Novena of Grace
NOVENA OF GRACE 2020 THANK YOU
THANKS TO ALL WHO HELPED in many ways during the Novena of Grace 2020. Special thanks to our guest preachers Fr. Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, Fr. Brian Lennon SJ and Fr. Jake Martin SJ. Their homilies were well received and very much appreciated.
Fr Gerry O'Hanlon SJ, has kindly given us transcripts of his homilies. You may access them on our Novena of Grace page.
Thank you too for your generous donations. There was a total of €10,498 raised to two very deserving causes:
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Ugandan Tailoring Project for Girls €5624
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Syrian Refugees in Lebanon - Storm Karim Appeal €4874
Message from JRS re Storm Karim Appeal
Thank you to all of you who so generously supported our winter blankets appeal for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The blankets have made a significant difference to the lives of these families, many of whom are living in makeshift accommodation. They are needed now more than ever...
Things took a turn for the worse earlier this month when Storm Karim hit Lebanon on the morning of Friday 7th February 2020. The storm brought with it severe weather conditions including freezing temperatures, heavy rainfall and snow which have caused flooding, road closures and critical conditions, which has affected many families.
Families in the Bekaa Valley have been particularly badly affected by the storm. Temperatures dropped to -6C in parts of Baalbek in the days immediately following the onset of the storm, while downpours of rain made conditions feel even colder.
We are supporting our partners the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in Lebanon with funding for its emergency intervention to distribute fuel for heaters to 1,725 affected Syrian refugee families in informal settlements in Bar Elias and Baalbek.
The Jesuit Refugee Service has been implementing emergency response programmes in Lebanon since 2012, addressing the most urgent needs of Syrian refugees (registered and unregistered alike) and other vulnerable individuals, with a particular focus on the Bekaa Valley where we have two project teams located.
The presence of the Jesuit Refugee Service in these areas and its relationships with the refugee communities means it is well placed to provide assistance to families affected by storm Karim. With the help of these interventions the community will be able to cope with these adverse conditions, and we remain optimistic that conditions will improve for them before too long.
NOVENA OF GRACE DAY 3
HOMILY BY FR GERRY O'HANLON SJ
3Novena: Mission of St Francis Xavier – inculturation: a synodal church
Ezekiel 18, 21-18: Repentance leads to life, sin leads to death: change.
Mt 5, 20-26: Deeper virtue, no hypocrisy: authenticity, inculturation.
Francis and inculturation
The story is told that at one point in his mission to Japan Francis decided that it was important to meet the Emperor and went to Miyako, modern Kyoto, to do so. The journey by foot took months: it was mid-winter, freezing, with snow. Francis was wearing simple and unsuitably light clothes, sometimes going barefoot. He had no gifts with him. Arriving at Kyoto he was jeered at for his grotesque appearance and ignorance of the language, and the Emperor (or local leader) refused to greet him. Francis realised that he had made a mistake, he needed to be more flexible. A few years later, at his next big attempt to make friends in high places, he dressed up in silks and satins, and came with copious gifts: he was well received, and the visit bore apostolic fruit, the start of a Christian community in Yamaguichi.
Francis was a man of his time: his world view was that everyone had to be baptised to be saved, that other religions were false and even evil, that the European way was best. Gradually he began to learn and change, to realise the need to learn the language, to adapt to local customs, and even respect other religions – with one Buddhist leader who had no interest in Christianity but was giving bad example to his people, Francis tried to persuade him in effect to be a better Buddhist.
Gradually through the centuries, following the example of other Christian missionaries in India, Japan, China, Latin America, this approach was canonised in the Second Vatican Council AD Gentes, as the Church realised that inculturation was a ‘must’ for God’s word to survive and flourish in other cultures.
