"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 is Ps. 135 older Catholic Bibles but 136 in Protestant and modern translations, including the NAB.] 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 endures 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 [non-christians]. From this [came] the practice... of reciting the Litany of the Saints in the Divine Office on the feast of St. 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 [was] 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 St. Mamertus, the bishop of Vienne, in France, on account of many calamities which had afflicted that country - earthquakes, tempests and the ravages of wild beasts. This was repeated year after year; the practice gradually spread throughout the world, and was finally approved by St. Leo III in the year 816. The object of these days of devotion [was] 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.

[Editor's note: The Rogation Days have been surpressed since the Second Vatican Council, but it is suggested that the Blessing of Seeds at Planting Time may be fittingly celebrated on these days in rural communities, according to the Ordo.]

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 St. 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. [The Church also now approves of the Litany of the Precious Blood according to to the Handbook of Indulgences.]

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 St. 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 [i.e. Eucharistic prayer one], which owes its present form largely to St. Gregory, and in which no saints are mentioned except martyrs. [This litany was actually begun by calling on the martyrs buried at the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. Visit the Catacombs of Rome for additional material on the martyrs and this catacomb and its spirtuality.]

The Church [in 1918 made] 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 Saints has been used in the Roman Church since the seventh century. Its liturgical structure is subtle, simple and popular. Through the litany, the Church invokes the Saints on certain great sacramental occasions and on other occasions when her imploration is intensified: at the Easter vigil, before blessing the Baptismal fount; in the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism; in conferring Sacred Orders of the episcopate, priesthood and deaconate; in the rite for the consecration of virgins and of religious profession; in the rite of dedication of a church and consecration of an altar; at rogation; at the station Masses and penitential processions; when casting out the Devil during the rite of exorcism; and in entrusting the dying to the mercy of God.
The Litanies of the Saints contain elements deriving from both the liturgical tradition and from popular piety. They are expressions of the Church's confidence in the intercession of the Saints and an experience of the communion between the Church of the heavenly Jerusalem and the Church on her earthly pilgrim journey. The names of the Beati that have been inscribed in the calendars of particular Churches or religious institutes may be invoked in the litanies of the Saints. Clearly, the names of those whose cult has not received ecclesial recognition should not be used in the litanies." Vatican Directory on Popular Piety.]
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 St. Bernadine of Siena and St. 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. [For more on the Name of Jesus see The Name of Power.]

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 fulfillment 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 molded 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 Savior 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 St. 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 St. 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, 0 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 liturgical books contain two Marian litanies: The Litany of Loreto, repeatedly recommended by the Roman Pontiffs; and the Litany for the Coronation of Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which can be an appropriate substitute for the other litany on certain occasions." Vatican Dirctory on Popular Piety.]
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 practiced 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 St. Joseph

[One of the] most recent of the litanies approved by our Church is that of St. 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 St. 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 St. Joseph, which originated with the Carmelite nuns, was extended to the whole Church in 1847 by Pius IX, who, in 1870, solemnly proclaimed St. Joseph the Patron of the Universal Church.

The Litany of St. Joseph was sanctioned by Pius X on March 18, 1909... 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 St. Joseph." [A partial indulgence may be gained by reciting it.]

All text, except that in brackets, is by Rev. John F. Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church, P.J. Kenedy & Sons (1918) pp. 273-79. Imprimatur, +John Farley, Archbishop of NY (1918).

Other litanies may be written for private use but do not have official support. For example there is the litany of Humility, Litany of the Passion, Litany of the Seven Dolors, LITANY OF BLESSED KATERI TEKAKWITHA, Litany to the Divine Mercy By Blessed Faustina Kowalska, Litany of the Holy Ghost, and Newman's Litany of the Resurrection. Be sure to see the E-book of 27 litanies which includes The Litany of the Love of God by Pope Pius VI. You can also look at the list at and the article at Catholic Encyclopedia entry Litany.
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