For many, a novena is thought of as something magical that people do when they want something from God. Many pray novenas when they are in need, but they don’t always get what they want — at least, they don’t always get it in the manner in which they wanted it.
“Novenas aren’t for controlling God, but for opening ourselves to God in order to increase our faith and grow in love of God and neighbor,” said Redemptorist Father Jim White.
“Novenas are about inner healing, obtaining special graces, transformation and growing in virtue and holiness.”
Father White pointed out that novenas are not a magical formula, but rather a means for developing perseverance, good prayer habits and a deeper faith. When prayed in the right frame of mind (and heart), novenas bring us peace and joy regardless of the answer we’ve received to our petition.
The word “novena” comes from the Latin “novem,” which means nine. Thus, novenas always include nine of something: months, weeks, days, hours or even the same prayer repeated nine times.
In ancient Rome, it was customary to pray for the dead over a nine-day period as a way to mourn and commit the soul to God’s mercy. Mary, the Apostles and other followers of Jesus gathered to pray in the Upper Room during the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost.
In the early Middle Ages, novenas were prayed in preparation for major liturgical events such as Christmas and Pentecost and later used as acts of reparation.
Gradually, parishes took on the novena tradition, and it became customary for each parish to have an ongoing novena of some kind. Many parishes carry on that tradition to this day. Although novenas have been part of Catholic tradition since its earliest days, the Church didn’t officially bless the practice until the 19th century, according to Father White.
But if a novena holds no magical powers, what’s the use of praying them?
“When we pray a novena, we focus our spiritual attention intently on one set of prayers,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, a New York-based writer and blogger and author of “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (ALPHA, $16.95). “It’s typically for a special intention in order to receive special graces and either the answer to our prayer or the whisper of the Spirit telling us what we need to do, where we need to go. It’s our version of the Upper Room.”
Having the right attitude is key to the use of novenas. Because they’re a powerful means of prayer, we can be tempted to abuse their power.
When we pray a novena, we must take on Jesus’ attitude in Gethsemane the night before he died. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).
How and why
EWTN host Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa recommends three essential elements for the use of novenas.
First, the prayers are specific, which helps us make our needs before God specific without telling God how to answer our prayer.
Second, the prayers include an expression of trust and confidence in God’s ability to answer them.
“Often we have some doubts, so we pray like the man with the epileptic son,” he said. “‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’ Prayers that rouse our trust in God are aids to the graces of faith and hope.”
Third, repeating prayers and repeating them over time is helpful because we often need that length of time to move beyond merely making a request to learning to listen to God as he speaks to us in prayer.
“Getting the answer we seek is only part of the issue,” Father Pacwa said.
“It is also essential to see that the length of time to pray the novena induces us to consider more aspects of the importance of receiving the answer. We develop our relationship with God, and that is often more lasting than the actual result we see from praying with faith. The relationship with God himself is essential, and a novena reminds us that the relationship takes time.”
Father Richard Heilman, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, Wis., directly experienced the fruitfulness of the Divine Mercy novena. A long-time fan of St. John Paul II and the Divine Mercy devotion, Father Heilman founded the Knights of Divine Mercy, a lay organization of men devoted to Divine Mercy. Since its 2006 inception, the mailing list has grown to more than 500.
This March, Father Heilman’s 31-year-old nephew was dying of complications from pneumonia. The case seemed hopeless; doctors already had informed the family that the life support equipment needed to be turned off and that he would die shortly thereafter. Father Heilman refused to lose hope, and so he sat by the bedside of his dying nephew praying first the Rosary and then the Divine Mercy Chaplet. It was 3 p.m. Suddenly, his nephew began to recover. Father Heilman continued the Divine Mercy novena. Within 48 hours, his nephew had been weaned from life support. By the ninth day, he was showing obvious signs of recovery.
“My nephew absolutely should not be with us now,” said Father Heilman. “The doctors told us this is 100 percent a miraculous recovery.”
Sometimes, answers to novenas can come in unexpected ways. That’s what happened to Father Patrick Stoffer, a Franciscan friar stationed at Marytown in Libertyville, Ill.
He acquired a devotion to Our Lady of Confidence from his mother, so when a friend and her husband were having difficulty conceiving, it was natural for him to pass on the prayer, “My Mother, My Confidence,” to them. Within a month, his friend was pregnant.
“It’s happened several times since then, to other couples,” Father Stoffer said. “Each time, it was within a month. I’ve also found that devotion to be especially helpful for people discerning their vocation to the seminary.”
In honor of his mother, who is declining from Alzheimer’s, Father Stoffer has begun to actively promote devotion to Our Lady of Confidence. He promotes it in the parish and even hands a copy of the prayer to those who come to him for confession. As a result, he’s seen petitions answered time and again.
