A novena (from Latin: novem, “nine”) is an ancient tradition of devotional praying in Christianity, consisting of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive days or weeks. The nine days between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost, when the disciples gathered in the upper room and devote themselves to prayer, is often considered to be the first novena.
In some Christian communities, such as in Africa, Latin America and the Philippines, novena traditions are popular and include devotional rituals such as congregational prayers, statue decoration, hymn singing with music, as well as community fiesta events over beverages, refreshments or processions. Individuals may express love and honor by kneeling, burning candles or placing flowers before the person represented by a statue.
Novenas are most often prayed by members of the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Lutherans. In addition, novenas have also been used in an ecumenical Christian context, such as those promulgated by Premier Christian Radio in an effort to pray for church renewal.
The prayers are often derived from devotional prayer books, or consist of the recitation of the rosary (a “rosary novena”), or of short prayers through the day. Novena prayers are customarily printed in small booklets, and the novena is often dedicated to a specific angel, saint, Marian title of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or one of the personages of the Holy Trinity. In the Catholic tradition, much-used novena prayers include doctrinal statements in addition to a personal petition. The doctrinal part of the prayers are studied by its ecclesiastical staff, like formal translations of Christian scripture, and officially declared to be free of doctrinal errors with nihil obstat and imprimatur.
The word Novena is rooted in the Latin word for nine. The practice of the novena is based in early Christianity, where Masses were held for nine days with devotional prayers to someone who has died. The practice may trace its origins to an early Greek and Roman custom performed by families, consisting of nine days of mourning after the death of a loved one, followed by a feast, which originally prompted Catholic writers such as St. Augustine, Pseudo-Alcuin and John Beleth to warn Christians not to emulate the custom.
Over time, members of Roman Catholic faith began to associate novena with Christian themes such as the nine months Jesus spent in the womb, the giving up of His spirit at the ninth hour, and the event which occurred in the Upper Room with Twelve Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary when they prayed for nine days until the Holy Spirit descended on the Feast of the Pentecost. In the New Testament, this biblical event is often quoted from Acts of the Apostles, 1:12 – 2:5. The Church Fathers also assigned special meaning to the number nine, seeing it as symbolic of imperfect man turning to God in prayer (due to its proximity with the number ten, symbolic of perfection and God).
The practice of novena grew by the Middle Ages to include pious prayers for nine days before a feast in honor of a saint identified on a liturgical calendar. By the 11th century, the novena practice had become a means in Christianity of praying to petition spiritual or personal favor through a saint, such as Virgin Mary. After the Reformation and Counter-reformation era, the Catholic Church formally approved novenas, in particular through the papal approvals of a large number of novenas by Pope Pius IX.
In the Roman Catholic Church, there are three recognized categories of novenas, though this distinction is not exclusive:
- Mourning, or before a burial;
- In preparation for a Church feast; the revised Enchiridion Indulgentiarum assigns indulgenced novenas to particular feasts: “A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who devoutly take part in the pious exercises of a public novena before the feast of Christmas or Pentecost or the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
- Intercessory (for a particular request).
By standard liturgical norms, novenas are performed in church, at home, or anywhere where solemn prayers are appropriate, though some indulgenced novenas require church attendance. Sometimes, a special candle or incense is lit at the beginning of the novena which burns during the nine days of prayer.
The first chapter of the General Principles of Sacrosanctum Concilium, #13, of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) sought to give guidance on the place of novenas in Christian piety:
Devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.
Within the Roman Catholic tradition, novena prayers typically include a praise of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ or a saint, acknowledgment of the Christian doctrines, and a personal petition. Other than the petition, the rest of much used prayers used in a public setting is studied by the clergy and then approved to be free from doctrinal and moral errors. The approval is given in the form of an Imprimatur, Nihil Obstat, and Imprimi potest. These ecclesiastical approval are usually granted by a bishop or any ranking prelate for publication and approval.
Novenas have been a widespread practice in Catholic history. Novena prayers are also practised by Lutheran, Orthodox and Anglican Christians, who hold close or similar beliefs regarding its pious practice. In addition, novenas have also been used in an ecumenical Christian context, such as those promulgated by Premier Christian Radio, in order to pray for Church renewal.
