How to prepare the Liturgy of the Hours: Adapt the structure for cathedral style

How to prepare the Liturgy of the Hours: Adapt the structure for cathedral style

If you’re like most music and liturgy coordinators, you’re working with a community that does not already have a regular practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours together publicly. If this is your situation and you’re given the responsibility of preparing a celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, then you’ll want to know the basic structure of the two main hours, Morning and Evening Prayer, and how to adapt that structure using the cathedral style for communal celebration.

In a previous post we looked at why the Liturgy of the Hours is an important liturgical option for parish communities and how to determine which style to use: the monastic style of the hours for communities that pray the hours daily; or the cathedral style for more occasional gatherings. Knowing who your assembly is makes a big difference in how you might prepare a celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. For most of us, we will be working with assemblies for whom a cathedral style of the Liturgy of the Hours would be more suitable.

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Monastic style verses Cathedral style

Now don’t let the word “cathedral” fool you. It does not refer to location or even to a more formal style of prayer. Rather it’s used to distinguish from the rhythm of prayer that is more suitable to a monastery or other stable community of religious. The following are not strict distinctions but are generalizations of this difference.

  • In cathedral style of the hours, the people’s participation plays a significant role in the way the church praises God, whereas in monastic style, the participants are usually only those from the religious order living together.
  • In cathedral style, there is much singing and use of symbols and gestures; monastic style may include much more silence, longer readings from other sacred writing, and introspective moments.
  • In cathedral style, the primary hours are Morning and Evening, and the chosen texts might remain relatively constant from celebration to celebration in order to foster more participation and familiarity since the liturgies are celebrated only occasionally by that assembly. For example, the psalmody might remain the same for every Morning Prayer, while the reading and intercessions change. In monastic style, however, the emphasis is on constant prayer throughout the day, every day. So there are several hours observed both day and night with assigned texts for each hour and day that move progressively through the psalms and books of the Bible.

The ritual text and its accompanying General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours give some guidance for when the larger community is invited to participate with those mandated to pray the hours. But it does not provide enough detail for its use with an occasional assembly unaccustomed to this form of prayer. Below are some ideas for adapting the Liturgy of the Hours based on the ritual general instructions and from my experience of preparing Morning and Evening Prayer for a variety of assemblies.

The basic structure for both Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) is similar to the Eucharist. There is a gathering and a concluding section that bookend two main parts, which we can call “praise” and “petition.” (This handout outlines each section and shows the difference between Morning and Evening Prayer.)


Introductory verse and hymn

All of the hours (there are seven!) begin the same way. All stand and say or sing a dialogue from the psalms (see 70:2; 40:14; 71:12) called the introductory verse. The presider (a bishop, priest, deacon, or lay person) says, “God, come to my assistance,” and the people respond, “Lord, make haste to help me.” And all make the Sign of Cross as they say this dialogue.

After this dialogue, the presider leads the “Glory to the Father…” and the people respond with “As it was….” Now in the Liturgy of the Hours, this prayer is slightly different than what you might be familiar with when praying the Rosary. In the hours, the prayer is:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen. Alleluia.

There’s another difference, too, that is traditionally done when praying the hours. Whenever the “Glory to the Father…” is said or sung, all bow slightly during the names of the Trinity. Then all rise again for “As it was…” This is a lovely ritual gesture to introduce to the assembly that provides another layer of meaning and solemnity to the invocation of the Trinity.

Following this, all sing a gathering hymn. This is slightly different than the usual way we begin other liturgies. Usually we start with a song, then an opening dialogue. Here, it’s reversed, which can often throw off an assembly not used to praying the hours. If you are preparing a parish celebration and want to begin in a more familiar way with an opening hymn, here are four possible adaptations:

Adaptation 1 for the Gathering

  • Gathering song accompanied with the procession of ministers
  • Introductory verse and “Glory to the Father…” led by the presider
  • A second gathering song sung by all

This first option could get quite top-heavy with two opening songs. So one of the next three options might flow better.

Adaptation 2 for the Gathering

  • Instrumental to accompany the procession of ministers
  • Introductory verse and “Glory to the Father…” led by the presider
  • Gathering song sung by all

Adaptation 3 for the Gathering

  • Short gathering song sung by the choir alone to accompany the procession of ministers
  • Introductory verse and “Glory to the Father…” led by the presider
  • Gathering song sung by all

Adaptation 4 for the Gathering

  • Several verses of a gathering song sung by all
  • Introductory verse and “Glory to the Father…” led by the presider (optional: instrumental of gathering song continues quietly underneath the dialogue)
  • Concluding verses of the gathering song continues sung by all

I like adaptation 2 because it gives due prominence to the introductory verse and to the gathering song. But adaptation 4 gives music ministers lots of musical flexibility and gets the assembly actively participating right away. Of course, you always have the option to omit the procession of ministers and simply begin the liturgy with them already in their places, ready to start with the introductory verse.