“I really believe Mary is doing something with this prayer,” he said.
“Confidence implies trust and hope, and sadly, confidence is lacking all around us. This is a prayer for our times.”
Catholics talk to OSV about their personal devotion to — and, for many, the results they’ve seen from — praying novenas.
John C. Hathaway | North Augusta, S.C.
Favorite novena: “The novena to the Infant of Prague, because it’s not just ‘pray the right formula and God will magically do your will.’ It’s ‘the more you help me, the more I will bless you.’ ... It was through my devotion to the Infant of Prague that I credit my marriage and many miracles great and small in my life. Since it’s a Carmelite devotion, in conjunction with my devotion to St. Thérèse, the Infant of Prague led me to the secular Carmelites.”
Sally Leroy | Scottsdale, Ariz.
“I pray (novenas) in petition for our adult children, the safety of our grandchildren and that Jesus and his loving mom will watch over them always with their guardian angels constantly at their side. ... The most comforting thing about novenas is knowing my Mama Mary is with me and listening to my heartache.”
Mary Lou Rosien | North Chili, N.Y. “I pray novenas almost constantly. I pray a novena when I’m in a situation in which I cannot find an answer or feel helpless. Novenas help me feel like I’m participating with God’s grace in finding a solution.”
Mary Wallace | Baton Rouge, La.
“I really have a desire to pray novenas because of the intercessory power — not a magical power, but a real our-friends-are-praying-with-us power. ... It reminds me that the Lord calls people to sainthood, and connecting our hearts to the hearts of the saints brings us closer to him, especially when you’re connecting your heart to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
Favorite novena: “The St. Joseph novena, but I have a particular devotion to Divine Mercy and love St. Faustina.”
Sheila Axt | Brookfield, Wis.
“I pray novenas because I believe there is great power and hope in these continuous nine-day prayers. It is like waiting in the Upper Room for an answer, a sign — the hope that all will be OK. I pray novenas in situations that, to me, may seem hopeless or critical, so I go to these prayers that contain great hope, extra special promises, and yes, even miracles associated to them. It takes commitment and devotion to stick to novena prayers.”
Christopher Tusiime | Kampala, Uganda
Favorite novenas: “The Divine Mercy, Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary novenas. But the one to the Divine Mercy I truly find effective if I succeed in waking up and saying it at 3 a.m. Whenever I pray it, I see a remarkable change in my studies. I feel that my faith gradually grows. I pray for a good number of people who have left the Church and one by one they have come back.”
Joseph Yank | Hubertus, Wis.
“I would have to say the most important experience with a novena was when I was ready to graduate from college and discerning marriage to the young lady I had been dating. I pledged to pray the Courage of Faith novena for nine days, weeks or years, or for however long it took until I had a clear answer. Less than nine months into the novena, the relationship came to an abrupt halt. I decided to continue the novena until God revealed the suitable spouse he had in mind for me. ... Eight years later, I did meet the right girl and we were married the next year — nine years after I started praying the Courage of Faith novena. I later found out that she had been praying the 54-day Rosary novena for a suitable spouse at about the same time I was praying mine.”
In addition to praying for things we want to have happen, novenas also can be a way of letting go.
Author Susan Tassone writes about purgatory and notes the importance of novenas for the deceased.
“When a loved one dies, our hearts are full of sorrow and grief,” she said. “The Church teaches that the Mass is the most powerful way to help console the dead as well as those left behind. So, we have a novena of Masses, or nine consecutive Masses or the Gregorian Masses, which are 30 consecutive Masses for the deceased soul.
“It’s a wonderful way to remember the dead and commit their souls to God. When we do this, we remain spiritually connected with them, feel a love and closeness to them, and feel we’re really doing something to help them.”
Novenas may seem like a lot of work; remembering to pray every day for nine days can be a real challenge with our hectic lifestyles. Yet, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
In his book, “The Church’s Most Powerful Novenas” (OSV, $14.95), Michael Dubruiel lists three main benefits of praying a novena: It helps develop the habit of daily prayer; it reinforces a sense that God is our Father and that he loves us; and it teaches us the benefits of praying with others to God.
This is especially true when we participate in communal novenas such as those said in informal groups or ongoing novenas in parishes.
For some time, novenas have lurked in the background of our popular piety. Now, they’re making a comeback.
The comeback, Dubruiel warns in his book, must not be one built on superstition or misconceptions.
“With all this going on, it’s no surprise that novenas are coming back, too,” he wrote, referring to recent changes in the Church. “The task now is to make certain that they return intelligently — that is, in a way consistent with Scripture and good theology.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.