Catholic Activity: The Greater Litanies on the Major Rogation Day
This day is honored in the Liturgy by what is called Saint Mark’s Procession. The term, however, is not a correct one, inasmuch as a procession was a privilege peculiar to April 25 previously to the institution of our Evangelist’s feast, which even so late as the sixth century had no fixed day in the Roman Church. The real name of this procession is The Greater Litanies. The word Litany means Supplication, and is applied to the religious rite of singing certain chants whilst proceeding from place to place in order to propitiate heaven. The two Greek words Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy on us) were also called Litany, as likewise were the invocations which were afterwards added to that cry for mercy, and which now form a liturgical prayer used by the Church on certain solemn occasions.
The Greater Litanies (or processions) are so called to distinguish them from the Minor Litanies, that is, processions of less importance as far as the solemnity and concourse of the faithful were concerned. We gather from an expression of St. Gregory the Great that it was an ancient custom in the Roman Church to celebrate, once each year, a Greater Litany, at which all the clergy and people assisted. This holy Pontiff chose April 25 as the fixed day for this procession, and appointed the Basilica of St. Peter as the Station.
Several writers on the Liturgy have erroneously confounded this institution with the processions prescribed by St. Gregory for times of public calamity. It existed long before his time, and all that he did was to fix it on April 25. It is quite independent of the feast of St. Mark, which was instituted at a much later period. If April 25 occur during Easter week, the procession takes place on that day (unless it be Easter Sunday), but the feast of the Evangelist is not kept till after the octave.
The question naturally presents itself—why did St. Gregory choose April 25 for a procession and Station in which everything reminds us of compunction and penance, and which would seem so out of keeping with the joyous season of Easter? The first to give a satisfactory answer to this difficulty was Canon Moretti, a learned liturgiologist of the eighteenth century. In a dissertation of great erudition, he proves that in the fifth, and probably even in the fourth, century, April 25 was observed at Rome as a day of great solemnity. The faithful went, on that day, to the Basilica of St. Peter, in order to celebrate the anniversary of the first entrance of the Prince of the Apostles into Rome, upon which he thus conferred the inalienable privilege of being the capital of Christendom. It is from that day that we count the twenty-five years, two months, and some days that St. Peter reigned as Bishop of Rome. The Sacramentary of St. Leo gives us the Mass of this solemnity, which afterwards ceased to be kept. St. Gregory, to whom we are mainly indebted for the arrangement of the Roman Liturgy, was anxious to perpetuate the memory of a day which gave to Rome her grandest glory. He therefore ordained that the Church of St. Peter should be the Station on that auspicious day. April 25 comes too frequently during the octave of Easter that it could not be kept as a feast, properly so called, in honour of St. Peter’s entrance into Rome; St. Gregory, therefore, adopted the only means left of commemorating the great event.
But there was a striking contrast resulting from this institution, of which the holy Pontiff was fully aware, but which he could not avoid: it was the contrast between the joys of Paschal Time and the penitential sentiments wherewith the faithful should assist at the procession and Station of the Great Litany. Laden as we are with the manifold graces of this holy season, and elated with our Paschal joys, we must sober our gladness by reflecting on the motives which led the Church to cast this hour of shadow over our Easter sunshine. After all, we are sinners, with much to regret and much to fear; we have to avert those scourges which are due to the crimes of mankind; we have, by humbling ourselves and invoking the intercession of the Mother of God and the Saints, to obtain the health of our bodies, and the preservation of the fruits of the earth; we have to offer atonement to divine justice for our own and the world’s pride, sinful indulgences, and insubordination. Let us enter into ourselves, and humbly confess that our own share in exciting God’s indignation is great; and our poor prayers, united with those of our holy Mother the Church, will obtain mercy for the guilty, and for ourselves who are of the number.
A day, then, like this, of reparation to God’s offended majesty, would naturally suggest the necessity of joining some exterior penance to the interior dispositions of contrition which filled the hearts of Christians. Abstinence from flesh meat has always been observed on this day at Rome; and when the Roman Liturgy was established in France by Pepin and Charlemagne, the Great Litany of April 25 was, of course, celebrated, and the abstinence kept by the faithful of that country. A Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 836, enjoined the additional obligation of resting from servile work on this day: the same enactment is found in the Capitularia of Charles the Bald. As regards fasting, properly so called, being contrary to the spirit of Paschal Time, it would seem never to have been observed on this day, at least not generally. Amalarius, who lived in the ninth century, asserts that it was not then practiced even in Rome.
During the procession, the Litany of the Saints is sung, followed by several versicles and prayers. The Mass of the Station is celebrated according to the Lenten Rite, that is, without the Gloria in excelsis, and in purple vestments.
—Excerpted from The Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
Activity Source: Liturgical Year, The by Abbot Gueranger O.S.B., Marian House, 1983