Image: The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, Fra Angelico [public domain]
In the last post we considered how to go deeper in prayer with the beautiful tradition of praying novenas. Another form of prayer that may help us to discern our desires and approach God and his Saints is a litany. It has entered popular language to speak of a litany of different things, such as a “litany of complaints” or a “litany of things to do,” etc. However, the sacred sense of a litany must be recovered by Catholics. A litany, as a prayer, intends that we consider whomever we are calling upon and the effects of God’s love for us because of him or her.
As with novenas, there are numerous litanies which have been approved by the Church for private use. Unlike the novena, however, some litanies are actually used for liturgical celebrations and are, in fact, integral to them. A few examples would be at an Ordination of a Bishop, Priest, or Deacon or at the Profession of Vows of a Religious (e.g. Nun or Monk). Another example (perhaps most imminent to us), is the litany invoked at the Easter Vigil for those entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.
A litany is a powerful type of prayer. It can call upon the power of the whole Trinity directly Who is working in us, or it can call upon the Holy Spirit who has worked in His Saints, or it can also call upon Jesus or God the Father. We call upon titles of those whom we are considering in order to consider all that God has done, whether in Himself or by the Power of the Holy Spirit in His Saints.
The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
“A litany is a well-known and much appreciated form of responsive petition, used in public liturgical services, and in private devotions, for common necessities of the Church, or in calamities—to implore God’s aid or to appease His just wrath. This form of prayer finds its model in Psalm : ‘Praise the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Praise ye the God of gods … the Lord of lords … Who alone doth great wonders … Who made the heavens’, etc., with the concluding words in each verse, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever.’ Similar is the canticle of praise by the youths in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:57-87), with the response, ‘praise and exalt him above all for ever’.”
You will also notice at the beginning of Mass a very short litany is often said called the “Kyrie Eleison” [meaning ‘Lord, have mercy’]. This title and prayer is the only Greek influence in the Latin Rite which still remains. As you may already know, the early Church spoke and wrote in Greek. In fact, all of the New Testament was written in an ancient form of Greek. Thus, the liturgy was celebrated in Greek, until Latin became the normative language of the Western Church around the 2nd century. In this Penitential Rite litany we pray in English, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” This litany is similar to the short litany we will say called the Agnus Dei [Latin for “Lamb of God”] later in Mass.
The most prominent and recognizable of Litanies utilized in many different liturgies is the Litany of the Saints. This is the litany which is invoked at the Easter Vigil as well. This litany calls upon certain Saints who have had prominent roles in the History of the Church or some significance to a local community. (Here is a beautiful rendition of the Litany of the Saints in Latin.)
As with novenas, there are numerous Litanies penned by many, including Saints, to the Blessed Mother. The Litany of Loreto is a particularly famous one. The Litany of St. Joseph is another very profound prayer which recalls the life and work of St. Joseph, which may be especially helpful in this Year of St. Joseph.
The structure of a litany typically begins with a “Kyrie Eleison” [or “Lord, have mercy”] at the beginning, then consists mainly of the invocations which give a title to be meditated on followed by the response “Pray for us” [unless it refers to God then it will typically be “have Mercy on us”]. This series of titles is followed by petitions to the one being invoked, and may close with a verse (marked by “V:”) with a response (marked by “R:”), but will normally always end with a short prayer.
Litanies are especially helpful for groups or families to pray together as everyone is involved in the prayer. Often at the end of a public Rosary, the Litany of Loreto will be utilized.
Litanies and novenas can both be very fruitful for both personal and public use! I encourage you to find one and consider utilizing these ancient ways of prayer.