If you do choose to have a procession of ministers, it may include all the usual symbols carried in the entrance procession at Mass, e.g., incense, Cross, candles, Lectionary or Bible (the Book of Gospel would not be used in Morning or Evening Prayer since all the readings typically come from outside of the four Gospels). The Lectionary or Bible would be placed on the ambo and not the altar. Candles should be lit by the ambo and altar, as usual.

After the hymn, all are seated for the next section of the Liturgy of the Hours.

A note about the beginning of Morning Prayer: There is an option to begin Morning Prayer with a different dialogue and a psalm. The “Invitatory” is a dialogue from Psalm 51:17 led by the presider who says, “Lord, open my lips,” and the people respond, “and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” All make the Sign of the Cross during the dialogue. This is followed by Psalm 95, and concludes with the “Glory to the Father….”

The invitatory is traditionally used in place of the introductory verse if Morning Prayer is the very first prayer of the day, that is, upon waking from sleep. In the cathedral style, most communities would most likely opt to omit the invitatory and Psalm 95 and simply begin with the introductory verse described above.

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Psalms and canticle

In this first main section of Morning and Evening Prayer, the primary action is the praying of the psalms and canticles. In cathedral style, these psalms can be sung in the usual responsorial way that we sing the psalm during the Liturgy of the Word, that is, led by a cantor who intones the refrain, repeated by all. Then the cantor sings the verses interspersed with the people singing the refrain. (In monastic style, the psalm might be sung or spoken antiphonally without a cantor, where different sides or voices of the assembly take turns leading each verse without the refrain.)

Use assigned psalms and antiphons?

There are a few other considerations to make in cathedral style. First are the use of assigned antiphons, psalms, and canticles. Just as the Lectionary gives us a calendar of readings for each day and feast, the Breviary (the ritual book for the hours) prescribes specific psalmody and antiphons for each day of the liturgical year. This is important in monastic style where the community is progressing through the entire psalter and books of the Bible from one hour to the next. But in cathedral style, since the assembly gathers only occasionally, it may be appropriate to use other psalm choices that fit the liturgical season, time of day, or purpose of the gathering with musical settings that are familiar to the assembly. One common adaptation for cathedral style, for example, is to use Psalm 63 as one of the morning psalms and Psalm 141 as one of the evening psalms, instead of the assigned psalms for the day which is proper to monastic style.

Note that on specific days of the year, the assigned antiphons, psalms, canticles, and prayers should be used, namely: Sundays, solemnities, feasts of the Lord, the weekdays of Lent and Holy Week, the days within the octaves of Easter and Christmas, and the weekdays from December 17 to 24.

Include the antiphons?

In monastic style, the assigned antiphons found in the breviary are usually spoken by the presider before the psalm or canticle. Then at the conclusion of the psalm or canticle, the assembly repeats together the antiphon.
In cathedral style, the sung refrain of the psalm usually takes up the function of the antiphon. Therefore, you could omit the assigned antiphons. If you want, however, to add more solemnity to the celebration and attend to the specific day of the liturgical year, you could include the assigned antiphons. These could be spoken as usual by presider and people or sung by a schola. Alternatively, the presider alone can speak the antiphon before the psalm or canticle, then the repetition by the people is omitted after the psalm or canticle.

How many psalms and canticles to use?

Another consideration to make in cathedral style is the number of psalms and canticles used in this section. There are typically three (two psalms and an Old or New Testament canticle). Depending on your circumstances, the purpose of the gathering, your assembly, and level of solemnity desired, you might use only two psalms or one psalm and a canticle. You might also vary the way they are prayed: either all sung or one or both spoken antiphonally.

Include the psalm prayers?

After each psalm, there is usually a psalm prayer. In monastic style, these are typically led by the presider, with all seated, without the usual invitation to the people, “Let us pray,” and without the concluding “through Christ our Lord” and Amen. In cathedral style, you could choose to omit these psalm prayers. However, I find that they provide a way to involve the people more actively, especially if everyone stands for the psalm prayers and the presider includes the usual invitation and concluding dialogue.

From where to lead the psalms?

