ORIGIN AND HISTORY
The Jews in the Old Testament had a form of public prayer in which one or more persons would pronounce invocations of God which all those present answered by repeating (after every invocation) a certain prayer call, like “His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 135) or “Praise and exalt Him above all forever” (Daniel 3:57-87).
In the New Testament the Church retained this practice. The early Christians called such common, public, and alternating prayers “litany,” from the Greek litaneia (lite), meaning “a humble and fervent appeal.” What they prayed for is indicated in a short summary by Saint Paul in his first letter to Timothy (2:1-2).
The common and typical structure of the litany in the Latin Church developed gradually, from the third century on, from short invocations as they were used in early Church services. It consisted of four main types, which were recited either separately or joined together. First, invocations of the Divine Persons and of Christ, with the response Miserere nobis (Have mercy on us). Second, invocations of Mary, the Apostles, and groups of saints, response: Ora pro nobis (Pray for us). Third, prayers to God for protection from evils of body and soul, response: Libera nos, Domine (Deliver us, O Lord). Finally, prayers for needed favors, response: Te rogamus, audi nos (We beseech Thee, hear us).
Many invocations of individual saints and special petitions were added everywhere in later centuries, and popular devotion increased their numbers to such an extent that Pope Clement VIII, in 1601, determined the official text of the litany (called “Litany of All Saints”) and prohibited the public use of any other litanies unless expressly approved by Rome.
The invocation Kyrie eleison came from the Orient to Rome in the fifth century. It soon acquired such popularity that it joined (and even supplanted) the older form of litany in the Mass of the Catechumens. Up to this day the Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison in the Mass remain as relics of the responses that the people gave to petitions recited by the deacon (before the readings) and by the celebrant (after the Gospel). Outside of the Holy Sacrifice, the Kyrie eleison was also added to the other types of litany prayers; it may still be found at the beginning and end of every litany. The Greek Rite still uses a number of actual litanies (Ektenai) in its liturgy (the Holy Sacrifice).
Many and varied are the occasions on which litanies were in use among early Christians. Besides being a part of the Mass liturgy, a litany was recited before solemn baptism (as it is today in the liturgy of the Easter vigil) and in the prayers for the dying (where it is also still prescribed). Even more frequent, however, was the use of litanies during processions, because the short invocations and exclamatory answers provided a convenient form of common prayer for a multitude in motion. This connection between litany and procession soon brought about the custom of calling both by the same term. From the sixth century on, litania was used with the meaning of “procession.” The first Council of Orleans (511) incorporated this usage into the official terminology of the Church.
Since the ancient Roman Church had many and divers kinds of processions, the litanies must have been a most familiar feature of ecclesiastical life. Litanies (processions) were held on Station days, every day in Lent, on many feasts, on Ember Days and vigils, and on special occasions (calamities and dangers of a usual or unusual kind) when God’s mercy and protection was implored with particular fervor. These latter occasions had already been observed in pagan Rome with processions to the shrines of gods at certain times of the year. Their natural features (dates, routes, motives) were part of the traditional community life. These features the Church retained in certain cases, filling them with the significance and spiritual power of Christian worship.
The Major Litanies
The pagan Romans had two kinds of religious parades: the amburbalia (around the city) and ambarvalia (around the fields). The most important one of the rural processions every year (on April 25) walked along the Via Claudia to a place four miles outside the city. Its purpose was to obtain protection against frost and blight for the field fruits, especially grains. The Roman god responsible for this harvest was a bisexual divinity invoked either as male or female (Robigus, Robigo). He (or she) had the power to send blight upon the grains; and the procession was made to avert his “evil eye” from the fruits of human toil. At the fifth milestone, beyond the Milvian Bridge, was a grove which served as a shrine of Robigus. There the parade stopped, and the Flamen (pagan priest) sacrificed a sheep and a rust-colored dog, offering the entrails of these animals to the god. After the “service,” young and old celebrated a kind of picnic with games, races, and amusements (some of which were not overly decent). In honor of the god the whole celebration was called Robigalia.
