The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on May 7, 2018 (the first of the former “Rogation Days”) at the Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan.
The three days prior to Ascension Thursday have been traditionally known as “Rogation Days” or the “Minor Litanies,” with the “Major Rogation” being observed on April 25. Their purpose was to beg God (rogare, to ask or beg) for His blessings on the harvest, thus prayers offered at the time of the sowing of the seed. The liturgical rites surrounding the days consisted of the Litany of the Saints and an outdoor procession encompassing the parish boundaries and blessing the fields therein. Actually, these days had their origin in the Robigalia of Pagan Rome as days of prayer (with processions) set aside to implore various gods for good weather and an abundant harvest. As the Church “baptized” these rituals, they also became days of penitence, the idea being that one needed to do penance in order to gain a favorable response to one’s prayers to the Almighty.
With the reform of the general calendar in 1969, these days were not eliminated so much as transferred to other realities. Thus episcopal conferences and diocesan bishops were encouraged to foster local observances connected to the same theme, namely, prayers for divine favor on the seed-planting and eventual harvest. This made sense because if a community was located in a hemisphere where it was not seed-time, it would be better to transfer the ceremonies to the proper season for that locale. The feast of St. Isidore the Farmer is also an appropriate occasion. Several suitable Mass formularies can be found in the Roman Missal of 1970. In other words, the change was intended to make the ceremonies more meaningful and better celebrated; the reality, like so many other changes, had the exact opposite effect, so that the rogation days disappeared into oblivion for the most part.
This is most unfortunate for any number of reasons, however, the most important in my judgment is that it has brought about a loss of the Church’s connection to rural life – a loss for those who work our farms and a tragic loss for city-dwellers who fail to appreciate how dependent we are on the land for the basic necessities of life.
On these days leading up to Ascension Thursday, I would like to focus attention on the nature of intercessory prayer, prayer offered for our own particular intentions and prayer offered for the intentions of our loved ones or those most in need of our prayers.
Prayer is a sign of faith – an implicit and explicit acknowledgment that: a) Someone exists to hear our prayer, and, b) That Someone is more powerful than we and so can indeed do something for us. Our nation began with a Declaration of Independence from England; our life of faith grows through prayer – a declaration of dependence.
As you should know from your Catholic education, we can distinguish four “ends” or goals of prayer, best recalled through the acronym “ACTS”: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. Notice, of course, that “supplication” or its synonym “petition” comes last. If we are honest, though, we must admit that most of our prayer is that of supplication, burning up the wires between ourselves and the Almighty with our wants.
These days we are going to attend to that last form of prayer, all the while avoiding the spiritual pitfall of turning to God only in time of dire need. You know the type: No atheists in foxholes.
Therefore, first of all, I want to encourage you to be mature believers who understand what Our Lord means about the necessity of praying always (cf. Lk 18:1). Use that wonderful Catholic custom of the “Morning Offering” to consecrate your entire day to Almighty God and, in that way, be able to “pray always.”
The prayer of petition is, however, pleasing to God, because He is a gracious and loving Father, Who wants to hear about and provide for the needs of us, His children. Go to the Lord with your concerns, both humbly and confidently. Realize that when you say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” you are including each and every human need. Nevertheless, be embarrassingly specific, whether your request is for yourself or for others. At the same time, remember another line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” In other words, an essential part of the prayer of petition is the ability to say that you want this particular thing only if God wants it. This calls for a willingness to have your will conformed to His.
As a seminarian, I was working in a parish school. After the Christmas break, I visited the classrooms, asking the children what gifts they had given their family members and what gifts they had received. A second-grader teased one of his classmates about not getting the bike for Christmas for which he had prayed all during Advent. “You prayed and prayed, and God didn’t answer your prayer,” said the one fellow. “Yes, He did,” the other responded. “He said, ‘No.’” That little guy knew the meaning of listening; he also knew another aspect of prayer that we need to consider, which is openness.
The openness to hear God say “no” is a sign of a mature faith because it demonstrates a firm trust in God Who never allows His children to suffer in vain. Notice, I didn’t say He doesn’t allow us to suffer; I said He doesn’t allow us to suffer in vain. Human suffering can always be redemptive and a part of the divine plan leading to our growth as human beings and our salvation as believers.
Jesus encouraged us never to “lose heart” (Lk 18:1) in prayer. “Perseverance” is the name of the virtue. If the goal is worthwhile, the effort should be proportionate. St. Monica prayed for the conversion of her son Augustine for thirty years. How many of us would expend that kind of energy for a spiritual reality? However, those are the first things for which we should pray. Again, the Lord’s Prayer (to which we shall turn our full attention tomorrow) is an example and pattern for our own prayer: The desire for God’s name to be reverenced, for His Kingdom to be established on earth, and for His Will to be done. Those are the things that really matter and so call for genuine perseverance.
Finally, we must recall the importance of solidarity in prayer. Moses couldn’t pray effectively without the assistance of Aaron and Hur (cf. Ex 17:8-13); nor can we do so on our own. As Catholics, members of Christ’s mystical Body (the Church), we believe that our personal prayer is united to the perfect prayer of Christ and, through Baptism, to that of every other Christian believer on earth, in Heaven, and in Purgatory. What a consoling doctrine! How uplifting to know that no Christian stands alone before “the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), but in the company of all the redeemed from the very dawn of time. The awareness of Christian solidarity in prayer is the very human and natural reason for “not losing heart.” The supernatural reason is faith. Do you have the faith to pray always?
Let me conclude these reflections with the insightful words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman:
To be religious is, in other words, to have the habit of prayer, or to pray always. This is what Scripture means by doing all things to God’s glory; that is, so placing God’s presence and will before us, and so consistently acting with a reference to Him, that all we do becomes one body and course of obedience, witnessing without ceasing to Him Who made us, and Whose servants we are; and in its separate parts promoting more or less directly His glory, according as each particular thing we happen to be doing admits more or less of a religious character. (“Mental Prayer,” PPS VII, 13 December 1829.)
Simply put: We pray more intensely during these special days, precisely so as to gain the holy habit of “praying always.”
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