A synodal church
Something similar is happening to us today as Church. We live in a culture which values openness, authenticity and inclusivity, equality and the role of women: and yet our church is structured according to a shape which is monarchical, hierarchical and patriarchal, with little room for open debate and a culture of clericalism and secrecy which has led to the awful scandals of clerical child sexual abuse, financial crimes and a general failure of the Church to live up to its calling to be a sign, a kind of sacrament of God’s loving and merciful presence in our world.
Pope Francis wants to change this. Given today’s culture he wants the church to change its basic shape without being untrue to itself: change then, not for change’s sake, but like Francis Xavier, change that is conversion so that we can better facilitate that encounter Jesus Christ and bring his message of hope to our world.
He calls the shape of this change a ‘synodal church’. This means: ‘walking along the way’ – the image is of Jesus with his disciples, male and female, walking along the roads of Palestine, conversing, arguing, learning and teaching, doing good. The major gospel scene is the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: disconsolate, then a bit of teaching, then recognition of presence/encounter, and then consolation/joy followed by mission, wanting to spread the good news. This gets translated in the early church into such as the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) when the critical decision, after huge conflict, was taken to admit Gentiles to the faith. And it continued for the first millennium, with councils and synods being a normal part of church life.
Francis is calling us back to this. The Second Vatican Council introduced us to the collegiality of bishops to balance the power of the pope. Francis is more radical: synodal goes beyond bishops to include all of us, all the baptised, with its promise to implement our call to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly role of Jesus Christ – and, in particular, through the ‘sense of the faithful’ to have a part in church teaching and governance.
This means a church with more open discussion and consultation – see the Amazon Synod. It means a church which believes in discernment – see the on-going discernment after that Synod and the Pope’s response re married priests and female deacons. It means the call to lay people to assume new responsibilities, to priest and bishops to let go of total control, to find new ways of exercising authority.
Where are we at on all this in Ireland? Well, we are taking the first steps. The pope himself knows that it is one thing to understand the concept of synodality, it is another entirely to translate it into practice at all levels of the Church’s life – parish, diocese, national, regional, Rome itself. Several dioceses in Ireland have made real efforts: in Killala for example, they had a year’s consultation run by a professional, independent group, then an assembly, then identified key areas to implement, and are now implementing them. Key to what they are doing is an opening up of ministry to lay people, men and women, and they have already identified lay leaders to do this.
It would be great if the Irish bishops as a collective came more solidly behind this idea of Pope Francis and called a series of national assemblies or synods, prepared for by local ones: there is still energy in our church, it needs to be harnessed and galvanised, the Pope is giving us leadership.
And so, we come back to Francis Xavier and today’s readings. Ezekiel is calling for conversion and repentance, Matthew is inviting us to a virtue that is authentic, that is not hypocritical. As Church, and particularly as clerical church, we need to do penance for our past, we need always to keep in mind the lives of survivors, victims and their families: and we need also to listen to the signs of our times, to be flexible like Francis Xavier and particularly his successors, and be open to this ‘change of era’, not just ‘era of change’, to urgently implement this ‘inverted pyramid’ model of church in which lay people, and women in particular, will find their true adult role and clericalism will come to an end. This will make for a more attractive church, attractive in particular to younger people who are so full of idealism and so impatient with what they perceive as hypocrisy and irrelevance.
And so, despite the demoralisation and hurt, we live in a time of opportunity and hope, hope above all that the Church can again respond to its call to be for the kingdom, to be good news for our world. As Pope Francis puts it: ‘A synodal Church is like a standard lifted up among the nations (cf Is 11:12) in a world which – while calling for participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration-often consigns the fate of entire peoples to the grasp of small but powerful groups’. This is the call: how will you answer?
NOVENA OF GRACE DAY 2
HOMILY BY FR GERRY O'HANLON SJ
2Novena: Conversion of St Francis Xavier, 2020 God’s mercy, First week of Spiritual Exercises
Esther 4, 17: I am alone and have no helper but you….
Mt 7, 7-12: how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Why do we resist love?
Yesterday I spoke about the ‘gaze of love’: this is how God looks on us. And yet we often find this hard to believe, to accept – why?
