By ancient tradition in the Roman rite, the historical days on which a procession of penance and supplication was held. Because the litany of the Saints was sung during the procession, the name for these days in ancient documents is Major or Minor Litanies.
The title Major Litany is not given in opposition to the Minor Litany, but because of the greater solemnity of the occasion, the feast of St. Mark, (April 25). Neither the origin nor the theme of the rogation observance has anything to do with St. Mark. Of strictly Roman origin, the Major Litany was instituted to supplant an already existing pagan ceremony called the Robigalia held on this day. The pagan Romans went in procession down the via Flaminia as far as the Milvian Bridge and there offered the entrails of a dog and a sheep to the god Robigus. The objective they sought was to protect the sprouting crops from blight caused by rust (robigo ). Chanting the Litany of the Saints, Christians followed the same processional route but ended it at St. Peter's basilica. The name Major Litany appeared for the first time during the pontificate of Gregory the Great (d. 604).
The Minor Litanies were begun around 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, France. Several days of penitential procession were held to invoke divine protection against a recurrence of the earthquake that had recently wrought such havoc in the city. This custom soon spread to other French localities and even to Rome under Leo III (d. 816). These processions were held on each of the three days that immediately precede Ascension Thursday.
See Also: processions, religious.
Bibliography: a. adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History and Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (Collegeville 1981). a. nocent, The Liturgical Year, 4 v. (Collegeville 1977). t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, rev. ed. (Collegeville 1992). i. h. dalmais, p. jounel, and a. g. martimort, The Liturgy and Time: The Church at Prayer v. 4 (Collegeville 1992).
[j. h. miller/eds.]