The tradition of prayer is varied and broad in the Catholic Church. With 2000 years of history, one can imagine that this would be the case. One of the many types of prayer is the novena.
The word “novena” comes from the Latin word for nine: novem (the month of November also comes from novem, because it was the ninth month of the ancient Roman calendar). The novena has its foundations in the tradition of the nine days during which the Apostles, with Mary, prayed in the upper room between the Ascension of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For this reason, most novenas are meant to be prayed for nine consecutive days (however, some may be longer or shorter).
Novenas most often consist of private prayers which are to be said every day, as they often have not been officially brought into the public prayer of the Church. The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia points out: “The novena is permitted and even recommended by ecclesiastical authority, but still has no proper and fully set place in the liturgy of the Church. It has, however, more and more been prized and utilized by the faithful.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia also points out that there are four main kinds of novenas: novenas of mourning, of preparation, of prayer, and novenas for which an indulgence may be obtained. There is one novena of mourning which is to be taken up by the whole Church when a pope dies. Known as the “Pope’s Novena,” this is nine days of prayer and Masses offered after the death of a pope. Since the successor of Peter has such grave responsibilities to lead the Church, we too ought to pray for him and his intentions in leading the Church. This becomes even more the case when he dies, and so the whole Church joins in asking for God’s mercy upon the deceased pontiff.
There are countless novenas of prayer offering supplication, or petition, to God and asking for the particular intercession of different saints. One of the most famous ones is a novena to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes and those in need. Another famous novena is to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower. This novena asks for the sign of a rose to be given in response to the petitions brought.
However, there are possibly more novenas written to Our Blessed Mother, Mary, than to any other Saint. This is in part because she was there at those nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost (see Acts 2:14). But, more importantly, she is the Mother of God—and Jesus will always honor the prayers of His mother. Though, of course, we must always be open to God’s Will in His response to all of our petitions to Him, even if they do go through His mother.
There are also novenas written directly addressing Jesus which are very beautiful and sometimes very meditative. One such novena is to “the Infant of Prague.” This novena is named for a statue of Jesus as an infant in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Jesus is invoked by this title because of the miraculous nature of the Infant of Prague statue and its history. This novena is commonly prayed every hour for nine consecutive hours, instead of for nine days, making it particularly suited for urgent intentions.
Some novenas are directed to the Holy Spirit, especially asking for His gifts and an increase in our love for God. In fact, by praying a novena to the Holy Spirit from the Ascension of our Lord to Pentecost, we share in a sense in the original novena.
Of the many benefits of novenas, one finds the fervor and virtue that we incur while persevering in our nine days of prayer to consider what and why it is we are asking. We can bring any intention before our Lord, but because Jesus desires all things for the sake of our salvation, it falls upon us to consider whether it is God’s will that what we desire is within His eternal plan for the salvation of the whole world. At times it very well may be, while at other times it may be nowhere near what we truly need to bring us to Heaven. Obviously, God will not grant sinful things to us. The primary goal of prayer is our union with God—and some novena prayers even have specific prayers for each day that help us to evaluate our petition in light of our ultimate goal of Heaven.