It can be that we have low self-esteem, feel unlovable, are shy, don’t think much of ourselves.
It can be too that we know we have done wrong, we are unworthy: our bad habits, our addictions, our betrayals, our cheating, our lack of compassion….and how could God love this?
In short, at times we are fed up with ourselves and we imagine that God must be fed up with us too!
We can learn more about all this from the example of those who have gone before us.
Francis Xavier and sin:
At one level you might say Francis Xavier had an enviable life. Young, good looking, relatively privileged. And yet he was dissatisfied, he didn’t feel good about himself. What was going on?
He partied, he spent money lavishly and unwisely, drinking, gambling, music and having a good time, part of a social scene in which poor young and not so young Parisian and other women were exploited to satisfy the sexual desires of relatively privileged young students…and felt dissatisfied.
The reputed refrain of Ignatius, from the scriptures, gradually began to impinge: what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his own soul? There was something at his core which felt wrong and was the source of his conversion, and, after a lot of soul-searching and occasional yearnings for his old life, ending up in an off-shore island off the mainland of China, having been to Africa/India/Malaysia/Japan at a time when the known world for most people of his generation was a small part of Europe.
He is not alone: our current Pope when asked in his first interview who he was, said: I am a sinner – that experience of getting to know, concretely, that this is who he is, has been too authoritarian, for example, and that even so, or, that even more so, God, Jesus loves him so much – this is hugely important! Think in the Scriptures of Peter, Lord depart from me, I am unworthy….think of Mary of Magdala all the other women who experienced his forgiveness and loved him all the more….
It seems that while we may lose faith in God, God never loses faith in us. And, furthermore, it seems that God’s love for us is shown in particular when we are weak in whatever way: the Leonard Cohen verses ring true – ‘there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.
God as mercy:
And so, as Esther in her great need discovered, married to a Persian king who wanted to kill all his Jewish subjects, and, as a Jew, tasked with trying to dissuade him, God is always on our side. Like the father who can only give good things to his children. Again and again Pope Francis dwells on this: the gaze of love from God is a gaze of mercy, which knows well that we are sinners and yet loves us so much.
Our situation and response:
In the first week of his Spiritual Exercises St Ignatius asks us to pray for the grace of knowing that we are sinners. This may seem peculiar; why is this a grace?
Because it is one thing to have a vague sense that we are unworthy, feel unlovable: it is another entirely to have a concrete sense of our sin and the knowledge that God loves us all the more. Of course this will mean repentance, leaving behind what we know is wrong: sin, in this sense, is like a virus, is contagious, does great harm, causes great suffering. But goodness too is contagious – with that knowledge of who we are and of being loved, we gradually become carriers of goodness, ‘missionary disciples, as Pope Francis and St Francis exemplify.
Sin is also like a virus in that it damages the whole social environment, social sin as it is called, and sometimes (like Francis Xavier living at a time of inequality between rich and poor, and patriarchy in which men ruled over women) we can be unaware of this. In our own country homelessness, our inequitable health service, the threat of environmental destruction are all signs of social sin, signs which the electorate in the recent general election were clearly aware of.
But, coming back to the more personal, one of the great dangers of religious people is that we can easily slip into the position of judging others and thinking we are different, that somehow we are deserving of God’s love, have merited it, it is a reward for a life well lived. Remember Jesus with the Scribes and Pharisees? One writer puts it in an almost shocking way: Jesus tries to promote them to be sinners (by criticising them and pointing out their hypocrisy), in order that they will realise that autonomy and freedom (so cherished by our culture) is always in a context of relationship and ultimately of that relationship with God’s mercy which saves us sinners from our own egoism and hubris.
