Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Litany of the Saints: Order & Beauty Revealed

One of the most moving points during an ordination is when the ordinandi lay prostrate at the foot of the altar offering their lives in service to the People of God. During this period, the Bishop, priests, deacons, seminarians, religious and lay faithful, pray to God  for the ordinandi by chanting the Litany of the Saints. The reasoning is so they might be strengthened by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the task(s) that is(are) being set before them.

The moment (which lasted a little over eight minutes for mine) is solemn. It is a profound sung silence. It is a moment, when through prayer, it would seem that eternity and time both are in snych with each other. For the wives, it is here where the impact of the commitment and the reality of ordination suddenly rushes in upon them.

It is the moment most people remember. It is also the moment that brings about the most questions. The most frequent question afterward is, “How do you decide the organization of the Litany.” And, is there a definite organization. So, I thought we would examine the deep beauty and organization of the Litany of the Saints.

Introduction to a Litany

Fr. John Hardon, S.J. in his Modern Catholic Dictionary proposes a very helpful description and definition of the Litany of the Saints:

Believed to be the most ancient of the litanies used in the Church. Already prescribed by Pope Gregory the Great in 590 for a public procession of thanksgiving at the end of a plague that had devastated Rome. In a somewhat different form, it was mentioned by St. Basil in the fourth century. Called the Litany of the Saints because it is made up of petitions addressed to various saints of different classes, and to Mary, the Queen of the Saints. In its present form, after invoking forty-eight individual saints and thirteen groups of saints, the litany begs for deliverance from a dozen evils and makes some thirty intercessions, including “that you would deign to humble the enemies of Holy Church” and “grant peace and unity to all Christian people.

Litany of the Saints: General Organization

Immediately in the description, one can see that in general, there is a definite organization:

  • Invocation of the Blessed Trinity
  • Invocation of Mary, Queen of Saints
  • Invocation of forty-eight individual saints organized into thirteen groups
  • Intercession against about twelve human deprivations or evils
  • Intercession for thirty needs or areas that require grace
  • Intercession for unity of mind and heart manifested through peace among the People of God

Litany of the Saints: Particular Organization

Litanies always open with the Kyrie Eleison formula directly addressed to the Blessed Trinity. The invocation is for the Godhead to grant grace and mercy to those praying the litany. Immediately following is the invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a highlight upon the title, Queen of All Saints. Sometimes in the abbreviated form we only hear Mary, Mother of God. Naturally, her angelic court is addressed prior to the company of saints.

Hierarchy of the Saints of God

The organization is done by categories with internal ecclesial hierarchical rankings:

  1. Apostles
  2. Evangelists
  3. Disciples
  4. Commemoration of the Holy Innocents
  5. Martyrs (St. Stephan the proto-martyr is first)
  6. Confessors arranged by their rank in life
    1. Popes
    2. Doctors
    3. Bishops
    4. Abbots
    5. Priests
    6. Monks
  7. Virgins

The most interesting section of the litany is the Confessors. This section typically includes the patron(s) of the diocesan and local Church, founders of orders, local saints and even former bishops of the diocese who are unknown outside the immediate area. St. Sylvester is usually the first saint named within the Confessors, except when the local patron is placed on top. During the Diocese of Arlington Diaconate ordination, all the patron parish saints were included in this section for the ordiandi. Unfortunately, the hierarchy is not strictly followed, not to mention abbreviated forms for the sake of time, which contributes to confusion.

Following the patrons come the Fathers of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Jerome), then bishops and so forth. In some litanies the confessors section is divided into two sections in accordance to their rank:

  1. Bishops and priests (top section)
  2. Monks and hermits (bottom section)

Last but not least are the Virgins. Of interest, are the virtues who later began saints: Faith, Hope and Charity – daughters of St. Sophia.

If you attend enough liturgies where the litany is chanted or recited you will notice the great variety. Even with the variety there is always an intrinsic unity found in the structure. If you are looking for absolute lack of deviation you will have to go to parishes run by the Order of Preachers (Dominicans). They have mandated and regularized the Litany of Saints within their own territories and order.

The Litany of the Saints is a beautiful prayer to remind us of the unity with the family of God who have gone before us. We should every once in a while break in out and pray it with our families and friends. It is a good reminder that not only are we not alone but,

since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us cast aside every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us (Hebrews 12:1)

All holy men and women of God…ora pro nobis!

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