There is something both ancient and very beautiful about Catholic litanies.
The word ‘litany’ comes from the Greek and means ‘petition’ or ‘supplication’. Litanies have been used for a very long time in Catholic prayer and devotion. I suspect that in some respects they are probably not as popular now as they once were, when they formed the core of any number of public devotions and it was certain they would be uttered at various Church services. These days, it may be that they most commonly find a home in private devotion.
Perhaps one of the litanies which remains in reasonably common use is that of the ‘Divine Praises’, used at Benediction, even if we might not think of this as a litany in the more accepted sense of the word.
Prayer can be easy at some points but harder at others; and when this is the case, I find that Litanies allow me to lose myself in the words already set out, letting them echo within my heart. Each invocation allows a brief moment of meditation on what it is I am actually praying, which I find helpful.
I have a practice of praying a particlar litany on a regular basis, the choice of which one depending on the season or on the occurrence of particular feasts. A month or two back, it was the Litany of St Joseph; in May, it was the Litany of Loreto; and this month, it has been the Litany of the Sacred Heart. I tend to stick with a particular Litany and pray it daily – this way, I find that I become very familiar with it and the daily repetition allows the words I am praying to really sink in, so that it takes on a deeper and more tangible meaning for me.
In many ways, the praying of various Litanies takes me back to earlier years, where this was more commonly done that it seems to be at the moment. I can remember numerous services where one of the Litanies would be prayed, most often the Litany of Loreto. I always thought the titles given to the Blessed Virgin in this Litany were very beautiful. I wondered where each of them had come from and why they were included – as the years passed, I gradually discovered the stories behind some of those titles and this gave them greater impact for me. Most recently, of course, our Holy Father Pope Francis has added several new invocations to the Litany of Loreto (for example, ‘Solace of migrants, pray for us’), all of which are both pertinent and significant in our day.
Looking around, I see that there are any number of new Litanies available these days – such as the Litany of Humility – and some of them are beautiful; but I seem to stick with the older ones, perhaps because these are more familar to me, as though they were old friends. Which, of course, they are.