THE HISTORY OF THE LITANY OF OUR LADY

(THE LITANY OF LORETO)


The Litany of the Blessed Virgin--also called the Litany of Loreto--is one of the many Marian litanies, or praises of Mary, composed during the Middle Ages. The place of honor it now holds, in the life of the Church, is due its faithful use at the shrine of the Holy House at Loreto, which, according to tradition, was the small cottage-like home where the Holy Family had lived and which was miraculously transported by angels, in 1291, from the Holy Land to its present location in Loreto. It was definitely recommended by Pope Clement VII and approved by Sixtus V in 1587, and all other Marian litanies were suppressed, at least for public use.

Its forty-nine titles (fifty, or fifty-one, or even more, in some versions: with "Mother of the Church" and "Mother of Mercy" and being the 'official' 'newcomers' in recent times and which are included on the Vatican website version) and invocations set before us Mary's exalted privileges, her holiness of life, her amiability and power, her motherly spirit and queenly majesty. Reflection on the titles of the litany, therefore, will unfold before us a magnificent picture of our heavenly Mother, even though we know little about her life.

Our Lady's influence on the world has always been great. From the moment she took all of us as her spiritual children at the foot of the Cross, she has proved herself to be a mother without equal. Over the course of time, she has lightened the burden of millions, brought peace and joy to tortured hearts, counsel to those in doubt, comfort to the sorrowing, repentance and mercy to sinners, and God to everyone who would accept Him. Our Lady never ceases to work for the conversion, sanctification and salvation of us poor sinners. It was during her apparition at La Salette, in 1846, that she said that we could never repay her for all that she has done for us. What a tremendous work she has been doing for God ever since she came into being! Think of the multitude of sinners and Christians who this day will turn to Mary for help--and not one will turn away unassisted! Think of the multitude, in both Heaven and Purgatory, who owe their salvation to the merciful intercession of the Mother of God!

What is a Litany?

Litany is a Greek word for prayer (Latin litania, letania, from the Greek lite, prayer or supplication) . It is also a method of worship as old as the story of recorded religion. The Jews prayed by litanies. Litanies to the Mother of God date back to the beginnings of Patristic literature; but very definite evidence of them is found in certain Celtic manuscripts of the eighth century.

A litany is a prayer--a raising of the mind and heart heavenwards. It is a well-known and much appreciated form of responsive petition, used in public liturgical services, and in private devotions, for common necessities of the Church, or in calamities -- to implore God's aid or to appease His just wrath. This form of prayer finds its model in Psalm 135: "Praise the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Praise ye the God of gods . . . the Lord of lords . . . Who alone doth great wonders . . . Who made the heavens", etc., with each verse being concluded with the words, "for his mercy endureth for ever." Similar is the canticle of praise by the youths in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:57-87), with the response, "praise and exalt him above all for ever."

In the Mass of the Oriental Church we find several litanies in use even at the present day. Towards the end of the Mass of the catechumens the deacon asks all to pray; he formulates the petitions, and all answer "Kyrie Eleison" to each petition. When the catechumens have departed, the deacon asks the prayers: for the peace and welfare of the world, for the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, for the bishops and priests, for the sick, for those who have gone astray, etc., to each of which petitions the faithful answer "Kyrie Eleison", or "Grant us, O Lord", or "We beseech Thee." The litany is concluded by the words, "Save us, restore us again, O Lord, by Thy mercy." The last petitions in our Litany of the Saints, with the responses "Deliver us, O Lord" and "We beseech Thee hear us", show a great resemblance to the Mass Litany of the Greek Church. In the Ambrosian or Milanese Rite two litanies are recited on the Sundays of Lent instead of the "Gloria in excelsis". The Missal of the Roman Rite has retained the prayers for all classes of people in the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday, a full litany on Holy Saturday, and the triple repetition of "Kyrie Eleison", "Christe Eleison", "Kyrie Eleison", in every Mass. 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.

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". The number of repetitions depended upon the celebrant. This litany is prescribed in the Roman Breviary at the "Preces Feriales" and in the Monastic Breviary for every "Hora" (Rule of St. Benedict, ix, 17). The continuous repetition of the "Kyrie" is used today at the consecration of a church, while the relics to be placed in the altar are carried in procession around the church. Because the "Kyrie" and other petitions were said once or oftener, litanies were called planú, ternú, quinú, septenú.

