A novena may be a private or public devotion that consists of a single prayer or a series of prayers appointed for each successive day or week. The devotion last nine days or weeks, as the word novena indicates, being derived from the Latin word novem, meaning nine. According to St. Jerome, “The number nine in Holy Writ is indicative of suffering and grief.”
Fittingly, a novena is mournful or longing in nature, awaiting the arrival of a liturgical event or answer to a petition; this is in contrast to the celebratory nature of an octave or a festive liturgical season (Hilgers, 1911). Though at first the number nine may not seem significant in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ninth hour of prayer, none, is considered an important hour of prayer in both Jewish and Christian tradition (Cabrol, 1911). It was also on the ninth hour that Christ gave up the ghost (Hilgers, 1911), and it is customary to remember the departed on the ninth day, as on the third and fortieth (Shaff, 1885). It was nine months that Jesus spent in the womb, and it was nine days that the Apostles spent in the upper room preparing for the descent of the Holy Spirit. It is the waiting on the descent of the Holy Spirit, preparing for Pentecost, that is considered to be the first novena (Hilgers, 1911).
Devoting oneself to nine days of vigils is found in Church history as early as the third century (Sly, 2010), and by the year 1000 AD there are at least three documented novenas. These three early novenas are each for health, and they are directed to St. Hubert, St. Mommolus, and St. Marcouf (Hilgers, 1911). The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book that is used by many in Western Orthodoxy has four novenas. There is the Novena in Preparation for Christmas, the Novena in Preparation for Pentecost, the Novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Novena for One Departed. Of these four novenas, the Novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary may have the simplest form, as it does not change from day to day.
The Novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary begins with the blessing, “ In the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” There is then a versicle and response: “℣ The Angel declared unto Mary: ℟ And she conceived of the Holy Ghost.” In this novena the versicle and response is followed by the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be prayers. There is then the principle prayer of the novena, the prayer that makes this novena unique and emphasizes the purpose of the novena.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Novena to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other three novenas in The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book, is that the other three novenas make use of a daily prayer. These daily prayers are number one through nine so that a different prayer is used each day. These short prayers are interested after the versicle and response and before the daily conclusion. The daily conclusion is the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be prayers, followed by prayers specific to the novena. In the Novena for one Departed, the prayer that follows the Glory Be is a versicle and response:
℣ Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.
℟ And let perpetual light shine upon them.
℣ May they rest in peace.
℟ Amen. (Winfrey, 2008).
As early as St. Augustine of Hippo there have been concerns that a novena may be abused, such as being used in a superstitious or transactional manner as found in paganism. This abuse is not taught or encouraged by The Church, and novenas did not become associated with indulgences until 19th century Roman Catholicism (Hilgers, 1911). This abuse should not stop the faithful from using novenas as a devotion, as this type of abuse may be found with any number of Christian traditions and practices.
Cabrol, Fernand. "None." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 28 Jan. 2018 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11097a.htm>.
Hilgers, Joseph. "Novena." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 28 Jan. 2018 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11141b.htm>.
Sly, Randy. “Nine Days of Focused Prayer: What is a Novena? - Living Faith - Home & Family - News.” Catholic Online, Catholic Online, 14 May 2010, www.catholic.org/news/hf/faith/story.php?id=36553.
Winfrey, John G, editor. The Saint Ambrose Prayer Book: A Devotional Manual for Orthodox Christians of the Western Rite. First ed., Lancelot Andrewes Press, 2008.