ROME, 19 JUNE 2007 (ZENIT)
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 than 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
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
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: Why No Litanies at a Wedding [7-3-2007]
Several readers commented on the prospects of using the litany of saints
during a wedding (see June 19).
One priest wrote: "I just thought I would share with you an interesting
use of the litany that I saw at a wedding Mass I attended while I was a
seminarian. The litany was used as the gathering song during the
entrance. I found it to be an interesting way to include the Litany of
the Saints in the wedding Mass. I should add that the procession was an
actual procession, and not just a fancy entrance of the bride."
This described use of the litany as a gathering or entrance song is
Another reader informed me that a couple of bishops' conferences either
have already approved or are in process of approving and submitting to
the Holy See for confirmation, revised rituals for weddings which
foresee the possibility of substituting the Litany of the Saints for the
prayer of the faithful.
There were some other questions related to weddings. A reader from
Ottawa asked: "After discussing wedding ideas with my significant other,
I have realized that we together know about four priests! What is the
appropriate role in the wedding service for 'extra' priests? Are they
merely guests? Do they 'concelebrate' (an inaccurate term, but a better
one eludes me) the marriage?"
There is no difficulty in priests concelebrating at a wedding Mass. Only
one priest, however, usually the pastor or the priest duly delegated to
receive the vows, may officiate at the specific matrimonial rites which
may not be divided among several ministers. For serious reasons,
however, another priest may preach the homily.
A correspondent from Vietnam mentioned a rather unusual novelty: "At our
parish, sometimes two readers share the same reading in the Mass,
especially in the wedding Mass where the bride and the bridegroom read
the first reading, each takes over a half. I wonder if this practice is
As it is impossible for liturgical norms to cover all that the
imagination can concoct, it is not explicitly forbidden. But it does go
against sound liturgical practice. If both bride and groom wish to read,
then one can do the reading and the other one the psalm. The lectionary
for ritual Masses also allows the possibility of adding a second
Finally, a reader from Michigan consulted: "In July a wedding is
scheduled to take place in our parish at our usual 6 p.m. Mass. Some few
parishioners are upset about this and claim that weddings must be done
at a separate Mass. Would you please explain if this is permissible. I
should tell you that we are in a semi-rural community and our pastor, as
with so many priests, must take care of two parishes."
There is no rule that weddings should be celebrated at a separate Mass.
And it is even recommendable that, at least occasionally, some
sacraments, such as baptism and even matrimony, be celebrated within a
This serves to highlight the community sense of these sacraments.
Marriage "in the Lord" is not just a private affair but a source of joy
for the whole ecclesial community. Such a celebration should also help
remind the couple that their commitment is not just to themselves but to
God and the Church.
Since a wedding at a regular Sunday Mass can lead to some practical
difficulties, the pastor needs to take the needs of regular churchgoers
into account. By notifying well in advance, the pastor has assured that
those who do not wish to attend have plenty of time to establish
There are also some specific norms regarding the situations when it is
possible to celebrate the ritual Mass of Matrimony on a Sunday and in
what circumstances the regular Sunday readings may be changed. If the
readings and prayers are to be taken from the ritual Mass at a parish
which habitually provides missalettes to the faithful, then sufficient
booklets should be prepared for all who attend.