What is a novena and why do Catholics pray them?


Dear Sister Benedicta Marie,

What is a novena? Where did they come from and why do we pray them?

Dear Friend,

Novena comes from the Latin Language and means nine. As used by Catholics this means a series of nine prayers. Usually the series refers to a prayer or devotion offered on nine consecutive days, but the series could be a series of devotions for nine consecutive weeks, or months, or – Mother Teresa’s so-called ‘emergency novena’ or ‘express novena’ consisted of reciting nine consecutive Memorares!

Much of the prayer life of the Catholic faithful, liturgical and devotional really owes its origins to our spiritual ancestors in faith, the Jewish people. The Old Testament shows us that the Jews prayed over a series of days in petition, celebration and repentance on numerous occasions – nine seems not to have been an important number for them though. The scriptural nine days of prayer is found in the Acts of the Apostles and consists of the nine days the Apostles spent waiting in prayer in Jerusalem for the coming of Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4, 5).

We probably should not think the custom of praying in a series of nine arose in the Church immediately, but we do have documentary evidence that a series of nine masses immediately following death was already being prescribed in medieval wills. That specific number of nine may have originally come from Roman and other pagan customs, being ‘baptized’ so to speak, by Christians who saw a precedent for it in Acts 1. The novena has simply grown in popularity and variety ever since the Middle Ages, with countless devotional novenas practiced today. The novena has always been more widespread in popular piety than in the liturgy, but I think most of us are familiar with the nine days of mourning and prayer that follow the death of a pope – sometimes called the Pope’s Novena.

If there is any important caveat to mention in connection with the idea of a novena it is simply that we not let the tail wag the dog. Structures for prayer have value insofar as they support and assist our efforts to pray faithfully – which is simply to say – our efforts to seek the will of God and rely on Him to always provide the loaf we need rather than the stone we sometimes ask for. There is no ‘power’ in formulas or structures as such, and the human tendency to lapse into superstition being what it is, it is well that we remind ourselves of this on a regular basis, as well as clearly instructing our children in this regard. That said, you are ever so welcome to say one for me – express or otherwise!

Until next time,

Sister Benedicta Marie, O.C.D

Send your questions for Sister to asksister@integratedcatholiclife.org.

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Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

A look at the history of our community, with its motherhouse in Alhambra, California, reveals how its life-giving presence has come about. During the beginning decades of the 1900s just as the epic Mexican revolution was subsiding, a ruthless religious persecution was gaining momentum in Mexico. This horrible persecution accompanied the birth and humble beginnings of our community, a legacy that Mother Luisita, our foundress, and her two companions brought with them as religious refugees entering the Unites States in 1927.

Those seeds planted by Mother Luisita, now a candidate for sainthood, have taken deep root in the United States since those early days. People and places have changed throughout the years, yet the heart of our mission remains. As an autonomous religious institute since 1983 we continue to carry out our loving service in our healthcare facilities, retreat houses and schools which remain to this day centers of life and hope. Today we are moving forward together “Educating for Life with the Mind and Heart of Christ” in schools, being “At the Service of the Family for Life” through health and eldercare and “Fostering a Deeper Spiritual Life” through individual and group retreats. At the heart of our vocation is a passionate mission of loving service which facilitates our life-giving encounter with the living God.

The heritage of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles is rooted in the spirituality of Carmel, the Gospels, the Church, with our particular charism derived from our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

In His merciful goodness, God has graced our Institute with the Carmelite charism which has its roots in a long history and living tradition. The spirituality of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross is rooted in this tradition. Carmel means enclosed garden in which God Himself dwells. The divine indwelling in the soul is the foundation of Teresa's doctrine. Thus our vocation is a grace by which contemplation and action are blended to become an apostolic service to the Church.

Our ideal finds a living expression in the life and charism of our beloved Foundress, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, whose spirit we faithfully preserve and foster.

Our life is characterized by: - A life of prayer and union with God - A deep love for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist - Devotion to our Blessed Mother - Steadfast fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church - Praying for priests - Commitment to works of the apostolate in ecclesial service

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