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The Litany of the Saints

A litany, from the Latin litania, in turn from the Greek lite, meaning prayer or supplication, is structured as a series of short invocations with a common theme. The model for litanies is Psalm 136 which is, for the most part, a recasting of Psalm 135 in the litany format. In the psalm, a large part (136: 4-25) is comprised of a listing of various actions the Lord has taken. It serves as praise for the Lord's actions from Genesis to the then current state of Israel's history. For each line of the psalm, there is a repeated ending: "God's love endures forever" (as used in the New American Bible; in other translations: "for his mercy endures forever"). Among the listed actions, the psalm notes that God "has done great wonders, skillfully made the heavens, spread the earth upon the waters, made the great lights…struck down the firstborn of Egypt, led Israel from their midst…swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea, led the people through the desert, struck down great kings…freed us from our foes, and gives food to all flesh." This psalm has an introduction (136: 1-3) indicating that it is spoken to praise Him:

Praise the Lord, who is so good; God's love endures forever;
Praise the God of gods; God's love endures forever;
Praise the Lord of lords; God's love endures forever;

And, it has an ending that ties into the beginning (136: 26):

"Praise the God of heaven, God's love endures forever."

Litanies may be about God, as in this psalm, or be prayers directed to God (and may be specified as being specifically to, or about, Jesus), or they may be about or directed to others to whom we give homage and pray, especially the saints, of which Mary is the most frequently invoked. Some litanies are devoted to particular liturgical celebrations, such as Lent. Most litanies have the structure of an introduction, then one or more groups of virtues or designations or prayers, and an ending. However, shorter litanies may dispense with the introduction or ending.

When used liturgically, the litany typically involves a cantor providing the start of each element of prayer and the congregation completing it; entire segments of the prayer form may involve the congregation simply repeating the same phrase (as in Psalm 136 above). This is comparable in its nature to the "prayer of the faithful" in which the priest, deacon, or lector states the prayer, which varies but may entail a particular topic, and the congregation answers with "Lord hear our prayer" (or similar response). A few litanies may not incorporate this pattern of responses, but will still be characterized by a repetitive phrase, so that each litany has, as one of its qualities, many repetitions. A New Testament model for this repetition is the Beatitudes (Matthew 5), with the repeated "Blessed are they who…"

Litanies that have had their words recorded number in the hundreds. A list of 190 litanies (at time of this writing), including the words for each, is available at the Catholic Doors Ministry web site:

There are currently six litanies that are approved for public prayer in the Catholic Church:

Litany of Saints
Litany of Loreto (Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Litany of St. Joseph
Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus
Litany of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Of these, the Litany of the Saints is the oldest, said to have originated around 595, when it was used by St. Gregory the Great (lived 540-604; Pope from 590-604). This litany was introduced following efforts to formalize the use of litanies in the Church. For example, at the Synod of Iaris (573) litanies were ordered to be held for three days at the beginning of Lent. In 590 Pope Gregory was moved by the occurrence of a great pestilence that followed an inundation, and ordered a Litania Septiformis ("sevenfold procession"): clergy; laity; monks; virgins; matrons; widows; and the poor and children. It was in one of these Litania Septiformis, in celebration of the end of the plague, that the Litany of the Saints was introduced. Later, the Fifth Synod of Toledo (636) instituted the recitation of litanies for three days from December 14.

The Litany of the Saints is the one that is routinely integrated into the modern liturgy, always used at the Easter Vigil and during ordinations, often used on Rogation days (the 25th of April, said to have been introduced also by Gregory the Great, and the three days before the feast of the Ascension), ceremonies involving laying the cornerstone of a new church or consecrating the completed church, and in special situations (such as at the funeral of the Pope, see stories below). Privately, this litany is prayed any time one wishes, but is especially prayed after sundown on All Saints' Day in preparation for All Souls' Day, and on All Souls' Day itself.

At the time this litany was introduced, there was no formal process for declaration of sainthood; the martyrs and early Church fathers were considered saints, as were other individuals who were venerated by popular attraction to their lives and accomplishments. Gregory I relied primarily on the martyrs buried at the Catacombs of Callistus (see Appendix 3). The first comprehensive book of saints was Butler's Lives of the Saints, published around 1756 and it had 1,486 entries. Two hundred years later (1956 revision), there were 2,565 listed. Today, there are over 3,000; Pope John Paul II canonized 470 saints. Thus, any litany of saints is selective.