A novena is a ritualistic devotional worship where one or more Christian devotees make petitions, implore favors, or obtain graces by honoring Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary or the saints of the faith who are believed to empower divine intervention. According to Fenella Cannell – a professor of Anthropology specializing in Christianity, a Novena is “a supplicatory act of worship”.
In Christian communities of Philippines and Latin America, novena traditions include devotional rituals in front of an altar, with nine levels where the Holy Cross is placed at the top. These are lit up with candles, decorated with flowers and other ritual items. Additionally, the space may have many statues decorated, and these statues typically include those of Virgin Mary, Apostles and saints of regional significance. The first day, the votive candles are placed on level one, and with each day the candles are raised by one level towards the Holy Cross. Further, each day includes congregational prayers, hymn singing with music, private and public devotionals. Some novenas include, sometimes on the last day, community fiesta events over beverages, refreshments or processions.
Rosary Novena is linked to religious death rituals. Among the Filipino Catholic Christians, the Rosary Novena has been a prayer practice for nine days starting the day when someone dies, with formal funeral services timed to the ninth day. Elsewhere, the day of funeral service or when the body is interred is timed to local customary practices, while the nine day novena is held at the home of the deceased as elsewhere.
Novena practices were introduced into communities by Christian missionaries in their colonial era and postmodern era proselytization efforts in Africa, as well as new world plantation colonies where African slaves were settled such as in Brazil. These initiatives brought a sense of socioreligious community.
Some practices are unique to Africa. Various denominations of Christianity in Africa have introduced regional novena practices that include devotional prayers, singing, and clap, wave, or shout offerings. The novena devotionalism in Ghana includes on each of the nine nights, after the loud prayers, the blood-covering of Jesus, where the devotees stain themselves considering it to be symbolism for the blood of Christ.
Among the coastal West African Christian communities, novena is a means of petitioning God through worship and fasting, along with traditional rituals. Syncretic new age religious practices in Nigeria have adopted the nine day of novena prayer ritualism. In Zimbabwe, according to Lawrence Daka – a professor and a Zimbabwean Jesuit,
Their [Catholic clergy] healing sessions are theatric, hysterical, loud and really engaging to the extent that some people fall to the ground and others feel the power of God piercing through their bodies. Some of the strong willed Catholics have taken up Novena after Novena seeking divine intervention in a sickness or misfortune. In short, there is a great yearning and thirsting for a religion that delivers quick answers to people’s problems which range from misfortunes to dealing with illness and death.— The Church and the Challenges of the Healing Ministry in Zimbabwe, May 2015
Europe and North America
Devotional and paraliturgical novenas have been common in Europe as well as with European settlers in North America. These have included public worship such as Mass and private praying with religious items such as a rosary and images particularly related to the Virgin Mary. According to James M. O’Toole, a professor of History specializing in American Catholic history, the period between World War I and mid-1950s were the “heyday of American Catholic devotionalism”. This period witnessed novena devotionalism along with popularity of sodalities, confraternities, devotion to saints, meatless Fridays, holy cards, rosary, cross and eucharistic practices. These provided a sense of communal identification, states O’Toole, particularly in a time of mass migration. The novena had strong roots in ethnic neighborhoods, and devotional worship had sociopolitical links, offering a sense of communal security through religious symbols in a period of uncertainty and fear. As economic prosperity and a sense of national solidarity grew in and after the 1960s, the novena ritualism waned and the participation in church worship services fell.
In Eastern and Central Europe, novena practices continue. For example, novenas among the faithful in the Czech Republic include nine hour prayers dedicated to the Infant Jesus of Prague, where the devotee can plead personal, urgent needs before the statue of the Christ Child, and on May 27 every year, the statue is ceremoniously paraded through the streets of Prague with prayers and songs. During the communist era, the devout orthodox Christians in the former Yugoslavia organized the Great Novena under the statue of Virgin Mary, to resist the state enforced atheism, to maintain the freedom to practice religion, and to re-assert the Christian legacy of the region, particularly in Croatia.
In Catholic Ireland, states Professor Gladys Ganiel, devotional practices such as novenas have been popular. The cultural acceptance of devotional worship has been historically high, and those Irish who themselves do not perform novenas, nevertheless respect those who do. Some of their Catholic ritual practices were repressed by the British state during the 18th and 19th centuries, but repression and criticism only increased the resolve of the Irish to persist in their ways of practicing their faith.
