Teaching Undergraduates (continued) – Liturgy of the Hours

More than a year ago I wrote about my “Liturgical Crash Course” which I have taught every year since 2006. After I had published that course I got the opportunity to follow up with another introductory book, namely on the Liturgy of the Hours (in the broader sense of Divine Office as well as the Roman Catholic LoTH after the Second Vatican Council). I do not teach this on a regular basis, but over the years courses on the LoTH were assigned to me at different schools of Catholic Theology in Austria and Germany.

I can hardly imagine a field where the students’ previous knowledge differs as much as here: While religious people and seminarians deal with the Office every day, most lay students have no experience whatsoever with that sort of liturgy since it is almost completely ignored in Catholic parishes. But even those who know the Office from their own experience are mostly unfamiliar with the history and the academic terminology. Hence the course must be very basal.

Surprisingly there has never been a German introductory book in the post-Conciliar LoTH, all you can find are (mostly short) chapters in general introductions in liturgy. For my students I recommend Robert Taft’s “The Liturgy of the Hours and East and West” and Gregory W. Woolfenden’s “Daily Liturgical Prayer” as the best books in English (with Taft being more sophisticated and Woolfenden a little better-arranged with tables and text samples), but my manuscript had the chance to close a gap for the German market. While the course itself always includes several sources that we read and analyze line by line, the published version became more of a schoolbook for a broader audience.

My basic idea is that one can understand the (Roman Catholic) Office best with a quadruple approach:

  • the categories of monastic and cathedral office, which are helpful for understanding the deeper meaning of certain liturgical elements;
  • a historical overview over the developments mainly in the Latin world;
  • impressions of different ritual styles that the Office can adopt (mainly its esthetic abundance in Anglican and Byzantine traditions is very little known here);
  • an idea how Catholic Office could look like if Catholics spent some effort on it.

So here is a look at the eleven chapters of the book, mirroring the academic course:

  1. Anthropological and Biblical basics: prayer as a natural expression of religion — the value of words in the Biblical approach to humanity and prayer — prayer gestures in the Bible — directed time: from past to future — circular time: year, (month,) week, day (and night), hour, breath.
  2. Monastic approach: monasticism in ancient times — tension between monasticism and ordained offices — special role of the Bible, mainly the Psalter in monastic spirituality — John Cassian’s depiction of monastic Office in Egypt — continuous reading of the psalms (and the spiritual attitude behind).
  3. Cathedral and mixed approaches: Apostolic Constitutions as an example for the Office in urban congregations — Egeria’s depiction of public Office in Jerusalem (times and elements; relation between Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist).
  4. Development in Latin monasticism: Rule of the Master (here I introduce the entire Latin terminology) — Rule of St. Benedict as a pattern that contains all elements that we need for the following history up to Catholic liturgy today.
  5. Overview up to the 20th century: Latin liturgy gets more and more focused on the role of the clerics and on the Mass, even in monasteries — Office turns more and more into a private prayer by clerics, independent from the real course of time — Angelus and rosary become regular prayers for laypeople — Council of Trent and the Breviary Romanum — Reform of the Breviary by Pius X. (within the context of pleas for reform since the 19th century).
  6. Second Vatican Council: Sacrosanctum Concilium 83—101, its theological teaching on the Office and its concrete reform policy — Liturgia Horarum, its features and peculiarities (such as the four-week psalter, the reformed Vespers as the most popular hour, the Office of Readings, the introduction of the vernacular (German Stundenbuch) etc.) — my opinion on pros and cons of the Liturgia Horarum.
  7. The human body in prayer: singing the psalms in Gregorian Chant — other musical options — postures and gestures — how to celebrate the Office in rooms of different sizes: pros and cons, from large church buildings to chair cycles.
  8. Some leitmotifs of the Office: Light (lucernar and why it deserves to be rediscovered) — night — sleep.
  9. Non-Roman liturgies (mainly Vespers): Lutheran — Anglican — Old Catholic — Byzantine — Coptic — Ecumenical (I follow sources like Anglican Books of Common Prayer etc.).
  10. Option for the present time (this chapter contains a lot of small paragraphs with references to German publications, personal ideas and experiences with the official Catholic Liturgia Horarum and with proposals to make the Office either more monastic or more cathedral).
  11. Closing remarks: Some quotes from the Council, from the General Instruction on the LoTH, and from liturgists.

