Dear Sister Benedicta Marie,
What is a novena? Where did they come from and why do we pray them?
Novena comes from the Latin Language and means nine. As used by Catholics this means a series of nine prayers. Usually the series refers to a prayer or devotion offered on nine consecutive days, but the series could be a series of devotions for nine consecutive weeks, or months, or – Mother Teresa’s so-called ‘emergency novena’ or ‘express novena’ consisted of reciting nine consecutive Memorares!
Much of the prayer life of the Catholic faithful, liturgical and devotional really owes its origins to our spiritual ancestors in faith, the Jewish people. The Old Testament shows us that the Jews prayed over a series of days in petition, celebration and repentance on numerous occasions – nine seems not to have been an important number for them though. The scriptural nine days of prayer is found in the Acts of the Apostles and consists of the nine days the Apostles spent waiting in prayer in Jerusalem for the coming of Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4, 5).
We probably should not think the custom of praying in a series of nine arose in the Church immediately, but we do have documentary evidence that a series of nine masses immediately following death was already being prescribed in medieval wills. That specific number of nine may have originally come from Roman and other pagan customs, being ‘baptized’ so to speak, by Christians who saw a precedent for it in Acts 1. The novena has simply grown in popularity and variety ever since the Middle Ages, with countless devotional novenas practiced today. The novena has always been more widespread in popular piety than in the liturgy, but I think most of us are familiar with the nine days of mourning and prayer that follow the death of a pope – sometimes called the Pope’s Novena.
If there is any important caveat to mention in connection with the idea of a novena it is simply that we not let the tail wag the dog. Structures for prayer have value insofar as they support and assist our efforts to pray faithfully – which is simply to say – our efforts to seek the will of God and rely on Him to always provide the loaf we need rather than the stone we sometimes ask for. There is no ‘power’ in formulas or structures as such, and the human tendency to lapse into superstition being what it is, it is well that we remind ourselves of this on a regular basis, as well as clearly instructing our children in this regard. That said, you are ever so welcome to say one for me – express or otherwise!