Novenas: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions

I grew up three blocks from St. Mary, Help of Christians Church in West Allis, Wis. At the time, the parish sponsored no school, so my sister and I were enrolled in the school of a neighboring parish. But with the exception of school events, my entire religious life centered around St. Mary’s. I went to Mass there, sang in the choir, and every Tuesday attended the novena in honor of the Mother of Perpetual Help. To this day I remember the hymns and many of the prayers. This novena was not like other novenas, which consist of some successive pattern of nine days: it was an ongoing weekly parish devotion. In a sense, the novena itself was perpetual.

While I doubt that as a child I understood the religious implications of the novena, I always felt that it was important to attend. I don’t recall ever having a pressing need to bring to the attention of the Mother of God, and it was not until I was an adult that I discovered that this particular devotion was part of the ethnic culture of the parish. Still, the Perpetual Help novena was as much a part of the religious landscape of my young life as were altar bells, incense and Easter lilies. They offered me a sense of belonging to a religious world and, in turn, to a sense of belonging to God.

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Novenas have a long history. The typical period of mourning that the ancient Greeks and Romans observed extended through nine days and culminated with a feast. The pagan character of the practice so offended Christians that they shortened their mourning period to seven days in order to distinguish themselves from nonbelievers. Sometime during the Middle Ages, Christmas novenas, which called to mind the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, began to appear in France and Spain. (The liturgical use of the O Antiphons in the days before Christmas is a remnant of this practice.) Other liturgical novenas arose, most notably one that precedes the feast of Pentecost. This is based on the biblical account of the disciples, who, after the ascension of the Lord, waited nine days for the coming of the Spirit (Lk 24:49, Acts 1:4).

The novena is sometimes confused with the octave. The latter is an eight-day extension of the celebration of a feast, for example, the octave of Christmas. A novena, on the other hand, usually consists of a nine-day period of intercession prompted by some urgent need. Where an octave follows the event that commemorates a manifestation of God’s goodness, a novena pleads that God’s goodness will be granted. An octave is joyful; a novena is marked by a degree of urgent anticipation. At least this was originally the case.

In the 17th century the character of the novena began to change. While remaining a form of petitionary prayer, it also became a way of honoring the one to whom the novena was directed. Around this time novenas in honor of Mary, under any number of titles, sprang up across Europe. Some religious communities also began to pray novenas in honor of their major patrons. Others developed the practice of preparing for major liturgical feasts by means of a novena. In the 19th century the church began granting indulgences for the faithful performance of certain novenas. The Raccolta, the official book of indulgences, lists more than 30 indulgenced novenas.

Today novenas play a role in my own life not unlike the role they played when I was a child. The novena is more a part of my religious culture than of my personal devotion. This is not to imply that it has lost its importance; rather, to repeat the image used above, it is part of the religious landscape of my lifenow as a member of my religious community. Like most communities, we Sisters of St. Agnes commemorate our patronal feasts with preparatory prayer, and in many of our houses this continues to assume the form of a novena. As part of our religious heritage, such common celebrations have created among us a communal identity and have strengthened the bonds that unite us.

Novenas may have originated during the Middle Ages, but they are certainly not outdated devotions. St. Agnes, for example, has traditionally been considered a patron of chastity. But her refusal to respond to an officially arranged marriage was, at that time in history, primarily a courageous act against the state. Today, we Sisters of St. Agnes pray for the courage to stand firm in our religious convictions regardless of the political consequences. Another patronal feast that we celebrate is the Immaculate Conception, the Marian title under which the United States was dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Our novena in preparation for that feast often centers on the pressing religious needs of our country. In such ways, community novenas provide us with periods of time to consider ways of remaining faithful to our religious commitment within the context of the contemporary world.

For me, the celebrations of these patronal feasts have recently taken on a totally new relevance and importance. Understanding the depth and power of the patrons’ commitment and interpreting anew the religious issues with which they are associated has made their witness a real challenge today. And the novenas in their honor provide me with time to reflect on the significance of these issues for my own life. Such novenas enable me to celebrate the respective feast in the religious spirit of the patron and not merely with a festive meal. Perhaps most significantly, novenas have become times of preparation for some change that I must make in my life, rather than times of storming heaven for a favor.

It is not surprising that religious communities with roots in centuries past continue the practice of novenas. But what about modern-day Christiansthose who have little time and less patience for periods of preparationthose who expect things to happen with the flick of a switch or the tap of a computer key? Would they find any value in a novena?

Why not? Most people today are in fact well acquainted with long periods of preparation. If anything, the complexity of modern life shows that adequate preparationthink of how many years of education are needed in some professionsis essential for success in life. On another, more intimate level, the nine months of pregnancy allow time for everyone involved to prepare not only for the anticipated birth itself, but also for the unfolding of life after the child is born. In general, then, I don’t think one can argue that people no longer have the patience to wait.

Some may also argue that novenas fail to capture the contemporary religious imagination because they do not encourage individuals to involve themselves in any pressing contemporary needs. And if anything, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, showed that modern-day people do indeed respond to urgent need. The tragedy touched a chord in the hearts of millions who, in response, thronged the streets and filled places of worship. Novenas, as Ihave discovered in my own life, can be a wonderful way to consider and reflect on such pressing and urgent needs. Perhaps, then, it is time to look again at the ancient practice of novenas, which engage us in the holiness of expectation and the joy of commitment, as a way of directing such powerful religious sentiments.

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