Energize Your Prayer Life With a Personal Novena
COMMENTARY: A daily dose of the saints is good for the health of a disciple of Christ, to know that he is not alone along the way.
Lives of the saints have a venerable place in Catholic devotion. Every Catholic library needs a version of the Roman Martyrology, a list of all canonized and beatified saints, arranged according to their feast days. Each day has at least a few; some days a great many. Of the making of books about saints there is no end, as there is no end to the making of saints.
The standard English Butler’s Lives of the Saints is necessary but unwieldly. In multiple volumes, the biographies, while short, are still too long for inclusion in daily prayers. Over the decades, many more user-friendly adaptations and imitations have been published. Enter a new option, marvellously done: Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year (Ignatius). The author is Dawn Marie Beutner, which is a good surname to have if you are in the saint-writing business.
This new one-volume Saints is explicitly devotional, meant to accompany one’s morning prayers. Each day has several saints listed with a few paragraphs of history and a short invocation for that saint’s intercession. Some of the saints are those listed in the universal Roman calendar, which are those saints that are commemorated throughout the Church at Mass. But the vast majority are not universally celebrated, given the limits of the calendar year.
The saints, in all their variety, are an incarnational way to learn about Catholic history, theology and spirituality. A daily dose of the saints is good for the health of a disciple of Christ, to know that he is not alone along the way.
I might suggest to readers a saintly devotion that I have developed over the years — the personal novena.
It’s simple. First choose a date of some significance to you — birthday, anniversary or some such. Then work back nine days and for each of those days look up which saint falls on that day (or close to it). All the better if some of the saints are not on the universal calendar; it makes the novena more personal and educational.
The question to ask each day is this: How does this saint resonate with what God has done in my life? The idea, aside from asking for the intercession of the saints in your personal novena, is to try and link the lives of those saints to your own personal life. It helps us identify with the communion of saints, and helps situate us in the long and splendid history of salvation.
Here’s my own example, a personal novena for my ordination anniversary July 20. Working back nine days, it begins on July 12.
Day 1 — July 12: Feast of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. How better to begin than by giving thanks for the gift of authentically Catholic parents, who planted and nurtured the seeds of faith? My priestly vocation is an extension of my parents’ marital vocation, and so the feast day of the first couple canonized together is a good day to start. Their wedding anniversary was chosen as their feast day (July 12, 1858). It’s of added significance for me that July 12 is also my godmother’s birthday (97 years old this year!), whose prayers were definitely a key instrument God chose to use in my own vocation.
Day 2 — July 13: Feast of Ezra, the prophet. Many Old Testament figures are celebrated as saints. None are on the universal calendar, but they do have their own feast days. For example, July 1 is observed in the United States as the feast of St. Junipero Serra, but is also the feast of Aaron, the first high priest and elder brother of Moses. Ezra was a priest of the tribe of Levi, and he led the Jewish people back to Israel after the Babylonian exile. His mission was to help return the Chosen People to fidelity after the ruin of infidelity. Not entirely different from what we call the new evangelization today, is it?
Day 3 — July 14: Feast of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. A Canadian saint is a welcome presence for this Canadian priest, and I have visited her tomb in Montreal, as well as her birthplace in upstate New York. She is an early but mature fruit of the first evangelization of North America, and a powerful intercessor for the aboriginal peoples here, most of whom are Christian. She died at 24 and is thus a model for young people. As a university chaplain, I know that many young adults who elect to put Jesus at the centre of their lives encounter great opposition from their own families. Kateri experienced that pain firsthand.
Day 4 — July 15: Feast of St. Bonaventure. The great Franciscan minister general and theologian was the patron of our family’s parish in Calgary, where I grew up. St. Bonaventure parish was where I made by First Holy Communion and was confirmed, and where I served at the altar. All those years of graces are part of my story. My family was very active in that parish and we made many friends there. My middle school was also called St. Bonaventure. Sadly, I learned very little about St. Bonaventure until after I had grown up and moved away. It is not unusual for parishioners to be quite ignorant about their parish patron. But I like to think that St. Bonaventure was not ignorant of me, and has interceded for me and my family over the years.
Day 5 — July 16: Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Pilgrims to the Holy Land in the 12th century lived as hermits or monks on Mount Carmel, where Elijah defeated the prophet of Baal. Those early hermits formed the beginning of the Carmelite order, which has brought so much good to the Church. There are lots of Marian feasts throughout the year, and it is likely that a personal novena will include one of them. Mary, Queen of All Saints, is a most fitting presence on any day of any personal novena.
Day 6 — July 17: Feast of Pope St. Leo IV. During his short reign from 847-855, Leo had to lead Rome in recovering from the sack of the old St. Peter’s by Muslim armies in 846. He would build the wall around what became the “Leonine City.” The Leonine Wall stands today as much of the border of the Vatican City State, created nearly 1,200 years later. The centrality of Peter in the Church, and the sheer, history-defying longevity of the Petrine office, are somehow manifest in the Leonine Wall, still standing. During my Roman seminary years the Leonine Wall formed part of my regular geography as I walked around the Eternal City. There are many Roman patrons, and Leo IV’s presence as one of them is welcome.
Day 7 — July 18: Feast of the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compeigne. (Their feast day is actually July 17, but personal novenas permit flexibility!) The 16 Carmelite nuns were executed during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror for refusing to submit to the atheistic state. In 1794, they went to the guillotine singing the praises of God; so holy were their deaths and so indomitable their faith that many credit their deaths with ending the Reign of Terror that very month. Fidelity in the face of totalitarianism was required in the face of 20th century tyrannies, and will be required in 21st-century democracies. The story of the Martyrs of Compeigne was given a stage treatment by French author Georges Bernanos, and has become the subject of a film and an opera, The Dialogue of the Carmelites. The saints are the true heroes of the drama of history.
Day 8 — July 19: Feast of Blessed Czesław. (Another transfer, from his feast day of July 20.) One of the first Polish Dominicans, he and his relative St. Hyacinth were formed in Rome under St. Dominic himself. In 1220, Czesław and Hyacinth were sent back to their own native country as missionaries and they set about establishing in the new Order of Preachers. Hyacinth established the priory in Kraków, and Czesław the one in Wrocław. The Polish Dominicans have played a significant role in my priestly vocation; my time in 1994 living in the Kraków priory for the annual Tertio Millennio Seminar was a decisive moment. It is also welcome to have a Polish saint, given the importance of Poland in my thinking and writing. Showing that no saint book can be complete, Czesław does not appear in the new book Saints.
Day 9 — July 20: Feast of the Prophet Elijah. In the universal calendar my ordination day is the feast St. Appollinaris of Ravenna. During my Roman years, I attended a university on the Piazza Sant’Appollinare, so there are connections, but no devotion. The mighty prophet Elijah stands for two great priestly tasks — the proclamation of the holiness of God against all idols, and the offering to proper sacrifice in right worship. He is a powerful patron at time when paganism — and worse — is no longer a marginal force in formerly Christian cultures. As for his departure in the fiery chariot for heaven, could there be any more stirring conclusion to a personal novena?
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.