In addition I established a website with videos and audios from Office liturgies. Of course this website cannot substitute the personal experience, but it is a helpful tool to give some impressions.


  1. Most parishes these days have no experience of these liturgies. 70 years ago in England many parishes had at least Sunday Vespers. This changed because Mass became possible in the afternoon or evening, with the relaxation of the fasting laws, and Mass was always going to more popular.
    The reformers expressed the hope that the LOTH would become more available more widely, so why is it not? I suggest the roots can be found in the description above of the Monastic and Cathedral Offices. Neither of these is a Parish Office, they are too complex for a parish. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer shows that it would be possible to devise something suitable. But the even the success of BCP derives from being imposed on Anglican pastors as a requirement.

    1. The whole point of the re-introduction of the Cathedral Office in the 1980s was precisely that it was so much simpler than the monastic form, and had added symbolism (e.g. Christ Candle and incense in a lucenarium at Evening Prayer) to attract pray-ers. After a brief resurgence, the parish practice lapsed back into somnolence.

      In my part of the world, Sunday Vespers during Advent and Lent is making a small comeback. But it’s once again the monastic form, rather than the Cathedral Office.

      1. Paul Inwood – Who (re)introduced the Cathedral Office in the 1980s, and where can I find out about it? I am aware of a plethora of books; Taize style, Iona style, ‘Celtic’, and so on and on. I have lead services locally devised (in a Cathedral). But nothing remotely even semi-official.

      2. George Guiver’s Company of Voices is the classic work detailing the Cathedral Office, so called because it took place in parish churches (which is what cathedrals originally were) instead of monasteries.

        The main characteristics of it are
        (1) invariable psalms and antiphons, so that they can get into your bones
        (2) use of symbols, so not just words;

        Sunday Evening Vespers in a Cathedral Office-type form would run something like this:
        Procession of Christ Candle into the darkened building
        Acclamation to the Candle
        Hymn to the Light (typically a translation of the Phos Hilaron, after which all may optionally have their individual candles lit from the Christ candle)
        Thanksgiving for the Light (an extended chant, sung by a single voice, with a concluding acclamation for all)
        Psalm 141[140] (Let my prayer rise before you like incense—the invariable default psalm—during which all are invited to come and place grains of incense in an incense bowl or thurible standing in front of the altar. Form can be similar to responsorial psalm form at Mass, or alternating psalmody as in monastic practice)
        Optional additional psalms (Psalm 117[116] is a popular choice, and contrasts well with Ps 141)
        Remainder of the Office, typically
        Scripture reading (longer than the short reading at monastic office)
        Extended silence for reflection
        Concluding Prayer
        Sign of Peace

  2. I will look for this book and look forward to reading it. Another one that’s right up there with Taft and Woolfenden (IMHO) is George Guiver’s “Company of Voices.” In one chapter, Guiver outlines an intriguing scheme for daily prayer in the parish church that can carry over into families, with various roles distributed among participants. It’s a “cathedral” office in the sense that it doesn’t seek to cover the whole psalter and provides opportunities for ceremonial with candles and simple processions.

  3. Liborius Olaf Lumma and his colleague Reinhart Meßner are two of the best scholars for the Liturgy of the Hours. In Meßner’s book, _Einführung in die Liturgiewissenschaft_, the fourth chapter, on the “Tagzeitenliturgie”, is the best that I have found for the theology of the LOTH. It is also good for the history of the Liturgy of the Hours.

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