A good test of all this is how you react to the story of the Prodigal Son – are you with the Elder Brother in complaining that too much attention is given to this young, irresponsible fellow while you, who have kept all the rules, have been left unappreciated?! Or, the story of the labourers in the Vineyard – how dare the workers at the 11th hour get paid the same as those working all day – but, can’t God be generous? Justice is important, yes,and our society with its welcome focus on human rights is sensitive to this: but God is teaching us something deeper: his love is unconditional, generous, merciful, you don’t earn it, you say yes to it and respond by becoming more and more like him, more and more worthy. Our society needs to learn that justice at its best is tempered by mercy, it is not vengeance.
Called to be holy:
And this is the final word: it is we sinners who are called not just to acknowledge our sins but to be holy! Each one of us! And so Pope Francis: the woman who went out shopping, meets a friend, they start to gossip and she says to herself ‘no, am not going to back-bite’ and so she diverts the conversation…she goes home, is tired, but her son wants to talk and she sits down and listens to him with patience and love…later, in the afternoon, she feels a bit low and discouraged and says a decade of the rosary…and then, going out in the evening visit a friend, she comes upon a poor person begging and stops to talk to him with kindness and respect – each of these very ordinary actions are, says Pope Francis, steps to holiness! Each of you called to that in the circumstances of your own life – what a wonderful invitation! And it is an invitation which comes to you today – God’s word is always alive and fresh, and it is offered to us in a new way each time we hear it.
NOVENA OF GRACE DAY 1
HOMILY BY FR GERRY O'HANLON SJ
1Novena: Early Life and conversion of St Francis Xavier, March 4th, 2020- ‘Principle and Foundation’
Jonah 3, 1-10: The word of the Lord was addressed to Johah….
Lk 11, 29-32: ‘and there is something greater than Johan here…
The gaze of love
Like students today forced to share accommodation, Francis Xavier was best pleased when he was landed with Ignatius of Loyola as a room-mate in Paris in 1528 or so. Francis was young, in his early 20s, handsome, athletic, ambitious, charming, into fine clothes, out to have a good time as a young student at the University of Paris. Ignatius was well into his 30s, a ‘mature student’, with a limp, shabby clothes, who spoke a lot about God and begged for his own support but also to give money to the poor. At best Francis indulged the ‘old man’ and another equally serious younger room-mate Peter Fabre – as we would say nowadays, the cultures were different.
But you know, something happened over their years living together: Francis began to realise that Ignatius was a good friend, had his best interests at heart, even helped him when he needed cash. He got a bit curious about what made Ignatius and Peter Fabre so happy, so committed, despite their poverty: he asked how could you find God, and Ignatius said through love. And he realised that Ignatius loved him, and through this, that God loved him.
Pope Francis talks a lot about ‘the gaze of love’ and what a difference it makes – in falling in love, in the routine of marriage, in old age, as parents with children, with friends, with God. Theologian Grainne Doherty talks about her experience as a waitress when young watching lovers gaze into one another’s eyes in the café she served in, now, she thought, that’s love! And then going home to see her Ma and Da unromantically making ends meet at home, hassled by a large family, and saying well, that certainly isn’t love! But then later, as her father lay dying in bed and the family did a roster taking turns around his bedside, noticing that his distress was calmed only when her mother came into the room – he knew, he sensed her presence, he was at peace-and she thought: it was love after all!
Jonah, in today’s reading, like Francis Xavier with Ignatius, didn’t want to be influenced by God, it was too much trouble: but in the end he said yes. And this ‘word’ that was the OT way of divine communication, with occasional ‘face to face’ but with face veiled, with shoes off, becomes in the NT (‘something greater than Jonah is here’)the ‘gaze of love’’ – think of Jesus ‘looking steadily at the Rich Young Man’ and loving him- think of the daily familiarity with Peter and the 12, with the female and male disciples, the closeness of God.
But, now Jesus is gone: and we live in a world where belief is not easy, where ‘God is missing but not missed’, where secularism is deep and widespread, so that we are all affected. And this is so in many parts of the Western world, and in Ireland too.
