The Rogation Days are the 25th of April, called Major, and the three days before the feast of the Ascension, called Minor. (4)
“Rogation” comes from the Latin “rogare,” which means “to ask,” and “Rogation Days” are days during which we seek to ask God’s mercy, appease His anger, avert His chastisements manifest through natural disasters, and ask for His blessings, particularly with regard to farming, gardening, and other agricultural pursuits. They are set aside to remind us how radically dependent we are on Mother Earth, and how prayer can help protect us from nature’s often cruel ways.
It is quite easy, especially for modern city folk, to sentimentalize nature and to forget how powerful, even savage, she can be. Time is spent focusing only on her lovelier aspects — the beauty of snow, the smell of cedar, the glories of flowers — as during Embertides — but in an instant, the veneer of civilization we’ve built to keep nature under control so we can enjoy her without suffering at her hand can be swept away. Ash and fire raining down from great volcanoes, waters bursting through levees, mountainous tidal waves destroying miles of coastland and entire villages, meteors hurling to earth, tornadoes and hurricanes sweeping away all in their paths, droughts, floods, fires that rampage through forests and towns, avalanches of rocks or snow, killer plagues, the very earth shaking off human life and opening up beneath our feet, cataclysmic events forming mountains and islands, animals that prey on humans, lightning strikes — these, too, are a part of the natural world. And though nature seems random and fickle, all that happens is either by God’s active or passive Will, and all throughout Scripture He uses the elements to warn, punish, humble, and instruct us: earth swallowing up the rebellious, power-mad sons of Eliab; wind destroying Job’s house; fire raining down on Sodom and Gomorrha; water destroying everyone but Noe and his family (Numbers 16, Job 1, Genesis 19, Genesis 6). We need to be humble before and respectful of nature, and be aware not to take her for granted or overstep our limits. But we need to be most especially humble before her Creator, Who wills her existence and doings at each instant, whether actively or passively. Consider the awe-inspiring words of Nahum 1:2-8:
The Lord is a jealous God, and a revenger: the Lord is a revenger, and hath wrath: the Lord taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He is angry with His enemies. The Lord is patient, and great in power, and will not cleanse and acquit the guilty. The Lord’s ways are in a tempest, and a whirlwind, and clouds are the dust of His feet. He rebuketh the sea, and drieth it up: and bringeth all the rivers to be a desert. Basan languisheth and Carmel: and the dower of Libanus fadeth away. The mountains tremble at Him, and the hills are made desolate: and the earth hath quaked at His presence, and the world, and all that dwell therein.
Who can stand before the face of His indignation? and who shall resist in the fierceness of His anger? His indignation is poured out like fire: and the rocks are melted by Him. The Lord is good and giveth strength in the day of trouble: and knoweth them that hope in Him. But with a flood that passeth by, He will make an utter end of the place thereof: and darkness shall pursue His enemies. (1)
by Abbot Gueranger
It seems strange that there should be anything like mourning during Paschal Time: and yet the three days preceding Ascension Thursday are days of penance. A moment’s reflection, however, will show us that the institution of the Rogation days is a most appropriate one. True, our Savior tells us before His Passion that “the children of the Bridegroom should not fast whilst the Bridegroom is with them” (Luke 5: 34); but is not sadness in keeping with these the last hours of Jesus’ presence on earth? Were not His Blessed Mother and disciples oppressed with grief at the thought of their having so soon to lose Him, Whose company had been to them a foretaste of Heaven?
Let us see how the liturgical year came to have inserted in its calendar these three days, during which Holy Church, though radiant with the joy of Easter, seems to go back to Her Lenten observances. The Holy Ghost, Who guides Her in all things, willed that this completion of Her Paschal Liturgy should owe its origin to a devotion peculiar to one of the most illustrious and venerable Churches of southern Gaul, the Church of Vienne.