Christianity had no quarrel with the motive of such a procession (prayer for protection of the harvest) or with its traditional date and route. Thus, when the empire turned Christian in the fourth century and the pagan celebrations died a natural death, the Church took over this traditional observance, as a Christian rite, to pray for God’s protection and blessing upon the fields. The pope with his clergy and a great crowd of people marched in solemn procession along the same route. They chanted the litany and repeated every invocation. After crossing the Milvian Bridge they did not, however, proceed to the place where the shrine of Robigus had been, but turned back and wended their way along the Tiber to the church of St. Peter at the Vatican. There the pope offered the Holy Sacrifice, and the multitude attended.
When and how, after the pagan observance had stopped, the Church started this annual procession is not known. The first definite information is given in a sermon of Pope Gregory the Great (604), who called it a Litania Major (Greater Litany); and he speaks of the “return of this annual solemnity,” which proves that it abeady was a traditional feature in his day.
The name litania major was originally given to a number of solemn processions in Rome (such as those on April 25 and Ember Fridays). Only later was it applied exclusively to the procession of April 25, and this term has remained in the liturgy ever since. There is no connection between the Major Litany and the Feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which is celebrated on the same day. The litany is of much earlier date, for the Feast of Saint Mark was not introduced until the ninth century.
Shortly after the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Major Litany was adopted by other parts of the ancient empire, but not everywhere on the same date. It was only during the ninth and tenth centuries that the Roman date and ritual became those usually accepted. For the Frankish empire the observance in the Roman manner was prescribed by the Council of Aachen, in 836. Today the liturgical books use the plural form in all cases, both for the prayers and the processions.
The Minor Litanies
In 470, during a time of unusual calamities (storms, floods, earthquakes), Bishop Mamertus of Vienne in Gaul originated an annual observance of penitential exercises for the three days before the Feast of the Ascension. With the cooperation of the civil authorities he decreed that the faithful abstain from servile work and that this triduum be held as a time of penance, with prayer and fasting. He also prescribed penitential processions (litanies) for each one of the three days. Thus the name “litanies” was given to the whole celebration.
Very soon the other bishops of Gaul adopted the new observance. At the beginning of the sixth century it started spreading into neighboring countries. In 511 the Council of Orleans prescribed it for the Frankish (Merovingian) part of France. The Diocese of Milan accepted the litanies, but held them in the week before Pentecost. In Spain they were observed in the sixth century during the week after Pentecost. The Council of Mainz (813) introduced them to the German part of the Frankish empire.
Meanwhile, Rome had declined for centuries to adopt this custom because its liturgical character did not agree with the ancient practice of the Roman Church which excluded penitential rites on all days between Easter and Pentecost. Charlemagne and the Frankish bishops, however, urged Pope Leo III (816) to incorporate these litanies into the Roman liturgy. The pope finally consented to a compromise: the observance of the fast was rescinded, but the penitential procession was approved. As Mass text, the formula of the Major Litany from the Roman liturgical books was taken. This approval was originally made only as an exception, for the litanies were not intended by Leo III as an established annual rite. In return for the concession, the Frankish Church decreed, at the Council of Aachen (836), that these “minor litanies” should be held according to the Roman decision (without fast).
During the subsequent centuries, however, the custom of holding these litanies became definitely established, even at Rome, as an annual feature of the liturgical year; it has remained so ever since in the whole Latin Church, and is now celebrated everywhere on the three days before the Feast of the Ascension. A memorable exception has been made recently: Pope Pius XII granted to some Catholic missions in the Pacific Islands the permission to celebrate both the major and minor litanies in October or November.
The litanies held on each one of the three days before the Feast of the Ascension are called “minor” because, in the Roman liturgy, they are of younger date than the Major Litany on April 25. In the early centuries they were also called “Gallican Litanies,” because of their origin in Gaul. The Major Litany was named “Roman” or “Gregorian” (after Gregory the Great, who first mentioned it ) . The popular term “Rogation Days” originated in the High Middle Ages. Another popular name, mostly used in centra] Europe, is “Cross Days” (from the crucifix that is carried in front of the procession).
The Rogation Days are unique through their penitential nature (purple vestments, no Gloria) within the jubilant Easter season. Even the Major Litany, which in ancient times was a festive observance of joyful petition and confidence, became assimilated after the beginning of the tenth century, acquiring this note of mourning and penance.
In the chanting of the litanies each invocation is repeated twice, first by the cantors, then by the people (choir). Some scholars explain this custom as a relic of the Litania Septiformis (Procession in Seven Columns) from the time of Pope Gregory the Great, who initiated this particular type of litany. Another feature of the ancient Major Litany was the antiphons, which the cantors sang at the start of the procession. They unfortunately were discontinued centuries ago, so they are no longer found in our liturgical books.
The litany used to lead directly into the Mass (as it still does on the vigil of Easter). The Rogation Mass, therefore, had neither Introit nor Kyrie of its own, but the priest concluded the litany by singing a Collect which also served as oration (prayer) of the Mass. The ten Collects used now in the litany are of later date, when the procession was severed from the Mass and held as a separate and isolated rite.
There is no obligation now to conduct a procession. However, the rubrics of the Divine Office prescribe that on Rogation Days all those who are obliged to say the breviary must recite the Litanies of All Saints (with the psalm and prayers following it) whenever they have missed them before Mass.
The Rogations must be commemorated in other Masses on Rogation Days (for instance, in the Mass of Saint Mark the Evangelist). If April 25 should happen to be Easter Sunday, the litanies are transferred to Tuesday in Easter week; apart from this exception, they are always to be held on their liturgical dates even if some other great feast should fall on one of their days.
Most of the Oriental Churches keep a triduum of fast and penitential prayer, comparable to the Rogations, shortly before the beginning of Lent. In the Greek Rite it is called the “Fast of Adam” in honor of the first law of abstinence which God gave to Adam and Eve in Paradise (Genesis 2:17), and in preparation for the coming strict fast of Lent. About the same time of the year, the Syrians, Chaldeans, and Copts celebrate a three days’ penitential season of prayer and fasting which they call the “Fast of Indiction” (because God indicts man, and punishes him through natural calamities) or “Fast of the Ninevites” (because the people of Nineveh averted God’s punishment through prayer and fasting; see Jonas 3:5-10). The Armenians term it Aratshavor-atz, which means “precursor” (a fast coming before Lent).
In the rural sections of Catholic countries the Rogations are still held in their full and original significance with many features of external solemnity. The church bells ring while the procession slowly wends its way through the town and out into the open. Religious banners are carried, the litanies are chanted by choir and people, and the priest sprinkles the fields, gardens, and orchards with holy water. After returning to the church, a sermon is preached and the High Mass of the Rogations is celebrated. Later in the day some time is spent by many farmers with private little prayer processions around their own homestead. Reciting traditional prayers, the whole family asks for God’s blessing upon house, barns, stables, and fields.
In some places the Rogations are held in a way that is strongly reminiscent of the Litania Septiformis of ancient times. The inhabitants of villages surrounding some city or town will proceed from their own churches in separate processions and converge toward the big church of the city for the sermon and High Mass. Afterward a market or fair is ready to serve their temporal needs and interests.
The purpose and liturgy of the Rogations has for many centuries, up to our time, inspired a great number of semi-liturgical imitations and repetitions of its rite in the manifold smaller processions which are held all through the summer months in countless places of Europe. These prayer processions are customary whenever the harvest is in danger from frost, floods, hail, drought, or the like. Other such processions are steady features of religious observance, and their main purpose is to pray for the right kind of weather—a most important item on the prayer list of agricultural populations. In many sections of Europe a “weather procession” is held around the church on every Sunday. Usually the priest sings the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (1:1-14), which from the High Middle Ages has been considered as conferring a powerful blessing against all harmful trends of nature.
The pre-Christian lore of averting harm from fields and homes by the magic power of “walking around” them (circumambulatio, ambitus in Latin and umbigang in old Germanic) still survives in many superstitious customs among the rural populations of Europe. At the seasons of the year when the demons roam (before the winter solstice, on Walpurgis Night, around the middle of June, at Halloween), girls or young men must circle the fields and orchards, sometimes during the night and in a rhythmic dance step. Before Christmas the farmer goes around his buildings with incense and holy water. He must be careful to complete the round walk; otherwise “the blessing would not take hold.” Here also belongs the superstition held in many places that visitors should leave the home by the same door through which they came (to “close the circle”) in order to avoid misfortune and harm.
- Father Francis Xavier Weiser, SJ. “Rogation Days”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 15 January 2016. Web. 21 January 2017. <>