In the month of May, we Catholics renew our devotion to the wonderful Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth. Certainly there are those who think that Catholics put too much emphasis on Mary, or set her up as the fourth person of the Trinity, but these accusations miss the mark entirely.
Catholics never put Mary in place of Jesus or worship her in any way. No one worships the vessel that contains the treasure, but everyone recognizes that the vessel itself must be made of the finest material for the dignity of holding God Himself. So Catholics have believed since time immemorial.
We venerate Mary as the one whom “all generations call blessed” (Luke 1:42), and we acknowledge her as an utterly unique creation of God whose authority over Christ’s Kingdom is assured by her closeness to her Son in heaven as it was on earth.
The Secret Power of Litanies
A litany is simply a list of titles and images which describe the object of our prayer. There are many litanies in the Church’s devotional life – the Sacred Heart, the Precious Blood, Angels, Saints, etc. – and the litany honoring Mary is just one of them. But it is a special one in that it has the official endorsement of the Church.
As with any litany, the fascinating titles are meant to be focuses of contemplation, not just a list of things to read off. They are like strings of radiant jewels that exude light and beauty to keep our hearts engaged in prayer. It is entirely acceptable for one to stop in the middle of a litany to ponder one single title that captures his or her heart at that moment.
Those who pay attention to the various elements of a litany rarely find their minds wandering when they are praying.
The secret power of litanies is their ability to engage the inner life of the person in prayer through holy imagery. The titles and images are sometimes drawn explicitly from scripture, sometimes from history, sometimes from private apparitions, but they all harken back to the scripturally-based belief we have in God’s revelation of the divine mystery in its many forms.
The Litany of Loreto
Since the 16th century the faithful have prayed this exquisitely beautiful litany that lays out many of the titles of Mary from Catholic doctrine and devotion. It derives its name from the village of Loreto, on the east coast of Italy, where tradition has it that the actual home of the Holy Family was transported by angels during the time of the Crusades.
In total, there are fifty-four titles, a number which, amazingly, corresponds exactly to the fifty “Hail Mary” beads plus the four “Our Father” beads of the Rosary (between the decades). One can pray this litany, as I do, with Rosary in hand using one bead per title. It’s a marvelous form of prayer!
The beautiful litany is a treasure trove of Marian imagery that sets forth her dignity, her holiness, and privileges as Mother of God. The titles are arranged as a sort of hierarchy of values beginning with the divine and ending with some very human categories and concerns.
The Four God Titles
Every Catholic devotion begins with God. The opening of the litany includes one title for each Divine Person and one for the Trinity as a whole, followed of course by the petition that God might “have mercy on us” sinners. We don’t ask human beings for mercy, only God because all Justice rests in His divine hands.
- God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.
- God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
- God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
- Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us.
Marian Group 1: the “Holy” Titles
We fittingly start Our Lady’s portion of the litany by expressing the Church’s ancient beliefs about her, which are both scriptural and doctrinal: her holiness (Luke 1:28), her Motherhood and her Perpetual Virginity. By this trinity of beliefs, we ask Our Lady to “pray for us,” which is the standard petition believers make when addressing a non-divine person, as in a saint or angel.
- Holy Mary, pray for us.
- Holy Mother of God, pray for us.
- Holy Virgin of Virgins, pray for us.
Group 2: the “Mother” Titles
This is the longest single group of the litany, and each of these titles bears witness to various aspects of Mary’s motherhood. The list of eleven “Mother” titles begins and ends with Christ, like bookends encompassing a whole library of Mary’s motherly virtues.
- Mother of Christ, pray for us.
- Mother of divine grace, pray for us.
- Mother most pure, pray for us.
- Mother most chaste, pray for us.
- Mother inviolate, pray for us.
- Mother undefiled, pray for us.
- Mother most amiable, pray for us.
- Mother most admirable, pray for us.
- Mother of good counsel, pray for us.
- Mother of our Creator, pray for us.
- Mother of our Redeemer, pray for us.
