A novena is a nine day period of private or public prayer to obtain special graces, to implore special favors, or make special petitions. The word “novena” comes from the Latin word “novem” meaning nine. This prayer practice traces its origins back to scripture and the time of Jesus. Here is an overview of the biblical origins and Catholic tradition of novenas.
Biblical Origins of Novenas
The practice of novenas has its beginnings in scripture. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the apostles prayed together for nine days while awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As Acts 1:14 states: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” The number nine has special significance in the Bible, as there are 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), 9 choirs of angels, and Jesus died at the 9th hour. Praying for a nine day period also has roots in Jewish tradition, where a 9 day period of mourning was customary.
The disciples praying together for nine straight days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit established the basis for the Catholic tradition of novenas. As Acts 2 documents, their fervent period of prayer over this span was rewarded by the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The apostles were emboldened to preach the Gospel and baptize 3,000 people that day. This biblical precedent of the apostles praying together for nine days is at the foundation for why novenas are considered a spiritually meaningful period of prayer.
Novenas in Church History
While the apostles praying together following the Ascension was the biblical origin, novenas as a spiritual practice took shape over the course of Church history. By the 4th century, there was a nine day period of prayer leading up to Pentecost observed in the Eastern church. This time of prayer waited in preparation for celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit just as the apostles had prayed in the upper room before Pentecost came.
The practice of novenas grew in the Middle Ages through various church councils establishing days of prayer and periods of mourning or fasting. In the 11th century, popes decreed that the time between Ascension and Pentecost be observed by the faithful as days of prayer, fasting, and works of charity. Throughout the Middle Ages, Catholics commonly prayed novenas in preparation for great feasts and for nine days following the death of a loved one.
Novenas became a widespread practice following the establishment of the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 in the 13th century. A nine month novena, called the Angelic Warfare Confraternity, developed for the time from March 25 to Christmas. This allowed the faithful to spiritually accompany Mary and the Christ child for the 9 months between the Annunciation and Christmas. In the 16th century, the Church officially sanctioned novenas tied to preperation for Christmas and Pentecost. From these beginnings, novenas became a central part of Catholic devotional practice leading up to the celebration of major liturgical feasts.
Traditional Catholic Novena Themes
Over time, novenas centered around major events in the life of Jesus and Mary like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost became part of the Church calendar. Novenas honoring the sorrows of Mary gained popularity in the Middle Ages as did novenas devoted to the Holy Spirit. By the 18th and 19th century, novenas became a chief form of Catholic devotional prayer leading up to parish feast days for patron saints.
Here are some of the major Catholic novena themes that developed over history:
– Christmas Novena – 9 days of prayer from Dec 16 to Dec 24 in preparation for Christmas
– Easter Novena – 9 days of prayer starting on Good Friday leading up to Easter
– Pentecost Novena – 9 days between the Ascension and Pentecost
– Novena to the Immaculate Conception – 9 days before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec 8
– Novena to the Sacred Heart – 9 days before the Feast of the Sacred Heart
– Novena to Our Lady of Sorrows – 9 days focusing on the 7 Sorrows of Mary
– Novena to St. Joseph – 9 days before his feast day on March 19
– Parish Novenas – 9 days preparation before the feast day of that parish’s patron saint
Over the centuries, novenas became a core spiritual practice to prepare for major liturgical celebrations in the Church calendar. The 9 days of prayer allow the faithful to open their hearts to receive the graces of events like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.
Traditional Novena Practices
Novenas traditionally consist of prayer, Scripture reading, and meditations done privately or within a group setting over 9 consecutive days. Here are some components that are typically part of a novena:
– Recitation of the Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, or other prayers
– Scripture readings and short reflections
– Petitions stated for a particular need or grace
– Silent meditation
– Fasting and acts of charity
– Attending Mass and receiving communion
Novenas often have a written structure with readings, a reflection, prayers, and petitions assigned for each day. Reciting the same prayers daily throughout the novena is common. The novena is brought to completion on the 9th day when the graces and spiritual fruits are believed to be received.
The faithful implore the Lord as well as the saints for intercession through focused prayer over the nine days. Novenas combine structure with spontaneity – while each day follows a format, there is also room for personalizing with your own prayers and offerings. Joining with others if possible enhances the power of the novena.
