Be Careful What You Don’t Ask For: Why the Rogation Days Still Matter
Apr 27, 2022

Be Careful What You Don’t Ask For: Why the Rogation Days Still Matter

In the previous two articles of this series, I discussed the Ember Days (see “Remember the Ember Days?” and “Can the Ember Days of the Church Sprout Anew?”), ancient days of penitence and of humble thanksgiving for the goods of the soil. These days were once celebrated throughout the Latin Church but disappeared from most parishes after the liturgical reforms of 1969. As we saw, the days were one means by which the Church formerly “baptized” the natural human instinct to mark the cycle of the seasons, directing this instinct to good and sanctifying ends.

In the course of the next two articles, I will discuss another “lost,” pre-1969 means by which the Church formerly performed this “baptism”: namely, the Rogation Days, days of penitence and of humble petition for the goods of nature, which the Latin Church used to celebrate on April 25th, and on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the feast of the Ascension. In the present article, I shall set out the history, purpose, and liturgical content of these “Rogation Days.” In the subsequent entry, I will discuss the spiritual value of the Rogation Days; I will show how and why they largely disappeared from the modern liturgies of the Roman Rite; and I will argue that we easily could, and certainly should, reintroduce them into the liturgical life of the Western Church today.

First, though, some definitions. In both the modern and the preconciliar forms of the Roman Rite, the term “Rogation Days” is used to refer generically to four different penitential days: April 25, and three days before the Feast of the Ascension. The April 25 Rogation and the run of three days before the Ascension had originally formed two celebrations that arose independently of each other: the latter in fifth-century Gaul (modern-day France), the former in sixth-century Rome. On each of the four days that we call “Rogation Days,” the participating faithful celebrated a penitential procession (a ‘litany’). Over time the Gallic and the Roman processions came to share much the same rites, then generically known as the “Rogationes”—the original term used for the Gallic ones. Once both sets of Rogations had spread throughout the Western Church (around the turn of the second millennium), a consistent terminology[1] was established to distinguish the Gallic from the Roman “Rogations”: the older, Gallic Rogations came to be known as the “Lesser” or “Minor” Litanies, and the younger, Roman ones came to be known as the “Greater” or “Major” Litanies. Both the Greater and the Lesser Litanies shared a common theme: penitence, and humble petition to God—that he would be merciful on us sinful men, grant us the goods of the earth, and avert natural disasters. In the Tridentine form of the Roman Rite, the two Litanies were standardized and made identical; and hence today the Rogation Days can be discussed as a single feature of the Western liturgical tradition.

Now, though, we must turn to a time long before this liturgical and terminological standardization to consider the plight of one local bishop in the frightening, uncertain world of sub-Roman Gaul. For, as we shall see, the early history of the Rogation Days helped determine their enduring character.

Early History of Rogation Days

The story of the Rogation Days begins with St. Mamertus (d.475), a fifth-century bishop of Vienne in Gaul. In one short period of time during St. Mamertus’s episcopacy, Vienne suffered a portentous series of natural disasters: there was an earthquake, a fire burned down the town hall, and wild deer made an incursion into the town.[2] In response to these disasters, St. Mamertus ordered the faithful of Vienne to make three successive processions on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the feast of the Ascension,[3] in which they were to do penance and to ask God for deliverance from their troubles, singing psalms and responses, and stopping at various churches on their route.

In ordering a penitential procession, St. Mamertus was drawing on well-established Catholic precedent. Already by the time of St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.), the Greek words ‘λιτανειαι’ (litaneiai) and ‘λιται’ (litai) had come to denote, or at least strongly to connote, specifically penitential rites;[4] and by St. Mamertus’s day and almost certainly before, ‘λιτανειαι’ or ‘λιται’ were quasi-technical words for a penitential liturgy that specifically involved a procession.[5] Nor was the litaneiai or litai, the penitential procession, a purely Eastern concept: St. Mamertus’s Gallic contemporaries, such as his correspondent Sidonius Apollinaris, were familiar with the celebration of ‘λιτανειαι,’ which they rendered into Latin either as litaniae or as supplicationes.[6] Such supplicationes had often been celebrated in Gaul for rain or for fair weather.

