Invoking Mary – The Litany of Loreto

Recourse to Mary through the centuries began in the post-apostolic age.  The most ancient prayer which we know – the Sub Tuum Praesidium – seeks refuge under Mary’s protection.  Over time, as devotion to God’s Mother – the Church confirmed her as Theotokos, God Bearer, Mother of God, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 –  grew and her power of intercession was more widely recognised, so the prayers which the faithful employed reflected that piety.  Such a piety, if it is to be seen as genuine, reflects the Church’s understanding and theology. 

One of the most enduring examples of this deep movement of the faithful in prayer aligned to the Church’s vision of Mary is found in the Litany of Loreto.  Although its exact origins are somewhat shrouded in uncertainty the litany was commonly prayed in the Middle Ages on Saturdays at the shrine of Our Lady in Loreto, at the site of the holy house, and was given formal approval by Pope Sixtus V in 1587.  Since then it has gained a popularity which might reasonably be said to be universal.

The text of the litany follows.  It is structured in such a way as to encourage use by groups, with a leader announcing each invocation and the people responding appropriately.  That said, it can easily, and very fittingly, be used by individuals in private prayer.  Over time some additional invocations have found their way into the overall litany – Pope St John Paul II added that which invoke Mary as Queen of families.

The Litany of Loreto

V. Lord, have mercy.

R. Christ, have mercy.

V. Lord, have mercy. Christ, hear us.

R. Christ graciously hear us.

God the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.

God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.

God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us. 

Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on us.

Holy Mary, pray for us. 

Holy Mother of God, pray for us. 

Holy Virgin of Virgins, [etc.]

Mother of Christ, 

Mother of divine grace,

Mother most pure,

Mother most chaste,

Mother inviolate,

Mother undefiled,

Mother most amiable,

Mother most admirable,

Mother of good Counsel,

Mother of our Creator,

Mother of our Saviour,

Virgin most prudent,

Virgin most venerable,

Virgin most renowned,

Virgin most powerful,

Virgin most merciful,

Virgin most faithful,

Mirror of justice,

Seat of wisdom,

Cause of our joy,

Spiritual vessel,

Vessel of honor,

Singular vessel of devotion,

Mystical rose,

Tower of David,

Tower of ivory,

House of gold,

Ark of the Covenant,

Gate of Heaven,

Morning star,

Health of the sick,

Refuge of sinners,

Comforter of the afflicted,

Help of Christians,

Queen of Angels,

Queen of Patriarchs,

Queen of Prophets,

Queen of Apostles,

Queen of Martyrs,

Queen of Confessors,

Queen of Virgins,

Queen of all Saints,

Queen conceived without original sin,

Queen assumed into heaven,

Queen of the most holy Rosary,

Queen of families,

Queen of peace,

V. Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,

R. Spare us, O Lord. 

V. Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,

R. Graciously hear us, O Lord. 

V. Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world,

Have mercy on us.

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.

R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray. Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord God, that we thy servants may enjoy perpetual health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of blessed Mary, ever Virgin, may we be freed from present sorrow, and rejoice in eternal happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen

Three specific titles dominate: Mother, Virgin and Queen.  In a sense, they sum up the vocation of Mary, both in her earthly life and in eternal life.  As Mother, she is first and foremost called to this role from before time began and as that essential element of God’s plan of salvation whereby the Word will take flesh.  The figure of ‘Mother’ is exalted in Mary – John Paul II, speaking about John’s description of Calvary in his Gospel, comments:

“Jesus highlights a new relationship between Mother and Son, the whole truth and reality of which he solemnly confirms.  One can say that if Mary’s motherhood of the human race had already been outlined, now it is clearly stated and established.  It emerges from the definitive accomplishment of the Redeemer’s Paschal Mystery.  The Mother of Christ, who stands at the very centre of this mystery – a mystery which embraces each individual and all humanity – is given as mother to every single individual and mankind.  The man at the foot of the Cross is John, “the disciple whom he loved”.  But it is not he alone.  Following tradition, the Second Vatican Council does not hesitate to call Mary “the Mother of Christ and the Mother of mankind”: since she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all human beings….  Indeed she is clearly the mother of the members of Christ…. Since she cooperated out of love so that there might be born in the Church the faithful”.  And so this ‘new motherhood of Mary’, generated by faith, is the fruit of the new love which came to definitive maturity in her at the foot of the Cross, through her sharing in the redemptive love of her Son.”

