A litany is a tricky form of prayer
In the mid to late 80s, Pope John Paul II took three summers and dedicated his mini-reflections at the public praying of the midday Angelus to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The Polish pope drew his reflections from the Litany of the Sacred Heart (which you can pray with the podcast here from Aleteia’s editor-at-large, Elizabeth Scalia).
As I was reading through the first several reflections from John Paul, it struck me that a litany is a tricky form of prayer.
God himself provided us with the model for litanies in Psalm 136, as the refrain “for his mercy endures forever” is repeated in each verse. Then the Sacred Liturgy gives us a kind of mini-litany at each Mass, with the Kyrie (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy), drawn from much longer litanies of mercy in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern tradition.
Litanies are calming, meditative prayers, helping us to really dwell on one or several key truths or petitions, letting them sink in to the heart and mind.
But the repetition can have the effect of dulling us to the depth and wealth of the truths we mention in the prayer. And hence it’s good, as St. John Paul II did, to stop and really consider each phrase.
For a long litany like the Litany of the Sacred Heart, it could be useful to dedicate a day to considering just one verse — or perhaps take the morning to dwell on one title, and then in the afternoon, move to the next one, and so on, until you’ve contemplated the whole litany.
When we stop to really think about what we’re saying, we can draw from the litany the consolation and grace God wants to give us.
John Paul II can give us a start. Here are translations of phrases taken from his reflections on some of the first few petitions.
Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father, have mercy on us.
“The infinite God has permitted that he be embraced by the Heart of a Man whose name is Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. And through the Heart of the Son, God the Father also draws near to our hearts, and comes to them.”
Heart of Jesus, formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mother, have mercy on us.
“Right now, we want to make this Heart the only custodian of our poor human hearts, of hearts tried in so many respects, oppressed in various ways.”
Heart of Jesus, infinite in majesty, have mercy on us.
“This Heart is the maximum closeness of God in relation to human hearts and human history. This Heart is the marvelous ‘condescension’ of God: the human Heart that beats with divine life; divine life beating in the human heart.”
Heart of Jesus, aflame with love for us, have mercy on us.
“A furnace burns. In burning, it sears away all that is material: brush or any other easily combustible material. The Heart of Jesus, the human Heart of Jesus, burns with the love that permeates it. And this love is love for the Eternal Father and love for men, for the adopted daughters and sons. A furnace, in burning, little by little goes out. The Heart of Jesus, instead, is an inextinguishable furnace. It resembles the burning bush of the Book of Exodus, that God revealed to Moses.”
Heart of Jesus, source of justice and love, have mercy on us.
“In You the Eternal Father has offered humanity the justice that is in the Most Holy Trinity, in God Himself. The justice that is of God is the definitive foundation of our justification. This justice comes to us through love.”
The text of the litany is here.
The reflections from John Paul’s Angelus addresses on the Litany of the Sacred Heart are compiled in this book.