In Ireland this has become sharper because of the scandal of child sexual abuse and its mis-handling by church leaders which has done such terrible harm to survivors/victims and their families. Sharper too because the Church in areas like sexuality and gender can seem so out of touch with our culture. The Church wants to be a sign of Jesus Christ, attracting us to his gaze of love: so often, instead, it seems to be an anti-sign, putting us off. Its preaching and focus on orthodoxy can seem stifling, its insistence on morality can seem hypocritical.
Pope Benedict knew this, and in a quote often used by Pope Francis he once said: ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. This is the core, this encounter with Jesus Christ, the face of God’s mercy and love. This is what Francis Xavier discovered and, building on his natural generosity and exuberance, filled him with a love which he wanted to share with others, to the far corners of the world.
We too are loved
And this is what we too are called to, to notice, in our lives, no matter how young or old, how doubting or full of faith – that God loves us to bits, that ‘all will be well’, that the foundation is sure. The great German theologian Karl Rahner, writing back in the 60s and 70s, when Germany was already experiencing deep secularization, knew that the Christian of the future would not have the support of the culture, the laws, the State in the same way as was true of many countries in the past. Instead we would be a kind of diaspora community, scattered as a minority, like Jesus and his early disciples, before the start of Christendom in the 4th century. In this context, Rahner believed, the Christian of the future ‘would have to be a mystic’. Mystic, not in the sense of seeing visions, of entering the religious life –no, but more like ‘finding God in all things’, being in touch with the presence of God in our daily lives, convinced that everything about us, our personalities, our histories, our everyday activities and that of the whole world and the natural world, are under his ‘gaze of love’.
Lent, and this Novena, are a time to pray for this gift of awareness (of God’s great love for us) for ourselves, which can change everything. And don’t think this is not for you, that God doesn't treat you like this. Over the last year or so, after a talk I gave out of Dublin, I was approached by a man in his early 60s who told me he wanted to tell me something. He had gone into his local church for a quick visit, he stood in front of his favourite statue, and, without warning, without reason, he was suddenly filled with the deepest sense of joy. And, while still there, he became aware that this joy was also and firstly the joy of God, the Father, in him. These gifts are for all of us. They may not always come in such a dramatic way, but, as Ignatius himself was to say, consolation is any increase in faith, hope and charity/love; let us ask for this for ourselves over these days.
Novena of Grace – ‘Hearts On Fire’
Sean O’Rourke (Faber Companions)
This year, the Novena of Grace at Gardiner Street saw the introduction of what we hope will become an annual event for young people across Dublin, ‘Hearts On Fire’. The faith festival, run in conjunction with the 11 o’clock Mass of the Novena, was a huge success in its inception – thanks to the ready cooperation with the Parish team members. The programme team, made up of Jesuit novices, Paul Prior and John Bosco, volunteers, students, and parish staff, managed to bring in school groups from far and wide for a whole host of activities, games, workshops, music, prayer, and discussion from 9:30am-1:00pm each day.
Our vision in the beginning was simple: to provide our young participants with an encounter of Christ’s love. I think that in the spirit of the Jesuit mantra of ‘Finding God in All Things,’ it would be fair to say that we achieved this – though not of our own accord, but with the Spirit guiding and leading all the way. There was a palpable sense of energy and dynamism among our youths present, and for many attendees, they had never seen a church so full, which inspired and planted seeds for their growing minds. It was both engaging and formative for students, they said, to be part of our parish movement, community prayer, and devotion to Francis Xavier – which struck them as so rare, unique, and nourishing in today’s world. Students took the time to write their own intentions to God, and actively participated where they could in programmes and Masses, bearing gifts, and engaging in song, and conversations with older members of the Congregation after liturgies. It was heart-warming for the youths to be welcomed as they were during each Mass, so warmly by Fr. Kevin O’Rourke and the crowds during services – often receiving applause for ‘just showing up’. One could see the smiles sprawling across the children’s faces at being recognised, seen, and valued for their presence, and – who would blame them!