The Litany of the Saints has an introduction and then mentions saints in the following order: Mary; the angels; St. Joseph and the Patriarchs and Prophets; the Apostles and Evangelists; all the disciples of the Lord; the Holy Innocents and the glorious martyrs; the holy Bishops and Confessors (those who suffer for the faith); the holy priests and Levites; the virgins and widows; and all holy men and women. The repeated responses are: "pray for us;" "deliver us;" and "we beseech thee, hear us." The number of saints included in the Litany has grown, and the particular saints named may vary with decisions made by those composing the litany for any particular service.

The Litany of the Saints may have gained new meaning and wider recognition through its use in the funeral of John Paul II, seen and heard by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Here are parts of two stories of that event, based on hearing the Litany of the Saints (the traditional style was used, in Latin, at the Vatican event):

The Litany of the Saints as sung in Rome on April 4, 2005

There are many forms for the Litany of the Saints. Perhaps the most familiar is the abbreviated version sung before the Blessing of Water at the Easter Vigil Liturgy. This begins with a short list of saints (including the names of the baptismal candidates and their confirmation names) and various invocations….In the Order of Christian Funerals, during the Transferal of the Body from the home to the church, it is common to chant the Litany of the Saints. Part of what captivated the vast audience watching this rite from Rome was the Latin language used for the litany. As the Papal Gentlemen (from noble families in Rome) bore the body of the dead pontiff from his home (the Apostolic Palace) to the church (Saint Peter's Basilica), the Sistine Choir led the cardinals and the faithful in the Litaniæ sanctorum. What made this unusual, even to ears accustomed to hearing the litany and the Latin language, was the personalization of the text. Rather than the usual response to each saint's invocation, Ora pro nobis, meaning "Pray for us," this litany used Ora pro eo, meaning "Pray for him." Further, the list of saints was expanded to include the canonized popes, beginning with Saints Peter, Linus, and Cletus (the first three popes) and continuing through Pope Saint Pius X from the 20th century.

Litaniæ sanctorum: The Litany of the Saints
by Gary D. Penkala

Perhaps no other event in recent memory has sparked so much intense interest in the musical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as has the Transferal of the Body of Pope John Paul II from the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace to the bier in front of the High Altar in Saint Peter's Basilica. The music which aroused such attention was one of the simplest Gregorian chants: the Litany of the Saints. We at CNP received an astounding number of inquiries about this music-music which should be common in every Roman Rite parish (as part of the Easter Vigil), music which has been a normal part of processions for centuries. Here are some comments that we heard and read about the music surrounding the Holy Father's funeral rites:

APPENDIX 1: New Version of the Litany

A newly composed Litany of the Saints, by John D. Becker, successfully transforms the long solemn chant prayer in the Roman liturgy into a beautiful, melodic ritual music. It's simplicity and rhythm, as well as its shorter set of repetitions, makes it more accessible for the congregation, though some prefer the older style, which is in the nature of Gregorian chants (the traditional Litany is in Appendix 2). John Becker's version was copyrighted by the Oregon Catholic Press in 1987. In it, the saints are grouped together, and there are some slight deviations from the pattern in the older versions. Following is his wording.


John D. Becker
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Verse 1.

Mary and Joseph, pray for us.
Michael and all angels, pray for us.
Anna, Joachim, Elizabeth, pray for us.
Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist, pray for us.
Isaac, Sarah, Abraham, pray for us.
Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, pray for us.
Ruth, David and Solomon, pray for us.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, pray for us.
All you holy men and women, pray for us.

Verse 2.

Peter, Paul, Andrew, pray for us.
James, John, and all apostles, pray for us.
Mary Magdelene, Veronica, pray for us.
Barnabas, Matthias, pray for us.
Stephen, Philip, and Cornelius, pray for us.
Prisca and Aquila, pray for us.
Timothy and Titus, pray for us.
Linus, Cletus, and Clement, pray for us.
All you holy men and women, pray for us.

Verse 3.

Lawrence and Chrysogonus, pray for us.
Innocent and Boniface, pray for us.
Hippolytus and Origen, pray for us.
Athanasius and Basil, pray for us.
Felicity, Perpetua, pray for us.
Cosmos and Damien, pray for us.
John Chrysostom and Justin, pray for us.
Lucy, Agatha, and Agnes, pray for us.
All you holy men and women, pray for us.

Verse 4.

Jerome and Eusebius, pray for us.
Scholastica and Benedict, pray for us.
Ambrose, Monica, Augustine, pray for us.
Martin and Gregory, pray for us.
Clare, Francis, and Dominic, pray for us.
Francis Xavier, Ignatius, pray for us.
Elizabeth and Catherine, pray for us.
Louis and Wenceslaus, pray for us.
All you holy men and women, pray for us.

Verse 5.

