Their observance is now similar in format to the Greater Litanies of April 25th, but these three days have a different origin, having been instituted in Gaul in the fifth century as days of fasting, abstinence and abstention from servile work in which all took part in an extensive penitential procession, often barefoot. The procession and litanies only found a place in the Roman liturgy much later (around the beginning of the ninth century) and even then purely as days of rogation – of intercession – rather than as ones of fasting and penance; the latter being deemed incompatible with the nature of Eastertide.
Today, in the liturgical books in force for the usus antiquior of the Roman rite the Greater and Lesser Litanies are obligatory for all clergy and religious bound to Choir or to the Divine Office on all four of these days whether or not the associated procession is held (which, of course, is highly desirable where at all possible). The older liturgical books maintain this duty of supererogatory intercession on the part of the clergy and religious – something rather lacking in the more recent ones.
Indeed, this ancient tradition itself is now widely lost in the West. How many Catholics understand what is meant by the greater or lesser litanies, or by the expression “the Rogations” – clergy included? This loss is, unfortunately, something quite intentional in the new liturgical books. Possibly four litanies and processions in Eastertide were seen as “useless repetitions” or perhaps as having too ‘negative’ a theology.
Whatever the motivation of recent reformers, the importance and potency of the Rogations has been underlined by great men. Dom Guéranger relates that after his arrival in Milan Saint Charles Borromeo “spared neither word nor example to reanimate this salutary devotion among his people. He ordered fasting to be observed during these three days; he himself fasted on bread and water. The procession, in which all the clergy of the city were obliged to join, and which began after the sprinkling of ashes, started from the cathedral at an early hour in the morning, and was not over till three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Thirteen churches were visited on Monday; nine on Tuesday; and eleven on Wednesday. The saintly Archbishop celebrated Mass and preached in one of these churches.” (The Liturgical Year, Paschal Time, III 133)
Dom Guéranger himself lamented the lack of appreciation of the Rogations in his own day: “If we compare the indifference shown by the Catholics of the present age for the Rogation days, with the devotion wherewith our ancestors kept them, we cannot but acknowledge that there has been a great falling off in faith and piety. Knowing, as we do, the great importance attached to these processions by the Church, we cannot help wondering how it is that there are so few among the faithful who assist at them. Our surprise increases when we find persons preferring their own private devotions to these public prayers of the Church, which, to say nothing of the result of good example, merit far greater graces than any exercises of our own choosing.” (Ibid.)
The revival of the Rogations in our own times by the increasing number of communities who celebrate the usus antiquior, however, may be seen as one of the substantial fruits of the new liturgical movement—an uncontroversial one, I hope, that simply enriches the life of prayer of the Church for the good of the Church and the world.
Indeed, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves in this year of our Lord 2020, here once again we may see how utterly pastoral (in the true sense of that word), how alive and relevant the usus antiquior in fact is. We need the help of Almighty God urgently, and what better way to implore it in the coming days that by the devout praying of these liturgical litanies—with their attendant procession where possible?
Poignantly, Blessed Ildefonso Schuster informs us that “the stational church of St Mary Major” assigned for the celebration of Mass at the conclusion of the litanies on the Monday before Ascension “recalls the ancient litania septiformis or penitential procession instituted by St Gregory the Great in order to pray for the cessation of the plague.” (The Sacramentary, II, 371)
A mere quaint historical detail? No. This is how great saints confronted maladies beyond their control—with faith, with all the resources that the liturgy of the Church put at their disposal, and with fasting. The very formulae of the litanies resound with the battles they waged and eventually won through prayer. We would do well to imitate them. Have we the courage and conviction so to so? Dare we not?!
For ourselves, then, in the particular and urgent circumstances in which we find ourselves this year, I ask that in addition to the litanies and processions that are customary in the coming days, we observe them here as days of fasting and abstinence and of particular prayer: for the liberty of the Church in these peculiar times, most especially for her freedom to worship publicly; for the health, safety and eternal welfare of all those affected by the current pandemic – be they suffering themselves or caring for those who are; for the particular intentions of our oblates, associates, benefactors, friends and relations; and that Our Lord shall, in His Providence, provide our monastery with the means necessary to make our new home in the medieval Commandery of Brignoles once again a true house of prayer and hospitality in the Benedictine tradition.
To derogate thus from the joys of Eastertide in the coming three days is, I believe, proportionate in the grave circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. We are not Jansenists – we shall celebrate the Ascension and Pentecost fittingly! – but we are monks, and if we cannot take on extra prayer and penance, who can? Certainly, I shall invite our oblates and associates and other friends to join us in this in so far as their circumstances permit – and would that many more shall also – but it is for us to take the lead in this.
“Exurge Domine, adjuva nos et libera nos propter nomen tuum” (Arise, O Lord, help us and free us for the sake of your name), “Deus auribus nostris audivimus, patres nostri annuntiaverunt nobis” (We have heard, O God, with our ears; our fathers have declared unto us) the Antiphon which opens the litanies pleads. Let the coming days see these words rise from our hearts, through our lips, to Almighty God in profound supplication, as they have on faithful lips from the fifth century onwards. Thereby may we come to know the victory in which, through their perseverance in the Catholic faith even in the most terrible of circumstances in this world, our forebears now share. +