Its name deriving from the Latin word “novem,” meaning “nine,” a novena is nine days’ private or public devotion in the Catholic Church to obtain special graces. Though they are not part of our liturgy and remain a “popular devotion” (a very few are prayed para-liturgically , they’ve been prayed since the very beginning of the Church — and before its official beginning: Mary and the Apostles prayed from His Ascension to the Pentecost, a period of nine days (Acts 1). Also, a nine-day period of supplication was a pagan Roman and Eastern practice, so novenas were easily accepted by the earliest converts in these lands.
The Christian and Jewish meaning of the number “9” entered into Christian thinking on the matter, as “9” was associated with suffering, grief, and imperfection, making it a fitting number for when “man’s imperfection turned in prayer to God” (Catholic Encyclopedia). St. Jerome wrote that “the number nine in Holy Writ is indicative of suffering and grief” (Ezechiel, vii, 24).
Novenas, then, often, but not necessarily, have about them a sense of “urgency”; they are typically made for special intentions, one’s own or another’s (“I’ll make a novena for you”). Novenas to certain Saints are often made according to that Saint’s patronage; for ex., because of his New Testament letter encouraging Christians to persevere in the face of persecution, St. Jude is the patron of desperate situations and “hopeless” causes, so a person who finds himself or a loved one in a real tough bind might make a novena to St. Jude (by the way, it is traditional, after making a novena to St. Jude, to make a public expression of your gratitude. This is the reason for those mysterious thank you notes to St. Jude that you might see in your local newspaper’s Classifieds section).
There are four main types of novenas (a novena may fit into more than one category):
- novenas of mourning, such as the novena made during the novemdiales — the nine day period following the death of a Pope
- novenas of preparation, or “anticipation,” such as the Christmas or Easter Novenas
- novenas of prayer
- the indulgence novenas
In some novenas, the same prayer is said each day for nine days, or sometimes 9 times in one day; others may have (or add) different prayers for each of the 9 prayer sessions. Some “novenas” aren’t properly called “novenas” because the number nine plays no role in any way, but still retain the label. When a Novena is prayed in anticipation of a Feast, it is typically begun such that it ends the day before the Feast (i.e., to know when to start a Novena in anticipation of a Feast, count 10 days back from the Feast, with the Feast itself counting as “one.”)
Be aware that some uneducated persons think about Novenas in a superstitious manner. Any Novena instructions that include words such as, “say this prayer for 9 consecutive days and your wish will be granted to you,” or that describe the Novena as “never fail” in some sense that would lead one to believe that we have God at our beck and call rather than our being His humble servants — well, while the prayers themselves might (or might not) be OK, such instructions should be absolutely rejected.