The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
is a Marian litany
originally approved in 1587
by Pope Sixtus V
. It is 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 contains many of the titles used formally and informally for the Virgin Mary, and would often be recited as a question and response chant in a group setting.
The litany is called Litaniae lauretanae in Latin. Many classical composers, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have written Litaniae lauretanae.
It was approved by the Catholic Church in 1587.
Despite the fact that, from the seventeenth century onwards, the Litany of Loreto has been the subject of endless panegyrics and ascetical writings, there is a great lack of documentary evidence concerning its origin, the growth and development of the litany into the forms under which we know it, and as it was for the first time definitely approved by the Catholic Church in the year 1587. Some writers declare that they know nothing of its origin and history; others, on the contrary, trace it back to the translation of the Holy House
(1294); others, to Pope Sergius I
(687); others, again, to Gregory the Great
or to the 5th century; while others go as far back as the earliest ages of the Church, and even Apostolic times. Historical criticism, however, proves it to be of more recent origin, and shows that it was composed during the early years of the 16th century or the closing years of the 15th.
The most ancient printed copy hitherto discovered is that of Dillingen in Germany, dating from 1558; it is fairly certain that this is a copy of an earlier, but, by the time of writing of the Catholic Encyclopedia, the oldest known Italian copy dates from 1576.
The Dillingen copy
The litany was probably published and circulated in Germany by Blessed Canisius
. The Dillingen copy is entitled: Letania Loretana. Ordnung der Letaney von unser lieben Frawen wie sie zu Loreto alle Samstag gehalten
("Order of the Litany of Our Lady as said every Saturday at Loreto"). The text is just the same as we have it today, except that it has Mater piissima
and Mater mirabilis
, where we have Mater purissima
and Mater admirabilis
. Further, the invocations Mater creatoris
and Mater salvatoris
are wanting, though this must be due to some oversight of the editor, since they are found in every manuscript of this group; on the other hand, the Auxilium christianorum
is introduced though it does not occur in the other texts. We find this title in a Litany of Loreto printed in 1558. As already shown in the writer's book on this subject, Pope Pius V could not have introduced the invocation "Auxilium christianorum
in 1571 after the Battle of Lepanto, as stated in the sixth lesson of the Roman Breviary for the feast of S. Maria Auxiliatrix (24 May); and to this conclusion the Dillingen text adds indisputable evidence.
The Litany of Loreto had taken root at Loreto, and was being spread throughout the world, when it ran the grave risk of being lost forever. Pius V
by Motu Proprio
of 20 March, 1571, published 5 April, had prohibited all existing offices of the B. V. Mary, disapproving in general all the prayers therein, and substituting a new Officium B. Virginis
without those prayers and consequently without any litany. It would seem that this action on the part of the pope led the clergy of Loreto to fear that the text of their litany was likewise prohibited. At all events, in order to keep up the old time custom of singing the litany every Saturday in honour of the Blessed Virgin, a new text was drawn up containing praises drawn directly from the Scriptures, and usually applied to the Bl. Virgin in the Liturgy of the Church. This new litany was set to music by the choirmaster of the Basilica of Loreto, Costanzo Porta, and printed at Venice in 1575. It is the earliest setting to music of a Marian litany that we know of. In the following year (1576) these Scriptural litanies were printed in two different handbooks for the use of pilgrims. In both they bear the title: Litaniæ deipare Virginis ex Sacra Scriptura depromptæ quæ in alma Domo lauretana omnibus diebus Sabbathi, Vigiliarum et Festorum decantari solent
. But in the second handbook, the work of Bernardine Cirillo, archpriest of Loreto, the old text of the litany is also printed, though with the plainer title, Aliæ Litaniæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis
, a clear sign that it was not quite forgotten.
On 5 Feb., 1578, the archdeacon of Loreto, Giulio Candiotti, sent to Pope Gregory XIII the Laudi o lettanie moderne della sma Vergine, cavate dalla sacra Scrittura (New praises or litanies of the most holy Virgin, drawn from Sacred Scripture), with Porta's music and the text apart, expressing the wish that His Holiness would cause it to be sung in St. Peter's and in other churches as was the custom at Loreto. The pope's reply is not known, but we have the opinion of the theologian to whom the matter was referred, in which the composition of the new litany is praised, but which does not judge it opportune to introduce it into Rome or into church use on the authority of the pope, all the more because Pius V "in reforming the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin completely abolished, among other things, some proper litanies of the Blessed Virgin which existed in the old [office], and which (if I remember rightly) were somewhat similar to these". The judgment concludes that the litany might be sung at Loreto as a devotion proper to this shrine, and if others wanted to adopt it they might do so by way of private devotion.