Two things, however, immediately marked out St. Mamertus’s new penitential processions as special—so special that they became annual events in Vienne, and became known by a distinctive name, the Rogationes (from the Latin rogare, “to ask”). First, they were highly effective: the natural disasters ceased after the litanies were celebrated. Second, the people of Vienne celebrated them in a pious and disciplined way. Sidonius, writing once the Rogations had become annual in Vienne, tells us that the faithful who attended them sang psalms, prayed, and wept, and he contrasts these pious new rogations with the region’s previous “wandering, luke-warm, infrequent and, so to speak, yawning supplicationes for rain or fair weather, in which the people took many stops for refreshment.”[7]

For both these reasons, the Rogations, having become annual celebrations in Vienne, were soon imitated by bishops all around Gaul. They retained their serious character: St. Caesarius of Arles, who was born around the time of the first Rogations, writes that each of his three local Rogation processions lasted for six hours.[8] In the year 511, the Council of Orleans mandated the general celebration of the Rogations throughout what was then Merovingia, and ordered masters to grant their servants freedom from work so that everyone from each community could attend his local celebration of them.[9]

Of course, most Merovingians in most years had not suffered the especially frightening and portentous disasters first suffered by the people of Vienne: they did not need to ask God specifically for an end to earthquakes or beast-incursions. Nevertheless, like most people before late modernity, these sub-Roman Frenchmen were well aware of the deadly power of nature and their dependence upon successful harvests, good weather, a suitable amount of rain, and the like. Hence the Rogations became times of penitential prayer to God for the aversion of natural disasters, and the granting of natural goods—a better version of the previous, undisciplined, “yawning” litanies that we saw Sidonius mention above. Following St. Mamertus’s lead, the Church continued to insist that the Rogations be celebrated in a pious and disciplined way—as one can see from the text of the Council of Mainz of 813, which had forbidden the faithful to attend any litany riding on horseback, or wearing fine clothes. Instead, the council proclaimed, the faithful should attend barefoot, wearing sackcloth and ashes.[10]

Around the time of this ninth-century council, Pope Leo III, at the insistence of his near-contemporary Charlemagne,[11] introduced the Gallic Rogations into the Roman Church, whence they spread throughout the West. (According to the founder of the liturgical movement, Dom Prosper Guéranger, Charlemagne, a great proponent of the Rogations, used to attend them himself, walking barefoot from his palace.[12])

Around the same time, Walafrid Strabo (c.808-849), a German Benedictine monk and historian, mentions the use of the Litany of the Saints in the Rogations. This Litany, in something like its modern form, had probably always been used in them.[13] But in any case, by the ninth century at the latest, the Rogations thus take on a clear form in the mind of today’s historian. Each celebration of the Rogations was a penitential procession in which the people sang the Litany of the Saints, visited various churches along the processional route, and implored God’s mercy to protect them from the destructive forces of nature. Below, we shall recognize these features of the Rogations in the Western Church’s rites as celebrated right up until 1969.

Before looking at the details of the modern pre-1969 Rogations, however, we must first consider the origins of the Greater Litanies, which developed independently of the Gallican Rogations. The Greater Litanies fall on April 25th of each year, and are older than the feast of St. Mark, which falls on the same day. These litanies were originally a local celebration of Rome, which the Roman Church instituted at an unknown but early period, probably with the aim of supplanting a pagan Roman agricultural festival called the Robigalia, which also fell on April 25th. At the Robigalia a procession was held, and a red dog and a sheep were sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the god[14] of wheat-rust (a common and destructive fungal disease of wheat). The Christian celebration replaced these rites with petitions to God for the protection of the growing crops.[15]

Medieval and early-modern historians believed that Pope St. Gregory the Great (r.590-604) instituted the Greater Litanies. We now know that they pre-dated him.[16] Most likely, however, Gregory reformed the Greater Litanies, following the example of the Gallic bishops, who had introduced a new rigor into their local penitential litanies. Under St. Gregory, the faithful of Rome seem to have celebrated the Greater Litanies by means of a rite already introduced to Rome by Gregory himself: the “sevenfold litany”.[17]

Rome’s use of the sevenfold litany itself has an interesting history, which would set the tone for the Church’s celebration of the Greater Litanies in the coming centuries. This history begins in early 590 A.D., when St. Gregory was elected pope[18] during a devastating bout of the Bubonic Plague (lues inguinaria). The plague had killed his predecessor, Pope Pelagius. Entire Roman households were perishing, and the symptoms of the disease came on so rapidly that people were dying before they had time to repent of their sins.

In response to this disaster, Gregory, pope-designate but still only a deacon, arranged a time of public penitence. Gregory imposed this time of penitence upon Roman faithful by means of a short address, a transcription of which survives to this day.[19] In it, he cited the effective penitence of the Ninevites and the conversion of the thief on the cross; he mandated a procession, which was to start at dawn on the next day; and he forbade the faithful to work on that day. Calling this procession litania septiformis, a “seven-part-litany,” he instructed seven different groups of the faithful—clerics, other men, monks, virgins, married women, widows, and children and paupers—to assemble each at a different church and to process forth from these. Gregory probably based his sevenfold litany upon Greek liturgical practice, which he had witnessed during his service in the East.[20] Nor was Gregory’s recourse to this elaborate form of penitence surprising: according to all our sources—including the most sober, St. Gregory of Tours, who relates the claims of one of his deacons, an eyewitness—the plague was by then so rife that 80 of the Roman faithful dropped dead during the procession itself.[21]

Just as the litania septiformis had been born of desperate penitence amidst crisis, so Gregory fostered the same penitential spirit in Rome’s annual celebration of the Greater Litanies on April 25th. As he enjoins the faithful one year: “This solemnity of our annual devotion reminds us, beloved sons, that we ought, by God’s help, to celebrate with attentive and devoted minds the litany known by all as ‘greater,’ so that, beseeching God’s mercy, we might merit a little purgation of our excesses. For it behoves us to consider, beloved, how many ongoing calamities we are afflicted by on account of our sins, and how the medicine of God’s concern for us might reach us to help us. Therefore, on the coming Friday, setting out from the Church of St. Laurence the Martyr, which is called Lucine, let us hurry to the Church of St. Peter, supplicating God with hymns and spiritual songs, so that, celebrating there the sacred mysteries, we might render thanks to God, such as we can, for the benefits, both new and long-standing, that he has granted us.”[22]

St. Gregory’s reformed celebration of April 25th was evidently found to be salutary and nourishing for the faithful, because from Rome, his Greater Litanies spread throughout the Church, and April 25th came to be called a Rogation Day, like the days of Mamertus’s Rogations. The Gallic Rogation Days later became known as the “Lesser Litanies,” perhaps because they did not involve the elaborate sevenfold procession of the Greater Litanies. As mentioned above, the Tridentine missal and rituale standardized the rites for the two celebrations.

The Rogation Days in the Modern Period

I have considered the early history of the Rogation Days in some detail because it helps us to understand their enduring character: both the Minor Litanies and the Major Litanies were times of penitential prayer for the aversion of natural disaster, whose liturgies were first devised on occasions of calamity. Thus, from the outset, and every year since, the Rogation Days have reminded the faithful of man’s extreme smallness and vulnerability before the powers of nature—reminded them that their very lives depended upon God’s forbearance and beneficence. On the Rogation Days, the faithful acknowledged the truth that God is a just judge who holds all of us—and our crops—in the palm of his hand.

This same spirit was still to be found in the Church’s pre-1969 liturgies for the Rogation Days, which I now want to consider. These consisted of two parts: the liturgy of the Rogation procession itself, and the Mass of the Rogations, which was held in the Church at which the procession terminated.[23] In modern times, these Rogation liturgies were traditionally celebrated in the grandest style on April 25th, but the liturgical norm was for them to take place on all four Rogation Days.

At the beginning of each Rogation Day, the people would assemble in a church at a given hour. The old Roman Ritual describes what would happen next. The assembled faithful would pray contritely while kneeling. Then the clerics present, dressed in the violet vestments of penitence, stood up, and began the following opening rite:

All: Ant. Rise up, O Lord, and help us, * and deliver us for your name’s sake.

P: We have heard, O God, with our own ears * the things which our fathers told us.