The second half of the 5th century had but just commenced, when the country around Vienne, which had been recently conquered by the Burgundians, was visited with calamities of every kind. The people were struck with fear at these indications of God’s anger. St. Mamertus, who, at the time, was Bishop of Vienne, prescribed three days of public expiation, during which the faithful were to devote themselves to penance, and walk in procession chanting appropriate psalms. The three days preceding the Ascension were the ones chosen. Unknown to himself, the holy Bishop was thus instituting a practice, which was afterwards to form part of the Liturgy of the Universal Church.
The Churches of Gaul, as might naturally be expected, were the first to adopt the devotion. St. Alcimus Avitus, who was one of the earliest successors of St. Mamertus in the See of Vienne, informs us that the custom of keeping the Rogation days was, at that time, firmly established in his diocese. St. Caesarius of Arles, who lived in the early part of the 6th century, speaks of them as being observed in countries afar off; by which he meant, at the very least, to designate all that portion of Gaul which was under the Visigoths. That the whole of Gaul soon adopted the custom is evident from the canons drawn up at the first Council of Orleans, held in 511, which represented all the provinces that were in allegiance to Clovis. The regulations made by the Council regarding the Rogations, give us a great idea of the importance attached to their observance. Not only abstinence from meat, but even fasting, is made of obligation. Masters are also required to dispense their servants from work, in order that they may assist at the long functions which fill up almost the whole of these three days. In 567 the Council of Tours, likewise imposed the precept of fasting during the Rogation days; and as to the obligation of resting from servile work, we find it recognized in the Capitularia of St. Karl the Great and Charles the Bald.
The main part of the Rogation rite originally consisted, at least in Gaul, in singing canticles of supplication while passing from place to place; and hence the word Procession. We learn from St. Caesarius of Arles, that each day’s procession lasted six hours; and that when the clergy became tired, the women took up the chanting. The faithful of those days did not suppose, as many have in modern times, that religious processions are required to be as short as possible.
The procession for the Rogation days was preceded by the faithful receiving the ashes upon their heads, as now at the beginning of Lent; they were then sprinkled with holy water, and the procession began. It was made up of the clergy and people of several of the smaller parishes, who were headed by the Cross of the principal church, which conducted the whole ceremony. All walked barefoot, singing the litany, psalms and antiphons, until they reached the church appointed for the station, where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered. They entered the churches that lay on their route, and sang an antiphon or responsory appropriate to each.
Such was the original ceremony of the Rogation days, and it was thus observed for a very long period. The monk of St. Gall’s who has left us so many interesting details regarding the life of St. Karl the Great, tells us that this holy emperor used to join the processions of these three days, and walk barefooted from his palace to the stational church. We find St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in the 13th century, setting the like example: during the Rogation days, she used to mingle with the poorest women of the place, and walk barefooted, wearing a dress of coarse material. St. Charles Borromeo, who restored in his diocese of Milan so many ancient practices of piety, was sure not to be indifferent about the Rogation days. He spared neither word nor example to reanimate this salutary devotion among his people. He ordered fasting to be observed during these three days; he himself fasted on bread and water. The procession, in which all the clergy of the city were obliged to join, and which began after the sprinkling of ashes, started from the cathedral at an early hour in the morning, and was not over till three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Thirteen churches were visited on Monday; nine on Tuesday; and eleven on Wednesday. The saintly Archbishop celebrated Mass and preached in one of these churches.
If we compare the indifference shown by the Catholics of the present age for the Rogation days, with the devotion wherewith our ancestors kept them, we cannot but acknowledge that there has been a great falling off in faith and piety. Knowing, as we do, the great importance attached to these processions by the Church, we cannot help wondering how it is that there are so few among the faithful who assist at them. Our surprise increases when we find persons preferring their own private devotions to these public prayers of the Church, which, to say nothing of the result of good example, merit far greater graces than any exercises of our own choosing.
