What is a Novena?

our fatherGrowing up in the Catholic Church I was taught to pray simple prayers like the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. In our household we actually only prayed the prayer before meals and a generic bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”. The Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be were said only at school (and the Our Father in Mass). Outside of this my prayer life was non-existent.

It would be years later that I stumbled upon a great and powerful way to pray. I had never heard of it prior and to my knowledge the majority of my friends had never either. I suppose growing up in the 80s led to poor catechesis and we weren’t introduced to much of our beautiful Catholic faith outside of the very basics. I look back and feel slighted.  I feel like those who knew the faith, both at home and in our Catholic schools, should have made sure that we knew just how beautiful and how intimate our Catholic faith could be! Still, life is what it is and I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this wonderful form of prayer on my own.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of a novena. I know the first time I heard the name I tilted my head and said, “A what?” with a look of confusion on my face. A novena is a very special and focused prayer that typically lasts 9 days (hence the name “novena” which means nine in Latin). It is a formalized prayer that uses a “script” written by someone else to vocalize the thoughts, feelings, and needs we have that perhaps on our own we may not be able to find the right words to convey. It is bringing our needs before the Lord. Depending on the kind of novena we may also be asking for Mary or one of the Saints to bring our needs before the throne of God. We ask them to join us in prayer and because they can see God face to face they can lay our needs on the ground before Him.

novena infant jesus

Novenas are not only said on nine consecutive days but can also, especially in extreme emergencies, be said for a period of nine hours. Likewise, depending on the prayer and the need, a novena can last many more days, sometimes as long as 30 or 54 days! Talk about centering yourself in prayer!

Why should we pray novenas? First let’s take a look at where novenas took root. In Acts 1:14 we read that Mary and the Apostles were in the upper room “joined in continuous prayer”. We know based on when the Passover was, and when the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost were that we find Christ’s followers prayed continuously for nine days. The practice bloomed through the years with others following the Apostles’ lead and entering into a period of deep prayer lasting 9 days at a time. Novenas have a biblical root!

But so what? Why should we pray novenas? Why not just the normal prayers we memorized as children or the ones we pray spontaneously without help from anyone else? Novenas serve many purposes in our prayer life but some of the best reasons I find are the following:

  • Sometimes our needs are so great and we just don’t have the words ourselves to bring our needs before God. A novena helps us find the words to convey our feelings and our needs.
  • We can be united in prayer with so many others when we pray a novena together. It may be a group of friends or it can be with millions like when we pray the Divine Mercy Novena. Christ tells us that “when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there”. Imagine the possibilities of millions praying the same words, the same prayers, together!
  • We unite ourselves to the will of God. In all novenas we pray that God’s will above all be done; that we only wish for our prayers to be answered if they bring glory to God and fall in line with His will.
  • We put prayer in a high place of importance. When we pray often and with purpose prayer is no longer “work” but becomes a part of us. When we pray for specific intentions for 9 days in a row that prayer is a lifted to a prominent place in our lives and we focus on listening for God’s voice regarding that need. It is centering on God through prayer.
  • When we pray a novena we show God respect and humility. We put our trust in Him. We know He will do what is best for us and for our lives.
  • A novena prayed with trust in God can calm us, uplift us, provide us with confidence, and provide us with comfort and peace.

our lady of perpetual helpThere are many novenas out there, how do you know which is right for you? First, think about what your needs are. What are you praying for? Second think about the lives of the saints and Mary. Can you think of anyone who has been through something similar in their lives? If you are unsure look up a list of patron saints by their patronage. Or, if you already have a saint in mind (for example my patron saint is St. Monica so any of my needs as a mother I turn towards her to pray with me and for me) look to see if there is already a novena in their name. Third, think about your situation and how much time you have towards devoting to praying the novena. Is it a more serious situation where a nine hour novena would be better or can you make it a longer novena of 9 days, 30 days, or 54 day. Look for novenas that will work in your time frame too. Above all, find a novena that speaks to your heart and your soul. Prayer should always uplift you and place you at the feet of Jesus. When looking for a novena to pray look with your heart first.

If you can’t find a novena for a particular need or a particular saint you can write one yourself. Most people though will find that there is a novena for everything! We can think of all the saints who have gone before us and know they have “been there, done that” and can help us through what we are facing now. Trust that you will find the perfect prayer for you!

Now, in all fairness, I have to tell you what a novena is not.  A novena is not a magical spell that will get you everything you want and pray for. No, it is not a cure all nor will you always find or hear the answer you are hoping for. It will not twist God’s arm to make Him submit to YOUR will. Just because you make it through your 9 days, your 30 days, or your 54 days doesn’t mean the answer you hear will be in accordance to your desires. They will only be answered if they are in accordance to God’s will and if they will bring honor and glory to Him. A novena is more than just a trick to get God to say yes. It is a devotion to placing God’s will above your own; a deep prayer that brings your needs before Him but says, “Thy will be done”.


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What novenas are dear to you and what prayers have been answered through praying novenas?

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