The Ascension, Pentecost and Novena Prayer

“They devoted themselves with one accord to prayer”

Acts 1:14

If you’ve been a Catholic for any length of time, you’ll no doubt have heard of novenas. You may have even prayed a few. A novena is a certain prayer or devotion practiced for nine consecutive days (from the Latin novem, meaning “nine”).

There are all kinds of novenas, many of which precede important feast days on the calendar. To pray a novena to St. Michael the Archangel, you might start on September 20, nine days before the Feast of the Archangels on September 29. Many Catholics recently participated in the Divine Mercy novena, which begins on Good Friday and ends before the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday).

You can pray a novena any time for a special intention. You might pray that God enlighten your mind for nine days before taking an important exam; or you may pray a novena to St. Raphael (whose name means “God heals”) for nine days before a loved one has major surgery.

The practice of praying novenas has been around for a long time, but how did the practice begin? And what’s so significant about praying for nine days in a row?

The answer to these questions can be found in two major solemnities that we are about to celebrate to end the Easter Season: the Ascension and Pentecost.

Ascension Sunday? Or Thursday?

After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared many times to the Apostles and other disciples until he ascended into heaven forty days later. You can read about this in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, as well as Luke 24:50-53 and Mark 16:19-20. If you are curious why Jesus had to ascend into heaven after rising from the dead (I mean, wouldn’t it be convenient if Jesus was still around 2000 years later to lead the Church?) you can read a post I wrote on that very subject, here.

Since Easter is always on a Sunday, and the Ascension happened forty days after Easter, that would mean the Ascension would have happened on a Thursday. So why don’t we celebrate the Ascension on Thursday of the sixth week of Easter? In fact, this was when the Ascension was traditionally celebrated, and in many parts of the world it still is. But in many dioceses, including most dioceses in the United States, the Ascension is observed on the following Sunday (taking the place of the Seventh Sunday of Easter). Why? Bishops have the authority to shift the observation of certain feast days to Sunday to allow for a greater participation by the faithful.

The Ascension is ordinarily a holy day of obligation, but Catholics in many parts of the world would find it difficult to take time off of work to observe the holiday. (This happens with a lot of holy days of obligation). But because the Ascension is such a major celebration, the bishops want as many Catholics to be able to observe it as possible and so shift the celebration to Sunday.

Pentecost and the First Novena

Pentecost is a Jewish harvest festival that takes place fifty days after the second day of Passover. The name comes from the Greek word pentekoste, which means “fiftieth.” Jesus died on the preparation day for Passover (Good Friday), meaning the day he spent in the tomb (Holy Saturday) was the first day of Passover, and the day he rose from the dead (Easter Sunday) was the second day of Passover. Pentecost, then, is fifty days after Easter.

Christians celebrate Pentecost because it was then that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, giving birth to the Church. You can read about that in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This was done in fulfilment of Christ’s promise to send an Advocate, the Spirit of God, who would guide the Church into all truth (see Jn 14:16-18, 26).

So before the Ascension, the disciples continued to learn from Jesus. And after Pentecost, the Apostles were inspired by the Holy Spirit to lead and teach the Church. But what about the in-between time? What did the Apostles and other disciples do after Jesus ascended into heaven but before the descent of the Holy Spirit?

They prayed. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the eleven Apostles, together with Mary and some of the other disciples, returned to the upper room in Jerusalem (where Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper) and they “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (see Acts 1:13-14).

And how long did they pray? Well, if Jesus ascended forty days after Easter, and Pentecost took place fifty days after Easter, that means there were nine days in between these two events. The Apostles prayed for nine days in a row until the Holy Spirit descended upon them. This, my friends, is the first novena, and the model for all novenas.

Holy Spirit Novena

While there are a great many novenas around today, the original one is the Novena to the Holy Spirit. Like any novena, you can pray it at any time, but to time it so that it ends on Pentecost, you would begin this Friday (the day after the traditional date of the Ascension) to end on the Saturday before Pentecost. Millions of Catholics around the world will be praying this novena in the coming days. There is something really powerful any time Christians are united in prayer together. So please join us in praying for a renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon our campus ministry community, our Church, and the whole world — and in your own heart!

You can find the Holy Spirit Novena on our website.

You will also find it on the Pray More Novenas website.

If you haven’t discovered this amazing resource yet, the site includes hundred of different novenas, gives more information on novenas and how to pray them, and even offers a service to have novena prayers delivered to your inbox so you don’t forget to pray. Check it out! (And no, this is not a paid endorsement, we just think it’s a cool site).

There is also a beautiful 10-Day Devotion to the Holy Spirit included in The Handbook of Prayers: Student Edition, which we have given to many of our students. Those with physical copies will find it on page 125. If you don’t have a copy of that book, the St. Josemaria Institute has the Holy Spirit devotion available to download as a pdf from their website.