by Theresa Cavicchio
As a form of prayer, the litany can yield spiritual benefits on many levels. By definition, a litany is a form of prayer which includes a number of petitions within a specific format. Certain litanies approved by the Church may be recited or sung in public (communal) or private prayer; others are designated for private prayer only.
The litany has its ancient origin in Antioch in the 4th century. Traditionally, the litany begins with invocations to each of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Then, the body of the prayer includes a list of invocations or intercessions specific to its title, each being followed by a response -- typically, “have mercy on us,” or “pray for us.” As the litany concludes, a threefold recitation of the Lamb of God intercession precedes the closing prayer.
Over time, six litanies have been approved by the Church for use in public prayer settings. In this case, a priest or deacon generally would recite each petition, and the congregation would voice the response. The approved litanies are: Litany of Loreto (Our Lady), Litany of the Saints, Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Litany of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, and Litany of Saint Joseph.
This overview will highlight the Litany of Loreto and the Litany of Saint Joseph.
~ The Litany of Loreto ~
The Litany of Loreto dates at least as far back as 1531 A. D., and is the only litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary approved for public devotion, having been so authorized by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.
This litany is rooted in its longtime recitation at the shrine of the Holy House of Loreto, Italy. According to tradition, this simple dwelling was the site of the Incarnation of Jesus and the original residence of the Holy Family in Nazareth, transported miraculously by angels from the Holy Land to Loreto at the end of the 13th century.
The litany’s components include many of Our Lady’s beautiful titles as well as references to her holiness, maternity, virginity, queenship; her many virtues; and her roles in salvation history and as our advocate. Some examples include Mother of Christ, Virgin Most Faithful, Ark of the Covenant, Help of Christians, and Queen of Angels.
This litany is one of the prayers included in preparation for Consecration to Jesus through Mary as written by Saint Louis de Montfort in the early 18th century. Far more recently, it is cited in the highly popular book by Father Michael E. Gaitley, MIC: 33 Days to Morning Glory, a modern-day adaptation of Saint Louis’ centuries-old classic.
Additions have been made to this litany’s list of intercessions by various popes throughout the years, the most recent authorized by Pope Francis in June of 2020 in light of recent world events: Mother of Mercy, Mother of Hope, and Comfort of Migrants. Thus, the litany’s relevance continues right up to the present day.
~ The Litany of Saint Joseph ~
As stated by Mark Miravalle in his book Meet Your Spiritual Father: A Brief Introduction to St. Joseph, “From medieval times, the frequent recital of the Litany of St. Joseph has been a cherished method of coming to know the saint and love him more … each title is packed with meaning about St. Joseph’s life, mission, and powerful protection” (p. 105).
The Litany of Saint Joseph received approval for public use in 1909 by Pope Pius X, who was greatly devoted to the foster father of Jesus.
This litany features titles which reflect his critically important and unique God-given roles: Spouse of the Mother of God, Foster Father of the Son of God, and Head of the Holy Family. Others refer to Saint Joseph’s stellar qualities, citing him to be just, chaste, prudent, courageous, obedient, and faithful.
Several titles meet us where we live in our daily lives, referring to human labor, domestic life, family life, and help for those afflicted, sick, or dying. In what may seem a contradiction, the humble carpenter of Nazareth, who spoke not one word recorded in Sacred Scripture, is even invoked as Terror of Demons and Protector of the Holy Church.
Seven new invocations were added to the Litany of Saint Joseph in May of 2021. Approved by Pope Francis, these include Protector of the Redeemer, Servant of Christ, Minister of Salvation, Support in Difficulty, Patron of Refugees, Patron of the Afflicted, and Patron of the Poor. Like the recent additions to the Litany of Loreto, several of these new invocations are very much a reflection of the times in which we are living, making them totally relevant to these times.
Also, as is true for the Litany of Loreto in Father Gaitley’s book, the Litany of Saint Joseph is featured in another widely-read timely work -- Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father by Father Donald Calloway, MIC -- published in 2020.
Whether recited or sung, these litanies lift our hearts in praise of Our Lady and of Saint Joseph, and present our petitions for their powerful intercession. The flowing repetition lends itself to a calming, soul-satisfying prayer experience. The various titles and invocations paint a portrait of the holiness and spiritual heights which Our Lady and Saint Joseph personify, inspiring us to emulate them.
In short, litanies are truly precious gems in the treasury of prayers our Church encourages us to include in our personal devotions.
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