Because of the Litany of the Saints

At the Great Vigil of Easter this year, I teared up during the Litany of the Saints. Standing in the choir loft, I could see the entire parish, many of whom are dear friends, as we all pleaded with our heavenly companions to pray for us. At this time of immense crisis in our beloved Church, never has this plea for heavenly help felt more powerful and necessary.

Some of my non-Catholic friends think we Catholics pray to the saints. We don’t. During the Litany of the Saints, we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us. The Litany of the Saints begins by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also ask more than 50 saints, by name, to pray for us. Of course, these men and women are not the only saints. The Catholic Church has confirmed the existence of thousands of saints, men and women who have died and now are in union with God in heaven. Millions of other saints inhabit heaven, people whose lives were less notable. Faithful friends and family who have gone before us are also part of this great Communion of Saints. In great humility, we beg this cosmic communion to pray for us. We are a hurting Church. We need their prayers.

Throughout my life, in years and Masses past, I have merely endured this Litany of the Saints, which lasts for four or five minutes. To me, it was a monotonous listing of out-of-date names. Saints to me, I am sad to say, had no more meaning than two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.  Now, I understand that these flawed, vulnerable, and brave men and women are still alive, in the “cloud of witnesses.” They are part of the Communion of Saints  that exists here on earth, among the faithful souls on their way to heaven, and in heaven with those now united with God.

Thanks to my careful reading since Christmas, including the magnificent book  My Life with The Saints, which sparked Webster’s own conversion,  I now feel familiar with many of those names. These saints are my friends. The early church, Father James Martin, SJ, writes, focused more on the “companionship model, those who have gone ahead of us and are now cheering us on, brothers and sisters in the community of faith.” Here are the parishioners at Our Lady of Mercy, chanting the litany at their Great Vigil of Easter last year.

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This year in my New Jersey parish as the cantors sang each name at the Great Vigil, I could imagine the person, in all his or her quirky and holy individuality, behind the name. We Catholics need this Communion of Saints as never before. The credibility of our Church leaders is being questioned, and for good reason. I welcome this questioning. I share the disgust at the sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups. Only 1 percent of the Roman Catholic Church are priests and bishops, and a tiny proportion of them are the abusers and their enablers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs all of us to make right choices in accordance with reason and the divine law. This means we faithful must speak out for the good of the Church when the Church is in crisis. She is now.

The church scandals hit my family directly. We discovered years later, that a pedophilic priest served at the parish of my childhood, as did another priest who went on to move disturbed men from parish to parish. Reflecting on this now, my parents are deeply grateful that my brother never served as an altar boy or spent a moment alone with a priest or anyone on staff. Decades ago, one troubling incident my brother found out about from friends prompted my mom to call our pastor. He shrugged off the probability boys were being sexually abused by one of his subordinates. “We were so trusting,” my mom says. ” I should have called the police.”

As a result of this history, I was resistant to the idea of my own sons becoming altar servers, not because of the wonderful parish priest at our current parish, but because of that childhood experience that haunted, angered, and terrified me when my parents and the news media reported it years later. And I embrace rules that now prevent priests from spending tine alone with any parishioner—just as teachers are instructed not to spend time alone with one student. These rules both protect parishioners from sexual or other abuse and protect priests from the possibility of false allegations.

Trust, once broken, can be impossible to repair. Scores of Catholics of my generation and acquaintance have left the Church because of these scandals, either because they were abused as young boys or because they were repelled by learning of the abuse. But the truth remains that the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are wonderful, trustworthy men, who are as pained and disheartened and disgusted as the laity about child sexual abuse and the subsequent denials and cover-ups by bishops.

And the truth is that in its Bible-based traditions and sacramental life, the Catholic Church holds the fullness of faith. Bad people never will destroy the Church’s truth. Consider what Doctor of the Church St. Thomas of Aquinas said nearly seven centuries ago about priests, who daily bring us a foretaste of heaven through the Eucharist. “The priest consecrates the sacraments not by his own power, but as the minister of Christ, in whose person he consecrates this sacrament. But from the fact of being wicked he does not cease to be Christ’s minister because our Lord has good and wicked ministers or servants.” And so, in this crisis, we Catholics in the pews need to speak out from the depths of our consciences about the sins of the Church leaders. And as part of the Communion of Saints, we need to ask even more fervently for the prayers of those who have gone before us, marked with the signs of our indestructible faith.

