(from novem, nine)
A nine days’ private or public devotion in the Catholic Church to obtain special graces. The octave has more of the festal character; to the novena belongs that of hopeful mourning, of yearning, of prayer. “The number nine in Holy Writ is indicative of suffering and grief” (Saint Jerome, in Ezech. 7:24). The novena is permitted and even recommended by ecclesiastical authority, but still has no proper and fully set place in the liturgy of the Church. It has, however, more and more been prized and utilized by the faithful. Four kinds of novenas can be distinguished: novenas of mourning, of preparation, of prayer, and the indulgenced novenas, though this distinction is not exclusive.
The Jews had no nine days’ religious celebration or nine days’ mourning or feast on the ninth day after the death or burial of relatives and friends. They held the number seven more sacred than any other. On the contrary, we find among the ancient Romans an official nine days’ religious celebration whose origin is related in Livy (I, xxxi). After a shower of stones on the Alban Mount, an official sacrifice, whether because of a warning from above or of the augurs’ advice, was held on nine days to appease the gods and avert evil. From then on the same novena of sacrifices was made whenever the like wonder was announced.
Besides this custom, there also existed among the Greeks and Romans that of a nine days’ mourning, with a special feast on the ninth day after death or burial. This, however, was rather of a private or family character. The Romans also celebrated their parentalia novendialia, a yearly novena (13 to 22 February) of commemoration of all the departed members of their families. The celebration ended on the ninth day with a sacrifice and a joyful banquet. There is a reference to these customs in the laws of the Emperor Justinian, where creditors are forbidden to trouble the heirs of their debtor for nine days after his death. Saint Augustine warns Christians not to imitate the pagan custom, as there is no example of it in Holy Writ. Later on, the same was done by the Pseudo-Alcuin, invoking the authority of Saint Augustine, and still more sharply by John Beleth in the twelfth century. Even Durandus in his “Rationale” (Naples, 1478), writing on the Office of the Dead, remarks that “some did not approve this, to avoid the appearance of aping pagan customs”.
Nevertheless, in Christian mortuary celebrations, one finds that of the ninth day with those of the third and seventh. The “Constitutiones Apostolicae” already speak of it. The custom existed specially in the East, but is found also among the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. Even if it was connected with an earlier practice of the pagans, it nevertheless had in itself no vestige of superstition. A nine days’ mourning with daily Mass was a distinction, naturally, which could be shared by none but the higher classes. Princes and the rich ordered such a celebration for themselves in their wills; even in the wills of popes and cardinals such orders are found. Already in the Middle Ages the novena of Masses for popes and cardinals was customary. Later on, the mortuary celebration for cardinals became constantly more simple, until finally it was regulated and fixed by the Constitution “Praecipuum” of Benedict XIV (23 November 1741). For deceased sovereign pontiffs the nine days’ mourning was retained, and so came to be called simply the “Pope’s Novena”. The usage still continues and consists chiefly in a novena of Masses for the departed. A rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (22 April 1633) informs us that such novenas of mourning, officia novendialia ex testamento, were generally known and allowed in the churches of religious. They are no longer in common use, though they have never been forbidden, and indeed, on the contrary, novendiales precum et Missarum devotiones pro defunctis were approved by Gregory XVI (11 July 1853 [sic]) and indulgenced for a confraternity agonizantium in France.
Besides the novena for the dead, we find in the earlier part of the Middle Ages the novena of preparation, but at first only before Christmas and only in Spain and France. This had its origin in the nine months Our Lord was in His Blessed Mother’s womb from the Incarnation to the Nativity. In Spain the Annunciation was transferred for the whole country by the tenth Council of Toledo in 656 to 18 December as the most fitting feast preparatory to Christmas. With this it appears that a real novena of preparation for Christmas was immediately connected for the whole of Spain. At any rate, in a question sent from the Azores (Insulae Angrenses) to the Sacred Congregation of Rites, an appeal was made to the “most ancient custom” of celebrating, just before Christmas, nine votive Masses of Our Lady. And this usage, because of the people who took part in the celebration, was permitted to continue (28 September 1658). A French Ordinarium prescribes that the preparation for Christmas on the ninth day should begin with the O anthems and that each day, at the Magnificat, the altar and the choir should be incensed. The Ordinarium of Nantes and the Antiphonary of Saint Martin of Tours, in place of the seven common O anthems, have nine for the nine days before Christmas, and these were sung with special solemnity. In Italy the novena seems to have spread only in the seventeenth century. Still, the “Praxis caeremoniarum seu sacrorum Romanae Ecclesiae Rituum accurata tractatio” of the Theatine Piscara Castaldo, a book approved in 1525 by the author’s father general, gives complete directions for the celebration of the Christmas novena with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The author remarks that this novena in commemoration of Our Lord’s nine months in the womb was solemnly celebrated in very many places in Italy. And in the beginning of the eighteenth century the Christmas novena held such a distinguished position that the Sacred Congregation of Rites (7 July 1718), in a special case, allowed for it alone the solemn celebration with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
But before this, at least in Sicily, the custom had sprung up among religious of preparing for the feast of their founder with a novena of Masses, and these Missae novendiales votivae were also (2 September 1690) declared permissible. In general, in the seventeenth century, numerous novenas were held especially in the churches of religious and to the Saints of the various orders. Two hundred years later, on application from Sicily for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the celebration of novenas, special permission was granted, and in the decrees on the Missae votivae of 30 June, 1896, there is really question of the Missae votivae novendiales B.M.V. At least in this way, then, the novena is recognized even in the Liturgy.