All: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, * and to the Holy Spirit.

P: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.

All: Ant.: Rise up, O Lord, and help us, * and deliver us for your name’s sake.[24]

Next, two clerics, kneeling before the high altar, began the Litany of the Saints, to which the others offered the responses. After the invocations of God, when Our Lady was first invoked, all rose, and the procession began, led by a cross-bearer and the clergy. In an echo of the sevenfold litany (and probably of very ancient practice in general), the processing laypeople were separated by sex, and the clergy formed a separate group. If the Litany was completed while the procession was still ongoing, some of the gradual or penitential psalms were sung or the Litany was repeated. Usually, the procession stopped at various churches as it went. At each church the singing of the Litany and psalms was suspended, and the antiphon, verse, and collect of the church’s patron was sung. Finally, the procession reached the church at which Mass was to be said. The normal prayers that followed the Litany of the Saints in the Roman breviary were prayed, and the Mass of the Rogations then began directly with the introit, the introductory prayers at the foot of the altar being omitted.

The Introit of Mass of the Rogations echoed the Litany of the Saints: “He heard my voice from his holy temple: and my cry in his sight entered into his hearing. Alleluia. Alleluia. I will love thee, Lord, my strength: God is my firmament and my refuge, he who frees me” (Psalm 17:7, Psalm 17:2-3). The Mass was celebrated with no Gloria or Creed, in violet vestments like the procession. The epistle of the Mass was James 5:16-20, in which St. James enjoins the people to pray for and correct each other, reminding them how effective was the prayer of Elijah, who prayed for an end to rain, and saw his prayer answered, and later prayed for rain, and saw his prayer answered again. The gospel was Luke 11:5-13: the parable of the man who asks his neighbor for bread at night. The Collect was for protection in adversity.

As we can see, the Mass of the Rogations, which followed the rigors of the penitential procession, was fundamentally a liturgy of hope: it reminded the faithful that God always answers the prayers of the humble and penitent. With the Mass over, that day’s main Rogationtide liturgies were complete, but it was also common for fields to be blessed on Rogation Days, in accordance with the rite for the blessing of a field given in the old Roman Rituale.

Conclusion

In this first part of our discussion on Rogation Days, we have seen that these days were times of penitence, of petition for the goods of nature, and of petition for the aversion of natural ills. Conceived separately in times of disaster, the Lesser and the Greater Litanies were so effective and spiritually apposite that they spread through the Western Church, nourishing the entire West for almost a thousand years with the salutary liturgical reminder that all things depend on God, against whom we have sinned—but who always shows his mercy to those who ask for it. In the next article, we shall consider the spiritual value of the Rogation Days in greater detail, ask why they have been lost in the modern Roman Rite, and see how they could be restored to it.

Peter Day-Milne read Classics at Trinity College, Oxford, and took an MLitt in Philosophy at St. Andrews. He was received into the Church in 2018, while studying 17th-century natural law theories at Cambridge. Lately he has been undertaking some private study, writing articles, working on a new adult Latin course, and maintaining his website of liturgical calendars, calendarialiturgica.co.uk.



Notes:

  1. Before this, the terminology varied. In early medieval France and Anglo-Saxon England, for example, what we now call the Minor Litanies were often called the Major Litanies. See Hill, J. (2000), The Litaniae maiores and minores in Rome, Francia and Anglo-Saxon England: terminology, texts and traditions. Early Medieval Europe, 9: 211-246. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0254.00066

