The litany form originated as a prayer of the Mass. Early texts of the Mass record a litany serving as the intercessions. This litany form of petition later became the Prayers of the Faithful which continue to this day in shorter form in the Catholic Mass. The famous prayer “Kyrie Eleison” or “Lord have mercy,” which now stands alone as a prayer of the Mass, was often the response in a longer litany of petitions in early centuries. (From The Mass: A Study of Roman Liturgy, by Adrian Fortescue, 1913).
Today there are hundreds of litanies, though only six are approved by the Church for public prayer. The others are beneficial for private prayer, and it is this private use for which these Gospel Litanies have been composed.
And for those who prefer them in shorter form, Gospel Litanies can be perfectly paired, by the evangelist’s chapter and verse, with each daily Gospel reading for further reflection. That is the way they were composed.
What is a Gospel Litany?
This term applies to these four litanies based on the Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Sacred Scripture has always been the wellspring of all Christian prayer. In the monasteries a form of prayer, lectio divina or “divine reading,” arose. This prayer form was based on the reading of a Biblical text, meditation on the meaning of the text, and selection of a word or phrase from the text so as to repeat it with close attention. This continues to be a private form of prayer during which one hopes for the gift of contemplation to arise. In some ways, the Gospel Litanies — repeated petitions of names of Jesus derived from the Gospels — are a companion to lectio divina— repeated words or phrases from Scripture. Indeed, the meditative approach of lectio divina can aid the reading of the Gospel Litanies.
The Gospel Litanies may serve other purposes besides prayer. They may be used in Bible study, to review any or all parts of any Gospel, or as an educational tool — for example, as summaries of the Gospels to more easily remember key points.
How were the Gospel Litanies composed?
In a book titled Adoration, published by Ignatius Press, there are several beautiful litanies for private devotion only. One day during Eucharistic adoration, these suggested to me that I could try to compose some simple acclamations in praise of Christ and aspects of his life and divinity. This was a fruitful attempt, but what a wealth of such acclamations existed already within the Gospel texts!
Reading of the Gospels that are read at daily Mass became the foundation of the Gospel Litanies. My intention was to seek titles or names of Christ, in short phrases, from these Gospels. All the familiar, given titles are here, such as “Son of God,” “Lamb of God,” etc., but other titles relate to the identity and the words and the works of Christ, as well as what others say about him: for example, “Rebuker of the winds and sea,” from St. Matthew’s Gospel; and “Healer of all who touched him,” from St. Luke’s Gospel. Every three years, nearly all Gospels are read at Mass, and so the four Gospel Litanies took three years to complete and a further year of editing.
It is my hope that readers will bear with the extra length of each Gospel Litany, beyond the usual length of litanies, finding the extra time they take to be beneficial and blessed.