Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XVI. The Litanies

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

After the holy Rosary, perhaps the most popular form of devotion, and the one best suited to an assembly of Christians, is the litanies, both on account of their intrinsic worth and because they arrest and secure the attention of those engaged in prayer much better than devotions that are performed alone or are led by one of a number. The word “litany” is of Greek origin, and signifies an humble supplication and devout or fervent prayer. But the term applies rather to each petition than to the form of prayer as a whole; and hence, we may remark, the word is always in the plural in the liturgical language of the Church, and not in the singular, as it is in English.

Ecclesiastical writers reckon four litanies: that of the Old Testament, that of All Saints, that of the Blessed Virgin, and that of the Holy Name of Jesus. And first of

The Litany of the Old Testament

From the beginning it was natural for man to invent terms of praise to express the admiration he had for those whom he regarded as great, or who had conferred any special favor upon him or his country or his fellowmen; and much more was it natural for him to invent terms of praise of God, whose mercies, like Himself, are infinite. And it is equally natural for man to make supplication in the time of need to those who he knows are able and willing to help him. What more natural, for example, than for the Jewish people to praise the heroic Judith, who slew the leader of their enemies at a critical period in their history, and to exclaim (Judith, xv. 10) in salutations suitable for a litany: “Thou art the glory of Jerusalem; thou art the joy of Israel; thou art the honor of our people!” If such praise was due to Judith for her successful efforts in promoting the temporal welfare of her people, much more must it be due to Mary and the saints, whose conquests were not only in the temporal order—for they were real benefactors of mankind—but also in the spiritual order, for the example, direction, and assistance of men, and the honor and glory of God. Again, Isaias (ix. 6), in the names which he gives the coming Messias, furnishes appellations suited for a litany; as, “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace.”

But the most perfect example of a litany in the Old Law, and the one which is by excellence called the Litany of the Old Testament, is found in Psalm cxxxv. This psalm, which the Jews were accustomed to recite both in the public services of the temple and in their private devotions, recounts the divine attributes in twenty-seven verses, each concluding with the words—answered by the people: “For His mercy endureth forever.”1 There are several other less perfect forms of litanies to be found in different parts of the Old Testament.

In the Old Law religious writings were given with the divine sanction, and it was impossible for anything to bo introduced into the services of religion except in proper form; but it is not precisely so in the New Law, although here also there is a proper restraint placed upon those who will submit themselves to its direction. But the invention of printing has often aided the mistaken and imprudent zeal of not a few, who have multiplied litanies without end, and gained for many of them a place in the endless number and variety of prayer-books which flood the market. To restrain this pious weakness for manufacturing litanies—some of which were not even free from heresy—the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a decree, March 31, 1821, strictly forbidding any additions to be made to the litanies approved by the Holy See, or the recitation of others in public that are not approved by the ordinary; and at the same time it enjoined on the bishops to devote particular attention to the enforcement of this decree. Other decrees of a similar tenor had been issued a century and a half before. The litanies approved by the Sacred Congregation for the public functions of the Church are the Litany of the Saints and that of the Blessed Virgin. Upon each of these, as well as upon that of the Holy Name of Jesus, remarks will be made.

The Litany of the Saints

It is superfluous to observe that this litany derives its name from the fact that it is a form of prayer in which petitions are addressed to various members of all the orders of the blessed, asking their intercession with God for us. It is of great antiquity, but authors do not agree in fixing the date of its origin. Many authorities attribute it to Pope St. Gregory the Great, who ruled the Church at the end of the sixth century. But this is disputed, because a number of councils held before the time of that Pontiff make mention of both the Greater and the Lesser Litany (Ferraris). It is also maintained that it was in use in the East in the time of St. Basil the Great, and even in the days of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, the latter of whom flourished about the middle of the third century. St. John Chrysostom also makes mention of it in one of his sermons. But this opinion is called in question, and apparently with good reason, on account of the well-known fact that the Orientals call any form of supplication a litany, as may be learned from their liturgies.

It is not strange, however, that this litany should have been attributed to St. Gregory, inasmuch as he had a great devotion to the saints, and had their litany chanted with special solemnity in the processions which he caused to be made through the streets of Rome on the occasion of the plague that raged there during his pontificate. After weighing the evidence, as far as we can secure it, on both sides, the only safe conclusion we can arrive at is that of Baronius, who admits, in his notes on the Roman Martyrology, that he is unable to determine by whom the litany was composed, but that it is of very great antiquity. It cannot, however, have been earlier than the fourth century, because no saints but martyrs were honored by the Church prior to that time; and it is a fact that no saints but martyrs are mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, which was brought to its present form by the labors of St. Gregory more than by those of any other person.

The Litany of the Saints is known in liturgical language as the Greater and the Lesser Litany. The former is chanted in the solemn procession on the feast of St. Mark, April 25; the latter on the Rogation Days. It is maintained by some writers that the Greater Litany derives its name from the fact that it was instituted by a Pope, while the other is called the Lesser from its being instituted by a bishop. But Ferraris holds that the former derives its name from the fact that the procession during which it is sung directs its course toward the Church of St. Mary Major; while the procession during the singing on the Rogation Days is directed toward other churches. Ferraris’ opinion is more probably the correct one.

