In the first article of this series, I set out the early history of the Rogation Days, and I described the liturgies with which the Church celebrated them up until 1969. We saw that the Days were salutary times of penitence, which reminded the faithful that they depended upon God for all things—including the goods of nature.
In this second article, I will first discuss the spiritual value of the Rogation Days in greater detail. I shall then consider how and why they largely disappeared from the life of the Church. As we shall see, the reason for their disappearance can plausibly be described in the reasonings and decisions of the Consilium (the commission created to reform the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council), which chose not to create liturgical texts for the Rogation Days within the modern Roman Rite. I will argue that, though the Consilium’s attitude was understandable in the context of its time, it has not proven to be far-sighted: the Church, I will claim, shows her need of the Rogation Days’ spirituality today. Lastly, I shall explain the current legal status of the Rogation Days and suggest how they might be celebrated by means of our currently available liturgical texts.
Let us begin by imaging what it was like for Catholics to attend the pre-1969 Rogations devoutly. The faithful began by publicly acknowledging their sins in procession, and by participating in the Litany of the Saints. This Litany was, and is, a powerful plea to God for his mercy, guidance, and protection, and to the saints for their intercession. These two aspects of the Litany—prayer to God and prayer to the saints—were complementary. For as the faithful acknowledged their sins in procession, it was natural that they should also beg the saints for aid: by doing so, the faithful expressed their desire to be as receptive as the saints to the grace of God, and thus showed the sincerity of their penitence and their desire not to sin again. The faithful’s sense of the living help of the saints, and Catholics’ duty to imitate them, was bolstered by their visiting the saints’ various churches and praying to them.
A particularly valuable aspect of the Rogationtide processions, as of all religious processions, was their communal ethos. In the Rogationtide processions, the faithful moved together as one body, and thus identified themselves, in a very public and conspicuous way, as members of the Catholic community. As the community sought to avert God’s anger by its prayers, the faithful gained a powerful sense that they were engaged in an urgent, unified endeavor for the common good. Furthermore, the visible, purposeful movement of the processing faithful helped give each Catholic the courage to acknowledge his own sins—something that it is often easier to do when one is not the only one doing so!
Indeed, both St. Gregory himself, and Bishop Avitus of Vienne (successor of St. Mamertus, the 5th century founder of the Rogation processions in Gaul), lay especial stress on the communal aspect of their litanies, and the spiritual value of common penitential endeavor. In his sermon on the Rogations, Avitus says: “And if we ought continually to confess that we sin, then we need an established duty of confessing, and the humility of doing penance. This is especially so because the compunction of a united people can be so good an incitement to good work, that he who refuses to participate must blush all the more, if setting his mind against the multitude, he does not weep for his sins and vices when the people do so. Hence an organized common effort of good work is needed. One man takes from another an example of humility, or solace in confession. The lone contest is more dangerous: few have the strength to withstand trial on all sides. But when the assent of the people fights a common enemy, others’ strength carries along even the timid soldier. Weakness evaporates when one fights hard, and by a sort of favor of unity, even the infirm have the praise due to those numbered in the army of the strong. Moreover, when victory is won, all gain it; and though the strength of a few have fought, all have a glorious triumph.”
Similarly, in his address instituting the sevenfold litany during the Bubonic Plague, St. Gregory says: “Let no-one go out into the fields for work on the land, let no one presume to conduct business of any kind, while we, who together all have sinned, assemble at the church of the holy mother of the Lord, and all together bewail the evils we have done, in order that the judge feel torn as he considers our guilt, and that he spare us from the due sentence of damnation.”
After the penitential procession, the readings at Mass, James 5:16-20 (the discourse on the prayer of Elijah) and Luke 11:5-13 (the parable of the man who asked for bread at night) reminded the faithful that God, like a loving father, never turns men away empty-handed when they call upon him in penitence and trust. But the gospel also reminded them that God governs all things, and that we are justly afflicted for our sins. Thus taken together, the procession and Mass shook their faithful out of any complacency without leading them to despair; they helped the Church to hold together the justice of God with the mercy of God.
Importantly, the Rogations also helped the faithful to make sense of the many vicissitudes and disasters of life in the “vale of tears.” For as we have lately been reminded, life is very fragile. Plagues kill; hurricanes lay waste; droughts parch the land; storms imperil sailors; torrents destroy crops; coronaviruses cause lockdowns. The Rogation Days taught the faithful that it is always right, in times good and bad, to turn to God in humble prayer, not only for spiritual graces but also for the goods of nature. For we are sinners who deserve nothing of God; yet he, who governs all things, is ever merciful.
Given all this, it is striking that most Roman Rite parishes no longer celebrate any specifically penitential processions in the course of the liturgical year; the closest thing to an annual penitential procession would be the procession for Palm Sunday.
