As a boy I remember the month of May had a very special significance. Namely, it was the time of year when a big statue of Mary would be placed at the front of the altar in my local church. Each evening large crowds would gather in the church, or road-side grottos so popular in rural Poland or even in their homes to sing praises to Our Lady in the form of the litany. I recently rediscovered this beautiful prayer and offer some reflections on the deeply meaningful invocations of the litany.
To begin with I want to outline a brief history of the litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary or as it is also known the litany of Loreto:
This litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary was composed during the Middle Ages. The place of honour it now holds in the life of the Church is due to its faithful use at the shrine of the Holy House at Loreto. It was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, and all other Marian litanies were suppressed, at least for public use. Its titles and invocations set before us Mary's exalted privileges, her holiness of life, her amiability and power, her motherly spirit, and queenly majesty.
The litany could be divided into six different parts and below I will offer a reflection on the different invocations and titles used. The litany begins with the invocations to the merciful God. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy…Christ graciously hear us are an invitation to pray, to meditate, and to reflect. The litany then invokes the Holy Trinity: God the Father of heaven…God the Son, Redeemer of the world… God the Holy Spirit that is Holy Trinity, One God. It serves as a reminder that ultimately our prayers are made to God and it is God whom we ask for mercy through the Blessed Mother. It is important to remember that although we sing Mary’s praises, we don’t pray to her but rather for her intercession, her plea for us with God and so we invoke the one to whom our prayers are made - God himself.
Part I Mary the Holy one.
The first set of invocations depicts Mary as the Holy one. Holy Mary, Holy Mother of God, Holy Virgin of Virgins. Those first invocations introduce Mary to us, they very clearly set who Mary is and what role she plays in the Church. Those also act as a reminder of the fundamentals of Mary’s nature. She is the one who gave birth to our Lord and Saviour and therefore deserves to be acclaimed as Holy. Mary’s nature on the other hand represents her full submission to God’s love and God’s work.
Part II Mary the Mother.
Thirteen of the fifty-two invocations begin with the word Mother
Mother of Christ is the first invocation in this section and from the outset, sets the tone. Mary is the mother of Jesus Christ, above all she is human, she is a mother and just like any parent she cares, loves, and supports Jesus.
Mother of the Church. This invocation is closely linked to the previous one, as firstly Mary is the mother of her Son – and of the Church. Mary giving birth to our saviour, also gave birth to our church and so Mary being the mother of Christ is also the mother of the whole Church and in turn our mother – mother to all those who believe and are part of the family of the Church.
Mother of Divine Graces…most pure…most chaste…inviolate…undefiled…most amiable…most admirable…of Good Counsel. Those titles are used to show the might, power, and above all the delicacy of Mary and God’s work in her life. Those invocations highlight Mary’s crystal purity, her honour, and motherly tenderness.
Mother of our Creator… of our Saviour. Those invocations directly refer to Jesus Mary’s son. The one who is promised by God, our Messiah, and Saviour. They remind us that Mary gave birth to the one who created us and the one to whom we journey, the one who saves us even if it means dying so that we may live.
Mother of mercy, finally Mary is acclaimed as merciful. She is depicted as a tender mother who is slow to chide and swift to bless. She is loving as all mothers. She loves her Son and loves us her children and graces us with her mercy and forgiveness.
Part III Mary the Virgin.
The next six invocations begin with the word Virgin, they remind us of the chaste nature of Mary and her covenant with God. She is Virgin most prudent…most venerable… most renowned…most powerful…most merciful…most faithful. All those titles portray Mary as a loving and gentle woman who responded generously to God’s call. They also show Mary’s strength and the infinite love of God. The word most is used with every invocation thus setting Mary higher as an example to follow. She is not just a virgin she is the virgin of virgins. Mary’s unblemished personality and her life are an example for us to follow, a goal we should strive for. So that we too may fulfil God’s will in all that we do and in who we are.
Part IV Mary the Biblical one.
The largest section of the litany with seventeen invocations address Mary with different titles. This part of the litany is the one with which we might struggle the most: after all, how can Mary be a mirror or a seat? These titles which objectify Mary are rooted in the Bible and are used to create a more vivid understanding of Mary’s role in the history of salvation.
Mirror of justice refers to Mary’s immaculate heart - one that mirrors Jesus’ immaculate heart and so Mary is the mirror of God’s justice.
Seat of wisdom, if we look at the Latin word sedes – meaning a seat, home, or residence it becomes clear to us that Mary is a residence in whom Jesus lived and so Mary is the house or source of God’s wisdom.
Spiritual vessel again the word vessel or vas in Latin can also be translated as an instrument and so Mary is simply also an instrument of the Holy Spirit, filled with God’s grace and glory. That’s why she is also the vessel of honour and singular vessel of devotion.
Mystical Rose refers to Mary’s beauty and innocence. A flower is a symbol of beauty, innocence, and delicacy and thus this reveals to us Mary’s inner and outer splendour.
Tower of David this invocation refers to the towered fortress built by David in Israel and it shows Mary as a strong and protective person one who is a fortress against all evil.
Tower of ivory, this title on the other hand shows that although Mary is seen as a strong and powerful fortress she is made from ivory – a very expensive and sought-after material thus revealing how precious Mary is.
House of gold reminds us of Mary’s immaculate heart, house of gold portrays Mary’s heart as though made from one of the purest metals to reflect the purity of Mary’s nature.
Ark of the Covenant refers directly to the ark in which the commandments were kept and represents the covenant of God with his people. Therefore, it symbolises Mary as the new ark because she kept Jesus always in her heart.
Gate of Heaven depicts Mary as one that has ascended into heaven before us and awaits us at the gates of God’s eternal dwelling place.
Morning star alludes to Mary’s immaculate conception. Mary is the bearer of forthcoming redemption.
Health of the sick…Refuge of sinners…Comforter of the afflicted…Help of Christians and the earlier cause of our joy all these portray Mary as the one who is our advocate, one who lobbies for our needs and petitions and intercedes for us with God. However, she not only pleas for us in times of trouble, sickness, or other miseries of daily life, she is also the one who is there for us in our joys and happiness. In joy and sorrow, she is our mother whom we can turn to.
Part V Mary the Queen.
Last but not least, the litany highlights Mary’s royalty and refers to her unique fellowship in God’s kingdom. Queen of angels…of patriarchs…of prophets…of apostles… of martyrs…of confessors… of virgins…of all saints show how high Mary’s status is above angels, above prophets and above martyrs and even above all the saints that is because her love and service to God is above all those; her love and service is perfect and unconditional - second only to that of love and service of God himself. And so, she is the Queen conceived without original sin… assumed into heaven where she shares in the fellowship with God. However, she is also the queen of the Holy Rosary… of families and of peace because Mary’s intercessions are unique, her prayer looks over families and brings peace and all that through the power of the Holy Rosary of which Mary is the queen. Of course, for us, she is also a great patron guiding and protecting us the Queen of Ireland.
To conclude, the litany can seem like a long and daunting prayer to recite however, when you contemplate the invocations you will gain a whole new perspective on this prayer, appreciate its form and meaning. The beauty of this prayer lies in the fact that by honouring Mary we praise God who gave Mary to us not only as the mother of our Lord and Saviour but also as our mother. I conclude with the final prayer of the litany:
Let us pray- Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord God, that we thy servants may enjoy perpetual health of mind and body, and by the glorious intercession of the Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, be delivered from present sorrow and enjoy everlasting happiness. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.