Why No Litanies at a Wedding

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Why No Litanies at a Wedding

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 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."

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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 quite appropriate.

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 allowed."

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 reading.

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 Sunday Mass.

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 alternative plans.

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.

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