Liturgy of the Hours -- Structure and Rankings

Saturday, December 08, 2007

With the positive response to my first post on the Liturgy of the Hours, I have decided to make something of a series of this. It has been suggested that I write about each of the individual Hours -- something I am happy to do -- but to do that requires first of all some consideration of the structure of various Office books, and of the rankings of different liturgical "days".

The structure of an Office book

[Note: this refers to the Christian Prayer and Divine Office books I am familiar with. I know the US Liturgy of the Hours book is the same, but I can only assume the Shorter Morning & Evening Prayer and other books follow a similar pattern. Feedback would be welcome.]
Within your Office book you will find many sections, but those I would draw particular attention to are as follows. Their use varies depending on the type of liturgical day, i.e. a Solemnity versus a Memoria. They are:-

  • The Ordinary (also called "Common Texts") is essentially the Outline of the structure of each of the particular Hours contained in your Office book; it is important to become familiar with this before starting out, and necessary to refer back to if you encounter some of the "liturgical shorthand"(1) in the Breviary;
  • The Psalter -- the Psalter contains the staple part of the Office, i.e. the Psalms and Canticles prayed at various Offices; rotating over a four-week cycle, it also includes introductory texts, hymns, Antiphons, and a concluding prayer;
  • The Proper of Seasons, as the name implies, contains parts, e.g. Psalms, Antiphons, hymns, etc., which are "proper" to various days in the liturgical calendar, i.e. they override those listed in the Proper of Saints, the Commons or the Psalter;
  • The Proper of Saints -- similar to the Proper of Seasons, these texts override the Commons, and the Psalter, but refer to specific calendar days; and
  • The Commons are various texts common to particular classes of people, or thing, e.g. Common of Doctors [of the Church], or Common of Dedication of a Church.
Top tip: If you are stuck about which text to say, consider the parts to rank in this order:

  • The Proper of Seasons overrides:
  • The Proper of Saints, overrides:
  • The Commons, overrides:
  • The Psalter, overrides:
  • The Ordinary.
There are various other sections, depending on your book; those I would highlight as being of importance are (indicated by me running out of ribbons and using prayer-cards):-

  • appendices covering the Saints of the national Calendars -- use this to "amend" the Proper of Saints to cover your particular national Calendar;
  • Night Prayer (Compline) often comes in a section all its own -- though there are different Psalms for each day, it is otherwise unvarying;
  • the Final Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary -- these are traditionally said after Compline, e.g. Alma Redemptoris Mater during Advent.

    You'll also note a lot of red text throughout; like the Roman Missal, it is a case of "say the black, do the red"; though, you may on occasion find that "Ant." (for Antiphon) or "R." (for response) have been printed in black by mistake -- use your initiative and don't say them! There are known printing errors in Breviaries; give yourself plenty of time, say the Office slowly, read the red and become familiar with it!


    When I talk of rankings, I speak of being able to work out the importance of a particular liturgical "day", and of determining any particular rules which relate to a set of days. One must take cognisance of the ranking of liturgical days if a day in the Proper of the Saints collides with one in the Proper of Seasons.

    The old pre-Vatican II Breviarum Romanum was found by many to be complicated. It split Liturgical days into the genus and species of:

    • Greater Sundays (Sundays of the Ist Class, and those of the IInd Class);
    • Greater Ferias (a certain type of weekday, being Privileged Ferias or Non-Privileged Ferias);
    • Privileged Vigils (Ist Class Vigils and IInd Class Vigil);
    • Primary Ist Class Doubles;
    • Primary IInd Class Doubles;
    • Primary Greater Doubles;
    • Octave of Feasts (Privileged Octaves, Common Octaves, and Simple Octaves);
    • Lesser Doubles; Semi-Doubles; Ordinary Vigils; and so-on...
    It is relatively complex, especially when one then has to consult a table of each type against each other, to establish the rule for that combination. It certainly seems that the reformed Liturgy of the Hours has changed things for the better, in having, like Mass, the distinctions only of:

    • Solemnities;
    • Feasts;
    • Memoria;
    • Optional Memoria; and
    • all other days.
    The class, or ranking, of the day determines which sections of the Office book the various parts will be drawn from. It also established various things, such as whether or not to say the Te Deum after the Office of Readings, and whether there will be a vigil Evening Prayer the night before.

    To give a practical example, today, Saturday 8th December 2007 is the Immaculate Conception, and in Scotland is a Solemnity. The next day is the Second Sunday of Advent. Given that a Solemnity has its own "proper" Evening Prayer (from the Proper!), but that a Sunday has an additional "vigil" Evening Prayer the night before (i.e. on the Saturday night; also from the Proper!), which one wins?

    The reformed Liturgy of the Hours had made such decisions relatively easy by giving a "Table of Liturgical Days"(2). Upon glancing at it, it is clear there is still a complexity, because there are still 13 different classes of liturgical day, but generally the system is still easier to resolve.

    Having explained all of that, I can now explain the practical implications of rankings, by paraphrasing Christian Prayer, p. 37:

    • Sundays draw from the Proper of Seasons, the Psalter and the Ordinary (in that order), and have an Evening Prayer I the night before as well as an Evening Prayer II on the actual night (in addition, the Te Deum is said in the Office of Readings, except during Lent);
    • Solemnities draw from the Proper of Seasons or of Saints (depending which they are listed in), the Commons, as well as the Psalter and the Ordinary; they too possess a first and second Evening Prayer, and the Te Deum is said;
    • Feasts do not normally have an Evening Prayer I, with the bulk of material coming from the Proper of Seasons or of Saints (again depending which the Feast is listed in), and the Commons;
    • on Memoria the Psalms are drawn from the Psalter itself, with Antiphons, etc., coming from the Proper of Saints, or from the Commons, if not listed;
    • Optional Memoria are the same, but -- as the name implies -- their observance is optional; and
    • normal Weekdays draw all of their material from the Psalter (or the Proper, depending on the Season), never have a Te Deum, and the concluding prayer comes from the Psalter.
    I would advise anyone considering taking up the Breviary to read the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours. As well as covering practical considerations, it covers the spirituality of the Liturgy of the Hours, and why we pray them.

    Please leave feedback on how helpful you find this; thank you!

    Next time:

    Some of you may be feeling you're still none the wiser, so next time I will be looking at how to actually say the major Hours of Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer).

    Though you may wish to consider Baronius' reprint of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or similar short prayer-books, if you do not want as much variation as the Breviary offers.

    Note: I will not be covering the "odd Hour", Prime, as this Hour was suppressed for normative use following Vatican II. It is not, however, obsolete, as it is said by some Western monastic communities, the Societies of Apostolic Life using the 1962 liturgical books (e.g. FSSP), and other "traditional" Catholics. For more on Prime, see the appropriate Wikipedia article, or the "Anglican Breviary" page on the subject.

    (1) "Liturgical shorthand" refers to the way many common prayers are referenced by their first few words. We already do this in our naming of prayers, e.g. "Our Father", "Hail Mary", and "Glory Be" refer to the entire prayer, however the Breviary will also write, for example, "Into Thy hands" for "Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit".
    (2) LotH, vol. I, pp. xciv-xcvi

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