  2. Sidonius Apollinaris (a correspondent of St. Avitus, c.430-489), Letters, book 7 letter 1. (474 A.D.), and Alcimus Avitus (Mamertus’s successor but one as bishop of Vienne, 460-518), Homilia de Rogationibus.
  3. See Avitus op. cit. for the timing of the procession.
  4. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great had written of ‘λιτανειαι’, (‘litaneiai’, literally ‘supplications’), clearly expecting his correspondents to understand by that term a particular type of penitential rite. St. Basil the Great, letter 207 section 4, in Migne PG 379, col 764.
  5. This can be inferred from two points. 1) St. Ambrose, also writing in the fourth century, talks of monks’ singing psalms in a festal procession; this proves that the use of processions was well known by then. 2) One of Justinian’s ‘novels’ (new laws) regulated λιται, ‘litae’, ‘prayers’; a word which the contemporary Latin translation (the ‘Authenticum’) rendered as ‘letaniae’. These ‘letaniae’ were clearly well established, and clearly processional. The law says, “We forbid all laymen to hold litae without their holinesses the bishops of the place and the pious clerics under them: for what is a lite in which there are no priests to say that customary prayers? Furthermore, the honored crosses with which the litanies are conducted are to be kept only in holy places: and only where there is need to celebrate the litanies should the crosses be born; which should be done by those who customarily do so.”
  6. Sidonius calls the rogations supplicationes (book 5 letter 14, Migne PL 58 col 544f), and describes certain cads as people who would go ‘beaver-clad to a litany’ (‘castorinati ad litanias’, book 5 letter 7 Migne PL 58 col 536ff).
  7. Sidonius book 5 letter 14, as in fn. 5.
  8. Gueranger, Very Rev. Dom Prosper, The Liturgical Year: Paschal Time (trans. Shepherd), vol III, p.132. <https://archive.org/details/liturgicalyear09gura/page/n7/mode/2up?view=theater> 24th Dec 2021.
  9. Gueranger (op. cit.) p.131. Cf. Lucius Paleotimus, Antiquitatum sive Originum Ecclesiasticarum Summa, Venice: 1767, p.378. <https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Lucii_Paleotimi_Antiquitatum_sive_Origin/pWNSFviaNQsC?hl=en&gbpv=0> 28th Dec 2021.
  10. Paleotimus (op. cit.), Part 2, Book XIII, chapter I, p. 381.
  11. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 41-42 cited in Shawn Tribe, ‘What Are Rogation Days?’, The Liturgical Arts Journal. <https://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2019/05/what-are-rogation-days.html> 30th August 2021.
  12. Guaranger (op. cit.) p.132.
  13. Here Strabo also mentions the common belief that the Litany of the Saints was composed at the request of bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, which would date its creation around the turn of the fifth century.
  14. Some ancient sources seem to refer to a goddess, Robigo, but the Oxford Classical Dictionary states that the god of the Robigalia was Robigus. Oxford Classical Dictionary ‘Robigus’ <https://oxfordre.com/classics/search?siteToSearch=classics&q=Robigalia&searchBtn=Search&isQuickSearch=true> 24th August 2021.
  15. According to an alternative theory, presented by Gueranger, the Greater Litanies were not fixed on April 25th until the pontificate of St. Gregory the Great, who so instituted them to commemorate the date of St. Peter’s becoming the bishop of Rome. Gueranger, The Liturgical Year. Paschal Time. vol II. (trans Shepherd). St. Mark. p.393f. <https://archive.org/details/liturgicalyear08gura/page/393/mode/2up>
  16. In an address to the faithful, Gregory talks of the litanies which are known as ‘greater’ ‘by all’, implying that they constituted a long-standing custom. Migne PL 77, col 1329f (also cited at fn. 22).
  17. See Migne’s theory about the identity of the litania septiforma and the litania maior. Migne PL 77, col 1329f, notes, Frag III, a.
  18. Migne PL 75 col 277-279.
  19. Ibid., col 1311-1314. Some of St. Gregory’s words in this address seem to be the source for a later legend about his seeing a vision of a sword at the end of the plague.
  20. Andrew Ekomonou, Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes, Lexington Books, (2007), p17ff
  21. Asserebat autem diaconus noster, qui aderat, in unius horae spatio, dum voces plebs ad Dominum supplicationis emisit, octoaginta homines ad terram conruisse et spiritum exalasse.” St. Gregory of Tours, History, Book X, section I, near the end. <http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/gregorytours/gregorytours10.shtml> 28th Dec 2021.
  22. Migne PL 77 col 1329f.
  23. But the divine office of each Rogation Day, along with any other Masses said that day, were of the occurring feast or feria.
  24. From Catholic Culture, ‘Catholic Prayer: Roman Ritual: Rogation Days Procession’. <https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/prayers/view.cfm?id=1354> 24th Dec 2021.

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