Indeed, many more moments and highlights occurred throughout ‘Hearts On Fire’, and it would be impossible to list them all here. With eyes wide open and receptive hearts, though, we might think back to the laughter and dancing witnessed in the Ignatian Chapel, or the hugs, stories, and joys shared by our young people with ‘total strangers’ in our intergenerational projects, noting how quickly the two groups became friends and companions for each another. One could ponder the sparks of insight and creativity in Sr. Éilis’ writing classes, or the joy found in the prayer workshops of Fr. Kevin. We could listen again and receive the newfound talents discovered in the theatre and song-writing sessions of John Bosco and Gerry Keegan, or remember Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom, as espoused by Peter McVerry. If our perspective was broader, we might look to the testimonies of Kris Vekic and Fergal McDonagh, who spoke so passionately about pursuing justice overseas and their concern for refugees. Perhaps we’d look at the moments of peace that came about through meditation with Fr Myles O’Reilly, and the breaking down of their prior barriers towards Church and faith through Taizé.
A lot happened over the course of the festival – and the bonds, conversations, and new friendships made by transition year students with others from different schools was encouraging to see. But what of their connections to Gardiner Street and the Church, more broadly? Well, we know that we did our best to plant in them seeds of love, a sense of community and kinship, and hope for the future. Are their hearts really on fire, now, though? We’ll never know, but ours certainly are.
We are so grateful to the youths, for their added flavour and spice of life in our liturgies, lighting up the hallways of the Pope Francis Corridor after Masses, and for keeping us laughing and grateful for every second spent together. There is a sense of renewal and cause for celebration among the programme team for the joy they brought to this parish, and with great memories made; we’ll look forward to building more.
This project is only beginning, but we have made great progress already, and hold optimism for the years to come. For now, a break, thanksgiving, and allowing of God’s grace to enter and do the rest is what’s needed.
We’ll see you again in 2020.
Thanks for everything, Gardiner Street!
Seeing is believing!
Paul Prior nSJ
This ‘Novena novice’ - new to the Novena, new to the Society of Jesus - had heard much about the Novena of Grace in Gardiner Street; the experience was something else! What an uplifting festival of faith and devotion!
What an example of living faith handed on from generation to generation! People have been coming to this annual 9 days of prayer in Gardiner Street since 1832, for some 50, 60, 70 years plus. This is as much a social phenomenon as it is a religious one.
Stories of the ‘craic’ had by the crowds overflowing from the church and the marriages made at the Novena of Graces of yesteryear evoked a different era. And, whatever it was about it, many agreed this year’s Novena ‘was back the way it was!’ There was genuine satisfaction and gratefulness in the air!
Fr Kevin O’Rourke’s homilies anchored the overall experience in a powerful way; words of wisdom distilled in daily life touched many people deeply. His description of suffering - ‘Good Friday people’ - was particularly meaningful.
Most inspiring was the witness of the many people who, carrying a full range of life-concerns in their hearts, came daily to pray fervently to Francis Xavier to take care of and grant their intentions. The silent pause for intercession in the Novena Prayer after the words ‘I also ask you to obtain the favour I ask in this Novena’ was a poignant and sacred moment.
The ‘flame of faith’ which was lit after communion at the 7.30 pm session to inaugurate silent prayer was among the most intimate moments; one could imagine Christ’s ear being filled with whispered hopes and desires as the flame flickered on the altar of the darkened church. Faith, no matter how feeble, is light for our lives, for our communities, for our Christian family.
The morning Novena provided a wonderful inter-generational contrast. ‘Senior citizens’ gathered quietly in the church preparing for Mass with ‘petit-mots’ and prayer intentions, ‘junior citizens’ were being brought down from booming ‘praise’ music and ice-breakers to meditative spaces to think about and discuss the deeper questions of life. A new initiative at the Novena 2019 was the ‘Hearts on Fire’ programme for young people. In the Ignatian corridor after Mass, the enthusiasm of youth and the wisdom of the elders was shared in true Irish fashion over cups of tea, I heard one person say, ‘you could trot a mouse on!’ A moment of hospitality but also a powerful example of hearts and minds connecting across generations and everybody feeling the better for it!