  • Sarah Harkins

    Well said, Allison. I've always loved chanting the litany of saints–we even had it added to our wedding ceremony. But you're right, we need them now more than ever to intercede on our behalf.

  • Stefanie

    Allison — A joyous Easter Monday to you! My kids — all altar servers and the two girls also became/are sacristans– used to love singing this litany.I also love the newer Becker version — at Easter Vigil, (as RCIA director in the sanctuary with the Elect and their godparents), it is quite difficult for me to maintain my composure during this prayer to the saints. I generally 'lose it' as we begin. This year, one of the godparents reached over her shoulder and grasped my hand tightly and we both bowed our heads together and sang together (both our moms have passed away in the last two years — her mom was baptized on her death bed — we were both thinking of them, I know). It really helped, having Cathy's hand to hold, literally strengthening me. One saint holding onto another one, I suppose.Also — now — thanks to reading the Liturgyof the Hours and the Divine Office –this blog and other Catholic blogs –that I have been reading up more on various saints mentioned in the prayer, when I hear their names being sung, I smile, because they are now becoming like old friends –not a part of ancient history — still remembered…even now!

  • Stefanie

    And also — I admire you being in the choir. As a young child and teen, I was in the children's and adult choirs. Now as an adult, I just cannot sing in church without tears…it's unusual if I can sing there an entire song without tears, it moves me so. So, I know I could not be in choir — we have a demanding choir director (the best always are) and I can't successfully hold notes as I did when I was young and inexperienced in life.

  • Allison

    @Stefanie: I am glad I am not the only teary one. I am a big "crier," have been all my life, and I can sing and cry (well, not sob but have tears falling) at the same time. I guess tThat's a skill, eh? Blessings to you, Stefanie; I love hearing your stories.

  • Andy

    Batgirl,I like the St. Thomas Aquinas reference. The heresy that he is refuting here is Donatism, the belief that an unworthy (specifically apostate, but sexual immorality was also considered apostasy at the the time) priest could never validly consecrate the sacrament, even after full confession and reconciliation. St. Augustine campaigned against Donatism during his episcopacy at Hippo in North Africa. Being a devotee of all Sts. Thomas, however, I'd like to draw a parallel with the case of St. Thomas Becket, the "holy blissful martyr" of Canterbury, as Chaucer calls him. Becket's dispute with King Henry II regarded the principle of double jeopardy, in which the church claimed legal juristiction over its clergy, and would not allow them to be tried in civil courts for crimes committed before being defrocked, even if they had been defrocked for that particular crime. Since the church leaders of Norman England were also landowning nobility, the principle of double jeopardy made it very difficult for the crown to sieze their lands by accusing them of high crimes (the preferred method of consolidating real estate for the king).Thomas was killed by Henry's knights in Canterbury Cathedral on his way to mass, and the public outcry against his martyrdom resulted in his swift canonization and King Henry's public penance before the pope. However, most historians agree that the killing of Becket was instrumental to Henry becoming one of the most powerful Norman kings, in spite of any personal humiliation it may have caused him. By the time of the reformation, King Henry VIII could behead St. Thomas More and all the priests that stood with him for treason with no apology to the church.For as much as I love St. Thomas Becket and his devotions (abolished by Henry VIII but recently restored jointly by the Anglican and Catholic churches in England), I'm still conflicted over the issue for which he gave his life. Legally, church authorities have no standing in American courts, and the American legal system is far more just than that of the medieval Normans. But the idea that clergy should only be disciplined by the church and not civil authorities is particularly troubling in the context of the recent scandal.The Joker

  • Allison

    @The Joker: Thanks for that background. I knew none of this. It is good to get historic context.You wrote: "But the idea that clergy should only be disciplined by the church and not civil authorities is particularly troubling in the context of the recent scandal."My parents' generation (my folks were born in the early 1930s) thought pastors knew everything and would take care of everything; it never ever occurred to my mom to call the civil authorities. (the police) Times have changed. Not only would I (And my mom!) call civil authorities if I suspected child abuse happening; we are legally obligated to do so. If something happened in a church context, my FIRST call would be to the police, not parish or diocesan leaders.