When peace was granted to the Church after three centuries of bloody persecution, public devotions became common and processions were frequently held, with preference for days which the heathens had held sacred. These processions were called litanies, and in them pictures and other religious emblems were carried. In Rome, pope and people would go in procession each day, especially in Lent, to a different church, to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries. Thus originated the Roman "Stations", and what was called the "Litania Major", or "Romana". It was held on 25 April, on which day the heathens had celebrated the festival of Robigalia, the principal feature of which was a procession.

The Christian litany which replaced it set out from the church of S. Lorenzo in Lucina, held a station at S. Valentino Outside the Walls, and then at the Milvian Bridge. From thence, instead of proceeding on the Claudian Way, as the heathens had done, it turned to the left towards the Vatican, stopped at a cross, of which the site is not given, and again in the paradise or atrium of St. Peter's, and finally in the basilica itself, where the station was held (Duchesne, 288).

In 590, when a pestilence caused by an overflow of the Tiber was ravaging Rome, Gregory the Great commanded a litany which is called "Septiformis"; on the preceding day he exhorted the people to fervent prayer, and arranged the order to be observed in the procession, namely, that the clergy from S. Giovanni Battista, the men from S. Marcello, the monks from SS. Giovanni e Paolo, the unmarried women from SS. Cosma e Damiano, the married women from San Stefano, the widows from S. Vitale, the poor and the children from S. Cæcilia, were all to meet at S. Maria Maggiore.

The "Litania Minor", or "Gallicana", on the Rogation Days before Ascension, was introduced (477) by St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne, on account of the earthquakes and other calamities then prevalent. It was prescribed for the whole of Frankish Gaul, in 511, by the Council of Orleans (can. xxvii). For Rome it was ordered by Leo III, in 799. In the Ambrosian Rite this litany was celebrated on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday after Ascension. In Spain we find a similar litany from Thursday to Saturday after Whitsuntide, another from the first to third of November, ordered by the Council of Gerunda in 517, and still another for December, commanded by the synod of Toledo in 638. In England the Litany of Rogation Days (Gang-Days) was known in the earliest periods. In Germany it was ordered by a Synod of Mainz in 813.

Owing to the fact that the Mass Litany became popular through its use in processions, numberless varieties were soon made, especially in the Middle Ages. Litanies appeared in honour of God the Father, of God the Son, of God the Holy Ghost, of the Precious Blood, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Immaculate Conception, of each of the saints honoured in different countries, for the souls in Purgatory, etc. In 1601 Baronius wrote that about eighty forms were in circulation. To prevent abuse, Pope Clement VIII, by decree of the Inquisition of September 6, 1601, forbade the publication of any litany, except that of the saints as found in the liturgical books and that of Loreto. Today the litanies approved for public recitation are: of the Holy Name, of the Sacred Heart, of the Precious Blood, of Loreto, of St. Joseph and of All Saints. There are also many litanies composed for private devotion that are not used in the public worship of the Church.

The Litany of Loreto

Despite the fact that, from the seventeenth century onwards, the Litany of Loreto has been the subject of endless panegyrics and ascetical writings, there is a great lack of documentary evidence concerning its origin, the growth and development of the litany into the forms under which we know it, and as it was for the first time definitely approved by the Church in the year 1587. Some writers declare that they know nothing of its origin and history; others, on the contrary, trace it back to the translation of the Holy House (1294); others, to Pope Sergius I (687); others, again, to St. Gregory the Great or to the fifth century; while others go as far back as the earliest ages of the Church, and even Apostolic times. Historical criticism, however, proves the Litany of Loreto to be of more recent origin, and shows that it was most likely composed during the early years of the sixteenth century or the closing years of the fifteenth. The most ancient printed copy hitherto discovered is that of Dillingen in Germany, dating from 1558; it is fairly certain that this is a copy of an earlier Italian one, but so far, in spite of much careful research, the oldest Italian copy that the writer has been able to discover dates from 1576.

In form, the Litany of Loreto is composed on a fixed plan common to several Marian litanies already in existence during the second half of the fifteenth century, which in turn are connected with a notable series of Marian litanies that began to appear in the twelfth century and became numerous in the thirteenth and fourteenth. The Loreto text had, however, the good fortune to be adopted in the famous shrine, and in this way to become known, more than any other, to the many pilgrims who flocked there during the sixteenth century. The text was brought home to the various countries of Christendom, and finally it received for all time the supreme ecclesiastical sanction.

