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Q: Are there still litanies approved for use in public prayer?

A: Litanies have been a part of public and private prayer for millennia. Litanies are “repetitive prayer form[s], usually characterized by the announcement of varying invocations (e.g., lists of divine titles, names of saints) followed by a fixed congregational response.”[1] Anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours during Easter Week knows well the litany-like praises of the three young men (Daniel 3:57–88) which are on the Church’s lips daily.

During the religious revolutions of the 16th century, litanies multiplied, but were often “in poor taste and the result of [a dimly-lit] piety.”[2] In order to rid the Church of such impious litanies, Pope Clement VIII decreed that “only the more ancient litanies contained in the Breviary, Missal, Pontifical and Ritual, as well as the Litany of Loreto were approved for the use of the faithful.”[3] Clement’s decree “was renewed in 1727 and in 1821. A decree, however, of the Congregation of Rites, dated 23 April 1860, allowed the private use of litanies sanctioned by the Ordinary.”[4] Nevertheless, a strict distinction between litanies for public recitation and litanies for private devotion has been blurred in the minds of many since the post-conciliar period. Does this distinction still hold?

The Manual of Indulgences provides some clarity. The section dealing with “Novenas, Litanies, and the Little Offices,” restricts the indulgence to those “approved litanies”[5] that it enumerates: “The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus [1587], the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus [1899], the Litany of the Precious Blood of Jesus [1960], the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Litany of Loreto) [1587], the Litany of Saint Joseph [1909] and the Litany of the Saints.[6]

In addition, the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy assumes the category of approved litanies by making note of when litanies were “approved for the whole Church.”[7] Yet, while this list is authoritative, it does not appear to be exhaustive. For example, the Litany for the Coronation of Images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is itself contained in a liturgical book[8] and so is, by definition, established for public use.[9] According to this liturgical logic, perhaps it is best not simply to adopt the language of “approved litanies,” but rather to look to Clement VIII’s liturgical hermeneutic: all the litanies “contained in the Breviary, Missal, Pontifical and Ritual…[are] approved for the use of the faithful.”[10] In this way, the public litany flows from the public worship of the Church, the liturgy. Unfortunately, not all of the approved litanies are found in the liturgical books, so we’re back to “approved litanies.”

Regardless, there also exists the problem of a text for public use that lacks an official translation. Many of these litanies exist in unapproved and often elderly translations that include some irregular and infelicitous renderings. For example, the Litany of the Most Precious Blood speaks of the “Blood of Christ, bringing forth Virgins,” and then of God the Father being “appeased by [Christ’s] Blood.” Pace Liturgiam Authenticam 27–29, these translations risk obscuring the mysteries of consecrated virginity and Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice and they also risk leaving the litanies unused and even unheard of. It seems certain that a renewed application of great the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam would give greater clarity and greater life to these approved litanies. Perhaps the litanies will be in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s pipeline soon…after the breviary?

 


[1]M. A. Clarahan, “Litany,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., 14 vols. (Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2003), 8:599.

[2] Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001), no. 203n249.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. H. Maude, “Litany,” ed. James Hastings, John A. Selbie, and Louis H. Gray, Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh; New York: T. & T. Clark; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908–1926), 80.

[5] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Manual of Indulgences (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006) 22.2.

[6] Cf. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Manual of Indulgences (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006) 22.2.

[7] See Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2002), no. 171, 178, 222.

[8] Ordo coronandi imaginem beatae Mariae Virginis, Editio Typica, Typis Polyglotis Vaticanis 1981, n. 41, 27–29. Cited in Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001), no. 203.

[9] See Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001), no. 203.

[10] Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001), no. 203n249.

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds an STL from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have two children and live in Grand Ledge, MI.