Liturgy of the Catholic Church

Liturgy and Para-Liturgical Celebrations

Why No Litanies at a Wedding

And More on Masses for the Living and the Dead

ROME, JUNE 19, 2007 ( Answered by Legionary Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: When can litanies be used? Can they be adapted into liturgical celebrations that do not, as such, call for it? Why are they used and for what purpose? The litany is used during baptism, ordination, during blessings and consecrations of places (churches) and people, during the Easter Vigil, etc. The specific situation I am referring to is during a marriage. A marriage is a key moment in a couple’s life and they take on a distinctive vocation. I understand the litany is used to recognize, to call on the saints to pray for those being ordained or professed as religious, but the rite does not provide for the litany during the marriage ceremony. If there is one vocation which needs the explicit assistance of the saints, then I think it would be the married vocation. It seems odd that at each of the other major points in a person’s life, the litany is sung, but not at the wedding. Would it be appropriate to include a litany of the saints during the rite of a marriage? As the litany could include the formula for the general intercessions, would you see it appropriate to replace the general intercessions with the litany of the saints? — J.M., Sydney, Australia

A: The litany (from the Greek “lite,” or prayer) was a simple and popular form of collective prayer which in the early Church was used before the dismissal of catechumens who could not assist at the prayers of the faithful. Usually a deacon or reader would enumerate a series of simple petitions and the people would respond with a phrase such as “Pray for us.”

The origin of the litanic prayer is obscure, and forms of this prayer existed also in Jewish and pagan culture. There is early evidence of the use of the litanic form of prayer in Rome from before the year 225.

The litany of saints is divided into two elements: the invocation of a list of saints, and a series of invocations addressed directly to God which are almost certainly much older that the list of saints.

While the practice of a short list of saints written in Greek may have begun in Rome under Pope Sergius (687-701), it would appear that the litany as we know it today developed in eighth-century Ireland and England from whence they returned to continental Europe a hundred years or so later.

While the litany is found in several various rites, this did not conform to a set plan. Rather, it developed independently in each rite over a different time scale, the earliest evidence of its use being for the baptismal liturgy.

Their essential function is to implore the saints’ intercession and God’s protection before a particular moment or rite of special significance. They are also sometimes used in processions; for example, a special litany of the saints sometimes accompanies the entrance procession for some especially significant and solemn papal celebrations.

The rite of marriage probably never had a litany because the fixing of the essential lines of this rite antedates the introduction of the litany by several centuries.

While the idea of introducing a litany within the context of a wedding is not without merit, it would not be correct to independently replace the prayer of the faithful for a litany of the saints, as this would alter the established rite of Christian marriage.

Since marriage is one of those rites where the bishops’ conference enjoys fairly wide leeway in adapting to local needs, it would not be unthinkable for a particular national conference to propose to the Holy See the introduction of some form of litany.

There would be no particular difficulty, however, in including some form of petition to the saints within the context of the prayer of the faithful. For example, a petition could ask something like: “For N. and N., that they may imitate in their lives those saints who have been sanctified in the married state, especially Sts. Priscilla and Aquila, Sts. N. and N., etc., whose intercession we also invoke this day.”

* * *

Follow-up: Masses for the Living and the Dead

Some readers responded to the question (June 5) on whether Mass offered for the living was more efficacious than that offered for the dead.

A meticulous reader did an online search for the supposed quotes of St. Anselm and Pope Benedict XV and turned up several pages that all provided the same quotes, including the same grammatical errors: “A great Doctor of the Church, St. Anselm declares that a single Mass offered for oneself during life may be worth more than a thousand celebrated for the same intention after death,” and “Pope Benedict XV tells us, ‘The Holy Mass would be of greater profit if people had it offered in their lifetime rather than having it celebrated for the relief of their souls after death. … The fruits of the Sacrifice of the Mass are in effect much greater efficacy [sic] during one’s life than after one’s death because the application which is made to those well-disposed among the living is more direct, more certain and more abundant.'”

As our reader points out, none of these sites provide bibliographical references to the sources of these quotes. And an electronic search of St. Anselm’s works failed to find any text corresponding to the supposed quote.

This does not prove that the quotes are false, nor that they are doctrinally groundless. But it does remind us to be wary of uncritically using the Internet as a source of knowledge, and to always attempt to verify our sources.

A correspondent from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, asked: “Several people have told me that having Mass offered for a living person is ‘more efficacious’ than if that person attended Mass himself. How would you respond to this statement? I would think that attending the holy sacrifice of the Mass oneself, if not prevented by some serious reason such as poor health, would be more efficacious.”

In general we should avoid focusing the question of the efficacy of a Mass in such a way that reduces, commodifies or limits the infinite efficaciousness of Christ’s holy sacrifice.

It is like asking which is more efficacious, driving oneself or having someone drive for you? In the end the important thing is reaching your destination.

God’s granting of grace cannot be standardized. Whether a person receives more spiritual benefit from attending Mass or from having someone offering a Mass for him depends on a plethora of factors ranging from God’s liberality to the person’s subjective willingness to correspond to the gift of grace.

If any difference might be found it is that, for Catholics, attending Mass (unless legitimately impeded) is a necessary means of spiritual progress and even a necessary means of salvation. Having Mass offered for one, however, does not enjoy the same degree of necessity and some people could even reach sanctity even if nobody ever remembered to offer a Mass for their benefit.


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