Novena to St. Jude

18 May

Must be said 6 times each day,
For 9 consecutive days,
Leaving 9 copies in Church each day.



Sound familiar? Of course!

You’ve seen it many times: Photocopies of photocopies, usually in small stacks, scattered here and there in church – at the end of pews, stuck in the hymnal racks, or back in the vestibule with the bulletins and pamphlets. They’ll appear and disappear depending on when they’re left – and when the janitoStJudeLeafletrs get around to pitch ’em.

I love those little prayers – I freely admit it! Yes, they’re like spiritual comfort food – junk food, really – and so we’re reluctant to fess up to praying them, or anything like them. With their elaborate directives, they’re the equivalent of heavenly chain letters, and, like chain letters, they make us uneasy – as if we’re doing something wrong; as if we’re guilty of trying to manipulate God to do what we want.

Eh? So what. It’s prayer at its rudimentary best – a child bugging his dad for something – and we could do much worse, as in, let’s say, not pray at all.

And then – BOOM – I got the word from my daughter recently: Prayers like the St. Jude’s Novena are a sin! At least they’ve been declared as much by the good people at the Midwest Theological Forum. They’re the ones who put out Joan’s religion textbook, Our Moral Life in Christ from the Didache series, and it’s there that she directed my attention:

A sin of superstition occurs if one insists that certain prayers be said a particular number of times for an exact number of days in order to obtain favors from God…. These practices are wrong because they attribute the results to the external rituals involved and not to God’s goodness.

I have no beef with the Forum or their Didache series. Our bishop has adopted it for the high schools, and that’s good enough for me. Plus, it has blurbs of support from Scott Hahn and other trusted authorities, and an introduction from Bishop Jerome Listecki, now Archbishop of Milwaukee. And, of course, it goes without saying that the series is published with ecclesiastical approval and conforms with the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, I must protest.

The Didache textbook itself refers to novenas and other sacramentals as “legitimate religious devotions,” so that begs the question: What is a novena other than praying “certain” prayers for a “particular number of times” and for an “exact number of days?” The word itself – novena – is derived from the Latin for “nine,” and refers to the exact number of days the Apostles and Our Lady prayed between the Ascension and Pentecost.apostle-st-thaddeus-jude

So, then, is it the objective of obtaining “favors from God” that make the St. Jude’s Novena a sin? There again, I’m wondering what a novena is if it’s not a persistent badgering of the Father to do what we think He should do.

In any event, Jesus Himself tells us to pray that way – nagging, hounding, not taking ‘no’ for an answer:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything’?

I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs (emphasis added).

Note that Jesus is hinting here that the Lord honors persistence itself – interior disposition isn’t a factor, at least in this story. The Catechism underscores this emphasis as well: “‘Knock, and it will be opened to you.’ To the one who prays like this, the heavenly Father will ‘give whatever he needs,’ and above all the Holy Spirit who contains all gifts.”

Scripture gives us plenty of other examples of this kind of tenacious petitioning – like Abraham cajoling God to ease up on Sodom, Moses doing the same in defense of the golden-calf worshiping Hebrews, and then there’s the classic image of Jacob wrestling with an angel all night for a blessing. “From this account,” the Catechism explains, “the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance.”

One could object that there’s a big difference between steadfastness in prayer and the elaborate mandates that some novenas impose. Consider, then, the healing of Naaman which required his bathing in the Jordan exactly seven times – no more, no less. Or the Israelites’ victory in the Battle of Jericho, involving six daily circumnavigations of the city, and, on the seventh day, a full seven additional circular marches, with precisely seven priests leading the way blowing seven rams’ horns – again, no more, no less. Nobody’s going to dismiss these seemingly arbitrary requirements as superstition.

A pause here to list a couple disclaimers: Clearly, persistent prayer of this sort ought to include a unquestioned deference to God’s will. Even when all the prescripts of a particular novena are followed to the letter, the faithful supplicant will still acknowledge that God might just have something else in mind.

And it follows that outright superstition and magical thinking – that is, using novenas and other sacramentals completely apart from any relationship with God – are to be avoided altogether. Again, the Catechism:

To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.

But our interior dispositions are fickle,and that’s where the value of following a novena to the letter comes in: It’s a reaching out to God and a sign of simple trust, despite the fact that I’m just trying to get my own way.

Here’s a parallel example: My participation at Mass. The Council fathers wrote:

In order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain

How do I know I have adequately adored and worshiped at Mass? That I’ve rendered unto the Father the attention and reverence that is His due? That I really cooperated with grace and haven’t receSantaTeresaived it in vain?

Who knows? I can always second-guess my thoughts and aspirations, even when they appear to be pious. Besides, pious or not, my thoughts are only intermittently “attuned” to my voice at Mass since they’re perpetually mixed up with shifting moods, varying degrees of fatigue, and the most mundane of distractions.

Nevertheless, I was there! My mere presence at Mass – even if I’m only fulfilling a Sunday obligation – is a sign of filial submission, however reluctant or imperfect. It’s better than nothing, in other words: It may not be a solid foundation, but it could very well be the few bricks that God desires from me as He shapes and molds me to His liking.

Novenas – even the complicated ones like those photocopies in the pews – are like that: They’re not the highest reaches of prayer, but they’re a place to start – at least they get us actually praying. Who cares if we’re just trying to get God to do what we want? St. Teresa wrote that “You pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him.”

Like I mentioned earlier, it’s like whiny children bugging their dad for stuff. Even when the dad turns them down, isn’t he delighted that they’re coming to him with their requests?

Of course he is.


A version of this story appeared on Oblation.

2 Responses to “Novena to St. Jude”


  1. Novena to St. Jude | One Thousand Words a Week - May 18, 2014

    […] Read more… […]

  2. Prayer power | Shared thoughts... - July 2, 2014

    […] National Shrine of St. Jude: prayers / solemn novena…  Hope for eternal joy…  Go ahead & ask…  Recognize the power of prayer…  Suffering with joy […]

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