At this point, though, we should ask why this is so.
Rogation Days and Consilium
Just as our modern liturgical books contain no specific Masses, offices, or calendar entries for the Ember Days, so they contain no Mass, processional rite, or calendar entries for the Rogation Days. Instead, the Consilium intended that bishops would institute Ember and Rogation days relevant to the needs of their own dioceses and assign votive Masses for these celebrations. As we saw in a previous article of this series, the Consilium, in its answer to the dubium—“What is to be done for the Ember and Rogation days?”—suggested a wide range of possible themes for these reformed Ember and Rogation Days. As we also saw in that article, many of today’s bishops’ conferences consider their modern cycles of celebrations to have replaced the traditional Ember and Rogation days.
The Consilium seems to have deleted the Rogation Days from the calendar for the same reasons that prompted it to remove the Ember Days. As we can infer, at the Consilium’s meetings the following line of argument prevailed: Celebrations tied to the natural cycle were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most Catholics. They were but a hang-over of the agrarian, weather-dependent life of medieval man. They did not speak to the heart of the typical modern Catholic, and they had little or nothing of spiritual value to offer him.
It is easy to understand how the sensitive and intelligent men of the Consilium, addressing questions of the liturgical reform in the 1960s, might have thought like this. Though two world wars had shown that advances in science would not necessarily bring peace, in the 1960s the future still seemed to promise never-ending scientific and medical progress, so that man would become ever less subject to the forces of the natural world. Urbanization, too, seemed to have become a law of nature, which would make traditional agrarian celebrations a marginal part of the Church’s life. Even a modernist optimism about science-driven moral progress remained in the air, as the developing fields of psychology and criminology seemed to promise to cure the causes of sin and crime. Furthermore, in the 1960s it was quite true that the modern faithful had long been showing a lack of interest in the Rogation Days: even in the 19th century, liturgical reformer Dom Prosper Guéranger had lamented the poor attendance of the laity at the Rogationtide processions. In this context, one might well have thought that the Church had no reason to continue celebrating these agrarian penitential processions for the aversion of natural disasters.
But has the Consilium’s thinking stood the test of time? Is it true that the Rogations have little or nothing of spiritual value to offer to today’s faithful?
My answer to these questions is “no.” Consider first our attitude to nature. Western men of the 1960s may have imagined that their heirs would gain ever greater control over nature, and so would have little motivation to pray to God for the aversion of natural disasters. But this vision has not come true. Just lately, for example, the Coronavirus has starkly reminded us that human life remains subject to natural forces that we cannot wholly manage or control—as have the effects of climate change (whether man-made or not) and resource depletion. Western man is again discovering his fragility—and his need to beg God’s protection.
But it is not only nature itself that is reminding us of this perennial truth. A historic shift of attitudes is also taking place, a shift which the members of the Consilium could scarcely have predicted. For the Western scientific tradition is in decline. Though superficially it seems as strong as ever, today far-sighted people increasingly worry for its future. The ongoing “reproducibility crisis” (whereby the experimental results published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals of the social, medical, and other sciences, are later found not to be reproducible), combined with a growing sense that scientists are increasingly politicized, focused on career progression rather than truth, and required to conform to the ever more bizarre and irrational ideological strictures of university bureaucracies, are producing an insidious feeling that our science is itself losing the vigor and authority that it enjoyed in the modern period of history. The natural world no longer seems to be Western man’s oyster, freely to be traversed and manipulated with or without prayer.
Equally, urban decline and the rise of working from home hints at an eventual plateauing of urbanization, and so for the first time in decades one can imagine that more people of the next generation, not fewer, will structure their lives around the natural cycle. Nor have the natural and social sciences made man less sinful, or less burdened by sin. Whether they know it or not, today’s Western men and women are oppressed by a rampant secularization and sexualization of society, so that all feel an impulse to penitence (even if in many this impulse is misdirected towards self-loathing confessions of racial or cultural guilt).
For all these reasons, there is, I think, a sense that we are once again becoming conscious of our vulnerability before the forces of nature, our sinfulness, and our need to appease God’s anger, in ways that the Consilium could scarcely have predicted in the richer and more complacent era of the 1960s.
On the other hand, though Western man is once again becoming aware of his smallness, the Coronavirus has shown that he does not yet know how to respond to this new awareness in a wholesome and Christian way—not even if he happens to be Catholic. Consider the intercessions that the Catholic faithful have read at Mass over the last two years. In very many of them, Catholics have prayed for the victims of COVID-19, and often too for medical staff. But how often have we asked God to avert his just anger, and end the Coronavirus? Formed without penitential processions, we Catholics today can all too easily neglect petitions to God to avert natural disasters, and can feel slightly uncomfortable when we do, on occasion, hear them offered. Our instinct is to think them superstitious or unscientific.
