What is a novena?

A novena (from the Latin word for “nine”) is an ancient Christian prayer tradition, in which participants engage in prayers repeated for nine successive days. While it is not clear how the tradition began, there is reference to novenas in the writings of St. Augustine (354-430 AD).

Tradition holds that the first novena was the nine days between the Feast of the Ascension and Pentecost, a time when the disciples dedicated themselves to prayer after Christ’s Ascension to heaven and before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The practice grew over the centuries so that by the Middle Ages there became three recognized categories of novenas (though not exclusive): mourning, in preparation for a Church feast, and intercessory.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document of the Church fathers gathered in the Second Vatican Council, provides the following guidance on the place of novenas in Christian piety:

Devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since, in fact, the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 13

Novenas now are prayed in various ways. For instance, the devotion of Nine First Fridays is a novena honoring the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A novena to St. Joseph is commonly made on the nine first Wednesdays before his feast day, or on the nine days immediately before the feast. Los Posadas is a popular novena in the United States, Mexico and Latin America, celebrated between Dec. 16 and Dec. 24 with prayer, song and food.