The History of the Litany of Loreto

During the month of May, we will be sharing a different passage from some of our books about Our Lady. We hope they help deepen your knowledge of and love for Mary, the Mother of God!

This passage is from a new title, The Litany of Loreto: How it Came to Be by Maureen Mullins. We've abridged the first chapter of the book, which provides a history of litanies and specifically the history of the Litany of Loreto.

The Litany of Loreto is not just a particular prayer; the litany as we know it has roots in a whole system of prayers and ways of honoring God, his saints, and especially our Lady. It is a prayer of the people, of the streets rather than the sanctuaries; it is essentially a processional prayer. The litany form of prayer can be traced back to Old Testament times. Psalm 136 is an example, with "for his steadfast love endures forever" repeated after every line. In our own day, if we think of the processions at Lourdes and the Lourdes Hymn with its multiple short verses and constant refrain, Ave, Ave, Ave Maria, we have the picture.

The litany is essentially a simple form of extended prayer in which everyone can take an active part. The ancient Romans loved processions, and in the later 300s, as paganism gave way to Christianity in the Roman Empire, the processions took a Christian turn and with them the litanies. Over the centuries there arose numerous litanies. 

Pilgrimages were (and still are) an integral and popular part of Catholic life, and with the pilgrimage goes the procession, and with the processions developed the litanies. Litanies in honor of Our Lady in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries became particularly numerous, as often as not each area developing its own, and one or two of the titles offered to Our Lady not being very orthodox. St. Pius V worked on reviewing the official prayers of the Church and in March 1571, he published (and had printed) a new Office of the Blessed Virgin, and prohibited the proliferation of quasi-liturgical offices and that included all the many litanies.

The Litany of Loreto, however, was to survive. In the prosperous and relatively peaceful later Middle Ages, longer-distance pilgrimages became possible and popular. It was very difficult to get safely to the Holy Land, for Muslim pirates were too active on the Mediterranean. Loreto, however, a small town in the north of Italy, had the Holy House. The story goes that in 1294 angels had brought to Loreto the little house in Nazareth that had been the home of the Holy Family. It was not possible to go on pilgrimage to Nazareth, so people went to the little house in Loreto (now encased in a basilica) instead. The pilgrims liked and learned the form of the Litany of Our Lady used there and took copies of it to their homes all over Europe. The monks of Loreto were up to date with technical developments, and by the early 1500s, the pilgrims were taking home printed copies. Being printed meant that the text was fixed, and it was a uniform version of the Litany of Loreto that began to spread.

When St. Pius V forbade litanies, the monks of the Loreto shine, accustomed to reciting their litany on Saturdays, reviewed it, wrote a new more scriptural version, had it set to music, and submitted it to Rome for approval - in fact they thought so well of it that they requested it be sung in St. Peter's. That took a little time. 

People had liked their litanies, they continued to be popular, and within a very few years the idea of litanies was again reviewed. Eventually the pope, now Sixtus V, who had always liked the shrine at Loreto, approved the public use of that particular litany. For a little while, both the traditional one and the revised scriptural one were used, but eventually the revised one fell out of use, and what we have now is the traditional version. 

In 1601, Pope Clement VIII decreed that certain litanies, those to be found in in the liturgical books and that of Loreto, could be used for public worship. The publication of new ones without special authorization was strictly forbidden and so was the addition of new titles without papal authorization. 

In many of the early litanies, the titles given to Our Lady had often been quite elaborate. By the time the litany at Loreto became popular, the titles given her had become much simplified and took the order we are familiar with: those greeting her as "mother," those greeting her as "virgin," and so on. This was easier to remember and could well have contributed to its popularity and its spread. Not all the familiar titles of Our Lady are included: "Mother of fair love," and "Handmaid of the Lord,' for example, do not feature. 

However, as with other familiar prayers, the Litany of Loreto is a living prayer, particularly appropriate for serving the needs of the times. What we now have are the titles of the original Litany of Loreto as approved by Clement VIII back in 1601, plus a few fresh invocations added from time to time, always with appropriate approvals. Some were initially approved for a particular grouping within the Church and then applied universally by the pope of the time.

A history of the Church over the past few centuries could be written on the basis of these added titles:

  • In 1814, Pius VII added the title "Queen of all saints," in gratitude for his return to Rome on being released from captivity in Napoleonic France.
  • In 1854, the title "Queen conceived without original sin" was added by Pius IX on the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
  • In 1951, on the declaration of the dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven, the title of "Queen assumed into heaven" was added by Pius XIl.
  • In 1903, St. Pius X added the title "Mother of good counsel'; he was suffering greatly while defending the Church against the Modernist heresies.
  • In 1915, after the horrors of the First World War, Pius Xl added "Queen of peace.”
  • In 1980, after the fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave much thought to the nature of the Church and the role of different groups of people within the Church, Our Lady's role was clearly that of mother, and the title "Mother of he Church" was added to the litany by St. John Paul Il.
  • In 1995, with the institution of the family under attack, the same pope fifteen years later added the title "Queen of families."
  • In 2020, Pope Francis, stressing the importance of compassion in the difficult circumstances of the early twenty-first century with its mass movements of peoples escaping terrorism and famine and in the face of the Covid 19 coronavirus pandemic, introduced three new invocations: "Mother of mercy," "Mother of hope,” and "Solace of migrants."

We often think of the litany as being recited at the end of the Rosary almost as if the recitation of the Rosary would not be complete without it. In fact, this is a relatively recent innovation, introduced by Leo XIII in 1883. It was a time when governments were trying to eliminate religion from public life, schools, etc. Leo XIII, a year into his pontificate, issued the first of his thirteen encyclicals on the Rosary, asking for renewed devotion to its use. He declared that the feast of the Holy Rosary should continue to be celebrated in memory of her aid at the Battle of Lepanto at the beginning of October and that all that month should be the Month of the Rosary. And he asked for the Litany of Loreto to be recited at the end of the Rosary, and this has continued to be done.