The Rogation Days derive their name from the Latin word rogation, a petition—from the verb rogo, I ask, rogare, to ask, or petition. And their origin is this: Toward the close of the fifth century the diocese of Vienne, in France, was sorely afflicted with conflagrations, earthquakes, and ravages of wild beasts, and the terrified people were driven almost to despair. The bishop, Mamertus, had recourse to prayer, and instituted three days of penance immediately preceding the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven, in order to propitiate the divine goodness. And the better to insure the success of his petitions, he begged the intercession of all the blessed by means of their litany. Heaven deigned to hear his prayer ; and soon other dioceses, first of his native land, and then of other countries, followed his example, till finally the Sovereign Pontiff, St. Leo III., established the Rogation Days in Rome, in the year 816.

The object of these days’ devotions is to ask of God, from whom every good and perfect gift proceeds, that He would be pleased to give and preserve the fruits of the earth, and bestow upon His creatures all those temporal blessings that are necessary for them in the course of their mortal pilgrimage. Besides the actual graces received by the devotions of the Rogation Days, the fact itself of being reminded to have recourse to Almighty God for temporal blessings is of great advantage in this material age, when the all-sufficiency of man has become one of the leading dogmas of misguided persons. Those who are bound to the recitation of the Divine Office are also bound to recite the Litany of the Saints, with the versicles, responses, and prayers, both on the feast of St. Mark and on the three Rogation Days. Formerly there was a similar obligation to recite the litany on all Fridays during the holy season of Lent; but that was removed by a bull of Pope St. Pius V., Quod a Nobis, so far as those are concerned who are not bound to the recitation of the Office in choir.

There is a short form of the litany given in the Roman Missal for the blessing of the baptismal font on Holy Saturday and the eve of Pentecost; but it is strictly forbidden to use this form on any other occasion.

There is no indulgence attached to the recitation of the Litany of the Saints.

The Litany of the Blessed Virgin

The sublime prophecy of the Blessed Virgin—one of the most beautiful in the Sacred Scriptures—“Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed,” early began to find its fulfilment in the Church. It could not have been otherwise, considered even from a natural point of view; for the faithful who found in the Son the object of their supreme worship and deepest gratitude could not fail to honor the Mother through whose instrumentality that Son had been given to them. To these claims were added the many others, so to say, of her own which Mary had on them. These devout sentiments found their expression in numerous ejaculations, in seeing in Mary the fulfilment of many of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and discovering in the same sacred volume figures of her whom they loved so much. Mindful of their necessities, especially during the persecutions by which the early Church was so severely tried, they soon learned to weave these pious sentiments and expressions into a litany, with a petition for assistance after each, and the litany, substantially as we have it, was formed.

This litany is of the greatest antiquity, and antedates all others, even that of the Saints; for, as we have said, it was not customary to honor any of the saints but martyrs before the fourth century. Quarti is of opinion that it was composed by the Apostles after the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, the better to impress the people with a correct idea of her transcendent greatness, and to induce them to have more frequent recourse to her in their spiritual and temporal necessities. And he arrives at this conclusion from the fact that it is so ancient that no one can be named with certainty as its author. It has doubtless undergone slight changes; and additional petitions have been placed in it, from time to time, in gratitude to Mary for having granted more than ordinary favors to her suppliants. A few of these will be mentioned, with the circumstances under which they were formed.

The title “Help of Christians” owes its origin to the victory which the Christians gained over the Turks, who were threatening to overrun Europe in the sixteenth century, but who met with a crushing defeat in the year 1572, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, in whose honor the Christian world recited the Rosary for the success of the Christian arms. That of “Queen of all saints” is due to the return of Pope Pius VII. to Rome after his long imprisonment in France, in May, 1814, in fulfilment of a vow he had made of placing a golden crown on the statue of Our Lady in the holy chapel of Loretto on the event of his release and return to his own dominions. He fulfilled this vow with great solemnity on the 13th of May of that year, and then saluted his holy protectress as Queen of all saints. The privilege of addressing Mary as “Queen conceived with out original sin” was first granted to the Archdiocese of Mechlin, July 10, 1846, and to the United States, September 15th of the same year. It is now common throughout the Christian world, but there is no general decree on the matter.2 It may not be generally known that the last title of the litany, “Queen of the most holy Rosary,” was used two centuries ago. A decree of the Sacred Congregation of Bites dated July 13, 1675, permitted the members of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary to address the Blessed Virgin by this title.3 The recent act of the Holy See adding it to the Litany is dated December 10, 1883.

This litany is commonly called the Litany of Loretto because it is sung with great solemnity in the Holy House of Loretto every Saturday—the house in which the great mystery of the Incarnation actually took place, and in which the Blessed Virgin spent the greater part of her holy life.

