Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

The two-year cycle of the Office of Readings

Posted by universalis on 6 March 2019

When the liturgy was extensively revised in 1970, one of the themes was the inclusion of a far wider range of biblical readings. At Mass, this meant a three-year cycle of Sunday readings and a two-year cycle of weekday readings. In the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours this meant a two-year cycle, both of Scripture readings and of the patristic Second Readings which accompany them.

The two-year cycle covers the whole of salvation history and uses practically every book of the Bible – not avoiding tricky passages which need thorough reading and meditation and aren’t suitable for the “listen fast or it’s gone” nature of the readings at Mass. It is also carefully designed to be out of step with the Mass readings, so that if you hear a passage read at Mass then it won’t appear in the Office of Readings for a year (or at worst, for a few months).

This masterpiece is lovingly described in §§147 to 152 of the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours. But if you look in the actual printed books – it isn’t there. In its place is a one-year cycle of readings, covering half the material.

What happened?

The extra readings meant that missals grew. In most parts of the world one now needs two missals, not one – one for Sundays and one for weekdays. Or one can have a square solid hippopotamus-shaped lump which covers everything in one volume but breaks your toes if you drop it on them.

The Breviary, for the Liturgy of the Hours, was already big even before the revision. It used to be three or four volumes long (or six, in the case of the latest edition of the Latin breviary from the Midwest Theological Forum). At a relatively late stage in development, idealism collided with practicality. People realised that two years’ worth of readings take twice the space of one year’s worth, and that there are limits to how thick a book can reasonably be. That meant even more volumes. Moreover, the volumes would be expensive to produce, expensive to buy, and that expense would be reflected in breviaries in every single language, not just Latin. It seemed absurd to want the Liturgy of the Hours to be accessible to everybody while simultaneously making it twice as expensive as it already was.

So chunks were taken out of a draft of the two-year cycle and put together to make a one-year cycle. This was officially described as an “alternative” to the two-year cycle, but in fact it was the only version ever printed, in Latin and other languages. The two-year cycle was promised for a forthcoming “supplement” which, almost fifty years later, has still not appeared.

This is not such a bad situation, all in all, since it still means that there is a Liturgy of the Hours to follow, with a rich sequence of readings through the year. But inevitably some people want more.

An underground life

The Congregation for Divine Worship completed the definition of the one-year cycle which we are using today. It did not finish defining the two-year cycle, for entirely human reasons. Would you want to work hard and accurately on completing a project which you know will never see the light of day? The people with the right abilities and interests are also the people with far too many things to do, and it is inevitable that among those things, completing and polishing an impracticable project doesn’t have the highest priority.

Individual enthusiasts begged and borrowed copies of drafts and tried to put together “Supplements” of their own – not as official liturgical resources but purely for private study. In 1976 the Congregation for Divine Worship met them half way by publishing a late draft of their list of Scripture readings for the two-year cycle. (I call it a “late draft” because it does have some obvious imperfections, notably the repetition of a couple of readings from Isaiah in Year 1, which would undoubtedly have been remedied before official publication).

Some liturgical books, and even some Bibles, contain that list of readings in an appendix: it only adds a couple of pages, after all.

A real version of the two-year cycle would have the readings themselves, and also their responsories and the patristic Second Readings that reflect on them. Various such books exist, in Italian, French, German and Catalan, most of them out of print. There have been at least three English-language versions, constructed on differing principles, including one whose origin nobody knows and which is passed in samizdat fashion from one friend to another. There is great variation in the Second Readings offered, since there is no official list to match the list of Scripture readings, and different people have had different ideas as to how they should be chosen. Some people like a continuous sequence of readings from the same work, others don’t; some people want modern authors as well as ancient ones; others don’t.

One day the official Vatican project will bear fruit, and everyone will be able to standardise on it, but until then the situation is, to say the least, fuzzy.


Electronic publishing has the great advantage that bytes aren’t big and they don’t weigh anything. So we include the two-year cycle as well as the one-year cycle. In our two-year cycle:

  • The First Readings match the sequence laid down by the Congregation for Divine Worship.
  • For each First Reading which already existed in the one-year cycle, you will get the Second Reading that matches it, so that (for instance) commentaries on Job appear next to readings from the Book of Job. If the First Reading for a given day is new and didn’t occur anywhere in the one-year cycle, we give you the Second Reading from the one-year cycle for that day. So you always get something.

None of this replaces the official one-year cycle. The one-year cycle is still there, as it always has been. You won’t see the two-year cycle unless you specifically press a button to see it.

How to see the two-year cycle

On a day on which the one-year and two-year cycles are different:

  1. Go to the Office of Readings.
  2. Go to the start of the First Reading.
  3. Above the First Reading, there will be a heading saying “One-Year Cycle (Official)”.
  4. Tap on the menu button which is shown to the right of that heading.

This works in all the Universalis apps and programs.

If you try this on a feast or solemnity, you won’t see that heading because on feasts and solemnities the two-year cycle doesn’t apply. The same is true of some special days such as Ash Wednesday.

Users in the USA and Canada

The two-year cycle uses a lot more of the Bible than the one-year cycle. Unfortunately the owners of the Jerusalem Bible copyright in the USA and Canada consider that it uses too much of the Bible, and refuse to consider licensing that much of their copyright material. We cannot object: the point of copyright is to keep scholars and translators from going hungry and to give them and their publishers a fair reward for their work. But it is an annoyance all the same.

At last, we have found a way round. It is now possible to get the Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition) translation of the readings instead of the Jerusalem Bible. The copyright owners do not limit the amount of material we are allowed to license from them, so if you are in the USA or Canada, and if you buy the RSV add-on to Universalis (it isn’t expensive), then you will be able to use the two-year cycle if you wish to do so. This blog post gives full details and instructions.

One Response to “The two-year cycle of the Office of Readings”

  1. cathyf said

    Is it possible that the rise of electronic publishing will finally CAUSE the 2-year cycle to be completed? (I can imagine a second collection to fund tablets for the poor if Universalis drives a renaissance of praying the Office!)

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