Sauren claims that the first and oldest Marian litany is a pious laus to the Virgin in the "Leabhar Breac", a fourteenth-century manuscript. This laus has fifty-nine eulogies on the Virgin and some scholars attribute it to about the middle of the eighth century. But it has not at all the form of a litany, being rather a sequence of fervent praises, like so many that occur in the writings of the Fathers, especially after the fourth century.

The earliest genuine text of a Marian litany thus far known is in a twelfth-century codex in the Mainz Library. It opens with the usual "Kyrie Eleison"; then follow the invocations of the Trinity, but with amplifications, e.g. "Pater de celis deus, qui elegisti Mariam semper virginem, miserere nobis"; these are followed by invocations of the Virgin Mary in a long series of praises, of which a brief selection will be enough: "Sancta Maria, stirps patriarcharum, vaticinium prophetarum, solatium apostolorum, rosa martirum, predicatio confessorum, lilium virginum, ora pro nobis benedictum ventris tui fructum"; "Sancta Maria, spes humilium, refugium pauperum, portus naufragantium, medicina infirmorum, ora pro nobis benedictum ventris tui fructum"; etc.

This goes on for more than fifty times, always repeating the invocation "Sancta Maria", but varying the laudatory titles given. Then, after this manner of the litanies of the saints, a series of petitions occur, e.g.: "Per mundissimum virgineum partum tuum ab omni immundicia mentis et corporis liberet nos benedictus ventris tui fructus"; and farther on, "Ut ecclesiam suam sanctam pacificare, custodire, adunare et regere dignetur benedictus ventris tui fructus, ora mater virgo Maria." The litany concludes with the "Agnus", also amplified, "Agne dei, filius matris virginis Marie qui tollis peccata mundi, parce nobis Domine", etc.

Lengthy and involved litanies of this type do not seem to have won popularity, though it is possible to find other examples of a like kind. However, during the two centuries that followed, many Marian litanies were composed. Their form remains uncertain and hesitating, but the tendency is always towards brevity and simplicity. To each invocation of "Sancta Maria" it becomes customary to add only one praise, and these praises show in general a better choice or a better arrangement. The petitions are often omitted or are changed into ejaculations in honour of the Blessed Virgin.

A litany of this new form is that of a codex in the Library of St. Mark's, Venice, dating from the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is found, with occasional variants, in many manuscripts, a sure sign that this text was especially well known and favourably received. It omits the petitions, and consists of seventy-five praises joined to the usual invocation, "Sancta Maria". Here is a short specimen, showing the praises to be met with most frequently also in other litanies of that or of later times: "Holy Mary, Mother and Spouse of Christ, pray for me [other MSS. have "pray for us"-the "pray" is always repeated]; Holy Mary, Mother inviolate; Holy Mary, Temple of the Holy Ghost; Holy Mary, Queen of Heaven; Holy Mary, Mistress of the Angels; Holy Mary, Star of Heaven; Holy Mary, Gate of Paradise; Holy Mary, Mother of True Counsel; Holy Mary, Gate of Celestial Life; Holy Mary, Our Advocate; Holy Mary, brightest Star of Heaven; Holy Mary, Fountain of True Wisdom; Holy Mary, unfailing Rose; Holy Mary, Beautly of Angels; Holy Mary, Flower of Patriarchs; Holy Mary, Desire of Prophets; Holy Mary, Treasure of Apostles; Holy Mary, Praise of Martyrs; Holy Mary, Glorification of Priests; Holy Mary, Immaculate Virgin; Holy Mary, Splendour of Virgins and Example of Chastity", etc.

The first Marian litanies must have been composed to foster private devotion, as it is not at all probable that they were written for use in public, by reason of their drawn-out and heavy style. But once the custom grew up of reciting Marian litanies privately, and of gradually shortening the text, it was not long until the idea occurred of employing them for public devotion, especially in cases of epidemic, as had been the practice of the Church with the litanies of the Saints, which were sung in penitential processions and during public calamities. Hence it must be emphasized that the earliest certain mention we have of a public recital of Marian Litanies is actually related to a time of pestilence, particularly in the fifteenth century. At Venice, in fact, these same litanies were finally adopted for liturgical use in processions for plague and mortality and asking for rain or for fair weather. Probably they began to be sung in this connection during the calamities of the fifteenth century; but in the following century we find them prescribed, as being an ancient custom, in the ceremonials of St. Mark's in Venice.

