In the Eastern Church litanies are always a part of the official liturgy, and they have at least three different forms: Synaptae (Collect), Ektenie ("intense" prayer of intercession and pardon based in part on Psalm 50)and Aitaesis (intercessory prayer for peace, pardon and protection). Marian litanies are numerous in the Eastern church and may cover a multitude of themes, some dogmatic, others of moral and patriotic character.
In the liturgy of the Western Church the word litany is derived from the Latin litania, meaning prayer of invocation or intercession. It also meant, up to the twelfth century, a procession with intercessory character, also known under the designation of rogation.
The only approved Marian litany in the Western Church is the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as the Litany of Loreto, for its first-known place of origin, the Shrine of Our Lady of Loreto, Italy, where its usage was recorded as early as 1558. The Litany of Loreto was approved in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V.
The earliest known genuine text of a Marian litany is in a 12th-century codex in the Mainz Library, with the title Letania de domina nostra Dei genitrice virgine Maria: oratio valde bona: cottidie pro quacumque tribulatione recitanda est.
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 prayers 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 13th or the beginning of the 14th century. It is found, though 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, Beauty 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 15th century. An incunabulum of the Casanatensian Library in Rome, which contains the Venice litanies referred to above, introduces them with the following words: "Oraciones devote contra imminentes tribulaciones et contra pestem". 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 15th century; but in the following century we find them prescribed, as being an ancient custom, in the ceremonials of St. Mark's, and they were henceforth retained until after the fall of the republic, i.e., until 1820.
In the second half of the 15th 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.
Before going further, it may be well to say a few words on the composition of the litanies we have been considering. With regard to their content, which consists mainly of praises of the Blessed Virgin, it would seem to have been taken not so much from the Scriptures and the Fathers, at least directly, as from popular medieval Latin poetry. To be convinced of this, it suffices to glance through the Daniel and Mone collections, and especially through the "Analectica Hymnica medii ævi" of DrevesBlume. In the earlier and longer litanies whole rhythmic strophes are to be found, taken bodily from such poetry, and employed as praises of the Blessed Virgin. 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 8th 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 15th 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 15th-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.
Now there are many similar examples in which the litany consists of praises alone without the repetition of the "Sancta Maria", and in which arrangement and form come nearer and nearer to the Litany of Loreto. Such are: (1) a litany in a manuscript of the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome (formerly, No. 392; second half of the 15th century; fol. 123). Except for light variants, it is identical with one printed at Venice in 1561, and another printed at Capri in 1503; (2) a litany found in a manuscript missal of the 16th century; (3) a litany printed at Venice in two different editions of the "Officium B. Virginis" in 1513 and 1545; (4) a litany found in a codex of the "Compagnia della Concezione di Maria SS." of Fiorenzuola d'Arda (Piacenza), founded in 1511; (5) a litany found in a codex of the priory of Sts. Philip and James, Apostles, at Montegranaro, in which the baptisms during the years 1548-58 are recorded. This litany is the shortest of all and the closest in similarity to that of Loreto.
This form of litany was widely circulated, both in script and in print, during the 16th century. A comparison of the texts will show that they contain the praises in the Loreto Litany, with two exceptions: the "Virgo prudentissima" of the Loreto Litany is found as "Virgo prudens", and the "Auxilium christianorum", though it appears in no text before this time, is, as remarked above, an easy variant of the litany of 1524. So far no MS. of the Loreto Litany has been discovered, but it cannot be doubted that it is nothing more than a happy arrangement of a text belonging to the last group. And, moreover, it may be laid down as probable that the Loreto text became customary in the Holy House towards the close of the 15th 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.
- Sauren claims that the first and oldest Marian litany is a pious laus to the Virgin in the Leabhar Breac, a 14th-century manuscript, now in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, and written "in the purest style of Gaedhlic", according to O'Curry, who explained its various parts. This laus of 59 eulogies on the Virgin occurs on fol. 121, and O'Curry calls it a litania, attributing it at the latest to about the middle of the 8th century. But it has not at all the form of a lintany, being rather a sequence of fervent praises, like so many that occur in the writings of the Fathers, especially after the 4th century. As a matter of fact, Dr. Sicking has shown that the entire laus of the "Leabhar Breac" is copied almost word for word from the first and third of the "Sermones Dubii" of St. Ildephonsus.
- The greatest Marian prayers: their history, meaning, and usage by Anthony M. Buono 1999 ISBN 0-8189-0861-0
- University of Ohio Marian Litanies