In North America, annual novenas are observed in some regions such as in Montreal, Canada, where between March 10 and 19 the annual novena ends on a feast of Saint Joseph. A religious survey, published in the 1921 Bulletin of the University of Notre Dame, states that novena prayers were popular, and particularly common among students during examinations, or illness, or after the death of a fellow student. The Novena-Seance remain popular in many regions of the United States, such as among the Roman Catholics of Louisiana where novenas are dedicated to St. Jude and the Virgin Mary. These novenas are prayers believed to create a contact between the saint and the devotee, and thereby invoke divine intervention in whatever problem or anxiety is important to the devotee.
Las Posadas is a novena celebrated chiefly in Latin America, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, and by Hispanics in the United States. It is typically celebrated each year between December 16 and December 24.
The novena has been an important part of Christianity in the Caribbean and Latin America, both among the native Indian communities who converted to Christianity under the colonial Spanish or Portuguese rule, as well as the diverse communities that formed anew from millions of slaves and indentured laborers brought to the Americas from different parts of Africa and Asia. The devotional prayers are dedicated to statues of Jesus Christ, Madonna and various saints. They are also a part of velorio (wake) after the death of someone, which includes nine nights of novena (rezos de los nueve días).
According to Patrick Taylor and Frederick Case, the attendance to Christian religious services has been low, except after the death of a loved one or a significant socio-political individual, and during the times of difficulty such as epidemics or a drought. Many perform devotional worship with rosaries within their home before images of Christ and the Christian saints at a small dedicated altar within their living spaces. Like proselytism in Africa and Asia, missionaries of various denominations of Christianity, including Protestantism, have championed novenas in Hispanic-Latino communities as a part of their efforts to attract new converts to their ministries.
Colombians celebrate a novena in the nine days leading to Christmas, known as the novena of aguinaldos.
Novenas are still a common sight in India, especially in the state of Kerala. They are practised by Roman Catholics and oriental Catholics (e.g. Syro-Malabar Christians and Syro-Malankara Christians) and by the Orthodox Christians (Malankara Orthodox Christians and Jacobite Orthodox Christians). Novenas are common to Mother Mary (recited every Saturday), Saint George (common by the Orthodox and recited every Wednesday), Saint Jude and others.
Philippines and Melanesia
Novenas remain a popular devotional practice in the Philippines. It is observed, for example, in the Simbang Gabi immediately preceding Christmas, and the novena preceding the Feast of the Santo Niño de Cebú (Holy Child) on the third Sunday of January. The first nine days are marked with prayers, petitions and singing. During the main procession, the Santo Niño image is taken through the streets of Cebu City, with many people carrying their own replicas, decorated according to their own tastes. In Loboc, Bohol, the most popular novena is dedicated to a Black Madonna statue, with each service called the Gozos, which includes a chanting of praises to the Virgin in Spanish and Visayan, dancing, choir recitals, and a feast with fireworks on the last day.
In Manila, popular novenas to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Saint Jude Thaddeus, and the Black Nazarene are assigned to the last three days of the week. Each novena is associated with a particular shrine, and have all been approved by the Holy See. Some organizations have also begun offering the novena rituals online for devotees.
The Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help is observed on nine consecutive Wednesdays in Baclaran. The Saint Jude novena on Thursdays invokes the apostle’s status as the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, and is popular with students taking examinations. The Black Nazarene novena held on Fridays marks the journey of Christ with the cross to his crucifixion. The image, novena, and associated devotional practices have a large following. In 2011, over six million Catholic devotees flocked to the Black Nazarene procession in Manila alone.
In 19th century Melanesia, the Christian clergy linked the end of epidemics, such as the measles of 1860, and credited the survival of the communities after major disasters to the dedicated and great outburst of prayers to Christian icons, to “fervent novena”. Similarly, the Black Madonna novenas in Luboc started after similar crediting by the Christian clergy that the island community survived after a severe epidemic of cholera because they made devotional prayers to the Virgin Mary (Madonna) during their time of suffering.
- Rosary Devotions and Spirituality
- Miraculous Medal novena
- Novena of Grace
- Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help
- Octave (liturgy), Triduum
- Right Reverend Monsignor Joseph F. Stedman, The New Revised ‘Triple’ Novena Manual, Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1975.
- Barbara Calamari & Sandra DiPasqua, Novena, Penguin Studio, 1999. ISBN 0-670-88444-8.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia