Learn About Litanies And How To Pray Them

Gillian Weyant

Learn About Litanies And How To Pray Them

One of the simplest and most beautiful facets of Catholicism is repetition.  It may seem odd to cite that as one of the primary reasons to love our faith, but if you think about it, repetition is something that informs our participation in Catholicism (especially in the Mass!) to an incredibly great extent.  We repeat the same prayers in our daily lives morning and night, repeat the Mass every time we attend, repeat the words involved in the mystery of the Sacraments each time they are administered to us, and repeat the same grace before each meal.  It’s awe-inspiring to think that we ourselves are saying and doing the same things that Catholics have said and done for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Understanding this helps us better to glimpse the universality and truth of the Catholic faith.

We involve repetition in our practice of Catholicism whenever we pray a litany.  In the litany, we repeat a simple response to a series of petitions or other prayers.  For example, when we attend a Mass, we pray the Litany of the Saints during which we request the intercession of various saints throughout the history of the Church. This litany is one of the most well-known and beloved, since it is such a universally and frequently said prayer.  It can help us understand our faith a little bit better to consider some other litanies as well, and think about how we can incorporate them into our prayer lives.

What Is a Litany?

At its most basic, a litany is both a public and a private devotion that generally pertains to supplication or petition.  The content of a litany varies widely, ranging from general litanies said in the context of a Mass to private litanies petitioning for specific virtues or characteristics, such as peace or humility.  The structure of a litany is simple, entailing a number of petitions or statements each followed by a simple response.  A very elemental litany is the oft-repeated Kyrie: Kyrie, eleison (Lord, have mercy), Christe, eleison (Christ, have mercy).  There are more particular litanies as well pertaining to certain Marian titles or saints, for example, such as the Litany of Our Lady of Sorrows or St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s Litany.

The litany has been in existence for many years, as it has been mentioned in writings as early as the fifth century.  The litany only gained popularity from then onward, as a council later on in 529 remarked on the beautiful custom of repeating the Kyrie, and encouraged Catholics to practice the devotion not only in the Mass but also while praying the Divine Office.  As years went on and Catholicism spread and developed, more and more forms of the litany came into existence, and many appeared that we now recognize and pray today, like the Litany of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, the Litany of the Immaculate Conception and the Litany of St. Joseph.   

The Public Litany

Litanies may be said both publicly and privately.  There are several recognized and approved litanies that may be said publicly, such as the Litany of the Saints in the Roman Catholic Mass.  Litanies are said in the liturgies of the Eastern Catholic Rite as well, although they are not typically the same as the ones said in the Roman Catholic Rite.  One of these Eastern litanies is called the Great Litany, and it is a public litany said at the beginning of a liturgy, usually spoken between the deacon and the congregation.  The text of this beautiful litany follows:

 

Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For peace from on high and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For peace in the whole world, for the well-being of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For this holy church and for all who enter it with faith, reverence and the loving fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For our holy ecumenical pontiff (name), the Pope of Rome, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For our most reverend archbishop and metropolitan (name), for our God-loving bishop (name), for the venerable priesthood, the diaconate in Christ, and for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For our civil authorities and all our armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For this city, for every city and countryside, and for those living within them in faith, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

For those who travel by sea, air and land, for the sick, the suffering, the captive, and for their safety and salvation, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

That we be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need, let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Protect us, save us, have mercy on us and preserve us, O God, by Your grace.

Lord, have mercy.

Remembering our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and one another, and our whole life, to Christ, our God.

To you, O Lord.

For to You is due all glory and honor and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever.

Amen.

The Private Litany

Although there are a good number of litanies that are prayed publicly, there are even more versions of the litany that may be said in private.  As we know, they vary from litanies directed to particular saints to litanies petitioning for certain virtues to litanies extolling the goodness of Christ.  One of my favorite litanies is the Litany of Humility.  This litany can help us to understand what this fundamental virtue entails (and how difficult yet worthwhile it can be to practice), as you will see in the text of the litany below:

 

Lord Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Why Should I Pray the Litany?

With all that said, we are left with one question to ponder in our hearts.  What does the litany mean to me, as a Catholic?  I think the litany is important to pray because of its repetitive nature, since it is through habit that we learn best.  As we repeat the responses, they begin to weave themselves into our thoughts and actions, so that we may find that the responses (like kyrie, eleison) often come to the surface of our prayers.  Praying the litany thus becomes a beautiful way in which we can unite ourselves closer to God and His Church, and allow the Catholic faith to more fully permeate our lives.