The whole western Church soon adopted the Rogation days. They were introduced into England at an early period; likewise into Spain and Germany. Rome herself sanctioned them by herself observing them; this she did in the 8th century, during the pontificate of St. Leo III. She gave them the name of the Lesser Litanies, in contradistinction to the procession of April 25, which she calls the Greater Litanies. With regard to the fast which the Churches of Gaul observed during the Rogation days, Rome did not adopt that part of the institution. Fasting seemed to her to throw a gloom over the joyous forty days, which our risen Jesus grants to His disciples; she therefore formerly enjoined only abstinence from meat during the Rogation days. The Church of Milan, which, as we have just seen, so strictly observed the Rogations, kept them on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Sunday following the Ascension, that is to say, after the forty days devoted to the celebration of the Resurrection.
If then we would have a correct idea of the Rogation days, we must consider them as Rome does – that is, as a holy institution which, without interrupting our paschal joy, tempers it. The violet vestments used during the procession and Mass do not signify that our Jesus has left us, but that the time for His departure is approaching.
Abstinence is no longer of obligation during the Rogation days. This should be an additional motive to induce the faithful to assist at the processions and litanies, and to make some compensation by fervently uniting in the prayers of the Church. We need so much penance, and we do so little! If we are truly in earnest, we shall be most fervent in doing the little that is left us to do.
The object of the Rogation days is to appease the anger of God, and avert the chastisements which the sins of the world so justly deserve; moreover, to draw down the divine blessing on the fruits of the earth. The Litany of the Saints is sung during the procession, which is sometimes followed by a special Rogation Mass. This Litany is one of the most efficacious of prayers. The Church makes use of it on all solemn occasions, as a means of rendering God propitious through the intercession of the whole court of Heaven. They who are prevented from assisting at the procession, should recite the Litany in union with Holy Church; they will thus share in the graces attached to the Rogation days; they will be joining in the supplications now being made in Christendom; they will be proving themselves to be faithful Catholics. (2)
Instructions Concerning the Processions on Rogation Days
by By Leonard Goffine, 1871
What are processions?
Rocessions are the solemn, public marching together of a number of persons, which in the Catholic Church are instituted according to the very earliest directions of the fathers, partly to encourage the piety of the faithful, partly in remembrance of graces received, in thanksgiving for them, or to obtain the divine assistance, and refer to the great mysteries of salvation. Those who take part in them with true piety, will reap salutary harvests of Christian virtue from them.
Are processions something new?
No, they were the custom in the very earliest centuries of the Church, as testified by the acts of the martyrs, of Cyprian, Lucius, Boniface, and the fathers of the Church, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Gregory, and others. They are also founded on Scripture. Thus King David caused the ark of the covenant to be carried in solemn procession to Jerusalem (ii. Kings vi.), and the same thing did Solomon, his son, when he placed the ark in the new temple, (iii. Kings viii.)
The ancients used to call the going out or going forth from Church procedere, “going away,” hence the word procession, going out, marching about.
What do processions signify?
To the faithful they are a powerful incentive to fervor in prayer; when hundreds, even thousands of faithful praise God aloud, or cry to Him for help and mercy, must not even the coldest heart be roused to vivid, fervent devotion, since Christ has promised to be present even where two or three are assembled together in His name? Processions are a figure of the pilgrim life of the Christian upon earth; we are strangers here helow, and wanderers, our journey stretches from this valley of tears to the heavenly Sion; and the procession therefore at the end goes into the house of God; our journey leads over the thorny ways of life, and the procession therefore marches in the open air, where the pilgrim is exposed to all kinds of weather; processions are an open acknowledgment that to theAlmighty God alone praise, thanks, and adoration are due, while they are a public profession of our faith in Christ, the Crucified; they are a solemn thanksgiving for being permitted to profess Christ, our Lord, before the whole world, as also for all the graces obtained through Him; they are a public testimonial of our faith in the one, holy, Catholic Church, whose members are united by the same bond of faith, and who form under their head, Christ, one family in God. Therefore the marching from one Church to the other, the bending of the banners in mutual salutation when parts of the processions meet each other. Finally, they are a sign of the triumph of Christian faith over the darkness of heathenism. If processions are solemnized with such intentions, with order and dignity, with fervent devotion in the light of faith, they are indeed, under the direction of a worthy priest, pleasing spectacles for angels and men, soon silencing the sneers and derision of faithless men.
