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Why Does a Catholic Novena Last Nine Days? Is Nine a Magical Number?
Um, hardly. We’re not New Age folks, so we don’t believe that if you “break the chain” you’re doing something dreadful. So why do novenas last nine days?
Years ago, my son asked me if it was okay to break a novena for one evening. He said he was on the seventh day of a nine-day Rosary novena for world peace, and wanted to know if he could change the intention of his daily Rosary for just one night. If he did that, would he have to start the novena all over again, or could he resume with day eight on the following evening?
These are all very good questions, and I understand his concern.
A novena consists of nine days of a specific spiritual devotion to ask God for certain graces, usually through the intercession of a chosen saint. Novenas help us to develop an active, daily habit of devoted prayer, and to cherish a deeper relationship with God.
An important thing to keep in mind about novenas is that they’re not magical. There’s no hocus-pocus involved. There’s no “if you break the chain, your wish won’t come true” sort of superstition. The point of a novena, of making a commitment to pray for a certain cause, is that of devotion and a sacrificial willingness to pray no matter how busy our schedules, how tired we may be, or how much our ego may fight with the excuse of “boring, don’t want to do it ...”
I told my son that it was fine to pray for another cause during a novena if the intention was urgent and if he truly felt led by the Holy Spirit. He confessed that the issue was urgent—there was a major fire raging in the house across the street, and he wanted to pray his Rosary for the safety of all those involved.
The first thing that popped into my head when son told me about his intentions was: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).
Certainly God sees this as not only a just cause, but also a necessary one. This was an urgent prayer indeed, and God knows the love of our soul and commitment of our heart. In fact, in praying for this cause, my son wasn’t breaking his novena at all. He was blessedly extending it.
My son was blessedly extending his novena to include others who were in obvious and immediate need.
So why are novenas traditionally prayed for nine days?
Again, there’s no magical formula in the number. Catholics pray a typical novena to serve as a reminder of the commitment of the apostles and our Lady who, after Jesus’ Ascension, remained in prayer for nine days. They prayed for insight, wisdom, and love; they prayed for guidance, strength, and trust. On the tenth day (Pentecost), their devotion was rewarded. The Holy Spirit descended upon them, bestowing graces and gifts to each as their talents, faith, and personality allowed.
Everyone’s chosen gifts, although as unique as they were, all had the same goals—for a deepening of spiritual growth, a further communion with Christ, and to promote their missions of carrying the Way forward to all peoples and lands, to all souls who wished to hear and see.
The same holds true today. We all have a mission and calling based on the gifts and talents God blesses us with.
Our nine-day novenas serve as a reminder of this commitment of Jesus’ first disciples, and also encourages us in our commitment as Jesus’ continued disciples. We don’t have to pray for just nine days, however.
Again, nine isn’t a magical number, but rather a reminder of our determined devotion. For example, some causes—such the murder of babies through the horrors of abortion—beg for commitment until the issue is resolved.
The point is the devotion. When we make a commitment to pray for a certain period of time we need to keep that promise. However, we also need to be flexible, allowing Divine Grace to flow through us, listening to the Voice of the Holy Spirit if God urges us, for the benefit of others, to change course in our prayers and devotions. In all things, as long as we follow Divine Will, we won’t stray off the path which has been given to us through the gifts and guidance of the Holy Spirit.