Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
Some weeks ago, our family lost our dear brother, Father Jim Meehan. He had been sick for quite some time – severe dementia and Parkinson’s. His funeral Masses and the kind words and prayers of so many have truly given our family a great peace.
As we kept vigil with Father Jim in those last days, awaiting – unknowingly – the time of the Lord’s coming, there were poignant moments. I single out here just one: It occurred three days before Jim’s death. My brother, Father Joe, brought with him a missal from his youth; and from that missal he had us pray aloud two very special litanies – the litany of the Blessed Mother and the litany of the Sacred Heart. The simplicity of these litany-prayers brought all of us in the room a real sense of God’s presence.
While some readers of this column might be familiar with these litanies, it is safe to guess that there will be many more who have never experienced this form of prayer.
Litanies are very simple. Take the Sacred Heart litany: One person leads speaking out many affirmations of faith and trust. To each petition, the group assembled responds: “Have mercy on us!”
*Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father. Have mercy on us.
*Heart of Jesus, Glowing furnace of charity. Have mercy on us.
*Heart of Jesus, patient and rich in mercy. Have mercy on us.
And so on.
Over these years, there has been a diminishment of this form of prayer. I have a sense that everyone would appreciate its revival. Notice the power of a litany. It is ancient; it is new. It has its way of integrating both the personal and the public. The rapid rhythmic responses, “Have mercy on us,” or “pray for us,” can become a type of mantra that fits even a form of “centering prayer.” As a public prayer, the litany carries a special power of gathering everyone into a more contemplative praying – a praying as community, as Church.
I did just a little research. On the Internet, I “googled” the words “litany prayers.” So many fine articles appeared. I learned that the “Kyrie Eleison” at Mass, (The “Lord have mercy” of our Penitential Rite) is considered a first litany. The number of “Kyries” were not always limited to three. Imagine, all the beautiful “Kyries” sung over the centuries – collected on one CD or on one iPod -what a prayer of simple listening that could be!
As I think of so many people who care for the sick and the dying, especially caretakers of those afflicted with Alzheimers – spouses for one another, middle-aged children of elderly parents, nurses and aides – I am tempted to create another litany. If I ever did, it would include simple prayers such as the following:
*Lord Jesus, lover of the sick and disabled: Have mercy on us.
*Lord Jesus, memory for those who cannot remember: Have mercy on us.
*Lord, Jesus, strength of all who care for dear ones and for strangers: Have mercy on us.
*Lord Jesus, faith for those in any darkness: Have mercy on us.
Litanies are a powerful devotion, not only in moments of sorrow and illness, but remain in our day a prayer for all seasons!
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.