is the crux of community prayer at the Pontifical Scots College. The backpack-busting three volume set can now fit into your pocket, thanks to a smartphone app called Universalis. Matt Meade explores the impact the breviary’s ‘digital handmaid’ has had on seminarians and the laity…

Breviaries don’t come cheap; one volume will set you back £30-60.

Buying the complete set of three is a lot of dosh for most people, never mind a skint seminarian.
Happily, there’s an app for that. It’s called Universalis, it costs a tenner and contains the complete Liturgy of the Hours – the prayer of the Church.

“It’s accessible without the huge cost,” says Fr Stuart Parkes. “I travel a lot lighter than I would have done 18 years ago. Then, I would have had to pack a breviary, lectionary and missal. Now I just use my phone instead.”

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Pocket prayer: Smartphones are ideal for traveling.

The ‘Hours’ are recited by clergy throughout the day and have been part of the Church’s worship for centuries. It’s also the crux of community prayer at seminary.

“The cost of a breviary is enough to dissuade people, but now £10 lets you access a wealth of prayer and resources.”

Fr Parkes, the Vice-Rector, believes Universalis is a game changer in making the Liturgy of the Hours – or ‘Divine Office’ – available to lay people. He said: “Almost everyone has a phone, laptop or tablet to access the app. The cost of a breviary is enough to dissuade people, but now £10 lets you access a wealth of prayer and resources. That means more people than ever praying the Liturgy of the Hours.”

First year seminarian Chris Furmage, of Motherwell Diocese, agrees. “My sister has the app and she’ll occasionally do the ‘Office’. I have it on all my devices here in Rome. It bridges that gap between priests and lay people.”

And what a gap that used to be. The Divine Office was pretty much the sole preserve of clergy and religious for centuries. The book is thick, fairly complex to navigate and was printed entirely in Latin. In 1970, Pope Paul VI revised the rubrics, stating in Laudis Cantium: “The Office is…the prayer not only of the clergy but of the whole People of God.”

Pope Paul VI

Revision: Pope Paul VI updated the Divine Office in 1970.

But it remained a heavy investment and could still be frustrating to follow.

While forms of the breviary have appeared online since 2001, Universalis became popular thanks to its user-friendliness and extensive features. It has become a kind of digital handmaid of the breviary book itself.

Chris continues: “Here in the College, I like to go down to the chapel and use the book. But when I was applying for seminary, I was commuting to work by train so bought the app. It was a good time to get familiar with the way the breviary works.”

Fellow seminarian Ryan Black, of Paisley Diocese, says: “Recently, College seminarians were all over Italy for our free weekend. I don’t imagine that many would have brought their breviary with them because most guys have Universalis on their phone.
“Whether you’re thinking of applying for seminary or are a lay person, there’s a real power in praying the psalms in the Divine Office, because Christ prayed them too.”

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