Lord, be merciful, save your people.
From all evil, save your people.
From every sin, save your people.
From everlasting damn, save your people.
By your incarnation, save your people.
By your death and resurrection, save your people.
By your gift of the spirit, save your people.
Have mercy on us sinners, save your people.
Christ here us, Lord Jesus hear our prayer.

Verse 6.

Lord give new life, hear our prayer.
To his chosen, hear our prayer.
By the grace of baptism, hear our prayer.
Oh Jesus Son of the living God, hear our prayer.
Send your Spirit, hear our prayer.
In its fullness, hear our prayer.
On your sons and daughters, hear our prayer.
Who believe and profess you, hear our prayer.
Christ hear us, Lord Jesus hear our prayer.

APPENDIX 2. The Traditional Litany of the Saints

The following version is adapted from this site, which has additional information on the liturgical litanies, notes clarifying which saints are included, and the Litany of Saints in Latin:

Litany of the Saints


Lord, have mercy on us. (Lord have mercy on us.)
Christ, have mercy on us. (Christ have mercy on us.)
Lord, have mercy on us. (Lord, have mercy on us.)

Christ, hear us. (Christ, hear us.)
Christ, graciously hear us. (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 Ghost, (have mercy on us.)
Holy Trinity, one God, (have mercy on us.)

Part I. Response is: "Pray for us" (except last three lines, alternative response indicated)

Holy Mary,
Holy Mother of God,
Holy Virgin of virgins,
St. Michael,
St. Gabriel,
St. Raphael,
All ye holy Angels and Archangels,
All ye holy orders of blessed Spirits,
St. John the Baptist,
St. Joseph,
All ye holy Patriarchs and Prophets,
St. Peter,
St. Paul,
St. Andrew,
St. James,
St. John,
St. Thomas,
St. James,
St. Philip,
St. Bartholomew,
St. Matthew,
St. Simon,
St. Thaddeus,
St. Matthias,
St. Barnabas,
St. Luke,
St. Mark,
All ye holy Apostles and Evangelists,
All ye holy Disciples of the Lord,
All ye holy Innocents,
St. Stephen,
St. Lawrence,
St. Vincent,
SS. Fabian and Sebastian,
SS. John and Paul,
SS. Cosmas and Damian,
SS. Gervase and Protase,
All ye holy Martyrs,
St. Sylvester,
St. Gregory,
St. Ambrose,
St. Augustine,
St. Jerome,
St. Martin,
St. Nicholas,
All ye holy Bishops and Confessors,
All ye holy Doctors,
St. Anthony,
St. Benedict,
St. Bernard,
St. Dominic,
St. Francis,
All ye holy Priests and Levites,
All ye holy Monks and Hermits,
St. Mary Magdalen,
St. Agatha,
St. Lucy,
St. Agnes,
St. Cecilia,
St. Catherine,
St. Anastasia,
All ye holy Virgins and Widows.
All ye holy Saints of God, (Make intercession for us.)
Be merciful, (Spare us, O Lord.)
Be merciful, (Graciously hear us, O Lord.)

Part II. Response is: "Deliver us"

From all evil, O Lord
From all sin,
From Thy wrath,
From sudden and unlooked for death,
From the snares of the devil,
From anger, and hatred, and every evil will,
From the spirit of fornication,
From lightning and tempest,
From the scourge of earthquakes,
From plague, famine and war,
From everlasting death,
Through the mystery of Thy holy Incarnation,
Through Thy Coming,
Through Thy Birth,
Through Thy Baptism and holy Fasting,
Through Thy Cross and Passion,
Through Thy Death and Burial,
Through Thy holy Resurrection,
Through Thine admirable Ascension,
Through the coming of the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete.
In the day of judgment.

Part III. Response is: "We beseech thee, hear us"

We sinners,
That Thou wouldst spare us,
That Thou wouldst pardon us,
That Thou wouldst bring us to true penance,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to govern and preserve Thy holy Church,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to preserve our Apostolic Prelate, and all orders of the Church in holy religion,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to humble the enemies of holy Church,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to give peace and true concord to Christian kings and princes,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to grant peace and unity to the whole Christian world,
That Thou wouldst call back to the unity of the Church all who have strayed from her fold, and to guide all unbelievers into the light of the Gospel
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to confirm and preserve us in Thy holy service,
That Thou wouldst lift up our minds to heavenly desires,
That Thou wouldst render eternal blessings to all our benefactors,
That Thou wouldst deliver our souls, and the souls of our brethren, relations, and benefactors, from eternal damnation,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to give and preserve the fruits of the earth,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to grant eternal rest to all the faithful departed,
That Thou wouldst vouchsafe graciously to hear us,
Son of God,

Ending. Responses as indicated

Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, (spare us, O Lord.)
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, (graciously hear us, O Lord.)
Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world, (have mercy on us.)
Christ, (hear us.)
Christ, (graciously hear us.)
Lord, have mercy, (Lord, have mercy.)
Christ, have mercy, (Christ, have mercy.)
Lord, have mercy, (Lord, have mercy.)
[Our Father inaudibly] And lead us not into temptation (but deliver us from evil.)

APPENDIX 3. Litany of the Callistus (Callixtus) Catacombs Martyrs and Saints

The following is taken from:

Introductory prayer

We thank You, God Father Almighty, for giving us Brothers and Sisters, who witnessed their love for You by a holy life, and many of them to the shedding of their blood. May their example lighten and sustain our journey till the day in which we will arrive at the heavenly Jerusalem, through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Lord, have mercy….Lord, have mercy Christ, have mercy….Christ, have mercy Lord, have mercy….Lord, have mercy

Holy Mother of God and Queen of Martyrs….Pray for us
St. Joseph, husband of the Holy Mother of God and guardian of Jesus
Saints Peter and Paul, martyrs of Christ and pillars and foundation of the Church of Rome

Martyred Popes

St. Callixtus, Pope and Martyr, custodian of the Christian brethren here buried
St. Pontian, Pope and Martyr, condemned to the mines
St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr, organiser of the Church of Rome
St. Cornelius, Pope and Martyr "a model of humility, patience and goodness"
St. Sixtus II, Pope and Martyr, killed for Christ in the area of these catacombs
St. Eusebius, Pope and Martyr, merciful towards the lapsi (2) in need of pardon

Martyred Deacons

SS. Deacons: Gennarius, Magnus,Vincent,Stephen, Felicissimus and

Agapitus, fellow martyrs of Pope Sixtus II

Martyred Faithful

St. Tarcisius, youth with great ideals and brave defender of the Faith
St. Cecilia, courageous maid who offered your virginity to Christ
St. Soter, Roman matron, killed for your faithfulness to the Gospel
St. Polycamus, glory and ornament of the holy Church
SS. Calocerus and Parthenius, faithful to Christ even to the point of giving your lives for Him
SS. Mark and Marcellianus, true-brothers in life and inseparable in martyrdom
SS. Cerealis and Sallustia with your 21 Companions, defenders of the Faith against the Novatian heresy. Pray for us
SS. Greek Martyrs, Maria, Neon, Hyppolitus, Adra, Pauline, Martha, Valeria,
Eusebius and Marcellus, gift of the Oriental Church to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus
All Men and Women Martyrs and Saints, buried in the Catacombs of St.Callixtus

Popes Declared Saints

St. Zephyrinus, Pope, who wanted this cemetery for the Church of Rome
St. Antherus, Pope, who lived his short pontificate in prison
St. Lucius I, Pope, forced into exile because he was Vicar of Christ
St. Stephen I, Pope, guardian of the purity of Faith
St. Dionysius, Pope, loving father of his brethren in difficulty
St. Felix I, Pope, zealous in the work of evangelization
St. Eutychian, Pope, apostle of orthodoxy
St. Gaius, Pope, friend of the poor
St. Miltiades, Pope, defender of the faith against the Donatist heresy (4)
St. Mark, Pope, pastor of the Church of Rome and promoter of its liturgical calendar
St. Damasus I, Pope, "pious promoter of the cult of Martyrs"


SS. Bishops Optatus and Numidian, evangelizers of the African countries
SS. Bishops, who carried on the mission of the Apostles
Oh all you, Holy Bishops, buried in the Catacombs of St. Callixtus


Holy Priests, who lived and died "during the long peace"
Young Men and Children, who preferred to keep your virginal purity
You too, Sinners, converted to the goodness of the Father, washed in Christ's blood
and sanctified by the Holy Spirit
All you, Holy Souls, whose bodies are resting in the cemetery of St. Callixtus
Men and Women Saints, pilgrims to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus
SS. Brigid and Catherine of Siena
SS. Charles Borromeo and Philip Neri
SS. John Bosco and Blessed Michael Rua
SS. Theresa of the Child Jesus and Mary Mazzarello
All You Saints, pilgrims to the Catacombs of St. Callixtus
and admirers of the faith of the early Christians

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world….Spare us, o Lord
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world….Graciously hear us, o Lord
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world….Have mercy on us

Let Us Pray

O God, our Father, who have made fruitful with the blood of Martyrs and blessed by their presence the ground of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, by the bright example of so many courageous Witnesses, keep us strong in our faith, that we may pick up and foretaste with joy the fruit of their sacrifice. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.