In the second half of the fifteenth century we meet another type of litany which was to be publicly chanted tempore pestis sive epydimic. The invocations are very simple and all begin, not with the words "Sancta Maria", but with "Sancta mater", e.g.: Sancta mater Creatoris; Sancta mater Salvatoris; Sancta mater munditie; Sancta mater auxilii; Sancta mater consolationis; Sancta mater intemerata; Sancta mater inviolata; Sancta mater virginum, etc. At the end, however, are a few short petitions such as those found in the litanies of the saints.

With regard to their form, it is certain that those who first composed the Marian litanies aimed at imitating the litanies of the Saints which had been in use in the Church since the eighth century. During the Middle Ages, as is well known, it was customary to repeat over and over single invocations in the litanies of the saints, and thus we find that the basic principle of the Marian litanies is this constant repetition of the invocation, "Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis." And in order that this repetition might not prove monotonous in the Middle Ages recourse was had to an expedient since then universally used, not only in private devotions but even in liturgical prayer, that of amplifying by means of what are called tropes or farcituræ. They had a model in the Kyrie of the Mass, e.g., "Kyrie, fons bonitatis, pater ingenite, a quo bona cuncta procedunt, eleison." It was an easy matter to improvise between the "Sancta Maria" and the "Ora pro nobis", repeated over and over, a series of tropes consisting of different praises, with an occasional added petition, imitated however broadly from the litanies of the saints. Thus the Marian litany was evolved.

Gradually the praises became simpler; at times the petitions were omitted, and, from the second half of the fifteenth century, the repetition of the "Sancta Maria" began to be avoided, so that the praises alone remained, with the accompaniment "Ora pro nobis". This made up the new group of litanies which we must now consider. The connecting link between the litanies we have discussed and this new group may have been a litany found in a manuscript of prayers, copied in 1524 by Fra Giovanni da Falerona. It consists of fifty-seven praises, and the "Sancta Maria" is repeated, but only at intervals of six or seven praises, perhaps because the shape or size of the parchment was so small that it held only six or seven lines to the page, and the copyist contented himself with writing the "Sancta Maria" once at the head of each page. But, because of its archaic form, this litany must be considerably anterior to 1524, and may have been copied from some fifteenth-century MS.

The praises are chosen in part from previous litanies, and in part they are original. Moreover, their arrangement is better and more varied. The first place is given to praises bestowed on the name of "Mater"; then come those expressing the Blessed Virgin's tender love for mankind; then the titles given her in the creeds; then those beginning with "Regina", which are identical with those we now have in the Litany of Loreto. Two new titles are introduced: "Causa nostræ lætitiæ" and "Vas spirituale", which are not found in earlier litanies. Noteworthy also are three invocations, "Advocata christianorum", "Refugium desperatorum", "Auxilium peccatorum", which passed by an easy change into the "Refugium peccatorum" and "Auxilium christianorum" of the Litany of Loreto. In a word, if we omit the petitions of this older form, and its reiteration of the "Sancta Maria", we have a litany which in the choice and arrangement of praises comes very close to the Litany of Loreto.

It may be laid down as probable that the Loreto text became customary in the Holy House towards the close of the fifteenth century, at a time when in other places similar litanies were being adapted for public use to obtain deliverance from some calamity. It is only in 1531, 1547, and 1554, that the documents afford indications of litanies being sung in that sanctuary, though the text is not given.

The earliest printed copy of the Litany of Loreto so far known is that of Dillingen, which is undated and seems to belong to the end of 1557 or the beginning of 1558. The Litany of Loreto had taken root at Loreto, and was being spread throughout the world, when it ran the grave risk of being lost forever. St. Pius V by Motu Proprio of 20 March, 1571, published 5 April, had prohibited all existing offices of the B. V. Mary, disapproving in general all the prayers therein, and substituting a new "Officium B. Virginis" without those prayers and consequently without any litany. It would seem that this action on the part of the pope led the clergy of Loreto to fear that the text of their litany was likewise prohibited. At all events, in order to keep up the old time custom of singing the litany every Saturday in honour of the Blessed Virgin, a new text was drawn up containing praises drawn directly from the Scriptures, and usually applied to the Blessed Virgin in the Liturgy of the Church. This new litany was set to music by the choirmaster of the Basilica of Loreto, Costanzo Porta, and printed at Venice in 1575. It is the earliest setting to music of a Marian litany that we know of.