At the same time as the novena of preparation, the proper novena of prayer arose, among the faithful, it would seem, who in their need turned to the saints with a novena, especially to recover health. The original home of this novena must have been France, Belgium, and the neighbourhood of the Lower Rhine. Specially noteworthy up to the year 1000 are the novenas to Saint Hubert, Saint Marcolf, and Saint Mommolus. Saint Mommolus (or Mummolus) was considered the special patron for head and brain diseases; the novenas to him were made especially in the Holy Cross Monastery of Bordeaux, where the saint was buried. Saint Marcolf procured for the kings of France the power to cure scrofula by a touch of their hand. For this purpose, shortly after their coronation and anointing at Reims, the kings had to go in person on pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Marcolf at Corbeny and make a novena there. Those who were to be healed had to make a similar novena. But the best known is the novena to Saint Hubert, which continues even to our day. This is made against madness by people bitten by a mad dog or wolf.
The last-named novena was attacked in later times, particularly by the Jansenists, and was rejected as superstitious (cf. “Acta SS.”, loc. cit., where the attack is met and the novena justified). Before this, Gerson, in the fourteenth century, had given warning against the superstitious abuse of this novena. But he does not reject novenas in general and we see from his works that in his time they were already widespread. But notwithstanding Gerson’s warning, novenas were from that time on ever more and more in favour with the faithful, to which the many, even miraculous, effects of the novenas contributed not a little. Benedict XIV tells of a number of such miracles adduced in the processes of canonization. Catholics know from their own experience that the novena is no pagan, superstitious custom, but one of the best means to obtain signal heavenly graces through the intercession of Our Lady and all the saints. The novena of prayer is thus a kind of prayer which includes in it, so to speak, as a pledge of being heard, confidence and perseverance, two most important qualities of efficacious prayer. Even if the employment of the number nine in Christianity were connected with a similar use in paganism, the use would still in no way be blameable or at all superstitious. Not, of course, that every single variation or addition made in whatever private novena must be justified or defended. The holiest custom can be abused, but the use of the number nine can not only be justified but even interpreted in the best sense.
The number ten is the highest, the numerus maximus, simply the most perfect, which is fitting for God; the number nine, which is lacking of ten, is the number of imperfection, which is fitting for mortal kind. In some such way the Pythagoreans, Philo the Jew, the Fathers of the Church, and the monks of the Middle Ages, philosophized on the meaning of the number nine. For this reason it was adapted for use where man’s imperfection turned in prayer to God.
In the novena of mourning and the Mass on the ninth day it was remembered in the Middle Ages that Christ gave up the ghost in prayer at the ninth hour, as in the penitential books, or remarked that, by means of Holy Mass on the ninth day, the departed were to be raised to the ranks of the nine choirs of angels. For the origin of the novena of prayer we can point to the fact that the ninth hour in the Synagogue, like None in the Christian Church, was a special hour of prayer from the beginning, so that it was reckoned among the “apostolic hours” (cf. Acts 3:1 and 10:30; Tertullian, On Fasting 10; cf. On Prayer 25). The Church, too, in the Breviary, has for centuries invoked the Almighty in nine Psalms and honoured Him in nine Lessons, while from ancient times the Kyrie has been heard nine times in every Mass.
As has been said, the simplest explanation of the Christmas novena is the nine months of Christ in the womb. But for every novena of preparation, as also for every novena of prayer, not only the best explanation but also the best model and example was given by Christ Himself to the Church in the first Pentecost novena. He Himself expressly exhorted the Apostles to make this preparation. And when the young Church had faithfully persevered for nine full days in it, the Holy Ghost came as the precious fruit of this first Christian novena for the feast of the establishment and foundation of the Church. If one keeps this in mind and remembers besides that novenas in the course of time have brought so many, even miraculous, answers to prayer, and that finally Christ Himself in the revelation to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque recommended the special celebration of nine successive first Fridays of the month, one must wonder that the Church waited so long before positively approving and recommending novenas rather than that she finally took this step.
