The Liturgy Series: Universalis Liturgical app, part I – The Liturgy of the Hours

Last year, upon my Android phone breaking down and the time came for me to purchase an iPhone SE 2020, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to download some Catholic breviary apps to try out, hence the eighth instalment of The Liturgy Series with “iBreviary vs. Divine Office,” both Liturgy of the Hours apps I have in my phone. Both of these apps are free.

In the latter half of 2020, I learned of another alternative to iBreviary and Divine Office, called Universalis. I honestly did not know that Universalis had an app. Some years ago (2014), I did know of their website which I used for some time for referencing the Mass Readings, and gave up with the website upon learning that they did not use the Canadian NRSV-CE Lectionary Readings… nor do a lot of missals or websites. (That topic is for another discussion.)

I was “re-exposed” to Universalis in the 2020-2021 season of Thomas Cardinal Collins’ Lectio Divina series. In this season the Cardinal has and will continue to speak about the Psalms. In the first episode, Cardinal Collins gave a brief introduction to the Psalms and more specifically, the Liturgy of the Hours. In his “show and tell,” he recommended some resources for those who would like to start praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Besides the classic bound breviaries, he also shared that his smartphone was also a breviary for him:

The breviary I use much of the time is here (showing his smartphone) as you can get it on your cell phone or tablet. The two that are most commonly used are iBreviary and Universalis. They’re both very good. I use them both and it’s just very easy […] I find the benefit is that with my eyes, you can make it bigger print.

Why Universalis?

I decided that I really need to find out what the fuss was with the Universalis app and so get an idea of why the Cardinal use both the iBreviary and Universalis because if they are both breviary, liturgical apps, why use both?

As I mentioned, iBreviary is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store for free, while Universalis is available on both app stores for a one-time fee – at least $10.99 USD (price from Apple App Store). So the biggest question for me is, is it really worth chipping out ~$15.00 CAD (reminder: I am from Toronto) for an breviary app that I can get for free using iBreviary or Divine Office? That is what I thought at first. However, do not let your assumptions reign, ever. Always read the description and the fine print and you will know why the Cardinal and now myself, have iBreviary and Universalis, and find out why I am leaning more towards Universalis, than the iBreviary and Divine Office despite the price gap.

First of all, why do clergy and lay people breviary apps anyways? I say the main reason is for portability. It is easier to have your phone on you than bringing a breviary around everywhere. Imagine a priest going out to a campground to celebrate Mass for a youth group in which he is a chaplain of. While the youth group should provide the necessary liturgical furnishings, the priest (in my experience) would bring a bulk of the things, primarily the Mass kit with chalice, paten, cross, linens, vestments… and a copy of The Roman Missal, and the Lectionary. While there are Mass Kits, priests do forget things from time to time and their breviary could be something they would forget. Having an app on your phone with the breviary is therefore, very convenient and maybe a lifesaver.

However, do you ever remember to download the prayers a week in advance on iBreviary? I certainly forget. Therefore, I turn to Divine Office app for that. Yet, after a week or so, you need to be connected to the internet so the prayers can automatically sync (please correct me if I am wrong, frequent Divine Office users.) Universalis has the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass Readings all “built-in” meaning if I want to check a Mass a year from now, I can do so at a campsite without data or Wi-Fi.

I need Canadian

There’s something more important in Universalis that the other two apps fail to have. I remember being on public transit one day, and it happened to be Ascension Thursday in some dioceses in the United States. Living in the Archdiocese of Toronto all my life, I know that here, we do not celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord on a Thursday, and like many dioceses throughout the world, is transferred to Sunday. Now my iBreviary was not pre-downloaded so that option was gone. The Divine Office app while had the prayers synced, they only provided Ascension Thursday (unless there is another option to switch the prayers which I may be unaware of.) Nevertheless, both apps are highly “Americanized” in their liturgical days and being a Canadian, I don’t like that. This has nothing to do with politics, but simply because I live in the Archdiocese of Toronto and here in Canada, we have some minor difference in our liturgical days and the “Americanized” breviary apps simply do not accommodate for these scenarios.

Thankfully, Universalis seems to understand this need and concerned. Therefore, I was very surprised when I found out that I could customize the built-in Liturgical Calendar to reflect a Canadian Liturgical Calendar. I was really happy with this because that meant that this past September, for the first time, I was able to celebrate properly the Liturgy of the Hours of Sts. Jean de Brébeuf and Companions (September 25). Along with that, the Canadian solemnities and feasts are now reflected in both the Liturgy of the Hours and the readings. Those who are part of religious orders can also customize their hours with Universalis to have the saints of their religious order included in the Liturgical Calendar. Truly “universal” of an app when it comes to the Liturgy of the Hours.

Want to make sure that you have your saints? There is no need to flip through the Breviary! Built into Universalis is an awesome Liturgical Calendar that has the Liturgical colours of the day along with all the optional memorials – again all customized according to the country you choose.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

To give you a better idea of how Universalis looks compared to iBreviary and Divine Office, I present a comparative screenshot.

Out of the layout for these three apps, which one do you like most? For me, personally, I much prefer that of Universalis. It has more of a Liturgical book feeling to it compared to iBreviary and Divine Office. You see the dot with four lines symbol (see right) on the right side of some sections such as the Invitatory? When you click on that, you can customize certain sections such the Invitatory Psalm or the Hymn. I recommend before you start your prayer session, go through and customize the parts you want.

Like iBreviary and Universalis, you can customize the font size – a good customization for those who don’t have the best eyes when reading on a mobile device. iBreviary does allow you to customize a minimal number of fonts. Divine Office seems to have a fixed font style. Universalis offers you a wide variety of font. I disliked the default font on Universalis, and thus being able to customize to Palatino Linotype which was available on the app was a really great feature. I like Palatino Linotype because it is easily readable at every size, even 9pt or 10pt. I suggest you take a look at the Universalis tutorial video to have an idea what type of text customizations are available:

I think by the three screenshots above, you will able to make some comparison between the three: Universalis allows for customization within the prayer “book” itself to omit parts, or choose another selection. iBreviary utilizes buttons to lead you to various parts of the text, which may be a pro for some, but not for me. Also, the background of iBreviary is not my cup of tea, and I don’t know how to customize it. Divine Office has good layout, but texts don’t seem to customizable. In my opinion, Universalis is the most customizable not only in terms of calendar, but in terms of layout, font, appearance and even what texts you want to use (e.g. Commons).

Something I noted in the comparison post about iBreviary and Divine Office is how to hide the the bar with the time, date and phone carrier. It ends to get distracting. Out of the three apps I’ve spoken of, Universalis is the only app thus far that took this part into consideration. All you are left at the top is the time and the Hour (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, etc.) that you are on. This is good for two reasons: (1) I am no longer distracted by the clock or my low battery status, wondering how long I have been praying for and (2) I often click on the wrong prayer and I do not want to wait until the Gospel Canticle to know that I am reciting the wrong hour. This top bar is greyed out to avoid distracting. and puts emphasis on the texts being used for prayer. I hope other prayer apps will take this as a model.

Audio Liturgy of the Hours

For this aspect, I can only compare Universalis with Divine Office. You will need to listen to the audio for yourself. Audio samples for Universalis are available on the app. All I will speak of here are based on my personal and honest notes I have written down as I listened to both.

First, let me speak of the audio from the Liturgy of the Hours for Universalis. The audio is very clear, you can change the speed and jump ahead to different sections of the Hours. How is it compared to Divine Office? I honestly prefer the Liturgy of the Hours audio from Divine Office. First of all, the Universalis audio seems to only be one person reciting through the whole Liturgy of the Hours. The Divine Office app has more than one person reciting the hours. The hymn is sung in Divine Office while the hymn is only recited in Universalis. The biggest down side with Universalis is honestly the fact how you need to purchase them: Morning, Evening and Night Prayer for $2.99 USD a month or $29.99 USD a year. If you want the daytime hours as well, Mid-Morning, Midday, and Afternoon Prayer, that is another $2.99 USD a month or $29.99 USD a year for that package. Meanwhile, the Divine Office app has the audio available for free either online on their website or on their app. The down side with Divine Office is that the audio and text are fixed – no choice for me to do Canadian texts or Canadian audio. You say what is there. Therefore, if you’re a Canadian and you want an audio version of Morning Prayer, then good luck finding it on Divine Office. Another note with Divine Office, you will need to scrub (slide finger) to get to the part you want. If you want to skip a psalm (which I don’t know why you would), you need to scrub… not as easy as Universalis where you can easily skip a certain section of the Hours. Last point: You need to manually download the audio for each day you want on Divine Office. For Universalis, like the texts, your audio is ready to go once you purchase.