This attempt having failed, the Scriptural litany straightway began to lose favour, and the Loreto text was once more resumed. In another manual for pilgrims, published by Angelita in that same year 1578, the Scriptural litany is omitted, and the old Loreto text appears with the title: Letanie che si cantano nella Santa Casa di Loreto ogni Sabbato et feste delle Madonna. In a new edition (1584) of Angelita's book, the Scriptural litany is restored but relegated to a secondary position, though included under the title Altre letanie che si cantano, etc. From this it is clear that for a time both litanies were in use at Loreto. But in subsequent editions of Angelita's manual, and in other manuals of devotion, the Scriptural litany is printed with the bare title "Litaniæ ex S. Scriptura depromptæ", until the seventeenth century when it disappears altogether. Meanwhile, thanks to Angelita's manuals, the Loreto text was introduced elsewhere, and even reached Rome, when Sixtus V, who had entertained a singular devotion for Loreto, by the Bull "Reddituri" of 11 July, 1587, gave formal approval to it, as to the litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, and recommended preachers everywhere to propagate its use among the faithful.
On the strength of this impulse given to the Litany of Loreto, certain ascetical writers began to publish a great number of litanies in honour of the Saviour, the B. Virgin, and the saints, often ill-advised and containing expressions theologically incorrect, so that Pope Clement VIII had promulgated (6 Sept., 1601) a severe decree of the Holy Office, which, while upholding the litanies contained in the liturgical books as well as the Litany of Loreto, prohibited the publication of new litanies, or use of those already published in public worship, without the approbation of the Congregation of Rites.
At Rome the Litany of Loreto was introduced into the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore by Cardinal Francesco Toledo in 1597; and Paul V, in 1613, ordered it to be sung in that church, morning and evening, on Saturdays and on vigils and feasts of the Madonna. As a result of this example the Loreto Litany began to be used, and is still largely used, in all the churches of Rome. The Dominicans, at their general chapter held at Bologna in 1615, ordered it to be recited in all the convents of their order after the Office on Saturdays at the end of the customary "Salve Regina". Before this they had caused the invocation "Regina sacratissimi rosarii" to be inserted in the litany, and it appears in print for the first time in a Dominican Breviary dated 1614, as has been pointed out by Father Walsh, O.P., in "The Tablet", 24 Oct., 1908. Although by decree of 1631, and by Bull of Alexander VII (1664), it was strictly forbidden to make any additions to the litanies, another decree of the Congregation of Rites, dated 1675, permitted the Confraternity of the Rosary to add the invocation "Regina sacratissimi rosarii", and this was prescribed for the whole Church by Leo XIII (24 Dec., 1883). By decree of 22 April, 1903, the same pope added the invocation "Mater boni consilii", which, under the form of "Mater veri consilii", was contained in the Marian litany used for centuries in St. Mark's Venice, as indicated above. In 1766 Clement XIII granted Spain the privilege of adding after "Mater intemerata" the invocation "Mater immaculata", which is still customary in Spain, notwhthstanding the addition of "Regina sine labe originali concepta". This last invocation was originally granted by Pius IX to the Bishop of Mechlin in 1846, and, after the definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), the congregation by various rescripts authorized many dioceses to make a like addition, so that in a short time it became the universal practice.
In form, the Litany of Loreto is composed on a fixed plan common to several Marian litanies
already in existence during the second half of the 15th century, which in turn are connected with a notable series of Marian litanies that began to appear in the twelfth century and became numerous in the 13th and 14th. The Loreto text had, however, the good fortune to be adopted in the famous shrine, and in this way to become known, more than any other, to the many pilgrims who flocked there during the 16th century. The text was brought home to the various countries of Christendom, and finally it received for all time the supreme ecclesiastical sanction.