Parish Celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours: An Underutilized Gem of the Second Vatican Council

One of the underutilized, hidden gems of the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical books that followed is the clear desire for more communal celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours, with participation of all of the baptized (not just clergy and religious, as was often expressed prior to the Second Vatican Council). [See, for example, General Instruction of Liturgy of the Hours (1971), para. 21, 33; Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), no. 27; or Laudis Canticum (Apostolic Constitution on the Liturgy of the Hours)].

In his preface to the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours, Archbishop Anthony Bugnini emphasized that although “the awareness of the Liturgy of the Hours as something belonging essentially to the whole Church has, regrettably, hardly been in evidence for many centuries,” they are not “private functions or reserved to groups of the elite…They pertain to the whole body of the Church.” Yet this desire of the Council has not become a reality in pastoral practice in the United States. In the 1970s, Fr. A. M. Roguet observed that for too many Catholic Christians, “the Mass seems important for our salvation, while the Liturgy of the Hours appears as a profusion of words without any particular effect, a leisure activity for the devout.” [1] Similarly, William Storey remarked that, “by and large the office is not regarded as liturgy in any normal sense of the word…little is expected of the Liturgy of the Hours because it is still unknown as a public, cultic, ecclesial event…as a cathedral or parish celebration [it] is a nonentity.” [2]

Nearly four decades later, I don’t think much has changed. With the exception of select cathedrals and academic/seminary settings, the Liturgy of the Hours is largely unknown to the vast majority of Catholics in the United States. Of those who are aware of this liturgical celebration of the Church, I suspect that even fewer are familiar with the option for preaching in this liturgical context. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to celebrate either of the major hinges of the Liturgy of the Hours–Morning and Evening Prayer–in our parishes.

I was blessed to discover the Catholic tradition of praying the Liturgy of the Hours communally in my local parish (St. Patrick’s) in Fayetteville, NC. I was familiar with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but little did I know this was something a Catholic parish could celebrate in common. St. Patrick’s celebrated Sunday Evening Prayer during the Advent, Christmas, and Easter seasons (my memory might be slightly off on this…) — helping me truly experience the depth of these seasons through the lived experience of prayer. For a young adult with no exposure to the Liturgy of the Hours, this was liturgical catechesis in action.

I think it comes down to familiarity. When celebrated well with sound pastoral planning, communal Morning and Evening Prayer can be incredibly powerful prayer services. When celebrated without pastoral sensitivity or planning (i.e. just tossing Christian Prayer books in parishioners laps and reciting texts as quickly as possible), the entire concept and spirituality of the communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours is quickly lost. When people don’t have a good experience of a form of prayer, it does not get repeated. When people have never heard of the Liturgy of the Hours (or think it only as “that thing priests have to recite, right?”), it won’t be requested or integrated into parish life. But, I think in many parishes, the Liturgy of the Hours can play an important role in the New Evangelization. Just think, returning Catholics who many not be comfortable at Mass or unable to receive the Eucharist can be welcomed in a more flexible setting, with potential for forms of preaching beyond the specifics of a Eucharistic homily. Or, Liturgy of the Hours could be a venue for ongoing adult faith formation. Or, designed for children or teens as a form of liturgical catechesis. The possibilities abound.

What have your experiences been with parish celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours? What great uses have you seen? When has it not been well received? 


[1] A.-M. Roguet, Peter Coughlan, and Peter Purdue. The Liturgy of the Hours; The General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Abbey Press, 1971), 84.

[2] William G. Storey, “Parish Worship: The Liturgy of the Hours,” Worship 49, no. 1 (1 Jan 1975), 3.

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6 thoughts on “Parish Celebrations of the Liturgy of the Hours: An Underutilized Gem of the Second Vatican Council

  1. Keep it simple and keep it short. Build your cathedral/parish office around three or four psalms at Morning Prayer and the same for Evening Prayer. For example, at Sunday Morning Prayer: Hymn of Mass or office hymn, or Introit antiphon, or the Kyrie, or Trisagion, or Litany of Saints, Invitatory psalm (95/100/24).

    As procession goes to baptistery (or interior/exterior “Easter sepulcher” during Easter season). there follows the blessing of holy water and salt with paschal candle lit. Priest or deacon sings resurrection gospel with incensation of book of gospels and the font with paschal candle submerged and held in water by acolyte, deacon, another priest.

    Choir sings psalm 51 with sprinkling of the people as celebrant goes in procession from baptistery through the nave (outside of Easter water may have been blessed ahead of time in the sacristy) , An alternative: have congregation come to font to sign themselves with holy water while Psalm 51 is sung or “Vida Acquam” Each one kisses the gospel book (and/or lights a candle from paschal candle), and kisses icon of the resurrection before returning to his/her seat.

    Outside Easter season sing entrance hymn appropriate for the morning or Introit, or the Trisagion, or Litany of Saints, or Invitatory psalm 95 or 24, or 100. The choice depends upon whether Mass follows.

    Here follows psalm 62, Old Testament lesson, Psalm 51 with sprinkling, Te Deum, (or Gloria if Mass follows). In Lent or Advent Benedicte or appropriate canticle.

    Celebrant sings or says collect from office of the day or from Mass. Reading of epistle (from Mass if it follows). Then either psalm 148, 149, or 150.

    Canticle of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace. Then the antiphon for the Benedictus and incensation of altar and church (same for Evensong at singing of antiphon for the Magnificat). Followed by a litany from any source (Roman, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox etc.) and Lord’s prayer. Priest changes from cope to chasuable. Mass starts with oration for the day and Gloria or suitable psalm in penitential season and continues as usual.