Saint John Paul II

Thus the mystery of Mary’s motherhood is extended to us, her children, through our sonship of the Father and our having Jesus as brother.  It should come naturally, then, for us to address her not merely with a title but personally, since she is to us what the title denotes, and cares for us with that same maternal instinct and devotion which she showed to Christ and which our own earthly mothers live out.  In that sense she rightly listens to our prayers and petitions, and presents them to Christ – she is at one with all her children.

The invocations admirably illustrate this: after those which set her aside in her maternal vocation from all other mothers, she is the one who is heath and refuge, comforter and help.  She knows her children’s needs and accompanies them with her prayers. 

In her virginity Mary also lives out the mystery which surrounds the Incarnation.  In the first place it is the gracious gift of God which preserves her for the wonderful intervention of the Spirit by which the Word will take flesh – to speak of Mary as Virgin Mother is to see at once both sides of the mystery which she lives and which defines her for us.  Her virginity describes the work of God in her and so is not and cannot merely be a physical reality.  Circumscribed in her flesh and person it transcends earthly definition to be a fitting context in which mystery is revealed.  The titles given Mary in this section of the litany reflect this, both the purity of her state and the purity of the mystery which enfolds her.

Then follow titles which stand alone and are embedded in images taken, for the most part, from Sacred Scripture, principally from the Old Testament, and associated with Mary traditionally.  They remind us that all of Scripture speaks to us of the mystery of Christ, and that indeed Sacred Scripture is but a single Word, the eternal Word.  Mary is always associated with the reality of the Word and the mystery of redemption and salvation which he fulfills in obedience to the Father’s will.  Her service of this plan is also the fullness of her vocation – in this she leads us in humility and discipleship to do the same.

Mary’s queenship is never confused in Catholic devotion – she is placed at Christ’s side not as an equal but rather as that most perfect of creatures, preserved without stain of original sin, and so occupying a unique place in the Father’s design.  The litany mirrors this perfectly – it associates Mary with all the other ranks of the saints and blesseds, of which she is one, and among whom she occupies the first place, by being the one who was always full of grace.  The litany is itself an aid for a meditation on all those men and women who, by their lives lived in the sanctifying grace of God’s strength, have given perfect witness to the Gospel in their following of Christ, and who lead and strengthen us, their brothers and sisters in the flesh and the faith – patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all those saints, known to us by name, and those known to God alone, who witness to truth in the world.  Mary, Queen, Virgin and Mother, leads us in adoration of the Triune God.

We might leave the last words to St Bernard:

“In the sun is intense heat and abiding splendour; in the moon, splendour alone and it is altogether changeable and uncertain, never staying one phase.  Justly, then, is Mary said to be clothed with the sun: she has penetrated the profoundest depths of divine wisdom – even beyond what can be believed; as far as her condition as a created being allows without personal union she seems to be bathed in that light inaccessible.  By that intense fire are the lips of the prophets cleansed and by that fire do the seraphim blaze.  Mary – far differently – deserved not merely to be touched, but to be covered, to be embraced – as it were – to be enclosed by fire.  So may we regard the glistering – yes, and the blistering – clothing of this woman, whose every quality shines so brightly that there can be no hint – I say not – of any darkness, but not even of any dimness or faint light, no lukewarmness, nor anything save utterly luminous brightness”.

St Bernard of Clairvaux

-Part of our ‘Mary Most Holy’ series-

Other posts…

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