Yet such prayers are highly rational, indeed necessary. We can see this if we imagine what it would mean for God to answer prayers against the Coronavirus. Probably, there would be no voice from heaven. Instead, we would simply find that fewer and fewer people were dying of Coronavirus (as indeed, is already happening). Scientists will find out the cause of this change a few years later, and most of them will then imagine that, because they have now discovered a natural explanation for the decline of the virus, prayer had no causal role in it. Yet this is a false inference. It is rational and soundly orthodox to implore God to end a pandemic. Even in the 19th century, Guéranger was making the same point in his own inimitable way. Speaking of the Rogationtide processions, he said: “If, then, our Heavenly Father deign, this year, to bless the fruits of the earth, we may say, in all truth, that he gives food to them that forget and blaspheme him, as well as to them that make him the great object of their thoughts and service. Men of no religion will profit of the blessing, but they will not acknowledge it to be His; they will proclaim louder than ever that Nature’s laws are now so well regulated by modern science that she cannot help going on well! God will be silent, and feed the men that thus insult him. But why does he not speak? Why does he not make his wrath be felt? Because his Church has prayed; because he has found the ten just men, that is, the few for whose sake he mercifully consents to spare the world.”
In light of this truth, the fact that we, as a Catholic community, have rarely asked God to end the Coronavirus at Mass, shows our need of the Rogation Days. They would allow the Church to respond, in a fruitful way, to today’s longing for penitence and petition, channelling it into a salutary, time-tested Catholic ritual, fostering true repentance and preventing despair, and thus helping people to grow in love and trust of God.
There is, lastly, a third reason a restoration of the Rogation Days would be valuable. As mentioned above, the Church’s Rogationtide liturgies helped the faithful to be mindful of both the justice and the mercy of God; to remember that Christ is both our judge and our Savior. Rightly, the Church never talks of the judgement of God without also mentioning his mercy, as the above-quoted liturgies and episcopal addresses show. However, in recent decades, we have, broadly speaking, marginalized the judgement of God in our worship, so that there is sometimes now a danger that we Catholics forget that we have committed real offences, and that God’s mercy is not automatic: we do at least need to ask for it, and with some contrition. The Rogation Days reminded the faithful of these basic truths.
The Church, then, should restore the traditional Rogation Days to her liturgical year. But as ever in this series, I must now turn to a final question. How might Catholics celebrate the Rogation Days today, with the liturgical resources currently available in the modern Roman Rite? To answer this, I shall begin by repeating a quotation from the last article: the Consilium’s official response, given in 1969, in answer to the question “What should be done for the Ember and Rogation days?”
“One should adhere to the provisions made by episcopal conferences or individual bishops, both as regards the timing and manner. On the days on which the rogations and the Ember Days were previously observed, the Mass and Office are to be of the feria or the saint(s)’s day. However, the bishop or episcopal conference may order local celebrations on those days; these may take different forms e.g. in and out of town, and may draw on various themes—the fruits of the earth, peace, the unity of the Church, the propagation of the faith, etc. For such celebrations a suitable votive Mass should be said.”
This text gives ordinaries (i.e., in most cases, bishops) wide discretion to devise their own celebrations; and hence clearly authorizes traditional ones. An ordinary might therefore organize penitential processions for the Rogation Days, using the order for the Litany of the Saints contained in the modern Ordo Cantus Missae (entitled “The Litany of the Saints for use in Solemn Supplications”). The Ordo Cantus Missae provides that other holy intercessors may be named in the Litany of Saints as appropriate; hence processions could follow the tradition of stopping at various churches and praying to their patron saints, with these saints being inserted into the Litany itself. At each church, instead of using the old Missal’s antiphon, verse, and collect of the patron saint, priests could use the new Missal’s entrance antiphon and collect; or the Benedictus antiphon, short responsory, and collect from the proper or common of the Liturgy of the Hours. At the end of the procession, the votive Mass “For the Remission of Sins” could be said, or perhaps the Mass “For Productive Land” (one of whose permitted epistles, James 5:7-8, 16c-18, partially overlaps with that of the old Mass of the Rogations). It would be fitting for ordinaries to keep the Rogation Days at their traditional times; however, if other times were more culturally or agriculturally suited in their jurisdictions, these times could be chosen instead. (Indeed, the old rubrics themselves offered ordinaries this flexibility; and they also permitted them to replace any of the four Rogation processions with other special prayers, after which the special Mass of the Rogations was still to be said; or to omit them altogether).
Lastly, during the Rogation Days, the rite given for the blessing of fields in the Book of Blessings could also be used; alternatively, the website of the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference offers a rite for the blessing of fields on Rogation Days.