Not until the nineteenth century did the Church formally recommend novenas by the concession of Indulgences. This brings us to the last kind of novenas, those which are indulgenced. Apparently Alexander VII in the middle of the seventeenth century granted Indulgences to a novena in honour of Saint Francis Xavier made in Lisbon. The first novena indulgenced in the city of Rome, and even there for only one church, was the novena in preparation for the feast of Saint Joseph in the church of Saint Ignatius. This was done by the Briefs of Clement XI, 10 Feb., and 4 March, 1713. The Franciscans, who used before this to have a novena for the feast of the Immaculate Conception received special Indulgences for it on 10 April 1764. Not until later, especially from the beginning of the nineteenth century, were various novenas enriched with Indulgences in common for the whole Church. They number in all thirty-two, intended for the most part as novenas of preparation for definite feasts.
They are in detail as follows: one in honour of the Most Holy Trinity, which may be made either prior to the feast of the Holy Trinity (first Sunday after Pentecost) or at any other time of the year; two to the Holy Ghost, one to be made prior to the feast of Pentecost for the reconciliation of non-Catholics (this is also made publicly in all parochial churches), one at any time of the year; two novenas to the Infant Jesus, one to be made before the feast of Christmas and the other at any time during the year; three to the Sacred Heart, one prior to the feast of the Sacred Heart (the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi), one at any time during the year, and the third that of the nine first Fridays, which is based on the promise made to Blessed Margaret Mary by the Sacred Heart assuring the grace of final perseverance and the reception of the Sacraments before death to all who should receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of every month for nine consecutive months; it is customary to offer this novena in reparation for the sins of all mankind; eleven novenas in honour of the Blessed Virgin, viz., in honour of the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity of Mary, her Presentation at the Temple, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Maternity of Mary, her Purification, her Seven Dolours, the Assumption, the Holy Heart of Mary, and the Holy Rosary; one novena each in honour of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, and one in honour of the Guardian Angel, two to Saint Joseph, one consisting of the recitation of prayers in honour of the seven sorrows and seven joys of the foster-father of Christ, prior to the feast of Saint Joseph (19 March) and one at any time during the year; one novena each in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, at any time during the year, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Paul of the Cross, Saint Stanislaus Kostka, prior to his feast (13 November), Saint Francis Xavier, and one for the Holy Souls.
The novena in honour of Saint Francis Xavier, known as the “Novena of Grace”, originated as follows: in 1633 Father Mastrilli, S.J., was at the point of death as a result of an accident, when Saint Francis Xavier, to whom he had great devotion, appeared to him and urged him to devote himself to the missions of the Indies. Father Mastrilli then made a vow before his provincial that he would go to the Indies if God spared his life, and in another apparition (3 January 1634) Saint Francis Xavier exacted of him a renewal of this promise, foretold his martyrdom, and restored him to health so completely that on the same night Father Mastrilli was in a condition to write an account of his cure, and the next morning to celebrate Mass at the altar of the saint and to resume his community life. He soon set out for the Japanese missions where he was martyred, 17 October, 1637. The renown of the miracle quickly spread through Italy, and inspired with confidence in the power and goodness of Saint Francis Xavier, the faithful implored his assistance in a novena with such success that it came to be called the “novena of grace”. This novena is now made publicly in many countries from 4 to 12 March, the latter being the date of the canonization of Saint Francis Xavier together with Saint Ignatius. The conditions include a visit to a Jesuit church or chapel. The indulgence may be gained on any day of the novena, and those who are prevented by illness or another legitimate cause from communicating during the novena may gain the indulgence by doing so as soon as possible. All of these novenas without exception are to be made, in private or in public, with pious exercises and the reception of the Sacraments, and for these usually a daily partial Indulgence can be gained and a plenary Indulgence at the end of the novena. The Indulgences and the conditions for gaining them are accurately given in detail in the authentic “Raccolta” and in the works on Indulgences by Beringer and Hilgers, which have appeared in various languages. The indulgenced novenas, to a certain extent official, have but contributed to increase the confidence of the faithful in novenas. Hence, even the private novena of prayer flourishes in our day. Through the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes, through that to Saint Anthony of Padua or some other saint, the faithful seek and find help and relief. The history of novenas is not yet written, but it is doubtless a good part of the history of childlike veneration of Our Lady and all the saints, of lively confidence in God, and especially of the spirit of prayer in the Catholic Church.
- Joseph Hilgers. “Novena”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 10 January 2016. Web. 28 March 2017. <>