I remember Rogation Days when I was young. What ever happened to them?
by Father Matthew Kraemer
“The celebration of
Rogation Days is still relevant today. With so many technological and
scientific advances, we can easily forget our human frailty. But our lack of control
over the elements and our inability to avoid all illness, injury, and heartache
remind us that we are creatures dependent upon God.” – Father Matthew Kraemer
I have never personally experienced Rogation Days, so this question piques my curiosity. This article will examine three questions: what are Rogation Days? Why did they fall out of use? And may we start them again?
The English word “rogation” comes from the Latin word “rogare” which means to ask, petition, or beg. Up until 1969, when the General Roman Calendar was revised, the three days before the Solemnity of the Ascension (Ascension Thursday) as well as April 25 (the Feast of St. Mark) were called Rogation Days.
They were days of penance, prayers, processions, and Mass. The origins of Rogation Days can be traced back to the fifth century when St. Mamertus, the bishop of Vienne, France, instituted penitential processions with public supplications on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension. He did this as a response to earthquakes and other calamities that had afflicted his territory. This practice spread throughout France, and by the eighth century, reached Rome. From there, it was dispersed throughout the territories where the Roman Rite was celebrated.
Since then, there have been periods when Rogation Days were carried out with great dedication and fervor. One source reported that the procession lasted six hours each day and the people would process with bare feet. But, there were also times of great indifference; one such period prompted St. Charles Borromeo (+1584) to undertake the renewal of Rogation Days in Milan, Italy.
What did Rogation Days look like in practice? The following is a reconstruction of how Rogation Days were celebrated according to the 1952 Roman Ritual and the 1962 Roman Missal. In search of greater historical accuracy, I reached out to someone with first-hand knowledge of how Rogation Days were celebrated at that time: my grandmother, a member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mount Carmel, N.D.
On each of the three days leading up to Ascension Thursday, the priest and people would gather in the church. The priest would wear violet vestments, the color used for penitential liturgies. An antiphon would be sung: “Rise up, O Lord, and come to our assistance” (Psalm 43). Next, the Litany of Saints would begin and a procession would be formed: first the cross, then the faithful, and lastly, the priest. The procession would go around the perimeter of the church, and at a certain point, the priest would stop to bless the fields by sprinkling holy water in the four directions. Once the procession had returned to the church, the prayers and orations at the end of the Litany would be said and the Mass for Rogation Days would begin. The prayers and readings of the Mass expressed repentance from sin, the power and necessity of prayer, and confidence in the power of the Lord’s resurrection.
Why did Rogation Days fall out of practice? It would be interesting to know how faithfully Rogation Days were celebrated in parishes prior to Vatican II, and whether they were celebrated with greater regularity in rural parishes than in urban parishes (the practice was highly encouraged by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in the United States). Perhaps they were already falling out of use. But, the removal of Rogation Days from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 and the absence of a Mass formulary and prayers for the procession in the revised liturgical books is an undeniable factor in their decline. There was no intention to do away with them, but rather, the task was given to each Bishop’s Conference to include Rogation Days in the national liturgical calendar. Regrettably, this has not been done yet in the United States. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that it generally takes many years to implement a Church Council and it shouldn’t be surprising that fifty years after Vatican II some things are still a work in progress.
The celebration of Rogation Days is still relevant today. With so many technological and scientific advances, we can easily forget our human frailty. But our lack of control over the elements and our inability to avoid all illness, injury, and heartache remind us that we are creatures dependent upon God. The prayers and practices of Rogation Days still help us to acknowledge our dependence on God.
The lack of current liturgical formularies and directives for Rogation Days is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. There are Mass formularies such as “For the Sanctification of Human Labor” or “At Seedtime” or “After the Harvest.” A parish could easily organize a procession with the Litany of Saints and conclude with the celebration of Mass using one of these formularies. Likewise, the blessing of fields and seeds, and prayers for rain and a good harvest help to acknowledge our need for God’s provident care. Finally, although Rogation Days has been emphasized more in rural areas, the tradition has always been broad enough to encompass urban life as well.
For your convenience, various resources for Rogation Days can be found at www.fargodiocese.org/rural-life.