What is a Novena and Where did it Begin?

Bri Campbell    |   Last Updated: January 20, 2021
What is a Novena and Where did it Begin?

Novena: a form of worship consisting of special prayers or services on nine successive days
(Oxford dictionary)

From the Latin novem, meaning nine

Upon the death of a Pope, a nine-day period of mourning is observed.  We last saw this in 2005, whereupon the death of (now Saint) Pope John Paul II, his papal funeral Mass was followed by nine official days of mourning – with a requiem Mass said each day for the repose of his soul.  Known as the novendialia or the “Pope’s Novena,” this is just one example of a novena prayer in the Catholic Church.

Other novenas may be said in preparation for a major life event, such as a wedding or graduation.  Or for a special intention, as to St. Joseph for a job or St. Therese for a “shower of roses” from heaven and a sign of a prayer answered. Still others are prayed leading up to a feast day – such as the Divine Mercy novena, which begins on Good Friday.

A novena can begin at any time and for any reason. It can be short and simple or consist of lengthy prayers and litanies. They can be prayed alone or in a group.  But, no matter the form or intention, they all stem from the very first novena, described in Sacred Scripture.

Before His Ascension, Jesus commanded the Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming of the Advocate – or Holy Spirit – which He had promised to send after His return to the Father (Luke 24:49). After His Ascension, they returned from the Mt. of Olives to Jerusalem.

When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:13-14).

There they stayed, for the next 9 days, as Scripture continues:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them (Acts 2: 1-3).

Each year we have the opportunity to enter the Upper Room with the Apostles and pray for an increased outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives. What we received in our Baptism and were sealed in at our Confirmation can be increased through this and other devotions.

The Novena to the Holy Spirit begins the day after the Ascension – this year Friday, May 22nd – and lasts until the Eve of Pentecost – Saturday, May 30th this year – in anticipation of the Feast of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon each of us.

There are many variants of the Holy Spirit Novena.  Here are links to a few of them: