How to prepare the Liturgy of the Hours: Know your assembly

How to prepare the Liturgy of the Hours: Know your assembly

In parish ministry, we often have opportunities to celebrate a communal liturgy that is not the Mass. These may be small group meetings, a school gathering, or a workshop setting where the assembly wants to pray something more than just an opening prayer but not something as extended as the Eucharist. Or they want to do something different than a Liturgy of the Word. Especially during Advent or Lent, or perhaps those weeks when all the clergy are away on retreat or at in-services, you may want to explore other liturgical forms that are part of our Church’s tradition. The Liturgy of the Hours is a rich option within our liturgical treasury.

The Liturgy of the Hours (also called Divine Office, or simply, Office) is the traditional daily liturgy for Catholics and many other Christians. In a similar way that our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers are called to pray throughout the day at appointed times, Christians also pause at specific times to consecrate the day to God.

The two most important times of the day for Christians are evening and morning. These recall Christ’s dying and rising and remind us of our call to die to our old selves that we may rise to new life in Christ each day. Click To Tweet

Many Christian communities pray the hours around the clock, day and night. But the two most important times of the day for Christians are evening, at the setting of the sun, and morning, when the sun rises. These recall Christ’s dying and rising and remind us of our call to die to our old selves that we may rise to new life in Christ each day. Clergy and consecrated religious are called to pray the hours, either together or individually, and all the faithful are encouraged to practice this daily discipline as well in some form.

The basic structure for both Morning Prayer (also called Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) has two parts. First, we praise God in psalms, readings, and canticles. Second, we ask God to hear our prayers and bless our world through intercessions and the Lord’s prayer. We’ll look at the structure for each of these hours in more detail in another post.

Where to find the Liturgy of the Hours

You can find the full order of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in a ritual book called a breviary. Now the complete universal breviary of the Catholic church is huge and is published in four volumes! This is because there are assigned texts for Morning, Evening, Night, Noontime, plus several other hours for each day of the liturgical season and for a four-week cycle during Ordinary Time. Plus there is another liturgical form called the Office of Readings that is included in the breviary. So you will find a large variety of spiritual readings correlating to the seasons and feasts.

For many people, learning to navigate through these books, with all their options, calendar rules, and ribbons, is a science in and of itself! Most clergy and monastic and religious communities are obliged by their vows to pray the hours, and they typically use the official universal breviary. Fortunately, other simpler options are readily available for those whose choose to make this a daily practice. There is a condensed one-volume version that contains selections from the each of the hours from the universal breviary. There are also many other collections that are created specifically for those who want to pray the hours in a more accessible format. Here’s a list of some of my favorites print resources:

There are also many good online resources as well. If you have a favorite Liturgy of the Hours resource, whether print or digital, share it in the comments below.

Before you prepare, know your assembly

When I prepare a liturgy using the Liturgy of the Hours structure, there are a few things I think about before I decide on the details:

  • Who is the assembly? Are they familiar with praying the hours? Or would this format be new to them?
  • Are they a stable community, meaning, do they pray regularly together already? Or are they coming together for the first time, perhaps even from different places, languages, and backgrounds?
  • Will this liturgy be a one-time event, or is it part of a series of liturgies for this assembly, as in a week-long retreat or a weekly Lenten gathering? If it is part of series, that gives you the opportunity to develop each day’s liturgy, building upon the previous one. You can also establish a rhythm of prayer and a sense of stability by keeping several elements consistent from one liturgy to the next.

Monastic style or cathedral style

Another consideration before you begin preparing the liturgy is to decide if you will use a monastic style or cathedral style for the Liturgy of the Hours.

Monastic style implies that all the elements of the hours as found in the universal breviary (or the official breviary for that community) will be used, and the choice of texts is dictated by the universal calendar for the Liturgy of the Hours. This style is most appropriate for a religious or monastic community or a gathering of clergy especially when they are praying only with members of their community or at an official function for their community. Because of the requirements of their religious vows, these kinds of assemblies often expect to use the texts for the Liturgy of the Hours that are assigned for that specific day in the liturgical season or in the four-week calendar cycle of the hours. You want to confirm if this an expectation before you begin planning a liturgy for this kind of assembly. If it is, use the liturgy as found in the breviary, incorporating sung hymnody, psalms, and canticles as appropriate for that assembly.

Cathedral style describes a way of praying the hours that is more suitable for a group of people who may not be as familiar with the hours and don’t have a regular practice of praying them. Typically the cathedral style is more appropriate for parish gatherings or meetings with a diverse mix of the baptized. Here, there’s usually no expectation to use the assigned texts for that day or season, although what is used should complement the liturgical calendar. Also not all the elements of the hours might be used and other more familiar ritual dialogues or actions might be incorporated.

Even in cathedral style, I still look at the assigned texts in the breviary for that day and use whatever is appropriate for that assembly, or I use it as inspiration for other psalm and text choices. I would also adapt the structure so that it is more accessible for those who aren’t used to praying the hours. For example, I might do one or two psalms instead of three, or I might omit the responsory and some of the psalm prayers or antiphons. In place of a homily or silent reflection, I might use a spiritual reading from the office of readings or another text. In another post, we’ll take a look at how to adapt the hours for a parish gathering.

Image credit: Pedro Lima, Unsplash, CC0.

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