    Great post, Allison. I have loved the Litany of the Saints for many years. I usually cry through them as well. When pope JPII died I recall watching his funeral on TV live from the Vatican City with my then six year old. We stayed up all night through the dawn hours. During the singing of the Litany of Saints the camera panned on the tops of the buildings surrounding Vatican City where statues of these Saints "stand watch." The image of these Saints and the sad singing of the Litany caused me to weep with grief for my beloved pope. Towards the end of the prayer the camera panned on his coffin where the pope's Bible sat atop. Suddenly a small breeze floated through Vatican Square and one little page from his Bible floated up and down. My then six year old exclaimed "Don't cry mommy. Look, the Holy Spirit is with us, it moved the page up and down!" I recall vividly that instant, and how moved I was at the faith my young child already had in God. When she went to school that morning her teacher asked why she looked so tired. My daughter told me that she responded "We stayed up until sunrise watching the pope's funeral. It was beautiful, but my mommy took it real hard…"

  • Laura R.

    Allison, thanks so much for this post. I'm having a hard time with the whole abuse crisis and you've provided some helpful perspective. You are so right about the need for the intercession of the saints! It occurs to me that this is something that much of the world (and perhaps the news media in particular) does not understand: that the Church is a much larger reality than the earthly institution they see.I'm a choir singer too and am much impressed that you can cry and sing at the same time — there's no way I could!

  • Allison

    @Laura R. I am trying to take the long view, to understand the Church has survived bad priests, even less than wonderful Popes and She has endured because she holds the fullness of faith – the truth. Yes, the Church – which is the mystical body of Christ after all, exist beyond the bounds of space and time.I am a champion crier. I can sing when tearing up. I can sing with tears rolling down my cheeks. I can't sing when I am sobbing, thrashing my teeth etc. And that is probably a good thing.blessings

  • Laura R.

    @Allison, exactly right; it's amazing when you think of the internal problems that the Church has survived throughout her history. The promise to St. Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail has held, and will continue.


    Greetings to all in the most Holy and Precious Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ!I have been pondering as of late, not the abuse crisis per se but the overall lack of faith crisis. This to me is at the heart of all our problems, in the Church, in the home, schools, workplaces and anywhere else if I missed any.Unfortunately, the Faith is under serious attack and as a whole, we are not grounded in the Faith nearly deep enough to resist the wave of modernism.Such ideas being taught today in our Catholic schools that if there is love it's not 'fornication'. Also regarding contraception, very few accept the Churches infallible teachings, and that can also be said of many other teachings, all of which are infallible, which is the same as saying,The Express Word of God.Now, I am as guilty as anyone of such views, only difference is I have repented of my erroneous ways and have resubmitted to Holy Mother Church, thanks be to Gods grace. I have wondered and pondered: Are we reaping what we have sown? Seems to me it is a very possible yes. So let us not point the finger outwardly, but inwardly. Let us Love ourselves so that we can then Love others as Christ commands.What better way than to immerse ourselves in Christ, who IS Life Eternal!Throw away the remote, shut off the pleasures of this world. All of the Holy Apostles preached exactly that. If we do not live Holy lives, what can we expect? Remember what Christ asks: 'Why do you call me Lord, yet do not what I say?'if we do not what He says He is not our lord, Satan is. God Bless. .

  • Allison

    @mkn2929: Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. One thing that is SO tough today is that popular culture actively works against the values we parents are trying to inculcate in our children. That was not the case many years ago. The TV is not a help I agree!Blessings to you.


    Hi Allison! God be with you! I might suggest to you and your readers a really wholesome website with free mp3's that can be downloaded as well to iPods if you wish or just played locally. I highly recommend the Rev. Hugh Thwaites, SJ. There are also dramatized files on some of the more pleasant apparitions of Our Lady very suitable for children. The very last talk on the page I highly recommend for anyone who needs a wakeup call or knows someone who does, on just how serious God is about us living Holy lives and why The Bible contains continuous exhortations regarding this subject. After listening to this, you will never wonder again what St. Paul meant by working out your salvation in fear and trembling. God Bless!