by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
What is a litany?
A litany is a type of prayer in the form of a responsive petition. This prayer form became popular in the Middle Ages. A prayer leader proclaimed a series of invocations and the congregation alternated with responses.
The litany form of supplication comes from the Litany of Saints, which was used in Europe as early as the seventh century. In that litany Mary heads the list of saints and is invoked three times; these invocations are retained in her own litany. Over the centuries a number of litanies became popular prayers to honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Name of Jesus, St. Joseph, and several directed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These are still used today and are found in official prayer books.
Several different Marian litanies appeared in the twelfth century and became popular devotional practices over the following centuries. Their origins are often uncertain, and from time to time additions and improvements were made. Besides being recited prayers, many litanies are also sung or chanted. And today new litanies are still being composed.
The alternation of admiring tribute and confident supplication makes the litany a prayer both simple and replete.
Litany of Loreto
Many Marian litanies are in use, but the best known Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary is more commonly known as the Litany of Loreto. Because this litany was adopted by the famous Marian Shrine of the Holy House in Loreto, Italy, as indicated by a 1558 shrine record, the pilgrims who visited the shrine took to their home countries around the world this popular name for the prayer.
The origins of the Litany of Loreto are uncertain. It may date from the fifth century, but more likely it was composed in its present form between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries and first printed in a prayer book influenced by St. Peter Canisius in 1551. The original approval was granted in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V.
The list of praises to Mary owes much to the Akathist Hymn of the Byzantine Churches. As circumstances changed, invocations were added or dropped, and the litany is still being revised in our lifetime.
Newest invocations: Mother of the Church and Queen of Families
In 1980 “Mother of the Church” was inserted into the Litany of Loreto after “Mother of Christ” and before “Mother of Divine Grace.” At the close of the third session of the Second Vatican Council in 1964 Pope Paul VI officially declared this new Marian title: “For the glory of the Blessed Virgin and our consolation, we proclaim Mary most holy as ‘Mother of the Church,’ that is, of the whole People of God, both of the faithful and of the pastors who all call her their most loving Mother.” Pope John Paul II explained that this “stresses the complete motherhood of Mary toward Christ and toward the Church, as Mother of the Head and Mother of the members of the Mystical Body.”
Saint John Paul II authorized in 1995 the use of “Queen of Families” to be inserted after “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary” and before “Queen of Peace.” This flows naturally from the fact that Mary is Mother of the Church, including the Domestic Church – the family. The pope pointed out that “Mary called herself the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ (Lk 1:38). Through obedience to the Word of God she accepted her lofty, yet not easy vocation as wife and mother in the family of Nazareth. Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love…. We invoke her as ‘Queen.’ For her to reign is to serve. Her service is to reign.”
Holy Mary, pray for us!