THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
With the increasing popularity of the Divine Mercy Novena, which began on Good Friday and ended on the Sunday after Easter, many Catholics are rediscovering an ancient form of Catholic prayer which has fallen out of regular use in recent years — the novena. “Novena” comes from the Latin word novem (nine) and refers to a nine-day period of public or private prayer to obtain special graces, to ask for special favors, or to make special petitions.
There is no mention of nine-day celebrations among the Jewish people in the Old Testament, so it is likely that the origin of the novena is not in Jewish practice. However, Roman culture had a tradition of celebrating nine days of prayer for various reasons, such as to avert some evil predicted by soothsayers or in the aftermath of some “wonder.” There was also a nine-day period of mourning after the death of a loved one, with a special feast on the ninth day. These practices make it likely that the origin of the novena is in the adaptation of Roman culture to Christianity as the Christian religion began to spread outside of Palestine. The very first novena of the followers of Christ, however, is described in the New Testament. Between the Ascension of Christ and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost nine days later, the Acts of the Apostles recounts that they spent the time in constant prayer.
In the ancient church, novenas continued to be associated with nine days of prayer after someone had died, just as in the pagan Roman community. For this reason, some of the Church Fathers, such as Augustine, warned against the practice. As Christianity spread, however, the practice expanded to include periods of prayer honoring a particular saint, in preparation for a feast day, or to ask for special favors from God. Church writers began to associate the nine days with specifically Christian themes, such as the nine months Jesus spent in the womb of Mary, Jesus giving up his spirit at the ninth hour, and the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Some writers also gave numbers various symbolic meanings. The number ten was seen as symbolic of the perfection of God, so the number nine was seen as symbolic of imperfect humans turning toward God. By the Middle Ages, novenas of all types had become popular, especially those associated with Mary. After the Protestant Reformation, novenas used by Catholics had to have papal approval, and Pope Pius IX (pope from 1846 to 1878) was known for approving large numbers of novenas and promoting their use.
Novenas generally have one or more of four basic purposes. There are mourning novenas to pray for the soul of a departed loved one either before or after burials, which was their original use. Preparation novenas are joyful and are prayed in preparation for a feast day. Petition novenas ask God for intervention or some other help, usually through the intercession of a saint. Finally, Indulgence novenas are acts of penance and are usually said in conjunction with the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Novenas can be a spiritually fruitful form of devotion when approached properly. First, we must remember that a novena is an act of devotion to God. One possible reason for the decline in popularity of novenas recently is that they came to have superstitious overtones. Some people approached them almost as a form of “magic,” believing that if they said a particular novena their prayer would always be granted, rather than seeing a novena as ultimately an act of devotion with its outcome dependent on God’s will. The traditional novena is said over a period of nine days although it can be said in a shorter format by saying the prayers once per hour over a period of nine hours. It is helpful to pray the novena at the same time each day or each hour to develop the discipline of prayer. Novenas can be prayed privately or with a group. Some parishes have even experimented with praying a novena in a social media live stream that people can join virtually!
If you decide to explore this devotional practice further, there is available a multitude of novenas to many different saints, for many different needs and for many different feasts. Try one!
(Ruth Powers is the Program Coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)