The Litany of Loretto and Processions, by Father B Rohner, OSB

Our Lady of LorettoThe Litany of Loretto

Next to the devotion of the holy Rosary, the devotion most tender and most beloved among Catholic people is the recital or the chanting ot litanies.

A chanter, or perhaps the regular choir, pronounces the invocation aloud, while the body of the people in attendance Support the chant with one voice and one heart, and respond vigorously and earnestly, “Have mercy on us,” or “Pray for us.” Experience has proved that in response to prayers thus offered Our Lord has always kept His promise: “I say to you that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19)

Such mode of effective prayer to the Blessed Virgin has been in constant practise in the Catholic Church from time immemorial and has always been attended with the most salutary results. This prayer of mingled praise and petition is called the litany of Loretto because it is solemnly chanted every Saturday in the holy house at Loretto. The author of the litany and the time of its origin are unknown. It is certain, however, that it was in use among Catholics before the fourteenth century. The burden of this litany consists of a series of titles, figures and symbols, all indicating and expressing the dignity, beauty, power, and other admirable characteristics, of the Blessed Virgin. A form of praise-prayer such as this one is, would have its origin only in some devout heart deeply influenced by the Holy Spirit. As we read and pronounce the tender and chaste language of the several invocations, how nobly and beautifully, yet gently and lovingly, the blessed Mother of God rises before the eyes of our souls, whether we consider her life on earth, her glory in heaven, or her honored position in the bosom of the Catholic Church.

It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that persons hostile to the devotion shown by Catholics to Mary, persons all too solicitous about the adoration due to God, should, in their fastidiousness and self-supposed learning, have found fault with some of the expressions of this litany and endeavored to turn them into arguments against such devotion. To the vain and puny attacks of such fault-finders the Catholic Church would give the following reply: In the year 1664 Pope Alexander V forbade any addition, no matter how orthodox and beautiful, to be made to the then existing form of the litany of Loretto. It was to be rigidly maintained in ancient form, except that the members belonging to the Rosary Society were permitted to add at the end of the invocations, “Queen of the holy Rosary! pray for us.” Again, in 1854, after the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Congregation of Rites, at Rome, granted a limited or qualified permission to the faithful to subjoin at the end of the litany, “Queen conceived without original sin! Pray for us.” Yet this was only a privilege. No one is bound to say these words. Their omission does not imperil the indulgences attached to the litany. From these cautious measures of the Church it may be seen with what careful solicitude she watches over, and hedges in against extravagance, not only the faith and morals of her children, but even the liturgy and private devotions. Surely, dearest reader, you belong to the number of those faithful children of Mary who thus frequently and piously salute the sovereign Queen of heaven and earth, both in the quiet seclusion of their pious homes and at the public religious devotions in the church or chapel.

Processions in Honor of Mary

The word litany comes from the Greek language and means in its literal sense, “a prayer-march.” Indeed the various Church litanies seem never more appropriate, pleasing and edifying than when recited or chanted during religious processions.

Our religious processions, as now conducted and practised in the Church, are simply and really short pilgrimages. They are grounded equally on the nature of man and in the nature of Church worship.

The holy and learned Church Fathers, among them notably Saints Jerome, Chrysostom, and Ambrose, speak of these religious devotions as in practise away back among the early Christians. They used to be observed on a variety of occasions, but especially at the graves of the martyrs, and at the translation of relics to the different churches litanies were always chanted with great devotion.

Such devotional processions in honor of the Blessed Virgin were also practised in times of great need, in famines, epidemics, floods, droughts, and other calamities. The renowned Church historian, Baronius, informs us that Pope Gregory I, as early as the year 590, gave orders that an image of the Blessed Virgin should he carried in such processions.

As the different Confraternities were formed in honor of the Blessed Virgin, they established and carried out with great solemnity a regular series of religious processions in order, first, to encourage devotion on the various festival days, and, still more, in order to give public sanction and expression and encouragement to devotion for the Blessed Virgin.

In all those parishes where the society of the living Rosary was introduced, it soon became a regular custom to hold a procession once every month, in performing which the processionists used to carry banners of the three colors, white in honor of the joyful mysteries, red in honor of the sorrowful mysteries, and gold in honor of the glorious mysteries of the Rosary. In many places, too, a fine statue of the Madonna, holding a rosary in her hand, was borne aloft, with great reverence, by young girls in some of these processions. As a further sign of the respect and love due to the virginal Mother, these young girls were arrayed in pure white garments, with wreaths of white flowers on their heads.

On some of the greater festivals of these confraternities a still more solemn character was added to the procession, and a still greater honor was rendered to the blessed Mother by having the company of her own divine Son in the procession. Yes, Jesus Christ was personally present. For the priest of the parish placed the consecrated Host in the ostensorium and carried it through the line of march.

Thus did the Saviour Himself, by His own divine presence, give His sanction to this form of devotion. By the solemn reverential feeling produced among Catholics by that presence, much was added to the deep piety and impressiveness of the procession, for Jesus Christ Himself honored and glorified His blessed Mother. It also afforded to the pious processionists an opportunity of rendering homage to the divine Son while they honored the Mother who bore Him. Indeed it became a strong rebuke to those who say that Catholics, when they honor Mary, forget Jesus and give to a creature the homage due to the Creator.

If, therefore, our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in order to honor His beloved Mother consented to leave even the sacred retirement of the tabernacle and permitted Himself to be carried in human hands, with deep solemnity, through the highways and byways of the world, and went joyfully and gladly about doing good, may not you, too, and myself as well, feel justified and pleased and happy to offer to our blessed Mother a similar testimony of love and respect by marching in these religious processions.

It would, indeed, he a bad sign for any Christian young woman to be held back from such public devotions through fears of human respect. How silly and inconsistent to be ashamed to appear in plain white garments and to do honor to her guardian Mother and yet to array herself in her best adornments of person in order to please others, or perhaps to cause the envy of her own sex, and to attract the admiring eyes of men!

– text taken from Veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Her Feasts, Prayers, Religious Orders, and Sodalities, by Father B Rohner, OSB, adapted by Father Richard Brennan, LLD, published in 1898 by Benziger Brothers; it has the Imprimatur of Archbishop Michael Augustine, Archdiocese of New York, New York, 22 June 1898