Finally, a subtle adaptation to consider is the location of where the psalms and canticles are led. In the Liturgy of the Word, the responsorial psalm is normatively led from the ambo since it is one of the readings from Scripture treated as a proclamation of Scripture. In the Liturgy of the Hours, this section of psalmody is the heart of the “conversation between God and his people” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours [GILOH], 33). The psalms and canticle here are less like a proclamation of Scripture and more like the people’s action of praise to God. Arguably, then, for the Liturgy of the Hours one could reserve the use of the ambo for the reading from Scripture which comes later and for the intercessions. By not using the ambo for the praying of the psalms and canticles, you keep the focus off of the cantor and on the entire assembly’s communal act of praise.

A word about silence

As in all our liturgies, silence is important in the Liturgy of the Hours. Yet, silence may be even more significant in this form of liturgy. The communal praying of psalmody, the sparseness of processions and ritual movement, and the heightened focus on the communal act of prayer and praise can invite the use of more silence than we normally experience at Mass. Silence helps us “receive in our hearts the full resonance of the voice of the Holy Spirit and to unite our personal prayer more closely with the word of God and the public voice of the Church” (GILOH 202). Therefore, there should be some brief silence after each psalm before the psalm prayer begins and after the reading.

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Reading, responsory, and Gospel canticle

After the final psalm or canticle, there is a short reading. In the monastic style, this reading is done without the usual opening introduction or concluding dialogue (“The word of the Lord…”). In cathedral style, the usual opening introduction (“A reading from…”) and concluding dialogue may be included to provide more familiarity and encourage more active participation. The reading can be taken from the one assigned in the Breviary or from another selection in the Lectionary appropriate for the liturgical season or occasion. The reading should not be one from the Gospels.

After the reading and a short period of silence, there may be a homily or reflection or an extended period of silence. Alternatively, it may be appropriate to include a second reading from the Office of Readings or another sacred text that highlights the occasion for the assembly.

Next a communal song may be sung as a response to the reading itself, or the responsory dialogue as found in the Breviary may be spoken or sung. The one leading the responsory speaks the first line of the responsory, then the people repeat that line in full. The leader then speaks the second line of the responsory, and the people respond with only the second half of the opening line. Finally, the leader says, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” But instead of concluding the doxology, the people repeat the entire first line of the responsory. The responsory may be led by the cantor or another reader from the ambo or another suitable place, and is spoken or sung while all are seated. The responsory dialogue also may be omitted.

This section concludes with the singing of the Gospel canticle, which is either the Benedictus at Morning Prayer or the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. The Gospel canticle here is given the same reverence as the Gospel reading at Mass. Therefore, all stand, and at the beginning of the canticle, all make the Sign of the Cross. At the end of the canticle, all bow for the invocation of the Trinity during the “Glory to the Father….” On more solemn occasions, you might include the prescribed antiphon before the canticle is sung. In addition, the presider could incense the altar while the canticle is sung. If the cross or Easter Candle is present, those should be incensed as well, followed by the incensation of the presider and the people.


Our praise of God leads us into petition for the needs of the world. The focus of the intercessions in the Liturgy of the Hours follows the general focus of those for the Universal Prayer at Mass. We pray for the Church and its leaders, the needs of the world, those suffering, the sick and the sorrowful. At Morning Prayer, the intercessions are intended to consecrate the day and its work to God. At Evening Prayer, the last intercession is always for the dead, whom we might recall by name.

Beyond content, one main difference is to whom the intercessions are addressed. At the Liturgy of the Hours, they are addressed directly to God and not to the faithful, as are the intercessions at Mass. When preparing the intercessions for Morning or Evening Prayer, model them after the structure used in the Breviary. For cathedral style, it may more appropriate to use a common response, such as “Lord, hear our prayer,” spoken or sung by the assembly as we do at Mass, rather than the longer varied dialogue responses found in the Breviary examples.

Another main difference in the intercessions for the Liturgy of the Hours is that there is no concluding prayer after the last intercession as in Mass. Instead, the presider invites all to pray together the Lord’s Prayer after the last intercession. After the Lord’s Prayer, the presider leads the concluding prayer for Morning or Evening Prayer.


Morning and Evening Prayer end very simply. The presider who is a priest or deacon greets the people as usual (“The Lord be with you….”), then blesses and dismisses them as at Mass. A lay presider omits the greeting and leads a blessing prayer, signing themselves as they say, “May the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life.” The people respond “Amen.” There may be a closing procession and song if desired.

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Image: Mateus Campos Felipe, unsplash, CC0

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