The various ways of reciting the litany make it pertinent to inquire: What, precisely, is essential in order to secure the indulgences granted by the Holy See? Some persons are accustomed to begin it with the prayer, “We fly to thy patronage,” etc., and end it with a versicle, response, and prayer. This form is found in many prayer-books. Is it necessary? The most reliable source of information to be had on the point is the Raccolta. In the last edition of that work the litany begins with “Lord, have mercy on us,” and concludes with the third Agnus Dei. Hence this is all that is required to gain the indulgences. But if pious persons want to add a prayer, what prayer should it be? The most common, perhaps, is “Pour forth,” etc. This, however, is not the proper one, as we learn by consulting the Typical Edition of the Roman Ritual—a work which is specially approved as the liturgical standard, in its line, by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. There, instead of the above prayer, we find the versicle and response: “Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ. Let us pray. Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that we, Thy servants, may rejoice in continual health of mind and body; and, through the glorious intercession of Blessed Mary ever virgin, be freed from present sorrow, and enjoy eternal gladness, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”

The following are the indulgences granted for the recitation of the litany, as taken from the Raccolta: Two hundred days, once a day, granted by Sixtus V. and Benedict XIII.; three hundred days every time, granted by Pius VII.; and to all those who recite it once a day, a plenary indulgence on the five feasts of obligation4 of the Blessed Virgin—that is, the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Assumption—on the condition of confession, Communion, visiting a church, and praying according to the intention of the Holy Father.

The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus

This litany is so called because it contains expressions in praise of the various attributes of our holy Redeemer, after each of which His divine Name is invoked. I have not been able to ascertain anything positive regarding the authorship of this litany, but it is certainly not of so great antiquity as either of the others we have been considering. A more interesting question, however, is that of its approbation by the Holy See. This was long a point upon which there existed great diversity of opinion among authorities; and although it is now settled, a review of the discussion may not be uninteresting.

The Constitution Sanctissimus, issued by Pope Clement VIII., September 6, 1601, forbids the recitation in churches, oratories, and processions of any other litanies than those of the Saints and the Blessed Virgin, without the approbation of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Ferraris, however, maintains that this litany is exempt from that regulation, because it was enriched by Sixtus V. with an indulgence of three hundred days, at the instance of the Discalced Carmelites. But this argument is not conclusive, because the decree of Clement VIII. is of later date than the alleged grant of Sixtus V., and it makes no mention of the Litany of the Holy Name. In the seventeenth century a number of German princes and bishops petitioned the Holy See for the approval of this litany, on the ground that it was constantly recited, both in public and in private, by the faithful under their jurisdiction. The reply of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, April 14, 1646, was: “The aforesaid litany is to be approved, if His Holiness deem proper.” It would appear, however, that the Sovereign Pontiff did not accede to their wishes; for when the same Sacred Congregation was asked, two centuries later, whether the litany was approved and enriched with indulgences, the reply, dated September 7, 1850, was “No” to both questions.5 (By a decree of Sixtus V., dated January 22, 1585, the jurisdiction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites is restricted to public functions and ceremonies.) But in some other places as well as in Germany the decree regarding this litany was not always complied with, and it was recited both in public and in private.

On the occasion of the canonization of the Japanese martyrs in 1862, a large number of the bishops present petitioned the Holy See for the approval of the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus and its enrichment with indulgences; and the Sovereign Pontiff so far acceded to their request as to grant an indulgence of three hundred days to the faithful of all those dioceses whose bishops should make that request of him. Finally, his present Holiness, by a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences dated January 16, 1886, granted an indulgence of three hundred days, to be gained once a day by all the faithful of the Christian world, on the usual conditions of a partial indulgence.6 But it does not appear that any decree has been issued permitting its recitation in any of the public functions of religion. We have next to inquire: What, precisely, constitutes the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus and is necessary to be said in order to gain the indulgences? This litany differs from that of the Blessed Virgin in requiring the recitation of a versicle and response, with two prayers, after it. Beginning with “Lord, have mercy on us,” it closes with the versicle and response, “Jesus, hear us. Jesus, graciously hear us. Let us pray. O Lord Jesus Christ, who hast said: Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: grant, we beseech Thee, unto us who ask, the gift of Thy most divine love; that we may ever love Thee with our whole hearts, and in all our words and actions, and never cease from showing forth Thy praise. “Make us, O Lord, to have a perpetual fear and love of Thy holy Name; for Thou never failest to govern those whom Thou dost establish in Thy love. Who livest,” etc.7

Although this essay may appear dry to some readers, the frequency with which the litanies here treated of are recited, and the importance which the Church, especially at present, attaches to indulgences, make it not only a matter of instruction, but also one of spiritual interest to Christians, to be acquainted with what is essentially necessary for them to do in order that they may secure those spiritual favors; while the history of the origin and development of the litanies can hardly be regarded as a matter of indifference.

1 Ferraris, “Verbum Litaniæ.”
2 Schneider’s “Maurel,” pp. 189, 190.
3 Ibid.
4 Some of these feasts are not of obligation everywhere.
5 Schneider’s “Maurel,” pp. 159, 160.
6 Beringer, “Die Ablässe,” pp. 141-143.
7 “Rituale Romanum,” Editio Typica; Berginer.