The word “novena” is a derivative of the Latin novem, which means nine. In its basic definition, a novena is a nine-day period of private or public prayer. Its purpose is to obtain special graces, to plead special favors, or to present special petitions. The novena has traditionally been associated with a sense of neediness or urgency.
History of the Novena
The exact origin of the novena as a religious tradition is difficult to pinpoint. The practice is generally traced to the time of the Crucifixion. Before Christ’s ascension, He commanded His Apostles to remain in Jerusalem for a period of nine days. They were to remain in the city until the feast of Pentecost. Their purpose for remaining there was to wait for the descent of the Holy Spirit. This set the precedent for the practice of the Christian Novena. This novena period of nine days of prayer was performed in preparation for a special feast or a specific petition for requested grace
As is common with many traditional practices, the novena has morphed over time. It is known that early Christians held a nine-day mourning period following the death of a family member or beloved one. Over time, a novena for the Masses was developed to offer repose of the soul after passing. In today’s world, there is the novendiala, or Pope’s Novena, that is observed upon the death of a Holy Father.
What a Novena Is
Simply put, a novena is a time-honored form of Catholic prayer. A traditional Roman Catholic novena consists of a series of prayers that are recited over a course of nine days. The purpose is twofold: to seek the blessing of grace, and to strengthen one’s spiritual connection with God.
When used for oneself, the novena generally takes the form of asking for assistance of some sort. Or it may be an appeal for assistance on behalf of someone else. A classic example would be a novena said to benefit a sick relative or loved one.
The novena generally consists of two prayers to be said each day. There are also prayers designated for specific days. The actual recitation of the prayers doesn’t normally take much time, usually taking only a few minutes of time from your day. A multitude of novenas for varying purposes can generally be obtained online or in Christian bookstores.
What a Novena Is Not
Although popular culture may wish to paint it as such, a novena is not a magical spell. Praying the novena is not a guarantee that some miracle is going to occur in response. The words of your chosen novena are just words that do not hold any special power on their own. It is the act of devotion you demonstrate when praying the novena that gives it spiritual significance.
The Catholic Catechism gives us warning against superstition. We should look to the deeper spiritual significance of a practice or performance, not seek some sort of magical manifestation to associate with it. A novena is an act of devotion that can have deep spiritual significance to the one performing the act, but it can easily fall prey to modern tendencies to see it as superstition.
When praying your novena, instill your prayers with your faith, and hold in your heart the trust that God will give you the answer that is correct for you, and deliver it in the right way for you. Praying a novena in the hopes of manipulating God into doing what you want is not the purpose of the practice.
Types of Novenas
There are four basic types of novena: prayer novena, mourning novena, preparation novena, and indulgence novena. Some novenas may overlap these basic categories, but all tend to fall into at least one of these classifications.
Novenas that fit into the prayer category are sometimes called petition prayers. These are generally the most common novena. These prayers are most often pleas for God to make an intervention on our behalf, to provide a sign to confirm a belief or interpretation of a situation, or for some other form of assistance we’re seeking.
A novena found in the mourning category are said in preparation of a burial or some other expected period of mourning. These prayers are usually recited for the benefit of the person who has died or for the comfort of someone or group of people who is grieving.
Preparation novenas are most commonly said in anticipation of a particular spiritual event or an upcoming Church feast day or Sacrament. These novenas are designed to prepare the spirit for the significance of the approaching day.
If remission of sin is your desire, then an indulgence novena is probably what you’re reciting. These novenas are prayed as a demonstration of penance and may be done in conjunction with Confession and church attendance.