Externals of the Catholic Church – The Litanies

In his devotions and prayers it seems to be natural for man to invent and multiply terms of praise. In many forms of worship the practice has existed of joining in one prayer the various titles of the deity adored and the various terms of salutation addressed to him; and here, as in many other pious practices, the Catholic Church has adapted to her own purposes something which was in common use in other religions. She has taken advantage of many commendable features of the Jewish and even of pagan rituals; and she has done this because in her wisdom she wishes to make use of everything which seems to promise good results in the exciting of devotion among her children.

A Jewish Litany

To illustrate the manner in which the Jews used what we now call a litany, we have only to refer to the 135th Psalm. This was used in the public worship of the Temple, being recited alternately by priest and people, and was also employed in private devotions. It enumerates the attributes of God, and consists of twenty-seven verses, each ending with the words “For His mercy endureth forever.” This repetition gives the whole psalm the effect of a litany, such as is recited in our Church. In like manner we find in the Book of Daniel the canticle of the three youths in the fiery furnace; each verse ends with the words “Praise and exalt Him above all for ever.”

How Catholic Litanies Began

In the early centuries of our Church’s history it was customary to have prayers with responses, resembling our present litanies, in the Mass itself. The only trace of this practice that now remains is the repetition of the Greek words “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy”), which originally formed a part of these Mass litanies.

When peace was granted to the Church after three centuries of persecution, public devotions and processions became common. These processions were called “litanies,” from the Greek word “lite,” meaning a prayer or supplication; and they were frequently held on days which had been religious festivals among the heathen. From this comes the practice which has endured to the present time, of reciting the Litany of the Saints in the Divine Office on the feast of Saint Mark, April 25 – a day which was in pagan times a great festival, celebrated with religious processions, to bring a blessing upon the newly planted fields.

This Litany is recited also on the Rogation Days – the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the feast of the Ascension. The word Rogation means a petitioning, and the practice of saying the Litany on those days goes back to the year 477, when it was prescribed by Saint Mamertus, the bishop of Vienne, in France, on account of many calamities which had afflicted that country – earthquakes, tempests ^nd the ravages of wild beasts. This was repeated year after year; the practice gradually spread throughout the world, and was finally approved by Saint Leo III in the year 816. The object of these days of devotion is to beg of God, the Giver of all good, that He will preserve the fruits of the earth and bestow upon His creatures all necessary blessings.

The Approved Litanies

For the public services of the Church only five litanies are authorized. These are the Litany of the Saints, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Holy Name of Jesus, of the Sacred Heart and of Saint Joseph. In former centuries many litanies were in vogue; at one time they numbered about eighty. In 1601 Clement VIII prohibited the public recitation of any of these, except the Litany of the Saints and that of the Blessed Virgin. Somewhat later, despite this ruling, various other litanies came more or less into use, owing to the zeal and devotion (sometimes misguided) of the religiously inclined. Some of these litanies may be found in the older prayer-books; but with the exception of the five mentioned above, they are not approved by the Church for her public services, even though some of them may be tolerated for private devotion. Certain litanies which have been published are almost heretical, imputing to the saints powers and attributes which belong to God alone, and changing the veneration proper to them into something very closely resembling the supreme homage which is due to the Almighty. Therefore in 1821 the Church issued a decree forbidding the public recitation of any except the approved litanies, and prohibiting any addition or modification of these unless by the especial sanction of the Holy See. As we shall see further on, the Church’s approval has been given to three more litanies than were permitted by the above papal decrees.

The Litany of the Saints

This is the model of all other litanies, being much more ancient than the others which the Church uses. It is called the Litany of the Saints because it is made up of petitions addressed to various saints of different classes – apostles, martyrs, confessors and virgins, as well as to Mary, the Queen of Saints. It was prescribed by Pope Gregory the Great in 590 for a public procession of thanksgiving which took place on the cessation of the plague which had devastated Rome. In a somewhat different form it was in use at a much earlier date, for it is mentioned by Saint Basil in the fourth century and by others in the third – although it was probably much shorter then than it is now, for the reason that prior to the fourth century only martyr-saints were publicly honored by the Church. This can be seen in the Canon of the Mass, which owes its present form largely to Saint Gregory, and in which no saints are mentioned except martyrs.