Popular Novenas in the Catholic Tradition
Over the centuries, novenas arose highlighting the most cherished aspects of Catholic spirituality. Here are some of the most well-known novenas:
Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal – This novena honors Mary under her title of the Miraculous Medal. It recalls the apparitions of Mary to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830. This novena asks for Mary’s intercession and trust in God’s providence.
Novena to St. Jude – This popular novena is to the patron saint of lost causes, calling on his intercession in desperate circumstances.
Novena to St. Anthony – This novena seeks the intercession of the patron saint of lost things. The faithful ask St. Anthony to help recover items that are lost.
Novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – This novena focuses on the boundless love and mercy of Christ’s Sacred Heart. Petitions center on drawing closer to the heart of Jesus.
Novena for the Holy Souls in Purgatory – This novena offers prayer for the souls of deceased loved ones, relying on the mercy of God.
Novena to Our Lady Undoer of Knots – This novena seeks Mary’s help in undoing the knots or difficulties of life. It draws on the imagery of Mary untangling knotted ribbon.
No matter the intention, novenas all share the common factor of entering into 9 days of heartfelt and focused prayer. These popular novenas highlight hallmarks of Catholic spirituality like divine mercy, devotion to Mary and the saints, belief in purgatory, and the centrality of the Sacred Heart. Through novenas, the faithful implore heavenly intercession.
Novenas in the Modern Era
Novenas remain a vibrant form of prayer and devotion for Catholics worldwide today. Novenas led by the Pope still accompany major feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. Parishes observe novenas before the feast day of their patron saint. Many shrines like Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe offer novenas for pilgrims who visit.
Novenas continue to be a means for focused, fervent prayer over a set period of time. Faithful still pray novenas privately at home to draw closer to Jesus and Mary and petition for their urgent needs. Devotional novenas remain popular for their ability to tap into the mysteries of the Catholic faith in a structured format.
While traditional novenas are still widely practiced, new styles have also developed. Creative novenas using art, journaling, or nature have become popular. Online novenas allow participants from around the world to connect. Novena podcasts and apps make them accessible on-the-go. Dynamic new novena formats have appeared, yet the core remains opening one’s heart in prayer over 9 days.
Novenas offer spiritual nourishment in a fast-paced world. The commitment over an extended period creates time and space for entering focused prayer. Novenas allow for deepening devotion and making heartfelt petitions according to God’s timing rather than one’s own. Jesus urged perseverance in prayer, and novenas provide a meaningful way to do this.
Significance of Praying Novenas
Novenas have stood the test of time due to the abundant spiritual fruits they yield:
Unity with others – Praying a novena with others unites the Body of Christ. Novenas prayed together multiply intercession.
Perseverance in prayer – Remaining steadfast over the 9 days models the persistence Jesus urged in parables like the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8).
Preparation for feast days – Observing novenas helps ready one’s heart for receiving the graces of sacred liturgical celebrations.
Meditation on mysteries – Novenas allow time to reflect on the major mysteries of faith and events in the life of Christ and Mary.
Intercession of the saints – Novenas invite the saints to intercede and make one’s intentions known before God.
Deeper conversion – The process of focused prayer over time fosters inner transformation to become more Christ-like.
Novenas make tangible Jesus’ exhortation to pray always without losing heart (Luke 18:1). Their fruits are as relevant today as ever in drawing closer to God. Though formats are evolving, novenas will continue holding an esteemed place in Catholic spirituality.
How to Pray a Novena
Novenas offer a versatile form of prayer that anyone can pray privately or in community. Here are some tips for making the most of this impactful 9 day prayer practice:
– Set your intention – Clearly decide on the purpose for the novena before beginning. Hold this petition in your heart.
– Schedule the time – Designate when you will devote quiet, focused time to pray each day. Be consistent.
– Choose a structure – Pick an established novena format to follow or create your own prayer routine over the 9 days.
– Invite others – If possible, arrange for friends or family members to join you in praying the novena together.
– Read Scripture – Let sacred scripture nourish your prayer and show how God responds to persistence.
– Offer sacrifices – Unite fasts, works of charity, or personal offerings to your novena.
– Persevere in hope – Bring your faithful trust that God hears your prayer and will answer according to His perfect will.
Novenas need not be elaborate. The simple commitment to pray daily for nine days pleases God. Approach each novena with childlike confidence. Allow this extended prayer time to transform your heart and draw you into deeper relationship with Jesus.