That being said, an audio package that Divine Office does not have but Universalis has that I think is worth investing is the “Sung Latin Compline” audio for Compline on Sunday nights. I have listened to it and it is very beautiful. You can even set your Universalis to have Latin-English texts for easier understanding. You can get this for a lifetime on Universalis for $3.99 USD. As of the time I am writing this, I don’t think you can find a beautifully sung Latin Compline anywhere on iBreviary or Divine Office. To know more about the “Sung Latin Compline,” to listen to a sample of the sung Compline and read up more about other audio packages on Universalis, click here.

Some Other Thoughts on Universalis’ Liturgy of the Hours

We’re not at the end of the review just yet – I’m just concluding my thoughts on Universalis’ Liturgy of the Hours and speaking of some features and points that I think you should consider with Universalis.

There is an add-on feature for the Liturgy of the Hours Biblical texts – that is the Revised Standard Version (RSV) add-on. The Biblical readings of the Liturgy of the Hours in the “base” app are of the New Jerusalem Bible translation. Thus if you want the RSV translation, you might want to purchase the add-on for $3.99 USD. Note, this add-on the RSV for the Liturgy of the Hours only, not the Mass Readings. Personally, for the Liturgy of the Hours, I do not mind which translation is used, but the translation matters for me when it comes to the Mass readings… more on that later. But for those who like the RSV, this is a very good investment

Again, I speak to add-ons and I just can’t describe how I love the customizations in the “Settings” because there is just so many features that will make you pray more effectively. Here’s just a screenshot of some of them:

I think a lot of the features can speak for themselves. I like the “slide between pages”, as opposed to the “virtual page flip” which was set by default and I found distracting. Thankfully, there was the ability to customize that. I was also surprised that there was the option to exclude all the “Psalm-Prayers” after the psalms. I always wondered why they were included in the English Liturgy of the Hours in the first place and honestly found it to disrupt the flow of the Office. Again, that’s just my preference.

I have used Universalis on my iPad as well and again, like the iPhone, the experience is great, with the plus of the wider screen, so it will be like you are actually holding on to a book.

One downside that I think should be made consistent throughout the hours is the use of American and British spelling. Perhaps it might just be myself who looks out for these things (probably since I write a fair number of papers as an undergraduate humanities student), but the inconsistency is distracting at times. Here is an example from Evening Prayer of the Friday after the Solemnity of the Epiphany of Our Lord in which there is inconsistency in the use of -or and -our, highlighted in red on my iPad.

Overall, out of the three apps: Universalis, iBreviary, and Divine Office, Universalis is now my go-to option for the Liturgy of the Hours in general. However, if I really wanted the audio version of the Liturgy of the Hours, I would vouch for Divine Office. That does not mean that iBreviary is out of the picture – that I will discuss in part II of my review of Universalis. Please stay tuned for part II of the review of Universalis where I will be going through the other features of Universalis, inlcluding the Mass Readings and Devotions. At least, now you can consider Universalis for the Liturgy of the Hours? Maybe for this upcoming Lenten Season?

Disclaimer: Universalis provided us with a review “copy” of their iOS Universalis app in exchange for an honest review on this blog as part of The Liturgy Series. All thoughts expressed in this review are our own. We thank Universalis for the opportunity to review their app, along with their add-ons, including Audio Liturgy of the Hours, RSV-CE Liturgy of the Hours, and Sung Latin Compline.

4 thoughts on “The Liturgy Series: Universalis Liturgical app, part I – The Liturgy of the Hours

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  2. Pingback: The Liturgy Series: Universalis Liturgical app, part II – The Mass Readings and Other Features | The Catholic Man Reviews

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