2000 years ago, Jesus was at the end of His earthly ministry. On the day He ascended into Heaven, 40 days after Easter, after He had risen from the dead, He gathered the Apostles and disciples on the Mount of Olives. There, He gave some final instructions and ascended into the sky until hidden by a cloud. These instructions included the commands to stay together in Jerusalem, to pray, to await the gift of the Holy Spirit and to bear witness to Him throughout the world.
This final moment with the early Church ended with:
“While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for “the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” When they had gathered together they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”He answered them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:4)
Over the next nine days, the Apostles and disciples did as Jesus had commanded and on the tenth day, Pentecost happened, the fiery and powerful gift of the Holy Spirit was given to them. They had prayed the first Christian novena. Since then, novenas, nine days of prayer for a specific intention have been a normal and healthy part of Christian devotion, both personally and communally. Unfortunately, they can also be misunderstood and be a cause of confusion and superstition.
If a novena is authentically Catholic and biblical, it will have all the elements we read about in the Scriptures: 1) nine days (or a specific number of days or moments of prayer); 2) asking for a specific grace or gift; and 3) is oriented to growth in faith, or the spread of God’s kingdom.
Where the element of superstition can begin to creep in it when what we’re asking for has nothing directly related to doing God’s will. Sometimes, for example, we might do a novena to get a job or to find a spouse. These are good and noble things. However, God may not grant that request or answer that prayer as we hope or in the time we expect. This can lead to great doubts about the spiritual life and about God’s love. So, when the object of a novena is something earthly, we need to include the understanding: “Thy will be done!”
Where a novena becomes explicitly superstitious, and there for sinful, is when the novena itself promises that one’s intentions will be fulfilled. I see these in church a lot: over nine days recite the novena prayer (often to St. Jude or the Sacred Heart of Jesus), make nine copies of the prayer, and leave the copies in church over nine days, and your request is certain to be granted.
NO! NO! NO! This is not faith or devotion or piety. It’s superstition, at the least and the practice of magic at its worst. To knowingly distribute such false devotions is a grave sin. As of Thursday, the universal Church begins the first novena, from Ascension Thursday until Pentecost Sunday. I hope and pray you will be blessed and know the power of the Holy Spirit more fully.
Rev. Marcus Pollard