Group 3: the “Virgin” Titles
Here we contemplate the Blessed Virgin’s personal virtues as the one who the Archangel Gabriel called “full of grace”. Prudence is the first of the Cardinal Virtues so it rightly comes first on the list. We see in these titles how God has shared with Mary His attributes in a superabundant way.
- Virgin most prudent, pray for us.
- Virgin most venerable, pray for us.
- Virgin most renowned, pray for us.
- Virgin most powerful, pray for us.
- Virgin most merciful, pray for us.
- Virgin most faithful, pray for us.
Group 4: the “Domestic” Titles
The following list consists of domestic images of things found in a home, which is the easiest way to think of these six titles: mirror, seat, joy, and three types of vessels (see a commentary on Mary as “vessel”). Mary has been known by these titles throughout the generations, and in fact, they are a rich source of contemplation of the way in which she ministers God’s grace to others.
- Mirror of justice
- Seat of wisdom
- Cause of our joy
- Spiritual vessel
- Vessel of honor
- Singular vessel of devotion
Group 5: the “Mystical” Titles
This group is a very special panorama of biblical and metaphorical imagery, all of which the Church has applied to Our Lady in various ways through the centuries. In contrast to the other titles which are more abstract, you can actually picture in your imagination the concrete images in these titles. They are beautiful focuses of prayer for any who take the time to pay close attention to them.
- Mystical Rose
- Tower of David
- Tower of Ivory
- House of Gold
- Ark of the Covenant
- Gate of Heaven
- Morning Star
Group 6: the “People” Titles
These five titles all designate afflicted peoples of one sort or another who turn to Our Lady in their need. Let us imagine Mary in all her beauty walking calmly and majestically to each of these people and giving them what they need: health, comfort, refuge, solace, help. We can place ourselves in many of these categories too!
- Health of the sick, pray for us.
- Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
- Solace of migrants, pray for us.
- Comfort of the afflicted, pray for us.
- Help of Christians, pray for us.
Group 7: the “Queen” Titles
In this section we contemplate a hierarchy of holiness in the Church’s own patrimony of grace. These titles all recognize Mary’s queenship over them because she is actually the most exalted member of all the categories featured here. There is a very clear progression: Heaven (angels) / Old Testament (patriarchs, prophets) / New Testament (apostles) / and finally, Church history (martyrs / confessors / virgins). Then, all saints – Mary is Queen of them all!
- Queen of angels, pray for us.
- Queen of patriarchs, pray for us.
- Queen of prophets, pray for us.
- Queen of apostles, pray for us.
- Queen of martyrs, pray for us.
- Queen of confessors, pray for us.
- Queen of virgins, pray for us.
- Queen of all saints, pray for us.
Group 8: the “Glory” titles
These final Queen titles reflect the principle Marian doctrines developed in later centuries of the Church: the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. We include Our Lady’s Rosary as the Church’s main Marian devotion, which we pray in our families giving us, finally, true peace, which can only come from God’s heavenly throne and the Queen who bears it lovingly to the world.
- Queen conceived without Original Sin, pray for us.
- Queen assumed into Heaven, pray for us.
- Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, pray for us.
- Queen of families, pray for us.
- Queen of peace, pray for us.
I hope you can see in this brief analysis that the Litany of Loreto is a deep well of grace, a cornucopia of spiritual wealth, and a font of devotion that will make you love the Mother of God like never before.
Our Lady is God’s most perfect creation. She never seeks to draw attention to herself or distract from Jesus. Quite the opposite: all the titles and descriptions in the litany are less about Mary than about the power of God to sanctify us. She herself said, “The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is His name!” (Luke 1:49)
During this month dedicated to Mary, take some time to contemplate the imagery in the Litany of Loreto or at least the titles of one of the eight groups. Focus on them and them alone for at least ten minutes. I’ve found that the focused attention to a single group is immensely rewarding because it keeps the mind and heart in one “category” of the sublime mystery which is Our Lady.
I’ve taken the liberty to post a copy of the litany in a downloadable PDF that you can save to your computer or print out for distribution and future use. Click the button below if you wish a copy.
Many blessings in your contemplation!