Novenas are intrinsically part of the Catholic culture. Technically, these are prayers said for nine days, which is where the word “novena” comes from because the prefix “nov” means nine. Examples of these are the novena to Our Lady of Lourdes from Feb 2 to Feb 10, and also the novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on nine first Fridays. To some, it has become a “perpetual novena” when they say it every day, every week, or every month.
These novenas are usually said when one has a special petition. It is always good to ask for help from Mary and the saints for they are face-to-face with our Lord and can intercede for us. The tragedy comes when we treat these prayers as if they were magical incantations. What’s the difference?
In a petition prayer, we lift our concerns to God (sometimes through the intercession of the saints) and trust God will answer our prayers as he sees fit. A magical incantation is something we say expecting to get what we want. It isn’t wrong to expect God to give us what we want, but the difference is in the disposition. In prayer, we leave it up to God to know what is good for us; when we treat prayer as a magical incantation, we expect God to give us what we want because we “paid” for it by our prayers as if it were a contract.
We have to be careful not to treat novenas this way. Sometimes we read on social media about this or that novena that “guarantees results” or is a “powerful novena.” The idea is if you pray this, you will absolutely get what you want. This is contradictory to what prayer is. In fact, this is what Christ warned against when he said, “in praying, do not use vain repetition like pagans, who think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Mat 6:7)
The warning was not about repetitious prayer. That would be absurd because Christ himself repeated the same prayers in Gethsemane. (Matthew 26:36-44) Likewise in Revelation, there are creatures who repeat the same prayer non-stop. (Revelation 4:8) Since there is repetitious prayer in Scripture, repetition is not a bad thing. What Christ was warning is repeating prayer like the pagans. He was referring to how pagans were fixated about getting a ritual correct so that if performed flawlessly they could manipulate their gods to give them what they wanted. If the one performing the ritual stuttered, yawned, hiccoughed, or even coughed during the rite, he had to repeat it. The inkling is if they did it correctly, their gods had to give them what they want. It is like a business deal: I did this, so you give me that. This is contrary to Christian prayer. Prayer is not supposed to change God’s will to fit ours, but so we will change our will to fit God’s. Neither is Christian prayer a currency used in buying favors from God.
There is no problem in “nagging” God repeatedly for the same thing he hasn’t given us yet, but it should be done with a sense of trust that God will give us only good things. We should also have the humility to accept that sometimes his answer is no. Isn’t this what Christ taught us about God giving us only good things when he said, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give you good things to those who ask him.” The key then is to ask for “good things” and it shall be given. The problem is that our knowledge is finite and we might be asking something that might not be good for us. The Christian disposition then is to have faith that our all-knowing and loving Father recognizes what is good for us and gives us only what is good for us.
So, novenas, pilgrimages, sacrifices or promises in “exchange” for something from God is healthy for as long as our disposition is not getting God to do what we want, but getting God to do what he wants.