As the word is used in the western tradition today, a litany refers to a devotion that uses responsive petitions. Although a litany uses responsive petitions, where a petition or praise is read aloud by one individual and is responded to by one or more persons, a litany may also be prayed privately for a special need or as part of a personal prayer rule. Also, a litany may be included as a standard part of a larger service or ritual, such as in the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. When a litany is prayed with more than one person, versicles and responses are utilized, and are signified by ℣ and ℟, respectively. The versicles and most unmarked portions will be read aloud by a member of the clergy, if present, and then the responses will be read by everyone else.
Though there are variations among the various devotional litanies, they follow a similar pattern. The first part of the litany is usually, “℣ Kyrie, eleison. ℟ Christe, eleison. ℣ Kyrie, eleison. ℣ Christ, hear us. ℟ Christ, graciously hear us,” followed by an invocation of the Holy Trinity, which follows the same versicle-response pattern. The second part of the litany consists of a set or multiple sets of versicles, which are petitions or praises. When there are multiple sets of these versicles, they are grouped by the response each set receives. The third and final part of the litany is often a threefold, “℣ Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world:” which is responded to firstly with, “Spare us, O Lord,” secondly with, “Hear us, O Lord,” and then thirdly with, “Have mercy upon us, O Lord.” This is followed with a final versicle, response, and a final prayer (Winfrey, 2008).
Let us take as an example The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as is found in The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book published by Lancelot Andrews Press, beginning on page 397. This litany begins with a variation – it begins with the prayer Sub tuum praesidium, “We fly to thy patronage , O holy Mother of God. Despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us from all dangers, O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.” Then the litany uses the standard set of opening prayers, as given above for the first part of a litany, are utilized. For the second part of The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is one set of petitions, and the response is, “Pray for us.” There is then the third part of the litany as described above. The closing prayer is the Gratiam tuam, quaesumus Domine, “Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen” (Winfrey, 2008).
The word litany comes from the Greek word lite (λιτή), which means supplication. The Kyrie itself is considered to be a litany and was in use very early on in the liturgies of the Church. The Council of Vaison decreed in 529, “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 use of litanies as devotions is thought to have developed from the Kyrie, which was sung continuously during certain processions. It is known that during the third and fourth centuries litanies that included the invocation of the Saints were being used in the east. It is not known when this type of litany fell out of use in the east (Mershman, 2010). What did develop in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, were the Akathists. The earliest Akathist known to be used by the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Akathist to our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos, commonly dated to the year 626 (Henry, 1907). The earliest known devotional Marian litany in the west is Irish and from around the year 725 (Kosloski, 2017). The earliest two litanies in the west that are known to include the invocation of the Saints are the Litania Minor and the Litania Septiformis. The Litania Minor was ordered in 477 by St. Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, against earthquakes. The Litania Septiformis was ordered in 590 by St. Gregory the Great for use in a procession. Unlike the east, the use of litanies in the west only grew, geographically and in number of litanies. By 1601 there were around 80 litanies in use in the Roman Catholic Church. At this this point the Roman Catholic Church began taking steps to curb the proliferation of litanies due to concerns of abuse (Mershman, 2010). Today, the St. Ambrose Prayer Book, used by Western Rite Orthodox Christians, has about 18 devotional litanies, including the morning and evening litanies (Winfrey, 2008).
Perhaps the most obvious use of litanies in the Eastern Orthodox tradition would be the litanies that are used in the celebrations of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Throughout the Divine Liturgy there are numerous litanies, most of which receive a response of, “Lord, have mercy”. In the Slavonic tradition, there are the three litanies before each of the antiphons at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, then there follows a litany after the Gospel reading, a litany for the catechumens, a litany for the faithful, a litany before the consecration, a litany after the consecration, and finally a litany of thanksgiving and departure after communion.
Litanies in the east and west likely grew out of the same traditions, and they are unavoidable for the traditional Christian. In the tradition of the west has developed the devotional litany, which has venerable roots, with the endorsement of the Saints of the early Church. For the Western Orthodox Christian, various devotional litanies may be found in The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book, available from Lancelot Andrewes Press,
Kosloski, P. (2017, August 21). An ancient Irish litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Retrieved January 17, 2018, from https://aleteia.org/2017/08/21/an-ancient-irish-litany-to-the-blessed-virgin-mary/
Henry, H. (1907). Acathistus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 21, 2018 from New Advent:
Mershman, F. (1910). Litany. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 17, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09286a.htm
Mershman, F. (1910). Litany of the Saints. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.Retrieved January 21, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09291a.htm
Santi, A. (1910). Litany of Loreto. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 21, 2018 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09287a.htm
Winfrey, J. G. (Ed.). (2008). The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book (First ed.). Glendale, CO: Lancelot Andrewes Press.