I want to offer you some reflections on a centuries-old custom in the Catholic Church – a novena. A novena is a series of prayers that are said for nine straight days, usually as a prayer of petition but sometimes as a prayer of thanksgiving. The nine days recall the nine days that the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary spent in prayer between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday.
Some of the well-known novenas in the Catholic Church are those to Mary that are prayed for nine days before a major feast. The novena to Divine Mercy established by Pope John Paul II which begins on Good Friday and ends nine days later on Divine Mercy Sunday is a much used novena in our time. There are many novenas to particular saints like St. Joseph and St. Jude. There are also well-known novenas to the Sacred Heart and Our Mother of sorrows.
Many people object to this form of prayer, saying, “Why not just go straight to Jesus?” Of course you can. But, think of it this way: When we are in difficulty and we need to approach the one in charge for a favor, we often take a friend with us for moral and spiritual support.
Or another way to look at this form of prayer is this: Jesus told us that whatever we ask in his name, he will do. That doesn’t just mean to say the name of Jesus verbally.
To ask in someone’s name is to ask according to their intention. If I want to get a job or a new position, I often ask a friend if I may use their name as a possible reference. We would not ask that of a person if they were opposed to our request. So, it is with Jesus. When we ask in his name for a favor, we have already discerned that as far as we can tell, our request is in line with God’s will; therefore we can petition the Father to hear our prayer because we are asking in the name of Jesus.
So, I pray in Jesus’ name – that is, according to his will – but I often ask the Blessed Mother or other saints to accompany my prayer. “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12:1) It is good to bring those to whom we have a special devotion with us when we begin to pray for something we need. The name of Jesus is all sufficient, all powerful but he welcomes many of his and our saintly brothers and sisters to join their prayer with his before the face of the Father. This is the body of Christ at work.
Many of us face situations that seem hopeless or at least exceedingly difficult. We want to grow in confidence and courage – especially when we have done all we know to do, to humble ourselves and come before God with our petitions. A nine-day novena is a wonderful way to intercede. It is not that the prayers themselves are magic. We know that is not true; but when we take time to each day present our need before God with the appropriate prayers. If we pray the prayers with humble trust in our Father and joined by others who already see the face of God, we grow in confidence and openness.
God will adjust our intention over the nine days. Why? Because as we spend time praying with faith, God has more access to us. Why? Because our spirit becomes more quiet and our ears are spiritually attuned to hear that “small, still voice.” (1Kings 19:12) He can speak to our heart in some way that lets us know we are not alone.
Often, over the years, my intention at the beginning of a novena was modified by the end of it. God had given me greater love for the person, a deeper understanding of the situation for which I prayed and what God wanted to see accomplished.
A novena is a wonderful adventure. There is even a 54-day rosary novena to the Blessed Mother which has brought countless blessings both to the one being prayed for and to the one doing the praying. God will never be outdone in generosity – he will be gracious and merciful to those who seek him. Intercessory prayer is a great gift from God.
Sister Ann Shields is a renowned author and a member of the Servants of God’s Love. Questions can be addressed to Sister Ann Shields, Renewal Ministries, 230 Colling