Novenas in the Roman Catholic Church are intercessory public or private prayers said on nine consecutive days, or on a certain day for nine consecutive weeks. There are four general categories of novenas: mourning, preparation, prayer, and indulgenced.
Prayers are said for a special intention usually to a particular saint or Christ, particularly the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The observance dates beck to the seventeenth century but Biblically found in Acts 1:13-14. The apostles gathered with others in the upper room following Christ’s instructions after his ascension into heaven to pray constantly. They prayed for nine consecutive days concluding with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Greeks had no nine-day celebration; the number seven was more sacred to them than any number. The first reference of a nine-day observance occurs among the Romans after the shower of stones on the Ablan Mount. An official offering was made whether because of advice of augurs to ward off further disasters and appease the gods is uncertain.
Besides this custom there were among both Greeks and Romans a custom of observing nine days of mourning for family members who died with a feast being held on the ninth day. The Romans also held an annual parental novena on February 13 to 22 with a worship and joyful feast on the final day.
In spite of warnings not to observe pagan customs various early Christians did anyway. Again one is reminded that the early Christian communities were composed of former pagans and old customs die hard.
These customs more vigorously continued among the wealthy who were less ready to forego their customary habits. Gradually the custom was embraced by the Church and there appeared novena Masses for Popes, Cardinals, and Bishops. Eventually the laity was engaging in novenas. Novenas are also observed in some Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches.
Other religious traditions practice novenas too. Zoroastrianism contained novenas recurring in the Zend Avesta when many purification rituals comprised the triple repetition of ceremony. A.G.H.
Bowker, John. ed. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. New York. Oxford University Press. 1997. p. 706