The Church at the present day makes use of three forms of the Litany of the Saints. One, which is the most common, is used in many ceremonies – at the laying of the cornerstone of a church, at the blessing of a church or cemetery, on the Rogation Days, at the Devotion of the Forty Hours, and on some other occasions. Another form, somewhat shorter, is employed on Holy Saturday and the vigil of Pentecost. The third is that which is called the Litany of the Dying, or the “Commendation of a Soul Departing,” and the invocations and petitions are all offered to obtain God’s mercy on the soul that is about to appear before Him. The first or usual form is recommended for private devotion, but there is no indulgence granted for its recital.

The Litany of the Holy Name

This litany is made up of invocations expressing the various attributes of our Blessed Lord, with a petition for His mercy annexed to each of them. Its authorship is not known, but it has been ascribed to Saint Bernadine of Siena and Saint John Capistran, zealous preachers of the devotion to the. Holy Name at the beginning of the fifteenth century. In the year 1588 Pope Sixtus V granted an indulgence of three hundred days for its recitation, and for many years it was used in various countries but not approved by the Church for public services, applications for such approval being rejected at various times. In fact, the prohibition by Clement VIII of any other litanies except those of the Saints and of the Blessed Virgin rendered the public recitation of this litany unlawful, but it continued to be used privately in many parts of the world.

In 1862, however, Pius IX gave his approval to one form of it, and granted an indulgence of three hundred days to the faithful of any diocese whose bishop had applied for it. Finally, in 1886, urged by the wonderful spread of the devotion to the Sacred Name of Jesus and the growth of the great society of men who honor that Holy Name, Leo XIII extended this indulgence to all the world and thereby gave the Church’s full approbation to this beautiful prayer.

The Litany of the Blessed Virgin

“Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” This sublime prophecy of Mary herself has been verified in all the ages of the Church’s history. Even in early centuries the devout faithful found in Mary the fulfilment of many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and discovered in the inspired verses of the Psalmist many beautiful figures and symbols of the Blessed Mother of God. These were soon used as pious ejaculations, and new titles were invented from time to time; and all these were gradually woven into litanies of various forms. Thus after a time the Litany of the Blessed Virgin was moulded into shape, very much as we have it now.

Among the five litanies approved by the Church, this one is used perhaps more commonly than the others. It is often called the “Litany of Loreto,” because it came into use about four centuries ago at the famous Italian shrine which, according to tradition or legend, contains the little house of Nazareth in which our Saviour dwelt in childhood. This litany is a series of beautiful invocations of our Blessed Mother, addressing her by various titles and beseeching her intercession.

Its origin is obscure and its authorship unknown. There is a legend that it was composed by the Apostles, after the Assumption of Mary into heaven – but it is only a legend; it has no historical foundation whatever. By some writers it is said to have been composed at Loreto in the thirteenth century; by others it is attributed to Pope Sergius I, in 687, or to Saint Gregory the Great; but there is no real evidence that (in anything like its present form) it goes back beyond the latter years of the fifteenth century. Before that time, indeed, there were litanies of Mary – one in Gaelic, probably of the eighth century, and others of later date, in which the invocations were much longer than those in the Litany of Loreto. It was seen, after a time, that a litany composed of short ejaculations was more effective and devotional and better adapted to public recitation; and so the Litany of Loreto was gradually developed until it became substantially as we have it now. At the shrine it was recited daily by thousands of pilgrims who gathered there, and in the year 1587 it was approved by Pope Sixtus V, who urged preachers throughout the world to promote its use among the faithful.

