Nines days preparing for the Spirit

By | May 17, 2010

Novena recalls Christ’s command at his Ascension

This coming week, you have an opportunity to take part in the church’s oldest novena. A novena is most often a series of nine days of prayer – usually celebrated consecutively, though some of them are celebrated for nine weeks on a certain day of the week.

The day after Ascension Thursday is the traditional start of the Novena of the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost, if you’re searching for it on the Internet). In our diocese, as in many in the United States, the Ascension is celebrated on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, but the Holy Spirit, or Pentecost, novena still starts on May 14.

“Novena” comes from the Latin word novem, meaning nine. While many significant numbers came into Christian use from the Jewish faith — such as the numbers 10 and 40 — the number nine comes to us from the Romans. In ancient Rome, there were three common types of novena. One was a series of nine days of prayer to appease the gods, as recorded by the historian Livy. The other two novenas dealt with mourning.

In Rome when someone died, their family would observe nine days of mourning, followed by a feast. Besides that, Romans held a nine day commemoration in mid-February to honor any family members who had died in the past year. It was called the parentalia novendialia and also ended in a joyful banquet feast.

Christians in Rome seem to have readily adopted this nine day mourning period and, later in history, developed the custom of nine days of Masses following a death. These became more formalized later, especially after the eighth century. Even today, this custom continues in the novendialia, or the Pope’s Novena, as we saw following the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.

Besides the novenas of mourning, the church also has novenas of prayer — often used to petition saints for their assistance, indulgenced novenas which are made in the prayerful hope of attaining graces after death, and the novenas of preparation.

The Pentecost novena is the later type and tradition dates it to the command of the risen Lord himself at his ascension: “Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). Luke’s account of the early church continues in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, where he tells of those days between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost. We hear of the disciples and women, including the Blessed Virgin and members of Jesus’ family, gathered together in prayer in Jerusalem, traditionally in the room of the Last Supper.

“And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind … and they were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:2-4).

While the novena in preparation for Pentecost technically traces back to this period of prayerful waiting by the apostles with Mary, the first official novena of preparation that can be dated in the church came later and dealt with preparing for Jesus’ birth. In Spain and France in the Middle Ages, Christmas novenas commemorated, with nine days of prayer, the nine months that Jesus was in the womb.

Since then, countless novenas have developed. One Web site,, lists 185.

It should be noted that superstition has sometimes been connected with novenas. Some people, misunderstanding the purpose for a repetition of prayers, came to believe that a certain almost mystical quality was attached to the proper number of prayers. They even believed that special power came directly from saying the novenas, as if from saying a magical incantation, and that the saints or even God could be coerced into a specific action by these prayers.

We all know God is not controlled by magic formulas, but works through divine love. Any graces coming to us from novenas come from God’s loving response to the confidence and trust we place in him.

Perseverance in saying the same prayers over a certain number of days expresses an almost-childlike trust in God and their repetition shows our faith and trust in the eternal nature of God’s love and concern. And this was shown most perfectly in the giving of Christ’s very life and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; The New Question Box; The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary; Dictionary of Catholic Devotions; The Modern Catholic Dictionary; The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; EWTN;; and the Arlington Catholic Herald

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