Why are banners and the cross carried in processions?
The cross signifies, that we are assembled, as Christians, in the name of Jesus, who was crucified, in whose name we begin and end our prayers, through whose merits we expect all things from the Heavenly Father, and whom we must follow all through our journey to heaven; the red and white banners indicate, that we must walk in all innocence under the banner of Christ, and fight unto death against sin, against the world and the devil, and be as ready as once were the martyrs to give our life for our faith; the blue banners show, that we must walk the road of self-denial and mortification, with really humble and penitent feelings for our sins. The banners are also emblematic of Christ’s victory over death and hell, and of the triumph of His religion over the pagans and Jews.
Why do we go around the fields in processions?
To beg the merciful God to bless the fields with His fatherly hand, give and preserve the fruits of the earth, and as He fills the animals with blessings, and gives them food at the proper time, so may He give to us also our necessary food.
What is the origin of the processions on St. Mark’s day and in Holy Cross Week?
The procession on St. Mark’s day was instituted even before the time of Pope Gregory the Great (607) who, however, brought them into fervent practice, “in order,” as he says, “to obtain in a measure forgiveness of our sins.” The same pontiff introduced another procession called the “sevenfold procession,” because the faithful in Rome took part in it in seven divisions, from seven different Churches, meeting in the Church of the Blessed Virgin. It was also named the “Pest procession,” because it was ordered by St. Gregory to obtain the cessation of a fearful pestilence which was at that time raging in Rome, and throughout all Italy, which so poisoned the atmosphere, that one opening his mouth to gape or sneeze would suddenly fall dead (hence the custom of saying “God bless you”, to one sneezing, and the sign of the cross on the mouth of one who gapes). In this procession the picture of the Blessed Virgin which according to tradition was painted by St. Luke, was carried by order of the Pope, that this powerful mother might be asked for her intercession, after which the pestilence did really cease. It is said, that the processions in Rogation Week owe their establishment to St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne in France; in the neighborhood of which city there were, in the year 469, terrible earth-quakes which caused great destruction, the fruits perished, and various plagues afflicted the people; the saintly bishop assembled the faithful, recommended them to the aid of the merciful God, and led them in procession around the fields. Such processions spread over France, and gradually throughout the Christian Church; they are held in order to obtain from God the averting of universal evils, such as war, famine, and pestilence, and are, at the same time, a preparation for the Ascension of Christ, who is our most powerful mediator with His Father, and whom we should especially invoke during these days.
With what intentions should we take part in the processions?
With the intention of glorifying God, of thanking Him for all His graces, and to obtain aid and comfort from Him in all our corporal and spiritual needs; with the view of professing our faith openly before the whole world, and with the sincere resolution of always following Christ, the Crucified, in the path of penance and mortification. He who entertains other intentions and takes part, perhaps, for temporal advantages, or for sinful pleasures, or to avoid labor, &c, sins against God and the Church, which weeps over such abuses and condemns them. (3)
In addition to the penance, processions and Masses mentioned above, meditating on how devastating natural forces can be is in order. We are usually so buffered from the natural world with our cozy, modern homes, air conditioning, ability to fly through the air from Chicago to Paris in hours, and other wonders, that we can easily sentimentalize nature and see her in a Rousseauian way — taking her for granted, being condescending toward her, and exhibiting masterful instead of masterly behaviors in our dealings with her. It is rare that nature breaches the walls of civilization and technology we’ve set up around us, but breach them she can, and does, and this reality must be appreciated. Tell your children about how the elements can escape our control, and how we should remember our place as those who’ve been given dominion over nature, but never apart from God. Tell them about some of the great disasters that have fascinated and frightened us throughout History — e.g., the stories of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Black Death, the London Fire of 1666, the great early 19th c. earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line that reversed the course of the Mississippi River, the Chicago Fire of 1871, the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Yellow River Floods of 1887 and 1931… (1)
Research by Ed Masters
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