Divine Office Vocabulary

One of the challenges of getting started with the Liturgy of the Hours is all the vocabulary that is involved. It can be confusing, especially since there are often two terms for the same thing. Here’s a handy list of the most common terms.

Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours: official prayer of the Catholic Church, constituting, along with the Mass, the Church’s liturgy. A repeating cycle of psalms, biblical readings, and other prayers, coordinated to the liturgical season and/or the feasts of the Church. The word “office” comes from a Latin word meaning “service” or “ceremony”.

Breviary: the book in which one finds the Divine Office. The book is  titled “Christian Prayer” in the United States. The UK edition says “Divine Office” on the cover. The full breviary contains four volumes. One volume breviaries contain the full morning, evening, and night prayer for the year, but not the full Office of Readings. Some one volume breviars also contain the full office of Day time prayer.

Antiphon – the verse said before and after each psalm and canticle.

Canticle – a psalm-like passage from a part of the Bible other than the book of Psalms.

Invitatory – The psalm that is recited before the first liturgical hour that you say each day. Usually Psalm 95

Benedictus – Latin for the Canticle of Zachariah

Magnificat – Latin for the Canticle of Mary

Nunc Dimittis – Latin for the Canticle of Simeon

Morning Prayer/Lauds – one of the two principle hours or “hinges” of the liturgical day, morning prayer may be said any time from when you wake up until mid -morning.

Evening Prayer/Vespers – the other main hour or “hinge” of the liturgical day, evening prayer may be said between 4 and 7PM.

Night Prayer/Compline – to be said later than evening prayer, usually close to bedtime.

Daytime Prayer – a liturgical hour with 3 subdivisions: Mid-morning (terce); midday (sext); midafternoon (none). The general custom is to choose one of these, according to what suits one’s schedule. Monastics (or anyone who is a real Divine Office fanatic)  may still use all three.

Office of Readings– also known as Matins, this was the hour that monastics rose during the night to pray. It may be prayed at any time of day, although generally it is done preceding morning prayer, or after evening prayer on the previous day. The Office of Readings consists of psalms followed by two longer readings; one from the Bible and one from the writings of the fathers/doctors/saints of the Church.

Ordinary – rather inadequate instructions on how to pray the office, buried about one-third of the way through the breviary. Just ask the Divine Office Go-to Girl if  the ordinary leaves you with unanswered questions.

Proper of Seasons-the first third of the breviary. It gives all the readings,responsories, antiphons,intercessions, and concluding  prayers that  replace what’s in the 4 week Psalter during the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter.

Proper of Saints – gives the dates, and prayers for saint’s feasts and memorials, plus directions on which of the Commons to use if you want to do the day’s  hours  in honor of  the saint, rather than just going with the psalter.

Commons – these are all purpose or generic offices for celebring a feast of Our Lady or of a saint, with headings such as Apostles, Martyrs, virgins, holy men, pastors, doctors of the church, etc.





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Daria Sockey is a freelance writer from western Pennsylvania. Her articles have appeared in many Catholic publications. She authored several of the original Ignatius Press Faith and Life catechisms in the 1980s, and more recently wrote five study guides for saints' lives DVDs distributed by Ignatius Press. She now writes regularly for the newly revamped Catholic Digest. Her newest book, The Everyday Catholic's Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours, will be published by Servant Books this spring. Feel Free to email her at [email protected]

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