Anyone who has ever felt the need to storm heaven, in supplication for special graces or favours, may already have some notion of what a novena prayer is about. Although novena prayers are also offered in thanksgiving, or even as penance, there is usually a sense of urgency and neediness expressed in this type of devotion, which is practised both individually and collectively, in private or in public. Well-known prayers such as rosaries or chaplets can be prayed in a novena, as well as special set prayers, or personal prayers simply expressed in one’s own words. A novena of Masses can also be offered for special intentions.
The term novena is sometimes applied more generically to any lengthy series of popular devotional prayers. Nevertheless, the word derives from the Latin ‘novem’ (nine), as these prayers are typically offered for a duration of nine consecutive days. This is believed to date back to ancient Roman times when an intense nine-day period of mourning and commendation of the soul, followed by a feast, would be observed on the death of a loved one. By the Middle Ages, novenas had developed into a form of preparation for great Church feasts, such as Christmas. Mindful of the Holy Infant’s nine-month rest in His Virgin Mother’s womb, one could hardly imagine a better context for Advent meditation than the novena. In our times, the Christmas novena has become a much-loved tradition among the faithful of many cultures.
The scriptural foundation of this devotion doesn’t end here. Tradition relates that in the days following Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, Our Lady and the Apostles, at Our Lord’s request, prayerfully awaited the Holy Spirit. This period of intense prayer in the upper room, starting at the Ascension and culminating in a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday, must surely be the strongest invitation for us to follow suit.
Father Benedict Groeschel (C.F.R.) recalls that before Vatican II “every respectable parish had its perpetual or ongoing novena”. He goes on to explain that “these were in honour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ under some title or they were devotions to Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Help (originally a devotion of the Eastern churches) or of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal or even of Our Lady of Sorrows.” He reminds us that “various saints had their own novenas, usually preceding their feast days;” and with a touch of humour he adds, “St Anthony was so popular that he might find himself bombarded by prayer on a weekly basis throughout the year.” Would that we, the faithful, were moved once more to gather in our parishes to bring our heartfelt petitions before God with such simplicity and devotion!
It is beautiful and indeed a privilege for us to be able to choose a heavenly patron for a particular cause or simply out of special love and devotion, to join with us in prayer and intercession in a novena. As an added bonus, the Church, from Her spiritual treasury, has granted indulgences for many such prayers. In a novena of indulgence there is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven in sacramental confession.
Given that Jesus Himself left us in no doubt as to the importance of persistent and repeated prayer (Luke 11:5-9 and 18:1-7), and that at times our human weakness demands the discipline and structure the novena offers, we would do well to consider incorporating this once popular form of Catholic devotion into our own prayer life. As Father Groeschel puts it so well:
“God does not need nine prayers or even one prayer to know what we really need, but mysteriously Christ tell us to pray incessantly and assures us that God will give His Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. He also tells us that He will provide what we really need and not merely what we simply want.”
Speaking of his own experience, Father Groeschel concludes: “looking back over six decades of insistent, if not devout, prayer, I can unhesitatingly say “Amen” to the words of the Gospel: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).
For an online treasury of Catholic novenas click here.
Further recommended reading about novenas with a foreword by Fr Groeschel and some novena prayers: “The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas” by Michael Dubruiel.
Here is an online Raccolta of indulgenced good works and prayers.