The pre-Vatican II ritual you’ve probably never heard of—and we should definitely bring back
What if the church had days specifically designated for big “asks” of God—forgiveness for transgressions, protection from disaster, protection of crops? If you checked the liturgical calendar prior to the Second Vatican Council, you’d find exactly that: the Rogation Days. Commemorated on April 25, as well as on the three days preceding Ascension Thursday, they were days the church dedicated to petitionary prayer (the Latin word rogare means “to ask”) focused on resolving physical and spiritual needs, averting war or pandemic, and soliciting a productive growing season. Prior to this past year, they might have seemed outdated; but today, could any spiritual practice be more opportune for our time?
As a prelude to the celebration of a petition-themed Eucharist, the Rogation Day ritual included a procession during which the Litany of the Saints was sung. The litany not only called upon the intercessory help of holy ancestors in the faith, but also expressed a long series of specific intentions. This was followed by the recitation of Psalm 70 (a prayer for deliverance) and additional intercessions and prayers.
Such a collection of prayer upon prayer would seem to ignore Jesus’ admonition not to be like people “who think they will be heard because of their many words.” After all, Jesus offered the concise prayer we know as the Our Father. Yet, this group expression of human need ritualizes, however imperfectly, the realization that everyone and everything is connected, and we must have the humility necessary to ask for help. At a time when humbly advocating for the common good is too often interpreted as a sign of weakness, the revival of Rogation Days may be a needed antidote.
We can begin these days by asking, What are some of the human needs and sorrows that are so perplexing that they require the humility of seeking divine assistance? Certainly our church and society have no lack of things to pray about: the fate of essential workers with inadequate salaries and insufficient protective equipment; the denigration of immigrants and asylum seekers; broken treaties with Native Americans and the preservation of inequalities on reservations; systemic racism that allows food deserts, under-funded schools, questionable incarcerations and a dead-end process for home loans.
At a time when humbly advocating for the common good is too often interpreted as a sign of weakness, the revival of Rogation Days may be a needed antidote.
We can pray about imperialistic policies of the United States; unmitigated capitalism and overconsumption; denial of global warming; the selfishness supporting that denial; and the poor who are the first to suffer the consequences. There is also unequal pay for women, homophobia and prejudice.
Other themes for prayer include the tragedy of abortion and the tragedy of circumstances that force women to make that decision; the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis, liturgy wars, clericalism, self-preservation tactics and marginalization of women; the pandemics of Covid-19 and white supremacy; our inability to be concerned with any issue that does not immediately affect ourselves.
Even this partial list can be so overwhelming as to immediately bring us to concede defeat. The temptation is to do nothing. But grace suggests the path of humility, one that requires us to act. “Ask, and it will be given you,” is not a magical incantation, however, but rather a profession that the only recourse for human weakness, complicity and sinfulness is to rely on the mercy of God and accept its obligations. So how shall we make intercession?
We need a renewed understanding of petitionary prayer. When we call out to God to come to our aid, we need to be ready for God’s unique response. From the burning bush, Moses heard this divine message: “I have observed the misery of my people…. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them…. So come, I will send you to bring my people out of Egypt.” And when the disciples advised Jesus to send away a hungry crowd, he replied, “You give them something to eat.” Instead of formulating petitions that focus exclusively on what we are asking God to accomplish for us, we must include a request for wisdom and courage to collaborate with this saving work of God.
When we ask God to hear us, we must be willing to hear God teach us and raise our consciousness regarding how we got ourselves into a particular mess and how we can address it.
When we ask God to hear us, we must be willing to hear God teach us and raise our consciousness regarding how we got ourselves into a particular mess and how we can address it. One way to express this openness is to be open to hearing God speak to us through others. This might mean that we must be open to a variety of presiders for our prayers for Rogation Days. Perhaps it does not always need to be a cleric vested in purple damask fabric with embroidered trimming, but rather someone who can embody the focus of the specific petition: a woman, a person of color, a member of sexual minority group, an abuse survivor or an essential worker; someone whose lived experience, which may be far different from our own, can teach with an immediacy that challenges our consciences.
Although the early church designated certain times throughout the liturgical year as Rogation Days, it was also free to proclaim them when a need arose. It seems wise for a local church to choose just one pressing issue or part of an issue as the focus of a Rogation Day. Other issues on other days may follow, but the goal is “a clean heart” and “a new and right spirit” that does not seek someone or something to blame but that activates personal gifts and concomitant responsibilities.
Praying the Litany of the Saints taps into the Catholic sensibility that we move within a vast loving community. As many Catholics begin to gather together for worship in churches again, we are reminded that we are not alone. We have mentors who pray with us, “God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We have models who show us how it is done.
The genius of Catholic ritual is its attention to bodily experience: for example, moving as a group in procession while singing. But even the use of fewer words can leave room for a silence focused on what the body is honestly feeling in response to crisis, such as helplessness, fear or resistance; expansiveness, love or compassion.
Embracing feelings held by the body helps to discern how God’s grace will be moving within an individual. Rogation Day prayer is not a private affair, but it affects each person uniquely. Sent forth from this communal prayer experience, some will be challenged to work through their resistance; others will be challenged to put their compassion into action. A living faith calls everyone to act.
Rogation Days are not likely to immediately repair the ills, pandemics and other pressing needs facing the church, the United States or the world. But they might be the key to heeding one of Jesus’ greatest challenges: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”