Litanies: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions

By the time of Gregory the Great (died 604), the Litany of Saints, first of the great Latin litanies, was a full-blown, dress-up affair. Best vestments and all of that. Copes and chasubles. Embroidered and brocaded. Nauters and thuribles. Obviously, it was a prayer for the clergy; they shared with the choir and later with the congregation, but only in an antiphonal way. That is to say, the clergy led; the choir and/or congregation followed as the procession rolled down a street or padded around a church.

Despite such extravagant beginnings, the Litany eventually petered down to a more private devotion, at least among certain religious communities. When I was a member of the Society of Jesus from 1952 to 1960, happy days all, the last item posted on the ordo diei was Litaniaein the plural because the Jesuits had intertwined the Litany of the Saints with the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary; in Latin because, well, the litany was composed in Latin and was still said or sung in Latin at that time.


A house bell was rung at 8:55 p.m. for the litanies at 9. Two hundred of us assembled in the chapel, and the designated priest walked down to the front, flopped on theprie-dieu, began to recite the litany, and we responded after every invocation.

Now during a liturgy the chanting of a litany was always slow, stately, gorgeous. But as a private devotion it could become fast, scattered, riotous. In fact, we used to joke that the designated priest on many a night could be called Fr. Jack D. Ripper, S.J. The faster he ripped through the repetitions, the more he was esteemed, at least by the younger members of the community. The night he broke the 10-minute barrier for the 20-minute prayer there was a murmur of awe. When the seven-minute barrier finally fell, we felt we were in the presence of greatness. Alas, the fictional father has gone to his reward, and the Litaniae have disappeared from the Jesuits’ daily community devotions. But for some reason as yet unknown to me, they’ve remained a firm and indeed warm part of mine.

My point is that you needn’t just listen to the chanting of a litany in a church or its recitation in a chapel. You may read it by yourself or with a few others. On each successive reading, you and your partners in prayer will find an easy cadence. Perhaps not the thrilling, etherial renditions of the monks at Solemnes. Perhaps a more down-to-earth, skip-rope-jingle movement of invocation and response. As for the words of the Litany, the invocations move from hierarchy to lowerachy. From the Trinity, Mary, angels, apostles, evangelists, disciples, martyrs, doctors of the church, popes, confessors, founders of religious orders, right down to the crazies of the desert in the fourth century, and an assortment of women who were some of the above.

All the Trinity and Apostles are invoked individually, but of the other groupings only a few popes, a few confessors, a few martyrs and so on are named. Respectfully, at the end of each grouping there is an invocation to the group as a whole. Hence, no saint can be said to have escaped our notice or our invocation. The Litany of the Saints as well as many subsequent litaniesLoretto (1587), Marian (from 1297 on), Holy Name (1862), Sacred Heart (1899), St. Joseph (1909), Most Precious Blood (1960)have been approved and indulgenced for public recitation in churches. But when said privately by yourself or with others, a litany, any litany, is also a festoonable prayer. You can customize it any way you want.

Here are some suggestions with regard to the Litany of the Saints.

First, the saints mentioned by name, as well as the petitions urged on the Almighty during the Litany, are pitifully few in number. Favorite saints can be added. Certainly more saintly women should be summoned up. (Redress of hot contemporary issues could also be petitioned.)

Second, you could invite some of your curious non-Catholic friends to join you when you pray the litany in English. Surely the Mere Christian, the Common Christian, the Anonymous Christian, the Seminal Christian would not put up too much of a scuffle before partaking in this historical prayer.

Of course, in the litany there’s the odd reference to pontiffs but, thankfully, no references to the odd pontiffs. But I’d just as soon leave them all in; church history is church history, for better or worse. But one one might also want to substitute, for the response ora/orate pro nobis (pray for us), the ecumenical variant ora/orate cum nobis (pray with us).

Third, it seems right, meet and just to include in any ecumenical litany the Protestant Reformers as well as the Catholic Reformers. Hence, Loyola, Bellarmine, Canisius, and Borromeo could be followed by Calvin, Knox, Luther and the Wesleys.

Fourth, the Roman Catholic Church has generally preferred its saints to be both dead as door nails and dead as door nails for a suitable number of yearssay, a century or twobefore proclaiming a man or woman as a saint to the world at large. But what about living saints? Risky business, this! By definition, saints are also sinners, and they sin right up until they’ve breathed their last. Hence, perhaps better to leave out the living.

On the other hand, the Apostle Paul, when dictating his encyclicals, often used as a synonym for Christians or believers the word saints. For him saints were the living human beings who had to survive in a pagan world that often was unjust, unrighteous, unsympathetic. And, as in Rom 1:6-7, he used saints to address the Christian residents in a certain place. So include the living, but only at your own risk.

All this having been said, what effect does all this homely hyssoping of the heavens have to do with the divine economy of things? Well, all I know is that I find the parade, the procession of the saints in a litany, especially an expanded litany, to be something like the communion of saints ball. I invoke each saint’s name as he or she comes down the nave, each wearing the costume and carrying the symbol of his or her identity as private person and public saint. Rather a formal affair, yes, but I’ve read enough hagiography in my lifetime that I also see the saints in their jammies, as it were. No man is a hero to his valet, runs the saw; and no woman to her upstairs maid. Which means, at least in my eyes, the saints were just blokes like the rest of us. Blokes schlepping along as best they could. Looked at in this light, they have set me a very good example, and I hasten to keep up.

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