Knowing the Novena

Succinctly, a novena is a nine-day period of private or public prayer to obtain special graces, to implore special favors, or make special petitions. (Novena is derived from the Latin novem, meaning nine.) As the definition suggests, the novena has always had more of a sense of urgency and neediness.

In our liturgical usage, the novena differs from an octave which has a more festive character, and either precedes or follows an important feast. For example, in our Church calendar we celebrate the Octave before Christmas, where the recitation of the “O” Antiphons helps us prepare for the birth of our Savior. We also celebrate the Octaves of Christmas and Easter, which include the feast days themselves and the seven days that follow, to highlight the joy of these mysteries.

The origin of the novena in our Church’s spiritual treasury is hard to pinpoint. The Old Testament does not indicate any nine-day celebration among the Jewish people. On the other hand, in the New Testament at the Ascension our Lord gives the Apostles the Great Commission and then tells them to return to Jerusalem and to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Acts of the Apostles recounts, “After that they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet near Jerusalem — a mere Sabbath’s journey away. Together they devoted themselves to constant prayer” (Acts 1:12, 14). Nine days later, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost. Perhaps this “nine-day period of prayer” of the Apostles is the basis for the novena.

Long before Christianity, the ancient Romans also celebrated nine days of prayers for various reasons. The author Livy recorded how nine days of prayers were celebrated at Mount Alban to avert some evil or wrath of the gods as predicted by the soothsayers. Similarly, nine days of prayers were offered when some “wonder” had been predicted. Families also held a nine-day mourning period upon the death of a loved one with a special feast after the burial on the ninth day. The Romans also celebrated the parentalia novendialia, a yearly novena (February 13-22) remembering all departed family members. Since novenas were already part of Roman culture, it is possible that Christianity “baptized” this pagan practice.

Whatever the exact origins may be, the early Christians did have a nine-day mourning period upon the death of a loved one. Eventually, a novena of Masses for the repose of the soul was offered. To this day, there is the novendialia or Pope’s Novena, observed upon the death of the Holy Father.

In the Middle Ages, particularly in Spain and France, novenas of prayers were offered nine days before Christmas, signifying the nine months our Lord spent in the womb of our blessed Mother. These special novenas helped the faithful prepare for the festive, yet solemn, celebration of the birth of our Lord. Eventually, various novenas were composed to help the faithful prepare for a special feast or to invoke the aid of a saint for a particular reason. Some of the popular novenas still widely used in our Church include those of the Miraculous Medal, Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Joseph and St. Jude.

It is difficult to say why we do not find novenas as much a part of public worship now as before Vatican II. I remember asking this question to an elderly priest, who basically said that he remembered people who would skip Mass yet attend the weekly novena. As Catholics, the primary focus of our spirituality and public worship should be the Holy Eucharist and the Mass. With the advent of the liturgical renewal and the increased participation of the congregation at Mass, perhaps this is why novenas fell by the wayside.

Also, some people think superstition has hurt the reputation of novenas. In every parish I have been assigned, I have found copies of a St. Jude novena which basically states that if a person goes to Church for nine days and leaves a copy of the novena to St. Jude, then the prayer will be granted — sort of like a spiritual chain letter. This is dispensing-machine Catholicism: just as a person puts the coin in the vending machine and presses the button to get the desired soda, here a person says the prayers, goes to church and is supposedly guaranteed that the request will be granted. So much for God’s will. What is really sad these days is that the person simply photcopies the letter; one would think they could at least hand-write it. On occasion, I have had to pick up these letters that are left all over the Church.

Nevertheless, novenas still hold a legitimate place in our Catholic spirituality. The Enchiridion of Indulgences notes, “A partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, who devoutly take part in the pious exercise of a public novena before the feast of Christmas or Pentecost or the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Here the Church is again emphasizing that the novena is a pious spiritual exercise to bolster the faith of the individual, and that the individual should be truly devout, always remembering the goodness of the Lord who answers all of our prayers according to His divine will.

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • JMC

    The “spirit of Vatican II” is partly to blame for the sudden disappearance of public novenas from the church scene. When I was a kid, we went to church for the Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help every Wednesday evening. This was as regular a part of my life as going to Mass on Sunday, until some time in the early 1970s. Our parish got a new priest, a young one only recently graduated from seminary, and, with no prior warning, we went to church that Wednesday to find the place closed up for the night. Confused, we and all the other people who showed up went to the rectory to inquire what had happened and were told that, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” Mary was being “de-emphasized!” I now realize that this was part of a modernist move to make us more like Protestants, but it was, and still is, a shocking revelation. We attempted to continue the novena in various homes, but it just wasn’t the same without a priest to offer Benediction afterward, and as age and illness dwindled the group, the gatherings eventually stopped.
    Vatican II itself was not the “great evil” many make it out to be; it’s the “spirit” that was attributed to it that was. That’s why the phrase fell out of use as many Catholics began to recognize it as a signal to run away as fast as possible. That “spirit” has become much more subtle and difficult to see, but it’s still there, still deceiving everyone, “even the elect, if that were possible,” to paraphrase the verse from Revelations. It’s why we have LeFebvrevists and even sedevacantists (who are NOT one and the same; there’s a LeFebvrevist site that I regularly frequent that makes no bones about the fact that they will not allow any sedevacantist view to be posted there). It’s also why sites like Catholic Exchange and the numerous blogs to which it links, exist, to ensure that the truth does not die entirely.
    A very wise priest once told me the best way to avoid being deceived, in addition to constant recourse to the prayer, especially the Rosary, is to seek out and read the infallible Church documents (which does not include the ones from Vatican II; that Council was apostolic and not dogmatic). I have found most of them far easier to read than those from Vatican II; though I don’t know how true it is, some have suggested the modernist elements in the Council caused those documents to be deliberately vague and ambiguous in order to make it easier to introduce modernist concepts in the name of the aforementioned “spirit.” Given “By their fruits you shall know them,” I would say we had, and still have, just cause to call that “spirit” into question.

  • Lee

    This is good information for me to share with others who may have a hard time praying. The more information about our Catholic history, the easier it comes for us to answer others questions and support what we believe and enjoy about our Church. Thank you.