Why do we Pray Novenas?

Why do we pray novenas? The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, December 2001, states that “Novenas ‘nucleuses of “sacred times” based on popular practices were constituted. These were often marginal to the rhythm of the liturgical year: sacred or profane fair days, tridua, octaves, novenas, months devoted to particular popular devotions… novenas are truly preparations for the celebration of the various feast days…’

Where does the word Novena come from?

Where does this word ‘Novena’ come from? The word novena derives from the Latin: novem, “nine”. This is an ancient tradition of devotional praying in Christian tradition which consists of private or public prayers repeated for nine successive hours, days, weeks or months.

Why Nine Days?

Why nine days rather then ten or forty or three? The number “nine” has a great symbolic richness. On the one hand, it is derived from the Trinitarian and Divine number “three” – being “three times three”. On the other hand, “nine” is a number of imperfection because it is one lacking from “ten”. St. Jerome tells us in his commentary of Ezekiel, 7: 24, “the number nine is a divine indicative”

Is there any Scriptural Evidence for Novenas?

Is there any Scriptural Evidence for Novenas? Scriptural evidence for a ‘Novena’ draws from Christ’s own command to His Apostles before He ascended into heaven. He commanded them to remain in the city of Jerusalem for the nine days in prayer to await until the feast of Pentecost for the descent of the Holy Spirit.

With this, Jesus was instituted the first practice of the Christian Novena. This first ‘Novena’ was both as a period of preparation (since the feast of Pentecost was approaching) and also as an act of petition (for together with Mary, the Apostles were pleading for the Holy Spirit to come as their Advocate).

And eating together with them, [Jesus] he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts of the Apostles 1:4-4)

What does it mean for us today?

What do novenas mean for us today? Those nine days of prayer in upper room preceding Pentecost can be seen as the model for our Catholic tradition of Novenas.

There we see the faith Mary and the Apostles as they trusted and persevered. In the end, the Lord rewarded them on the Day of Pentecost with the coming of the Advocate He had promised, the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1–2:4).

Drawing from this example, a Novena is often prayed for a specific intention or grace and may be directed to particular saints for their intercession.
Particularly, Novenas are joyful and anticipatory. They look toward major feasts (such as the Feast of St Anthony) or celebrate the founder of a religious order.

Novenas as a Great Aid to our Prayer Life

Accordingly, the Church acknowledges the special value of the novena, whose form is particularly suited to overcome certain tendencies of our fallen human nature.

To counter our human tendency to slack into laziness, the repetitive form of a novena can serve to intensify and reinforce our prayer life. The Novena forms in us a habit of persevering prayer, for despite the best of our intentions, left to our own devices we may fall away from prayer. By offering us a prescribed set of prayers, for a prescribed length of time in a Novena, we allow ourselves to be drawn out of ours vice and vanities and into prayerful concentration and obedience. Thus, by becoming more focused by observing a set form, our prayer time is kept in check and on track.

A novena can also correct our erroneous attitude that somehow we are in control of a situation and its outcome through our prayers for a desired result. Just like the desperate widow in Jesus’ parable who repeatedly asked the judge for help — whose humble, persistent petitions the Lord offers as a model in prayer (see Lk 18:1-7).

With its repeated appeal to divine aid, the novena helps us recognizes that though we may be helpless, but with God’s grace and the aid of His Saints we are never hopeless, and that the control of the situation is exactly in His hands. Our part is simply to demonstrate faithfulness in our commitment to prayer and we receive from God a result of His own choosing.

Consequently the ‘power’ of the Novena lies in the fact that they reflect our confidence and faithfulness. As we pray a Novena they are a valuable form of conversation with God and His saints. A Novena demonstrates our ‘faith-full-ness’ and God always attends to the prayers of His faithful.
Undeniably we may or may not get what we desire. But as we pray novenas, we are praising, preparing, waiting and trusting. And we will indeed be rewarded, just as Christ’s first disciples gathered with Our Lady in the upper room were, and in whatever way that God deems fit.

Certainly, what “never fails” when we pray a novena is the guarantee that we will grow in faithful perseverance. And like the first disciples, we will not be disappointed and can be certain of receiving an overwhelming outpouring of His Spirit into us.

St Anthony Our Great Patron – Pray for us!

Written by Fr Ignatius Yeo, Parish Priest