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Musical Musings: Prayers and Liturgical Texts

Litaniæ sanctorum

The Litany of the Saints

by Gary D. Penkala

Pope John Paul II lying in state in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace Perhaps no other event in recent memory has sparked so much intense interest in the musical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church as has the Transferal of the Body of Pope John Paul II from the Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace to the bier in front of the High Altar in Saint Peter's Basilica. The music which aroused such attention was one of the simplest Gregorian chants: the Litany of the Saints. We at CNP received an astounding number of inquiries about this music — music which should be common in every Roman Rite parish (as part of the Easter Vigil), music which has been a normal part of processions for centuries. Here are some comments that we heard and read about the music surrounding the Holy Father's funeral rites:
  • The Latin chant was sung, and millions – millions – of people saw and heard the beauty of it. It transcended time and space. Ethereal is the only word I can think of to describe it.
  • I watched Pope John Paul II carried through the basilica today, the most beautiful ceremony I have ever seen. The Litany of the Saints, in traditional Latin, was echoing through the basilica as they carried him ... it was almost angelic. Definitely a worthy send off for a paragon of men.
  • It's the only time I have treasured having a particular piece of music going through my head over and over again: Ora pro eo ... imagine having "City of God" or "On Eagle's Wings" going through your head for days? Please, No!!
  • After this past week, I will never believe that things happen coincidentally.
  • Perhaps this is God's way of bringing Latin and Gregorian Chant back into the liturgy. Their beauty is unquestionable and helps to lift hearts and minds to God. At the very least, one can hope those who are not familiar with Latin and chant will become curious about them.
  • I wouldn't have guessed that the news stations (cable anyway) would be pretty much 24/7. So much elevated beyond the music of Joncas and Haas and Haugen. That music is just so inadequate and it has never been more apparent to so many.
  • The Chant is a reminder that this Church did not begin with Vatican II.
  • For my own part, having been raised Catholic, to hear the Latin liturgy again after so many years of not hearing it was highly sentimental. I wept unashamedly as the funeral Mass was said and at the gorgeous music accompanying it.
  • In a revealing, expansive exchange with reporters, Bush described being deeply affected by the music and ceremony of the funeral, feeling a spiritual peace kneeling before the pope's body at the wake and drawing inspiration from his relationship with Pope John Paul II.

History of the Litany of the Saints

It was used in the Litania septiformis of Saint Gregory the Great, and in the procession of Saint Mamertus. In the Eastern Church, litanies with the invocation of saints were employed in the days of Saint Basil (d. 379) and of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. about 270). It is not known when or by whom the litany was composed, but the order in which the Apostles are given, corresponding with that of the Canon of the Mass, proves its antiquity. [from The Catholic Encyclopedia]

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Part 2: Litany at Papal Transferal

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