Biblical Litany

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the complaint that Catholics use written prayers rather than communicating with God spontaneously! It goes like this: Catholics pray litanies and novenas, heaping up empty phrases, thinking that God will hear them, when the Bible says: “And when you are praying, DO NOT use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.”

Of course, the key words in Jesus’ warning are “empty” and “meaningless.” Jesus did not say, “Do not pray set prayers.” He and His disciples prayed the Psalms, which are of course set prayers. And in the Psalms we see a beautiful example of a litany – Psalm 136.

O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.

O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever.

To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.

It goes along in this vein for 26 verses, with the set response of “For His mercy endures forever” repeated 26 times. So obviously, Jesus could not have been condemning the exceedingly Biblical practice of praying a litany. Clearly, Jesus was NOT condemning repetition, or He would have been condemning Psalm 136. He was rebuking the Gentiles for VAIN repetition, mindless chanting, thinking that God would hear them simply because they used many words.

A good example of a Catholic litany would be the one below, the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is prayed after Mass every first Friday of the month. It is repetitious, with the response of “Have mercy on us!” after almost every petition (I have omitted this response below, beginning with the 10th petition, to save space). Note how Scriptural this litany is! I have attached a chapter-and-verse reference to show the Biblical origin of each petition (litany is in red):

Lord, have mercy
(Ps 123:3) Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us!

Christ, have mercy
(Mt. 20:30) Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!

Lord, have mercy
(Lk 18:13) God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Christ, hear us
(Ps 4:1) Have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.

Christ, graciously hear us (Ps 17: 6) I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer.

God the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us! (Ps. 106:47) Save us, O LORD our God!

God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us! (Mt. 15:22) Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!

God, the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us! (Ps 71:2) Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me.

Holy Trinity, One God, have mercy on us! (Ps. 86:1) Hear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father
(Jn 1:14) We saw His glory, the glory that is His as the only begotten Son of the Father.

Heart of Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mother (Lk 1:35) The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

Heart of Jesus, substantially united to the Word of God
(Heb 10:5-7) … a body you have prepared for me

Heart of Jesus, of Infinite Majesty
(Jude 1:25) to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Heart of Jesus, Sacred Temple of God
(Jn 2:21) But He was speaking of the temple of His body.

Heart of Jesus, Tabernacle of the Most High
(Jn 14:10) …the Father who dwells in me does His works.

Heart of Jesus, House of God and Gate of Heaven
(Jn 10:9) I am the Gate.

Heart of Jesus, burning furnace of charity
(Heb 12:29) For our God is a consuming fire.

Heart of Jesus, abode of justice and love
(Ps 89:14) Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before You.

Heart of Jesus, full of goodness and love
(Titus 3:4-5) But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us….

Heart of Jesus, abyss of all virtues
(1 Pet 2:9) …that you may declare His virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into His marvellous light.

Heart of Jesus, most worthy of all praise
(Rev 5:12) Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.

Heart of Jesus, King and center of all hearts
(Rev 15:3) Just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.

Heart of Jesus, in whom are all treasures of wisdom and knowledge
(Col 2:3) In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Heart of Jesus, in whom dwells the fullness of divinity
(Col 1:19) For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Heart of Jesus, in whom the Father was well pleased
(Mt. 3:17) This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received
(Jn 1:16) And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.

Heart of Jesus, desire of the everlasting hills
(Rom 8:22-23) For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

Heart of Jesus, patient and most merciful
(James 5:11) The Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

Heart of Jesus, enriching all who invoke Thee
(Rom 10:12) …for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing His riches on all who call on Him.

Heart of Jesus, fountain of life and holiness
(Jer 2:13) They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters….

Heart of Jesus, propitiation for our sins
(1 Jn 2:2) He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

Heart of Jesus, loaded down with opprobrium
(1 Pet 2:23) When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate

Heart of Jesus, bruised for our offenses
(Is 53:5) But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities

Heart of Jesus, obedient to death
(Phil 2:8) He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross

Heart of Jesus, pierced with a lance
(Jn 19:34) One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear

Heart of Jesus, source of all consolation
(2 Thess 2:16-17) Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts….

Heart of Jesus, our life and resurrection (Jn 11:25) I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Heart of Jesus, our peace and our reconciliation
(Col 1:20) and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things….

Heart of Jesus, victim for our sins
(Rom 4:25) He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

Heart of Jesus, salvation of those who trust in Thee
(Hebrews 5:9) He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation

Heart of Jesus, hope of those who die in Thee
(1 Tim 1:1) Christ Jesus, who is our hope

Heart of Jesus, delight of all the Saints
(Is 61:10) I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness….

Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord (Ps.118:25) O LORD, save us!

Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, Lord (Ps. 80:1) Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel!

Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us (Is. 33:2) But Lord, be merciful to us, for we have waited for you!

V. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, (Mt. 11:29) Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

R. Make our hearts like to Thine!

SO MUCH SCRIPTURE! Think of the teaching value of a litany like this! Someone who prays this regularly will have these phrases imprinted on his heart, and will know that Jesus is:

–    Of infinite majesty!

–    The Temple of God!

–    The Gate of Heaven!

–    The Burning Furnace of Love!

–    Full of justice and love!

–    Most worthy of all praise!

–    King of our hearts!

–    The repository of wisdom and knowledge!

–    Filled with the fullness of God!

–    The One who bestows His riches on all who call upon Him!

Need I go on? The Biblical case for praying litanies is quite clear – how much more Biblical can you get?

Still object to the practice of praying novenas, prayers offered up over a period of nine days?

Acts 1:3 – Jesus tarried with His disciples for forty days after the Resurrection.

Acts 1: 9 – Jesus ascends into Heaven.

Acts 1: 14 – Jesus’ disciples gathered in the Upper Room, and prayed for 9 days.

Acts 2:1 – On the 10th day (Pentecost), God answered their prayers.

For a look at the Scriptural basis for the Mass, check this out at Crossed the Tiber!


On the memorial of the Guardian Angels

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Great Post!
    I have found that Catholic written prayers are especially beautiful and meaningful. One cannot inject their own “flesh” into the prayer and to me that’s a wonderful thing,

    • Good point! My prayer life always used to run around on a little hamster wheel of my own concerns. Even when I was praising God, I was so limited in what I was capable of coming up with. It’s funny – one of the objections to set prayers is that they are “limiting,” but I feel so much less limited now that I use them! They take your prayer life to a whole new level!

  2. LizB said:

    Good post! I realised a while ago that the Catholic written prayers that have done down over the centuries are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are thus perfected prayer. That’ll do me …..

    • LizB said:

      I mean ‘come down’!!!

      • Liz,
        When I found out that the “Gloria” that we sing at Mass goes back to St. Hilary of Poitiers in the 4th century (or even farther back!) I was so thrilled to think of Christians gathering every Sunday down through the centuries praising God with the same words we use today! Perfected prayer indeed!

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