In the following year (1576) these Scriptural litanies were printed in two different handbooks for the use of pilgrims. In both they bear the title: "Litaniæ deipare Virginis ex Sacra Scriptura depromptæ quæ in alma Domo lauretana omnibus diebus Sabbathi, Vigiliarum et Festorum decantari solent". But in the second handbook, the work of Bernardine Cirillo, archpriest of Loreto, the old text of the litany is also printed, though with the plainer title, "Aliæ Litaniæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis", a clear sign that it was not quite forgotten.

On 5 Feb., 1578, the archdeacon of Loreto, Giulio Candiotti, sent to Pope Gregory XIII the "Laudi o lettanie moderne della sma Vergine, cavate dalla sacra Scrittura" (New praises or litanies of the most holy Virgin, drawn from Sacred Scripture), with Porta's music and the text apart, expressing the wish that His Holiness would cause it to be sung in St. Peter's and in other churches as was the custom at Loreto. The pope's reply is not known, but we have the opinion of the theologian to whom the matter was referred, in which the composition of the new litany is praised, but which does not judge it opportune to introduce it into Rome or into church use on the authority of the pope, all the more because Pius V "in reforming the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin completely abolished, among other things, some proper litanies of the Blessed Virgin which existed in the old [office], and which (if I remember rightly) were somewhat similar to these". The judgment concludes that the litany might be sung at Loreto as a devotion proper to this shrine, and if others wanted to adopt it, they might do so by way of private devotion.

This attempt having failed, the Scriptural litany straightway began to lose favour, and the Loreto text was once more resumed. In another manual for pilgrims, published in that same year 1578, the Scriptural litany is omitted, and the old Loreto text appears. In a new edition (1584), the Scriptural litany is restored but relegated to a secondary position. From this it is clear that for a time both litanies were in use at Loreto until the seventeenth century, when the Scriptural litany disappears altogether. Meanwhile, the Loreto text was introduced elsewhere, and even reached Rome, when Sixtus V, who had entertained a singular devotion for Loreto, by the Bull "Reddituri" of 11 July, 1587, gave formal approval to it, as to the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, and recommended preachers everywhere to propagate its use among the faithful.

On the strength of this push given to the Litany of Loreto, certain spiritual writers began to publish a great number of litanies in honour of the Saviour, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints, often ill-advised and containing expressions theologically incorrect, so that Pope Clement VIII had promulgated (6 Sept., 1601) a severe decree of the Holy Office, which, while upholding the litanies contained in the liturgical books, as well as the Litany of Loreto, prohibited the publication of new litanies, or use of those already published in public worship, without the approbation of the Congregation of Rites.

At Rome the Litany of Loreto was introduced into the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore by Cardinal Francesco Toledo in 1597; and Paul V, in 1613, ordered it to be sung in that church, morning and evening, on Saturdays and on vigils and feasts of the Madonna. As a result of this example the Loreto Litany began to be used, and is still largely used, in all the churches of Rome. The Dominicans, at their general chapter held at Bologna in 1615, ordered it to be recited in all the convents of their order after the Office on Saturdays at the end of the customary "Salve Regina".

Before this they had caused the invocation "Regina sacratissimi rosarii" to be inserted in the litany, and it appears in print for the first time in a Dominican Breviary dated 1614, as has been pointed out by Father Walsh, O.P., in "The Tablet", 24 Oct., 1908. Although by decree of 1631, and by Bull of Alexander VII (1664), it was strictly forbidden to make any additions to the litanies, another decree of the Congregation of Rites, dated 1675, permitted the Confraternity of the Rosary to add the invocation "Regina sacratissimi rosarii", and this was prescribed for the whole Church by Leo XIII (24 Dec., 1883). By decree of 22 April, 1903, the same pope added the invocation "Mater boni consilii", which, under the form of "Mater veri consilii", was contained in the Marian litany used for centuries in St. Mark's Venice, as indicated above. In 1766 Clement XIII granted Spain the privilege of adding after "Mater intemerata" the invocation "Mater immaculata", which is still customary in Spain, notwithstanding the addition of "Regina sine labe originali concepta". This last invocation was originally granted by Pius IX to the Bishop of Mechlin in 1846, and, after the definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the congregation by various rescripts authorized many dioceses to make a like addition, so that in a short time it became the universal practice. For these various decrees of the Congregation of Rites, see Sauren, 27-29; 71-78.

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