Praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Photo: courageous priest

Ministers at the Liturgy of the Hours

And More on Ambo Candles

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: I went to visit a seminary, and during the Divine Office the priest led the opening prayer — e.g., «O Lord, open my lips» or «O God come to my assistance» — and concluded the office by giving a blessing. It was only the seminarians who led the recitations of the psalms and their antiphons. In another religious community, the seminarians led the prayer until the conclusion, while the priest did not give the blessing. Shouldn’t the priest lead the prayers give the blessing, since he is higher in the hierarchy? — R.A., Quezon City, Philippines.

Q2: When reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, are lay individuals required to recite the daytime (midmorning, midday and midafternoon) prayers? — L.M.

A: There are actually many ways of combining the direction of the Liturgy of the Hours. The introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours gives fairly precise indications regarding the minimum intervention of the ordained minister and other ministers:

«253. In the celebration of the liturgy of the hours, as in all other liturgical services, ‘each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.’

«254. When a bishop presides, especially in the cathedral, he should be attended by his college of priests and by ministers and the people should take a full and active part. A priest or deacon should normally preside at every celebration with a congregation and ministers should also be present.

«255. The priest or deacon who presides at a celebration may wear a stole over the alb or surplice; a priest may also wear a cope. On greater solemnities the wearing of the cope by many priests or of the dalmatic by many deacons is permitted.

«256. It belongs to the presiding priest or deacon, at the chair, to open the celebration with the introductory verse, begin the Lord’s Prayer, say the concluding prayer, greet the people, bless them, and dismiss them.

«257. Either the priest or a minister may lead the intercessions.

«258. In the absence of a priest or deacon, the one who presides at the office is only one among equals and does not enter the sanctuary or greet and bless the people.

«259. Those who act as readers, standing in a convenient place, read either the long readings or the short readings.

«260. A cantor or cantors should intone the antiphons, psalms, and other chants. With regard to the psalmody, the directions of nos. 121-125 should be followed.»

Nos. 121-125 say the following:

«121. Different psalms may be sung in different ways for a fuller grasp of their spiritual meaning and beauty. The choice of ways is dictated by the literary genre or length of each psalm, by the language used, whether Latin or the vernacular, and especially by the kind of celebration, whether individual, with a group, or with a congregation. The reason for using psalms is not the establishment of a fixed amount of prayer but their own variety and the character proper to each.

«122. The psalms are sung or said in one of three ways, according to the different usages established in tradition or experience: directly (in directum), that is, all sing the entire psalm, or antiphonally, that is, two choirs or sections of the congregation sing alternate verses or strophes, or responsorially.

«123. At the beginning of each psalm its own antiphon is always to be recited, as noted in nos. 113-120. At the end of the psalm the practice of concluding with the Glory to the Father and As it was in the beginning is retained. This is the fitting conclusion endorsed by tradition and it gives to Old Testament prayer a note of praise and a Christological and Trinitarian sense. The antiphon may be repeated at the end of the psalm.

«124. When longer psalms occur, sections are marked in the psalter that divide the parts in such a way as to keep the threefold structure of the hour; but great care has been taken not to distort the meaning of the psalm.

«It is useful to observe this division, especially in a choral celebration in Latin; the Glory to the Father is added at the end of each section.

«It is permissible, however, either to keep this traditional way or to pause between the different sections of the same psalm or to recite the whole psalm and its antiphon as a single unit without a break.

«125. In addition, when the literary genre of a psalm suggests it, the divisions into strophes are marked in order that, especially when the psalm is sung in the vernacular, the antiphons may be repeated after each strophe; in this case the Glory to the Father need be said only at the end of the psalm.»

Therefore, the answer to the first question is that ordinarily the presiding priest or deacon should give the final blessing and dismissal.

However, above all in a seminary, it could happen that there is a good reason to omit the final blessing and dismissal while using instead the alternative conclusion. Seminary schedules often begin with lauds, after which the seminarians stay on in the chapel for personal prayer until Mass. In such cases it could appear incongruous that the priest blesses and dismisses an assembly, which in fact remains and will be again blessed and dismissed at the end of Mass.

It is true that the possibility exists for Mass to be united to lauds and vespers, but this is foreseen as something to be done occasionally and not on a daily or regular basis.

With respect to the second question we can answer that since for a layperson, praying any office of the Liturgy of the Hours is an option and not an obligation, then it follows that he or she can choose to omit midday prayer, select to pray any one of the midday offices or even pray all of them.

If a layperson makes a private vow or some other form of personal commitment, such as entering a third order or a spiritual movement, then he follows the spiritual obligations freely undertaken according to the customs of the association.

* * *

Follow-up: Candles at the Ambo

There were several follow-ups questions to our May 12 piece on the introduction of so-called ambo candles.

A Byzantine deacon wrote in commenting: «In your May 12th column on ‘Permanent Candles at the Ambo,’ you ended with the statement, ‘However, in this case the ambo is considered as part of the altar and is placed directly in front of the Holy Doors of the iconostasis.’ While technically this is true, I wonder if you might not be confusing the tetrapod, the small table in the nave in front of the Royal Doors, with the ambo. The ambo, or, ambon in our tradition, is a semicircular piece jutting out from the center of the raised walkway, the solea, in front of the iconostasis. It is in front of the Royal Doors and it is from there that the Gospel is proclaimed, litanies are chanted by the deacon, and the final blessing is given by the priest. Everything from the ambon and beyond the iconostasis is considered the altar in the sense of ‘The Holy Place.’ What the West calls the altar is usually referred to as the Holy Table. The only time one would see candle stands by the ambon would be if there were icons nearby, then the candles would be lit in devotion to the subject of the icon. The tetrapod, on the other hand, is a reflection of the Holy Table and many services take place there. Weddings, baptisms, memorial services for the deceased outside of liturgy, parts of matins, special devotions to Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints, among others, all happen at the tetrapod, and not at the altar. The tetrapod, since it is used so frequently, will usually be decorated with altar coverings and candles and an icon at the minimum.»

In my first article I referred to the ambo in t
he sense that our reader mentioned, but may have been confused by many images showing candles near the ambo. I thank our reader for his explanation.

Another writer, from Italy, gently reminded me of a practice in the Benedictine monastery of Cluny and its related monasteries between the years 1000 and 1100 in which a candle was kept permanently lit near the ambo, because «Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.» This lamp was eventually transferred to before the tabernacle as the custom of reserving the Eucharist in a prominent place became more widespread.

This historical custom helps us to appreciate the value that must be given to God’s word, although I do not believe that it is directly related to the current introduction of «ambo candles» in some places.

A reader from Beijing asked: «I was wondering if the altar candles (at least two, according to GIRM) can be served as the ambo candles during the procession of the Gospel?»

According to No. 117 of the introduction to the missal, the candles used at the altar may be used for the entrance procession. If this is done, however, I believe that once placed upon or near the altar, they would not be removed again until the end of Mass. There is nothing in the liturgical books that would imply ever removing the altar candles during the Mass, and it is generally understood, and common practice, to use either different candles for the Gospel or the candles used for the entrance procession if, as is likewise common, these are different from the altar candles.

Finally a correspondent asked: «Can you make a comment about conventual churches where the office is celebrated; are the altar candles lit or the candles near the crucifix?»

Here I would defer to the legitimate customs of the order. If the altar is to be incensed, then it would seem logical to light the candles there. But, as I said, there may be a legitimate custom to also light those of the crucifix.

The introduction to the Office does not propose very detailed norms in this respect, perhaps because the concrete situations in which the office is celebrated can vary widely.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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