A Novena is a cycle of prayers repeated for nine times (generally every day for nine consecutive days, in urgent cases every hour for nine consecutive hours) either in public or at home as a private devotion, generally in order to obtain a grace or blessing. It started to spread during the middle age and was practiced with increased frequency in the following centuries. From the nineteen century – with the attachment of indulgences to certain novenas – they received official recognition. Novenas are part of those once extremely popular and then – in the wake of the aggiornamento – almost forgotten traditions now experiencing a revival in line with the general recovery of Catholic practices and devotions.
Novenas are very numerous and different in structure (say: a Padre Pio Novena is different from a Francis Xavier Novena) but all of them contain invocations specific to the one who is invoked and various combinations and repetitions of traditional prayers.
Their origin seem to be in the special significance of the number nine. Jesus died on the ninth hour of the day according to the Jewish (and unless I am mistaken, Roman) hour counting (starting at 6 am in the morning). In addition, the Romans knew the parentalia novendialia, the yearly celebration of a set of rituals for nine consecutive days to remember the family’s dead. Moreover, the number nine seemed to be an apposite number because as the number ten symbolized perfection, the number nine symbolized the flaws and sinfulness of human nature. As already stated, it is generally acknowledged that a Novena is rather strictly linked to a situation of petition for the granting of some grace, whilst for more festive occasions the Octave is the favourite form.
To start a private Novena is extremely simple: google the text of one Novena particularly suited to you among the very many available and recite the prescribed set of prayer every day for nine consecutive days. The first thing you will notice is that a Novena forces you to a minimum of discipline and it is ideal to start creating a habit. If you are inconstant in your prayer life, there’s nothing better than a Novena (which doesn’t allow you to “skip a day”; if you do you’ll have to start again) to give your prayer life some discipline and structure. Public novenas may be recited in a church near you, at certain times of the year.
The author, who is devoted to Padre Pio, suggests the beautiful “Novena to Padre Pio”, which is modelled on the Novenas padre Pio himself used to pray. As you will see if you follow the link, this beautiful Novena is comprised of the following:
1) an invocation to Padre Pio, reflecting every day on a different aspect of this wonderful Saint;
2) a quote from Saint Padre Pio, also different every day and in keeping with the tone of the invocation;
3) a set of prayers (click on “Prayer to the Sacred Heart” to let it appear). In this case, the set of prayer is the “Prayer to the Sacred Heart”, which is in itself a set of traditional prayers.
This Novena will require around five minutes a day and, most importantly, some discipline and attention. Catholicism is not primarily about dramatic conversions and spectacular enlightenments, but about the simple, humble habit to stay with the Lord and the Saints every day. The idea is that real spiritual advancement is more easily achieved through slowly improving one’s habits than through the seeking of explosive emotional experiences in “Blues Brothers”-style.
Gutta cavat lapidem. Tell this to the friendly Protestant near you when you next hear him complaining about Catholic “superstitions”.