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    Monday, April 03, 2006

    Remember the 'Litany of Saints' ?


    A year ago this week, an ancient chant calmed and connected more than a billion souls mourning the death of Pope John Paul II.

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    As a dozen white-gloved footmen carried the pope's body through the crowd in St. Peter's Square two days after he died, a lone, unseen voice called out the names of saints. Name after name, each with the same intonation. After each name, the mourners responded: "Pray for him."

    Four days later, on April 8, 2005, the Litany of the Saints would be recited again at the pope's funeral.

    "When the Christian soul in distress can no longer find new words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats the same invocation over and over again in a blind faith," wrote French composer Jehan Alain, in an introduction to his 1937 piece, "Litanies." "The limits of reason are reached. Faith alone continues its ascent."

    The word "litany" comes from the Greek "litanea" and means "supplication." According to the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, a litany is "a form of prayer made up of a series of petitions or invocations to which the faithful respond."

    Litanies invoking names of saints may have been used in the eastern church as early as the third and fourth centuries. In the western church there is evidence of the Litany of the Saints being used in Rome in the seventh century.

    "Because a litany is simple it could involve a lot of people who couldn't read," Turner said. "In the middle ages, in an illiterate society, the litany was popular because you could involve hundreds of people at a time."

    "One doesn't so much call to mind all the categories of saints and their individual life histories during a litany, as simply become caught up in the ritual experience of invoking a `cloud of witnesses' who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith," said the Rev. Michael J. Joncas, a liturgical composer and professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

    The litany's participants are "connected with the community of saints," said Bishop Edward K. Braxton, leader of the Belleville, Ill., diocese and a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy. "Not just the people in St. Peter's, but those all over the world and those who have died. These holy men and women lived their Christian lives successfully and by seeking their help in prayer we are pulling them around us, wrapping ourselves in their holiness."

    The Litany of the Saints "was one of the great highlights of the funeral," said Levine, who sat in the front with other dignitaries. "I had a powerful sense he had joined that ancient series of people of goodness."

    In the seven minutes the Litany lasted the names of 71 saints were invoked. Two of them were Polish Catholics John Paul himself had declared saints.

    the litany...

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