Nine successive days of prayer, private or public, to obtain special favors or graces. It differs from an octave, or the eight days of prayerful celebration that follow certain feasts, because the octave has a place in the liturgy that the novena (which generally precedes a feast with which it may be associated) has not. Moreover, the octave is celebrated in a more festal spirit, whereas the novena tends to be marked by a feeling of urgent need and yearning. The novena can be considered a triple triduum, involving a more prolonged concentration of devotion and spiritual effort.
The nine days that the Apostles spent in Jerusalem at the command of the Lord as they awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit (Lk 24.49; Acts 1.4) has been suggested as a scriptural prototype of the novena, but this devotion was first introduced not as an exercise preparatory to an event of great spiritual significance but as the observance of a period of mourning. The Greeks and the Romans, as well as other peoples of antiquity, were accustomed to observe nine days of mourning (novendialia ), with a special feast on the ninth day, after a death or burial. This practice was adopted by Christians, but with Christian rather than pagan forms of observance. Nevertheless, the pagan origin of the custom gave offense to some, and protest eventually led to the substitution of a seven-day mourning period, seven being the number of the days of the Christian week and therefore considered to have greater religious significance. However, a vestige of the earlier practice remains in the novendialia, or Pope's Novena, still observed after the death of a supreme pontiff. In the Middle Ages a like period was often observed after the death of other wealthy or noble individuals, but except for the novenas of Masses and prayers for the departed, this custom has fallen into disuse.
The devotional novena for the purpose of special prayers to gain some needed grace or to prepare for the celebration of some special occasion with greater solemnity made its appearance in the early Middle Ages. It began in France and Spain with a preparation of nine days for the feast of Christmas, the number nine representing the months Our Lord had spent in His mother's womb. The o antiphons that begin on December 17 are probably a vestigial survival in the liturgy of this ancient practice.
Preparatory novenas of this kind came in time to be celebrated in connection with other occasions, especially the feasts of popular saints or of Our Lady, and they were often undertaken publicly and with much external solemnity. Because Our Lady under various titles and the saints were popularly esteemed for their intercessory powers with respect to particular kinds of blessings, novenas came to be times of special supplication in which the devout sought favors such as could be hoped for through the intercession of the saints who were honored. Very often the favor sought was the recovery of health, and in times when medical science had little comfort or hope to offer those afflicted with disease it is understandable that people should turn so readily to heavenly intercessors for healing and protection.
Novenas have been attacked as superstitious, partly because of the peculiar efficacy the practice seems to attach to the number nine, and partly because of the many extraordinary and even miraculous effects with which some novenas have been credited. No doubt the possibility of superstitious abuse exists and it should be guarded against, and no other effectiveness should be attributed to novena prayers as such than is attributable to devout prayer earnestly and perseveringly undertaken in other forms. There is nothing doctrinally objectionable in the idea of a novena; on the contrary, it is a practice that can be most serviceable to true devotion and piety. Perseverance and constancy are qualities of all good prayer, and it is well that some devotional practices should give special emphasis to them by requiring repetition on successive days over a more or less extended period of time, for this manifests and stimulates the worshiper's earnestness and fervor. That one should pray more confidently and hope for special graces by the use of such means is not unreasonable.
The novena grew out of popular piety, and it was not until the 19th century that the Church recommended the practice by the granting of indulgences.
Bibliography: j. hilgers, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al., 16 v. (New York 1907–14) 11:141–144. f. beringer, Die Ablässe, ihr Wesen und Gebrauch, 2 v. (Paderborn 1921) 1:638–644. Enchiridion indulgentiarum (Rome 1952).
[p. k. meagher]
no·ve·na / nōˈvēnə/ • n. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a form of worship consisting of special prayers or services on nine successive days.