The Latin word novena means
“nine.” Novenas are a form of
prayer in which a person, individually
or with a group, prays for
some special intention for nine days.
At some point in your life, for example,
you may have made a novena
to the Holy Spirit on the nine days
before Pentecost in preparation for
the feast. Mary and the disciples of
Jesus did this in the Upper Room
before God’s Spirit came upon them,
even though they didn’t call it a
novena (see Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4ff).
Novenas began in the early Middle
Ages in Spain and France as a
nine-day preparation before Christmas.
The number nine represents the months
Jesus lived in his mother’s womb.
Weekly and Monthly Novenas
This month is a popular month for devotees
of St. Anthony of Padua to take
part in novenas in preparation for his
feast on June 13. Typically, this novena
is prayed on the nine Tuesdays preceding
Why Tuesdays? Because Anthony’s
burial day—June 17, 1231—happened
to fall on a Tuesday. Interestingly, popular
customs are often influenced by
very human circumstances like this. In
some places, a 13-week “novena” is
popular before the feast of Anthony.
Why? Because Anthony died on the
13th of the month!
Back in the 1940s, when I was a
Catholic elementary school student,
novenas to the Sacred Heart were very
popular. The practice was based on
revelations that St. Margaret Mary
Alacoque received from Christ. Catholics
were encouraged to attend Mass
on nine consecutive First Fridays and
receive Communion in honor of the
Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Among other novenas quite popular
with Catholics have been those seeking
the aid of Our Lady of Perpetual Help
or of St. Jude the Apostle, the “saint of
Some people contend that novenas
border on the superstitious. In their
eyes, the efficacy of such prayers seems
to be based on the number nine, as
if that number has magical power.
Such superstitious attitudes, of
course, must be avoided. We know
that a prayer’s efficacy is not based
on a person’s saying a prayer nine
or 13 times. Rather, it is based on
people’s earnestness and perseverance—on their trust in God or their
confidence in Mary or in a saint like
St. Anthony of Padua.
Perseverance—or trusting endurance—is the quality that reveals
the petitioner’s faith, fervor and
depth of love. Holding oneself to
the discipline of “hanging in there”
with a heartfelt request for a good
number of days or weeks manifests an
admirable amount of personal perseverance.
I am reminded of Jesus’ parable
about the persistent individual who
comes to his friend’s house at midnight,
asking for bread because a visitor
has arrived and he is out of bread.
The friend says, “Don’t bother me.”
Jesus points out that, if the petitioner
doesn’t get his request granted because
of friendship, he will get it because of
his persistence (see Luke 11:5-9).
Novenas are prayers of loving perseverance!
Whether praying for the good
of another or for one’s own needs,
those who pray in this spirit reveal
their belief in the power of prayer and
their trust in God and in the communion