The word Litany is of Greek origin, meaning in that language an entreaty or supplication.
Ecclesiastical writers make mention of four Litanies: that of the Old Testament, of the Saints, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Holy Name of Jesus.
The Litany of the Old Testament is the 135th Psalm (in the Hebrew 136th,) Confitemini Domino—Praise the Lord, for He is good. Each of the first three verses addresses God by a different title; Jehova, Elokim and Adonei are the Hebrew words. This preface of the Litany shadows forth the mystery of the Trinity, Three Persons in One God, and corresponds to the triple invocation with which the Church begins her Litanies : Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison: Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us; and to the other in which the Three Divine Persons are expressly named: Pater de Cœlis Deus, miserere nobis; Fili Redemptor mundi Deus, miserere nobis; Spiritus Sancte Deus, miserere nobis: God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us, etc., etc. The twenty-seven verses of the Psalm recount the wonders which God wrought in favor of His people, and each concludes with the same phrase, for His mercy endureth for ever, corresponding to have mercy on us, or pray for us, with which we reply to the several petitions of our Litanies.
The Litany of the Saints is so called because by it we beg the intercession of all the blessed inhabitants of heaven, addressing them sometimes collectively, according to their different classes, of Apostles, Martyrs, Coufessors, etc., and sometimes individually.
Many have attributed the authorship of this Litany to Pope St. Gregory the Great, an. 600, but not with sufficient reason, for councils held before the time of that Holy Pontiff mention it. We know from Church history, however, that he had a great devotion to the Litany of the Saints and had it sung with much solemnity in the sacred processions that marched through the streets of Rome, during the prevalence of the plague, begging God to withdraw His avenging Hand. The Litany of the Saints was used in the East in the time of St. Basil the Great, who died in 379, more than two hundred years before the pontificate of St. Gregory. Hence Cardinal Baronius says, in his notes on the Roman Martyrology, that it was impossible for him to determine the origin of the Litany, but that it was certainly of the greatest antiquity. This Litany is sometimes called the greater, sometimes the minor Litany; It bears the first appellation on the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, the 25th of April, because the procession of that day, in which it is chanted, is one of the most solemn in the Church. Other reasons for the name are that ‘the procession was instituted by a Pope, and that it directed its march towards the Church of St. Mary Major or the Greater.
The same Litany said on the Rogation days is called the Minor or Less Litany. Towards the close of the 5th century the diocese of Vienne in France was severely afflicted with different calamities, fires, earthquakes, and the ravages of wild beasts. The hearts of the people were paralyzed with fear. It was then that the holy bishop Mamertus betook himself to prayer for his sorrow-stricken flock. A heavenly inspiration came to him, and was at once acted on. He instituted three days of solemn prayer and penance, selecting for that purpose the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. The beneficial results, both spiritual and temporal, which followed proved how acceptable the work was to God. The other Churches of France hastened to adopt the practice, and, in 816, Pope St. Leo III. established it in Rome. Now it is universal in the Church under the name of the Rogation days. The Litany sung on these days is called the Minor, because it was local and episcopal in its origin, whereas that on the festival of St. Mark was Roman and papal.
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been recited from the earliest ages both in public and in private. Quarti is of opinion that it originated with the Apostles. It is called the Litany of Loretto because it is sung, every Saturday, with great solemnity in the Church of Loretto. This magnificent edifice incloses the Holy House of the Blessed Virgin, which was transported, by the ministry of Angels, from Judea to Italy, in the end of the thirteenth century.
The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus contains the various attributes and praises of the Sacred Name. Every knee in heaven, on earth and in hell must bow at the name of Jesus, because in Him, and in Him only, is salvation and hope of life ; and therefore, with good reason, may we cry out, whenever it is mentioned, have mercy on us!
Rubricians doubt whether this Litany is approved by the Holy See. Pope Clement VIII, in his Constitution Sanctissimus, of the 6th of September, 1601, says of Litanies: “As many private individuals daily publish new Litanies, under pretext of cherishing devotion, to such an extent that almost innumerable forms of Litanies are in vogue, some of which contain puerile sentiments, others dangerous ones, we, out of our pastoral solicitude, wishing to provide for true devotion, and the proper invocation of God and His saints, do order and command that whoever wishes to publish, or, if published, to recite, in churches, oratories, or processions, any other Litanies than those common and most ancient ones contained in Breviaries, Missals, Pontificals, and Rituals, and that of the Blessed Virgin, which is sung in the Holy House of Loretto, shall send such Litanies to the Congregation of Sacred Rites for approval, and, if necessary for correction. He cannot, without the approbation of the aforesaid Congregation, publish them or recite them in public.”
This decree does not include the Litany of the Holy Name amongst those that are approved. Yet Ferraris says that it, and only it, is exempt from the general regulation, because it was approved by Sixtus V., and enriched with three hundred days’ indulgence, at the instance of the Barefooted Carmelites. But this is not conclusive, because the decree of Clement VIII. is later than the alleged grant of Sixtus, and it does not at all allude to the Litany of the Holy Name. In a book purporting to be a collection of authentic decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, we find under the word Litany the following statement: Many princes and bishops of Germany begged the approval of Rome for the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus on the ground that it was constantly recited, in public and in private, by the people under their care. The reply of the Congregation of Rites was: “The aforesaid Litany is to be approved, if his Holiness deems proper.” It seems from the tenor of the passage that the petition was sent to the Pope personally, and by him transmitted to the Congregation of Rites for examination. In a note to this passage the following query and answer occur: “Litaniæ SS. Nominis Jesu sunt ne approbatae, indulgentiisque ditatae? Resp: Negative in omnibus. Die 7 Sept., 1850 in Ruppellen ad 8. Are the Litanies of the Holy Name of Jesus approved and enriched with indulgences? Reply: No, in regard to each case. But we are not at liberty to argue that they are disapproved. The practical conclusion to be drawn seems to be, that the Litany in question ought not to be recited in public functions, but that it may be recited in private. The decree of Clement VIII. speaks only of public recitation: in publicum edere aut publice recitare præsamat. The Constitution Immensa æterni Dei of Sixtus V., 22d January, 1857, restricts the jurisdiction of the Congregation of Rites to public functions and ceremonies.
It is plain to Catholic common sense that we ought to prefer an indulgenced formulary of prayer to one not indulgenced. The Litany of the Holy Name is not indulgenced, according to the decree of 1850, and therefore it must yield precedence to that of the Saints and that of the Blessed Virgin. What we have said of it applies with greater force to the numerous Litanies of individual Saints with which our prayer-books abound. Have they received the approbation of the Congregation of Rites, in compliance with the decree of Clement VIII.? Ought they to be recited in public without that Approbation? These are questions, which we leave, as in filial reverence bound, to the decision of competent ecclesiastical authority.
In regard to private recitations, we would counsel the use of such Litanies as are certainly approved and indulgenced in preference to those whose claims to these privileges are, at best, doubtful.
The faithful should not add, of their own devotion, the name of their patron saint, or any other petition to the Litanies of the Saints and of Loretto. Let all us endeavor, even in these minor points of discipline, to conform to the spirit of the Church.
An liceat titulo specialis devotionis Litaniis Sanctorum vel Lauretanis aliquem versiculum addere, vel novas Litanies de quarum approbatione Ordinario nullatenus constet, in Ecclesiis canere vel recitare?
Resp : Negative et serventur omnino decreta S. R. C., curentque Ordinarii colligere et vetare formulas quascumque tam impressas quam manuscriptas Litaniarum, de quarum approbatione non constat. Die 31 Martii 1821. Decretum Generale AD 8. (4428.) A see Appendix.