    The rite of hallowing the font and blessing water with the chanting of the Resurrection gospel would be replaced with the opening rites of vespers. The kindling of a lucernarium lamp or candle with a thanksgiving preface or prayer of thanksgiving taken from a number of sources: Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Gallican, Anglican, Lutheran. Church candles and lamps special for this occasion are lit while “Phos Hilaron”, or another appropriate vesperal hymn is sung.

    There follows a blessing or “raising of incense”. A rite of confession (Confiteor or a penitential psalm), and a general incensation of the church while psalm 141 with its antiphon is sung. This rite is followed by one or two vesper psalms proper to the day. Each with a proper antiphon, or one long psalm with a canticle.

    A short Old Testament reading. Maybe a sermon or Patristic reading and antiphon for the Magnificat repeated after the last verse.

    The collect of the office , Lord’s Prayer, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Or, if Mass follows, the Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel assigned for the eucharist of the day.

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    • I should add, the idea for incorporating asperges with a blessing of the font and a reading of the account of the resurrection in Morning Prayer (matins) provides a balance at the opening of the office to the lucernarium which begins vespers. Both rites are about light, triumph over sin and death exemplified by the use of light for the illumined, water for purification from sin, and incense to express sorrow for sin and praise. A strong sin offering which recalls the Old Testament sacrifices. Added to that, it introduces a rite of sanctification.

      Almost all of Christendom seems to have had a lucernarium except for the Church at Rome. If Rome had one, it appears to have died out by the end of the 2nd century. All the major liturgical traditions today make provision for a lamp or candle lighting liturgy.

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      • Except, as you say, for the Church of Rome. While it may be worthwhile to pray that one be added to our liturgy, it is not now a part of it. This is an example of what happened in the postconciliar period: well-intentioned people departed from what the liturgy of our rite, and they expended a great deal of time and energy reinventing the wheel. Just do what the Church has given us. There should be no need to to recreate the Church’s liturgy in every parish. We can pray what the Liturgy of the Hours as it has been handed on us to, I promise. This diffusion of efforts has resulted in the present situation we find ourselves in. Stop it, and we can get to the real work of implementing this prayer in our parishes.

        To the author of this blog: keep up the good work, and thank you for seeking ways to put the vision of the Council and our Holy Fathers into action.

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        • You miss the point entirely Evgeni. The Liturgy of the Hours is going nowhere as long as it is nothing more than the priest’s breviary read in church. Too many RCs, unlike their Anglican and Orthodox counterparts, find the Roman office of 1962 and the revised office of Paul VI either too long or too boring, or both. For that reason, the vast majority of parishes have not and will not implement a program of parish offices.
          A shorter, more concise, LOTR is a necessity or the twin hinges upon which the Church swings (Morning and Evening Prayer) will be empty words and will never become part of the daily cursus of public prayer in either cathedrals or parishes. A radically shortening, but highly focused public prayer based on the cathedral, not the monastic praxis is essential. An office taking no more than 20 minutes tops and preferably shorter than that is the only solution.

          Most Roman Catholics lack the attention span, the patience to put up with lengthy services of psalmody monks, nuns, and the secular clergy are accustomed to, or have had the appreciation from childhood for a liturgy of public praise. They’re more comfortable with the unbalanced diet of rosaries, novenas, and benediction. A ritual display requiring little brain activity of any sort.

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  2. First, I’ve rarely seen a celebration of the hours go beyond 20 minutes. Most mornings and evenings, in both parish and seminary, the celebration rarely breaks the 16 minute mark. With the Office of Readings as a Vigil including the Homily, you could probably hit an hour; when that starts happening in parishes and people are turned off by the length, we’ll talk. It could be argued that the shortness of length is actually a hindrance to parochial celebration, at least in most suburban American parishes. Not many are going to go to the trouble of getting to the parish church for a service that takes less time than they used in traveling. But that’s a different discussion.

    Secondly, I would disagree that I missed your point; I was simply responding to the broader trend that your point reflects: instead of trying to pray the office, so many simply say that it cannot be done as it is now and thus do not even attempt to fulfill their obligation to prepare the people. The idea that the structure has to be perfect before we can even try makes the perfect the enemy of the good. Also, the continued babying of the people serves absolutely no one. Culture is an important factor which cannot be disregarded; that doesn’t mean that culture cannot change. Yes, this is a difficult process and most of those entrusted with its implementation have been negligent of their duty; indeed, those who were entrusted with forming them where likely themselves negligent. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. It means we acknowledge the failure, lovingly correct the attitudes that lead to that failure, discern what needs to be done, and do it. As the Invitatory says, “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord. Do not grow stubborn as your father’s did in the wilderness.”

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    • Thanks for adding more insight. We all have very different experiences to draw from, which is what makes discussion so valuable.

      My experience of public/parish celebrations of liturgy of the hours is that the good ones do and should go around or well beyond 20 minutes when singing, chanting, choral or preached response, smells/bells, and/or silence [all aspects of the public celebration] are incorporated. I agree that if a public liturgy of the hours is simply going to be a group spoken recitation of an exact text I could pray at iBreviary.org, then it’s harder to envision why I should leave my own home to attend. That’s why the art of celebrating public, “cathedral” style liturgies is so important for communal prayer–so that it is indeed something distinctly different than the sum of of many individual recitations, an environment of prayer that I could not replicate on my own with just the text.

      There’s no requirement to follow a rigid or specific structure for those not obliged to pray the hours in accordance w/ the breviary version. The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours provide many options/substitutions for pastoral/practical consideration and beyond that, and the idea of shortened, more suited to public celebration liturgies have been around in the Church since the Patristic era–very much a part of our heritage of prayer. Fr. Robert Taft’s “Liturgy of the Hours in East and West” provides many fascinating descriptions.

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