Catholic Litanies – An Old and Deeply Spiritual Form of Prayer
A litany, from the Latin “litania,” which is in turnfrom the Greek “lite,” means “prayer or supplication.” It is a form of prayer that has been a Catholic tradition since the early centuries of the Church. Though the many, many litanies prayed by the faithful may vary in both form and content, the key element in the litany form of prayer is a series of varied invocations followed by repetitions of the same response. Though a litany is typically lengthy, it should not be rattled off mindlessly, but prayed with focus and attention.
Form of the Litany
As mentioned above, the main characteristic of a litany is a list of invocations, followed by a repetitive response. The invocations may be addressed to the Holy Trinity or one Person of the Trinity, or to the saints. A priest or other leader reads the invocations, and the people answer with the set response.
Some invocations may be more focused on petitioning or pleading for particular needs of a person, the Church, or a group of people or event. Others may be more inclined to pure praise, and still others are prayed as a method of making reparations.
When a litany is composed of prayerful petitions to God, the usual response is “Have mercy on us,” and the response in litanies to a saint or saints is “Pray for us.” Other appropriate responses, such as “We beseech thee,” “Hear us/our prayer,” and “Deliver us, O Lord,” are acceptable for certain litanies.
The form of the litany seems to be based on Psalm 136 (135 in some translations) in the Old Testament, which praises God and His works and ends each verse with the phrase “His steadfast love endures forever.”
An Excerpt of Psalm 136:
“O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever. . . O give thanks to the Lord of lords . . . for his steadfast love endures for ever; to him who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures for ever . . . to him who spread out the earth upon the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever . . .”
A Brief History of the Litany
The practice of praying litanies is an ancient tradition of the Church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the frequent repetition of the 'Kyrie' was probably the original form of the Litany, and was in use in Asia and in Rome at a very early date,” and that “the Council of Vaison in 529 passed the decree: Let that beautiful custom of all the provinces of the East and of Italy be kept up, viz., that of singing with great effect and compunction the 'Kyrie Eleison' at Mass, Matins, and Vespers, because so sweet and pleasing a chant, even though continued day and night without interruption, could never produce disgust or weariness.” In time, litanies would come to develop into what we recognize as a litany today.
The most well known litany is perhaps the Catholic Litany of the Saints, and this is also the oldest official litany. The form and content has varied somewhat but it was used in the times of St. Basil (4th century) and even in the 3rd century in the days of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Wonder-Worker. During the Middle-Ages, procession-litanies became popular, combining prayer with public processions.
By the 1600s, as many as eighty litanies were being used in public Masses and processions. In order to prevent abuse, Pope Clement VIII decreed that only approved litanies (from official liturgical books and the Litany of Loreto) were to be used publicly.
Today the Church lists six official litanies for public recitation:
The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus
The Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The Litany of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus
The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Litany of Loreto)
The Litany of St. Joseph
The Litany of the Saints
Many other litanies are used in private devotion, however, within families or small groups, or prayed alone. Official litanies are typically preferred even in private use, but other private litanies may be particularly appropriate for a particular event or need, or a person’s special devotions.
This article included information from the Catholic Encyclopedia and A Prayerbook of Favorite Litanies: 116 Favorite Catholic Litanies. You can find more books of litanies in our prayer books section.