Litany of the Saints, the model of all other litanies, of great antiquity. It was used in the “Litania Septiformis” of St. Gregory the Great, and in the procession of St. Mamertus. In the Eastern Church, litanies with the invocation of saints were employed in the days of St. Basil (d. 379) and of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. about 270) (Basil, Ep. lxiii; Socrates, VI, viii; Sozomen, VIII, vii). It is not known when or by whom the litany was composed, but the order in which the Apostles are given, corresponding with that of the Canon of the Mass, proves its antiquity (Walafr. Strabo, “De Reb. Eccl.”, xxiii).
The litany begins with the call for mercy upon God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, in the “Kyrie eleison”, “Christe eleison”, “Kyrie eleison”. Then, considering Christ as our Savior and Mediator, we ask Him to hear us. In order to render more secure the hearing of our prayers, we again ask each of the Persons of the Holy Trinity for mercy, and, adding those titles which give us a claim to Their consideration, we call upon the First Person: God, the Father of Heaven, to whom we owe existence and life; the Second: Redeemer of the world, to Whom we owe our salvation; the Third: Holy Ghost, to whom we owe our sanctification; and then on the Holy Trinity, one God. To render God propitious, we, aware of our own unworthiness, ask the intercession of those who have become His special friends, through a holy life, the saints in lasting communion with Him. Foremost among these stands Mary, the chosen daughter of the Father, the undefiled mother of the Son, the stainless bride of the Holy Ghost—we call upon her with the triple invocation: Holy Mary, Mother of God, Virgin of virgins. We then invoke the blessed spirits who remained firm in their allegiance to the Almighty during the rebellion of Lucifer and his adherents: Michael, prince of the heavenly host; Gabriel, “fortitude of God“, the messenger of the Incarnation; Raphael, “medicine of God“, the trusted companion of Tobias; and the other angels, archangels, and orders of blessed “ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance oaf salvation” (Heb., i, 14). Next in our confidence is he of whom Christ says “There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt., xi, 11), the precursor of the Lord, the last of the Prophets of the Old Law and the first of the New.
Next in order come St. Joseph, the foster-father of the Incarnate Word; and all the Patriarchs and Prophets who saved their souls in the hope of Him Who was the expected of the nations. Then follow the saints: Peter, prince of the Apostles, vice-gerent of Christ; Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles; Andrew, who first heeded the call of the Master; James the Greater and Jelin the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, who, with St. Peter, were most favored by Christ; Thomas, called Didymus, who received from Christ signal proofs of His Resurrection; James the Less, first Bishop of Jerusalem; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew, once called Levi, the toll-gatherer, who wrote the First Gospel; Simon the Zealot; Jude; Thaddeus; Matthias, who was chosen to fill the place of Judas Iscariot; Barnabas, called to the Apostolate by the Holy Ghost (Acts, xiii, 2); Luke, the physician, writer of the Third Gospel and the Acts; Mark, the Evangelist, disciple of St. Peter; all the Apostles and
Evangelists; the holy disciples of the Lord; the Holy Innocents, the infant martyr-flowers, “Who, slain at the command of Herod, confessed the name of the Lord not by speaking but by dying” (Rom. Brev.). The glorious martyrs are then invoked: Stephen the Deacon, protomartyr, stoned at Jerusalem whilst praying for his executioners (Acts, vii, 58); Laurence, the Roman archdeacon; Vincent, the deacon of Saragossa in Spain; Fabian, the pope, and Sebastian the soldier; John and Paul, brothers at the Court of Constantia, daughter of Constantine; Cosmas and Damian, renowned physicians of Aegea in Cilicia; Gervasius and Protasius, brothers at Milan; after which follows a collective impetration of all the holy martyrs. The litany now asks the prayers of St. Sylvester, the pope who saw the triumph of the Crucified over paganism; of the Doctors of the Church; Sts. Gregory the Great, pope; Ambrose of Milan; Augustine of Hippo, in Africa; and Jerome, representing Dalmatia and the Holy Land; of the renowned Bishops Martin of Tours; Nicholas of Myra; of all the holy bishops and confessors; of all the holy teachers; of the founders of religious orders: Anthony, father of the anchorites of the desert; Benedict, patriarch of the Western monks; Bernard; Dominic; Francis; of all holy priests and levites; of monks and hermits. We then invoke Mary Magdalen, the model of Christian penance and of a contemplative life, of whom Christ said: “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world that also which she hath done, shall be told for a memory of her” (Matt., xxvi, 13); the virgins and martyrs: Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Catherine, and Anastasia the Younger; and in conclusion all the holy virgins and widows; all the holy men and women.
