Novena - the Prayer of the People
Novena is the main reason why thousands of devotees flock to the shrine. Novena is the traditional and popular prayer that the thousands of devotees recite and sing together every Wednesday. The novena prayed in the shrine is not just an ordinary novena but is called a perpetual novena. A novena is a series of prayers recited over nine days or nine weeks consecutively, usually in preparation for a major feast or to ask for a special favor. The ordinary novena stops after the nine occasions until resumed the next time around, often the following year when connected with feasts, or whenever a devotee decides to resume it privately. A perpetual novena, on the other hand, is a series of nine occasions of prayer but repeated continuously. When one series is finished, it begins again. In practice, it becomes an unending series of weekly sessions, usually associated with a particular day of the week, not necessarily Wednesday.
Novena: Prayer of the Communion of the Saints
The 1948 novena was formulated for public devotion while the 1926 and 1936 versions were written for personal devotion. One of the reasons for the explosion of the novena in 1948 was the fact that it was public and communal. Whereas the 1926 and 1936 novena were meant to be prayed privately by individual devotees, the 1948 novena brought individual devotees together to pray to OMPH, pray and intercede with one another. Thus, communal devotion rather than individual devotion catapulted the devotion to OMPH to national prominence.
The collective and public nature of the novena instilled a new consciousness upon the devotees. This new consciousness springs from the intercessory prayer of the novena. This implies that prayer is not just personal but also a prayer for the other and with each other. Indeed, each devotee brings her/his own petition but when he/she joins the thousand others who has his/her own individual petitions, each one is transformed that he/she not only pray for his/her own but for and with the others. This challenges the personalist and individualistic attitude to novena and devotion. When people enter into the Novena consciousness it is no longer “I” but “We”. They are not meant to pray only for their own needs, thinking of nothing and no one but themselves; they are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are not arranged for them as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole.
The novena experience brings out an essential fact of faith that we intercede for each other. The church is a community of God interceding for each other. Those who intercede for me are not just my living fellow devotee but even those who have died and are already with God--Mary and all the saints. In this way, the novena truly becomes an experience of the communion of saints. We have no direct relationship with God but a relationship mediated and interceded with the communion of the saints, living here on earth and triumphant in heaven.
My deepest identity as a Christian is that I am not an independent and isolated self. I am connected to God’s creation. I am connected to the church. As the Ubuntu saying: “I am because we are.” We are all connected. I am connected to others as one body of Christ. As Karl Rahner states:
A congregation praying, singing, and listening to word of God, is not only an assembly of lonely, solitary people, not only a number of isolated individuals, who impelled by concern for their eternal salvation, gather here for merely practical convenience, in order to try to work out their own private salvation… We are a holy community praising God by praising the glory of the blessed Virgin precisely because in our very salvation we are dependent on this virgin mother of God.
Like Mary, devotees at the shrine are invited to be intercessors not just for one another during the novena services and the Eucharist but for the whole church and the world. In the novena, devotees do not only pray with fellow devotees but also pray with Mary and the saints. Mary is the role model of intercessory prayer through her intercessory role for us in heaven. As Rahner reiterates,
[N]o doctrine concerning Mary could have importance and significance for us, if it were not true that each of us is responsible for the salvation of his brethren, and can and must intercede for them with prayer and sacrifice and aid. That is why Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but our mother too.
This collective consciousness that the novena evokes is harmonious to the Filipino values of bayanihan and damayan. The novena awakens these Filipino values.
While novena is central to the devotional experience in the shrine, it is not all there is to the devotion. The experience of devotion is not only praying the novena but also the embarking of a faith journey. Devotion as a faith journey is quintessentially conveyed through pilgrimage. The notion of devotion as a pilgrimage is the topic of our next chapter.