If, at first, ordinaries find that the people do not flock to the newly-restored Rogation Days, they should remember that the mere fact that a liturgy is not immediately popular does not mean that it is not salutary and important, nor that it will not become popular in time. On the contrary, ordinaries should recall the example of St. Charles Borromeo, who, amidst all his work to restore discipline in his badly decayed Archdiocese of Milan, revived popular interest in the Rogation Days by a simple expedient. Namely, he attended the processions himself, obliging all his clergy to join him as he set out from his cathedral in the early morning, and keeping them going until three or four o’clock in the afternoon—and doing all this barefoot. Furthermore, during the three-day period of the pre-Ascension Rogations, St. Charles also fasted on bread and water. Perhaps it would be edifying for the faithful to see some of today’s bishops follow his example!
The Rogation Days once reminded the faithful of their need for God’s help. They helped cure them of their complacency and fostered humility. They reminded them that all the advantages of science, which in recent centuries have sheltered Western man from many natural disasters, do not negate the necessity of prayer. They reminded the faithful of their need of repentance.
Though in the 1960s the world seemed to have little further need of the Rogation Days, the Coronavirus has lately reminded us of our need for them today, both by reminding us of our need to pray for God’s mercy, and by showing that even we Catholics have largely forgotten to pray, with conviction of heart and mind, that great prayer of the Mass, “deliver us, Lord, from every evil.” Current liturgical law permits and even enjoins the celebration of traditionally-themed Rogation Days, and we should indeed celebrate them again.
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.
‘Et si confiteri debemus assidue nos peccare, opus est confitendi officio, humilitate poenitendi. Praestertim cum plebis adunatae compunctio sic ad incitamentum boni operis possit aptari, ut rebellis magis conventientius erubescat, si cunctae multitudini propriae mentis solitudine contradicens, peccata sua vel vitia cum populo flente non defleat. Necessaria est igitur boni operis conspiratio. Sumit alter ex altero, aut de humiltate exemplum, aut in confessione solatium. Periculosius agitur singulare certamen, in quo vires altrinsecus experiri posse paucorum est. At vero, cum contra hostem communem multitudinis pugnat assensus, trahit etiam timidum militem virtus aliena. Robustis bellantibus infirmitas delitescit, et quodam unitatis suffragio laus sit invalidis, in exercitu fortium computari. Denique cum victoria contigerit, totis acquiritur; et cum paucorum extra pugnaverit, omnium gloria triumphavit’. (Stylistically, Avitus’ is the rather baroque Latin of an upper class trying to hang on to its romanitas). Migne PL 59 col 292f. ↑
‘Nullus vestrum ad terrena opera in agros exeat, nullus quodlibet negotium agere praesumat, quatenus ad sanctae genitricis Domini ecclesiam convenientes, qui simul omnes peccavimus, simul omnes mala quae fecimus deploremus, ut districtus iudex dum culpas nostras nos punire considerat, ipse a sententia propositae damnationis parcat.’ Migne PL 76 col 1314. ↑
Gueranger The Liturgical Year: Paschal Time. vol II, as cited fn. 14 above, p.395f. ↑
Ibid., vol III, as cited in fn. 7 above, p.155. ↑
‘Standum est ad ordinationes Conferentiarum Episcopalium aut singulorum Episcoporum sive quoad tempus sive quoad modum. Diebus quibus antea habebantur rogationes vel quattuor tempora Missa et Officium fiunt de feria aut de sanctis. Episcopus autem vel Conferentia Episcopalis praecipere valent illis diebus peculiares celebrationes quae diversae esse possunt, v. gr. ruri vel in civitatibus, et quae varia themata attingere possunt, fructus terrae, pacem, unitatem Ecclesia, propagationem fidei, etc. Hoc in case dicitir Missa votive apta.’ Notitiae 48 (1969) vol.5 nn.9-10, p.405. 9th July 2021 <http://www.cultodivino.va/content/cultodivino/it/rivista-notitiae/indici-annate/1969/48.html>. ↑
Ordo Cantus Missae. Editio Typica Altera. Libreria Editrice Vaticana (1987) pp. 197ff. <https://archive.ccwatershed.org/media/pdfs/14/05/05/11-25-06_0.pdf> 31st August 2021. ↑
United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, ‘Prayers on the Care of Creation,’ <https://www.usccb.org/prayers/prayers-care-creation-0> 28th Dec 2021. The old rite may be found at <https://sensusfidelium.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Roman-Rite.pdf> (28th Dec 2021) p.271ff. ↑
Gueranger The Liturgical Year: Paschal Time, vol III, as cited in fn. 7 above, p.133. and Guerager, The Liturgical Year. Paschal Time, vol II, as cited in fn. 14 above, p. 396, ↑
Image Source: AB/Lawrence OP on Flickr