New petitions have been inserted into it from time to time. For instance, the title “Help of Christians,” though used occasionally at an earlier date, was approved by the Holy See in commemoration of a great event in the history of the Church and of Christian civilization – the great naval battle of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571, when the Moslem hordes were frustrated in their attempt to conquer Europe. On the day of the battle prayers were being offered up, by order of the Sovereign Pontiff Saint Pius V, in the churches of the world. The infidels were utterly defeated and their great fleet destroyed, and the nations of Europe were saved from the yoke of Islam through the intercession of the Blessed Mother of God.

The invocation “Queen of All Saints” was added by Pope Pius VII when he returned to Rome after his long imprisonment by order of Napoleon. The title “Queen Conceived without Original Sin” dates from 1846, although the solemn definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was not made until eight years later. The words “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary,” used by Rosary societies for more than two hundred years, were not sanctioned for the whole Church until 1883. The invocation “Mother of Good Counsel” was approved by Leo XIII in 1903; and the latest addition, “Queen of Peace, pray for us,” was ordered by Benedict XV in 1917.

What indulgences are annexed to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin? There are two, a partial and a plenary indulgence. Pius VII granted one of three hundred days every time it is said; and anyone who recites it every day may obtain a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, on the five principal feasts of the Blessed Virgin – the Immaculate Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification and Assumption.

The usual mode of reciting this litany is to say before it the beautiful prayer “We fly to thy patronage,” and to conclude it with the “Hail, holy Queen,” followed by the prayer “Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord” – but while all these are to be recommended, they are not necessary for the gaining of the indulgences. The litany itself is all that is required.

The Litany of the Sacred Heart

The fourth among the litanies approved by the Church is that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Its approval is the latest event in the history of a wonderful devotion. Homage to the Sacred Heart of our Lord has become widely known only since the seventeenth century; and it was not until near the end of the eighteenth (in 1794) that the devotion was approved and indulgences were granted to those who practised it. The feast of the Sacred Heart had been previously observed in certain places, beginning about 1765; and in 1856 this festival was extended to the whole world. In 1889 it was raised to a higher rank in the Church’s calendar by Leo XIII, and finally, in 1899, the same Pontiff authorized the beautiful Litany of the Sacred Heart.

It begins, as do the other litanies, with petitions to the Persons of the Trinity, and contains thirty-three invocations to the Heart of Jesus, which is entitled “sacred temple of God,” “burning furnace of charity,” “fountain of life and holiness,” and so on. The litany closes with the usual threefold prayer to the Lamb of God, with the versicle and response: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart: Make our hearts like to Thine,” followed by a prayer to God the Father, asking for mercy in the name of God the Son.

The Litany of Saint Joseph

The most recent of the litanies approved by our Church is that of Saint Joseph. A spirit of devotion to the great Saint who was the foster-father of our Divine Lord and the spouse and protector of the Blessed Virgin, has been constantly increasing among Catholics. In the earliest days of our Church it was customary to give religious homage only to saints who were martyrs; but even then the virtues of the holy Saint Joseph were recognized and lauded. About the fourth century a festival in his honor was observed in some Eastern churches, but he was not venerated publicly in the churches of the Roman rite until the twelfth century, and his feast on March 19 was not established until the Pontificate of Sixtus IV, about the year 1480. Another feast, that of the Patronage of Saint Joseph, which originated with the Carmelite nuns, was extended to the whole Church in 1847 by Pius IX, who, in 1870, solemnly proclaimed Saint Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church.

The Litany of Saint Joseph was sanctioned by Pius X on 18 March 1909, and, being of such recent origin, is not yet to be found in many prayer books. It is very beautiful in its wording, and is not unduly long. After the usual petitions to the Holy Trinity and one addressed to the Blessed Virgin, the litany is composed of twenty-five invocations expressing the virtues and dignities of Saint Joseph. An indulgence of three hundred days may be gained once a day by reciting it.