The second part of the litany begins with another cry of “Be merciful to us, spare us O Lord; Be merciful to us, graciously hear us O Lord”. We then enumerate the ills from which we hope to be delivered: From all evils; from sin; the wrath of God; sudden and un-provided death; the snares of the devil; anger, hatred, and all ill will; the spirit of fornication; lightning and tempest; the scourge of earthquake; plague, famine, and war; from everlasting death. To make our prayers more effective, we present to Christ all that He did for us through the mystery of the Incarnation, through His coming, nativity, baptism and holy fasting, cross and passion, death and burial, holy resurrection, admirable ascension, the coming of the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and we conclude by the petition, “In the day of judgment, O Lord, deliver us.”
In the third part we humbly acknowledge our unworthiness: “We, sinners, beseech Thee, hear us”, and add the list of favors that we wish to obtain: that the Lord spare us; pardon us; and bring us to true penance; that He govern and preserve His holy Church; preserve our Apostolic prelate, and all orders of the Church, in holy religion; humble the enemies of the Church; give peace and true concord to Christian kings and princes; peace and unity to Christian nations; strengthen and preserve us in His holy service; raise our minds to heavenly desires; reward with eternal good all our benefactors; deliver us, our brethren, kinsfolk, and benefactors, from eternal damnation; give and preserve the fruits of the earth; and grant eternal rest to the faithful departed. We ask all this in calling upon the Son of God, thrice invoking the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We repeat the “Kyrie”, as in the beginning, and add the prayer taught by Christ Himself, the Our Father. Then follow psalm lxix, “O God, come to my assistance”, etc., and a number of verses, responses, and prayers, renewing the former petitions. We conclude with an earnest request to be heard, and an appeal for the faithful departed.
Three forms of the Litany of the Saints are at present in liturgical use. The form given above is prescribed by the Roman Ritual at the laying of the cornerstone of a new church, at the blessing or reconciliation of the same or of a cemetery, in the rite of blessing the people and fields in virtue of a special papal indult, for the major and minor Rogation Days, in the procession and prayers to obtain rain or fine weather, to avert storms and tempests, in time of famine or war, to escape mortality or in time of pestilence, in any tribulation, during the translation of relics, in solemn exorcisms of the possessed, and at the Forty Hours’ Devotion. The Roman Pontifical, besides the occasions given in the Ritual, orders its recitation in the conferring of major orders, in the consecration of a bishop, benediction of an abbot or abbess, consecration of virgins, coronation of a king or queen, consecration of a church, expulsion and readmission of public penitents on Maundy Thursday, and in the “Ordo ad Synodum”.
Another form is given in the Roman Missal for Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Pentecost. It is an abbreviation of the other. Each verse and response must be duplicated in this litany and in that chanted on Rogation Days (S. R. C., 3993, ad 4).
A third form is in the “Commendatio” of the Roman Ritual, in which the invocations and supplications are specially chosen to benefit the departing soul about to appear before its Maker (Holzhey, “Thekla-Akten”, 1905, 93). This and the preceding form may not be used on other occasions (S. R. C., 2709, ad 1).
Formerly it was customary to invoke only classes of saints, then individual names were added, and in many places local saints were added (Rock, “The Church of Our Fathers”, London, 1903, 182; “Manuale Lincopense”, Paderborn, 1904, 71). To obtain uniformity, changes and additions to the approved were forbidden (S. R. C., 2093, 3236, 3313).