For 16 years I prayed them with my entire family before Christmas; I prayed them as a teenager, for the repose of the soul of parents of friends; I prayed them as a teacher with students to honor the school's patroness, St. Rita of Cascia, on the days before her feast day; and just this year I prayed privately to Our Lady of Guadalupe in preparation for important meetings on U.S. Hispanic ministry. Novenas have been part of my life from its beginning and part of the life of the church since its very first centuries.
The word novena derives from the Latin word for nine (novem), and it refers to nine days of private or public devotion and prayer; the days can be consecutive--as the nine days of mourning following the death of an individual--or not--as in nine first Fridays of every month for nine months, as in the Novena to the Sacred Heart. Novenas usually consist of a brief scripture passage, a novena-specific prayer that is repeated every day, some type of litany or petition/response prayer, and often a hymn or canticle.
There are different types of novenas, traditionally identified as of mourning, of preparation, of prayer or petition, and of penance, arranged in order according to their historical development. The origin of setting aside nine days is not found in the Judaic tradition, but in Greco-Roman pagan celebrations. The Romans dedicated nine days of prayers to influence the gods, and both the Greeks and the Romans had periods of mourning that lasted nine days. Christians adopted this mourning practice certainly as early as the fifth century, and later it was particularly adopted by the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks. …