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What is a novena?

April 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Novenas, Prayer, Prayers, Vocal

Dear Father John, I have a question for your blog! I think I don’t really know what is a novena? How did it appear in the church and why? I know “neuvaine” means 9, but why 9 days before the feast/saint you are praying? Why would I  pray a novena…?

This question is right on time! One of the Church’s most popular novenas is the Novena to the Divine Mercy, which starts on Good Friday. Maybe a few thoughts regarding the issues you raise can help all of us live it more deeply. We’ll take your questions one at a time: What’s a novena? Where did novenas come from? Why would anyone pray a novena?

What is a novena?

A novena is a formalized vocal prayer extended over a specific amount of time. Remember, vocal prayer is the kind of prayer where we use other people’s words to address God and to lift our hearts and minds to him. The “Our Father” is a vocal prayer, for example. St. Francis of Assisi’s famous “Make me an instrument of your peace…” prayer is a vocal prayer. You don’t have to say these prayers out loud to make them “vocal,” rather, you just have to give “voice” to (“voice” and “vocal” both come from the same Latin root: voco, vocare, which means to speak out or to call) the words of the prayer. We can recite the words of a vocal prayer in the silence of our hearts, or audibly. In either case, however, vocal prayers give us a channel for the desires and thoughts of our souls.

When we use this kind of prayer, we align our minds and hearts with the meaning of the words, giving God praise, renewing our faith and trust, asking him for things we need or desire, or all of the above. A good vocal prayer helps us connect with God. It also reinforces our Christian convictions: by giving words to good desires and expressions of love for God, we actually exercise those desires and that love, and when we exercise them they grow.

A novena is a vocal prayer, or series of vocal prayers, that you commit to praying over an extended period of time. These prayers are usually linked to a specific devotion (for instance, devotion to a particular saint) or liturgical celebration (a novena for Pentecost, for example). They are also very often linked to a specific intention that we are praying for – you can offer a novena as a way to petition God for a special grace, like the healing of a sick person or the conversion of someone who is far away from God. The words of the novena will reflect all of these factors. They will remind you of the meaning of the liturgical celebration, the virtues of a saint, or the goodness of God. And the combination of prayers will also, usually, give you a place to insert your personal petition.

It’s important to remember, however, that novenas are not magic formulas. They are prayers. They are one way we can enter into conversation with God.

Where did novenas come from?

The most common period of time during which we pray novenas is nine days. The word “novena” actually comes from the Latin for “nine.” The nine-day period of prayer has its origin in the Book of Acts. After Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, and some of Christ’s other followers all “joined in continuous prayer” (Acts 1:14) for nine days, until the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We know it was nine days, because the Ascension happened forty days after the Resurrection (cf. Acts 1:3), and Pentecost was always celebrated fifty days after the Passover. The Resurrection happened the day following the Passover, so we can do the math: 50-40-1=9. This period in which the fledgling Church “joined in continuous prayer” in anticipation of the promised coming of the Holy Spirit is the first “novena.” Through the centuries, the strict period of nine days has taken various forms, including the nine First Fridays devotion recommended by our Lord to St. Margaret Mary and linked to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Sometimes you even find local traditions of thirty-day or three-day “novenas.”

Why would anyone pray a novena?

In general, we pray novenas for the same reason that we pray at all: because God deserves our praise, and because we need his grace. Novenas are prayers, and all the benefits that prayer always brings are also brought by novenas. This particular form of prayer, however, has some special characteristics.

First, they provide a channel for strong spiritual sentiments or desires. Sometimes, our souls are so full of sorrow, or anxiety, or hope, or thirst for holiness that it is hard for us to find the words to express ourselves. Novenas give us a vehicle for prayerful expression. A novena of prayer can be a powerful way to mourn the loss of a loved one, for example – a novena of Masses can be a beautiful way to commend their soul to God’s mercy. In a crisis, a novena can channel our apprehension in a positive way: entrusting our deeply felt needs to God through the intercession of a saint, for example. Novenas put clear parameters around deep spiritual sentiments, enabling us to have confidence that we are keeping them in harmony with God and his will. In this way, they provide true comfort to our souls; they assure us that we are “doing our part,” so to speak, in response to particular needs of our own or of others.

Second, they help us stay in synch with our spiritual family, the Church. By joining in the Novena of the Divine Mercy (from Good Friday to Divine Mercy Sunday), for example, we unite ourselves to millions of other Catholics all over the world who are engaged in the same prayer. By praying a novena before a major liturgical celebration like Christmas or Pentecost, we can prepare our souls to engage in that celebration more fruitfully, less superficially.

I hope these observations have helped you understand a little bit better this long-standing devotion in the Church. And maybe it will even motivate you to try it out for yourself. I would like to invite our other readers to share their favorite novenas, along with any relevant experiences they may have had through praying them.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", Inside the Passion--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

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  • JoFlemings

    The title of this post reminds me of a joke about the Jesuits, prayer and a Lexus… but I will try to behave. Spontaneous prayer is easier for me than disciplined prayer, and a novena is a disciplined prayer, but last Advent I was motivated to pray a 30 day novena to St. Joseph. I got so much from following through on that prayer intention! And I learned so many things about St. Joseph and from him through that simple act of structure. It increased so many graces in my life- I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am looking forward to the Divine Mercy novena this year, truly hoping to do it for the first time as a Catholic ( I am embarrassed to admit!) I think the novenas can be a real catalyst for much deeper experience of the Lord and alot of spiritual growth!

  • Maria

    In the Philippines we have novena Masses leading up to Christmas. It’s called Misa de Gallo (rooster’s Mass) or Simbang Gabi (Mass at Night) because the Mass is normally before the break of dawn. Though in recent decades, Churches have been having anticipated novena Masses at around 8pm.

  • Nonnie4

    Thank you for the excellent explanation!  I think many of us will benefit from this post.

  • Mcastro

    I was 6 months pregnant when I lost my baby son. I became very angry at God to say the least. I felt that I had lost him prematurely and all I did was cry for this precious little life. I could not find peace.  I blamed myself among other things, but one precious day I found the Our Father novena.  This novena is very simple.  The card said to pray 1 our father for nine consecutive days and medidate on each word. I tried my best trusting the Lord would help me find peace and I asked God if it would be possible to see my son. (When my son was delivered, the doctor denied my request to see, hug, or bury my son)  On the ninth day or what I believed to be the eight day. I had a dream.  A woman dressed in bright clothes came to me. She was holding the ends of what seemed a long mantle and as she put the ends together her mantle seemed to opened up and she said to me, “here’s your son.”  and there was my son!  He was dressed in white and he looked like he was around 7 years old.  He had a beautiful smlie and seemed to be lost in happiness. He was gazing at something or someone. I realized my son was not angry at me and I was so happy to find that where he was he was truly happy. I wondered what he was looking at.  His gaze seemed lost in the distance to the right, so I turned to see what he was looking at.  I could not see.  It was too bright for me.  Somehow I understood that maybe one day I’ll get so see what he sees. Know I know where my son is and he lives on forever in my heart.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000067803665 Judeen Harthun

      Mcasgtro, you have a angel in heaven praying for you… I lost 3 children.. 2 miscarrages, and 1 born at 7 months.. and the doc. asked if I should baptize Him or save Him.. what is more important the body or the soul? I baptized him.. and then the doc would not even put on the incurbator . for I made my descision.. several times I saw the children , happy.. the baptized son is bigger than the others.. their praying for me.. and waiting ,some day we will be together.. so too others who have lost their children have seen their babys… and feel them praying for them when they need help.. there is always a reason . some day we will know.. God bless

    • JoFlemings

      Thank you for sharing this! Bless you!

    • Ramaniew

      My mum lost four children and she always said that she has four angels in heaven looking after her. Now she is gone and I hope she is with them. May she rest in peace.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000067803665 Judeen Harthun

    never knew about novenas till  prison minestry , there we all pray to 1 saint for spiritual help and prayer for nine days.. then I found my brother always said novenas, he is much older . then a preist said to say a novena to st. treasa little flower, at the end you will receive a rose… his mother always did it.. and always got a rose.. a novena of masses said for a person who died.. 30 days – their soul is suppose to go straight to heaven… novena to the 9 choirs of angels… I have heard them sing.. and the walls crack as 1 prays , they become more active in your life… the mysterys in our faith are hardly tapped… the sacred heart is so powerful, the 1st friday of each month with confession and a rosary

  • Becky313

     The Holy Spirit Novena has been a source of amazing light and growth for me. I memorized the “Act of consecration” from this novena and prayed it daily for more than a year. I don’t say it as often now, but I do pray the novena before Pentecost every year!

    I also pray the Divine Mercy Novena……it too is beautiful, and like Jo, I discovered a 31 day novena to St. Joseph a couple years ago.  I learned a lot about him from that novena.
     

  • fairlady68
  • Beatrice

    I am doing the Novena to our Lady of Perpetual Help and ask for her intercession in all my undertakings.  For example receiting the 9 days Novena for my exams, before and after taking up job, when it came to marrying by husband, when we had our children,  when my husband and I decided buying a house, and now for the childrens future and for all my love ones….this Novena has given me hope that God is willing to provide me what is best for me  and my family and when it comes from him than he will take care of all suitation that I (or my love ones) have to face.  And our Lady of Perpetual Help will never let any of her children down.l 

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  • Chinedu Onwuneme

    is there any three days novena?i wanna pray for a new job and a wife

  • Cindy d’Aquin-Pike

    Thanks be to God!

  • LizEst

    Sorry to be so late in answering this. I had not heard of a three days’ novena before because the word novena refers to nine. However, in researching this, it appears some places do have such a thing but I don’t know enough about it to either recommend it or discourage it.

    I don’t know if you still have need of a novena prayer. There are many novenas listed here: http://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/novena.asp Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta also had a special novena she prayed when she needed assistance fast: The Memorare prayer said nine times in a row.

  • LEO MATHIAS

    I thank GOD for everything He does to me,through praying novenas i have been blessed in different ways more especially in my academic endeavor.glory be to GOD.

  • Aryana Velasco

    So we can do novenas any time?

    • LizEst

      Yes, absolutely! Thanks for your question Aryana. God bless you!

  • JAY

    I wrote a long txt but I mispress something cuz of Cat :-( I’ll just make it short this time. Thanks, for now I already have the answer about novena. According to Fr. PAUL the author of “Know TheTruth” published answer to all accusassions. Many abandoned Catholic faith due to 1) indicipline of the faithful and 2) Ignorance. These 2 made oneself turn away from our faith. That published tabloid or journal is a miracle for I had many questions asnwered by it, it was also a miracle for it showed up in a unexpeted time and way. God Bless!!!

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