S. Ignatius directs the retreatant of the Spiritual Exercises to ‘sentir y gustar,’ to savour the experience. For this ‘Novena novice’ at least, The Novena of Grace 2019 has left a lingering flavoursome after-taste, happy memories, hopefilled faith, friendly warm encounters, God-with-us, and still much to savour!
St Francis Xavier & the Novena of Grace
The typically Jesuit Novena of Grace, begun in 1643 by an Italian devotee of St Francis Xavier, still draws crowds in many Dublin parishes from 4th to 12th March. The Novena of Grace originated in Naples, Italy in 1643. A Jesuit was cured through the intercession of St Francis Xavier, who promised that those who made the nine days of prayer in preparation for the anniversary of the canonisation of the saint would receive many graces and favours. Thus the name, Novena of Grace. It was first held in Dublin in 1712, in the church at Mary’s Lane, now in Halston St parish. Since then it has been held continuously in Dublin and began in Gardiner St church in 1832. Read below for a fuller account of this great tradition.
An often-quoted memory of centre-city Dublin people is the time when the novena of Grace stopped the traffic. Crowds would come early for the devotions in honour of St Francis Xavier from March 4th – 12th each year. The overflow would block traffic on Gardiner St. The church seating about 900 would be filled, as would the small Ignatian chapel in the building, the corridors and the novena would be relayed to the old St Francis Xavier Hall. Crowds still come to the three sessions in the church, and to the novena which is now held in about twenty Dublin churches. A search on the web gives over 7700 sites mentioning it. People say things like, ‘St Francis Xavier never let me down’. They come to hear some good homilies, to take part in the prayer before the Mass, to pray for their intentions, as a sort of a Lenten retreat, to join in a community of faith for the nine days. People have been coming for forty, fifty or even sixty years, linking into the faith of their childhood and of their parents and grandparents who always made the novena. They come because they know they will like it, enjoy it and deepen their faith with like-minded people.
This novena originated in Naples, Italy in 1643, when a Jesuit, Matteo Mastrilli, was cured through the intercession of St Francis Xavier, who promised that those who made the nine days of prayer in preparation for the anniversary of his canonisation would receive many graces and favours. Thus the name, Novena of Grace. It was first held in Dublin in 1712, in the church at Mary’s Lane, now in Halston St parish, and began in Gardiner St church in 1832, the year the church was built.
It is simply nine days of prayer, bringing intentions to the Lord and opening ourselves to his grace. Its special focus is on the following of Jesus in the life of St Francis Xavier, listening to the word of God in the Eucharist and following responses to it in the homily. In Gardiner St there are three sessions each day. Some churches have one or two. It is a quiet, devotional novena. It is not a parish mission, and its essentials are to come to Mass and pray the novena prayer. Basic themes of the christian life are the subject of the homily each night, with reference to the life of St Francis Xavier. At each session there is the novena prayer, where we bring our intention for the novena to God. Why do that?
We come in trust to God that God is interested in our life and in our needs, and in the sadness and sorrow of life. Many intentions are for loved ones – that sons and daughters may come back to practice of faith, that someone may give up drink, drugs or crime. That someone might give up an affair, or find work. People pray for jobs for themselves and for the family. For cures from depression and illness, that family conflicts may be resolved and that loved ones may find peace in life. The petitions cover most human needs and hopes. The novena brings the ordinary yet deep cares of life to God, based on the faith that God does care for our lives and is concerned for us and with what concerns us. The novena is centered on the liturgy of the Mass, is rooted in the bible in its readings and homilies on the Scriptures; it is focused on Jesus Christ whom Francis Xavier loved and served, and is a popular and communal renewal of people’s faith in people.
Is it old-fashioned? Yes and no. Its tradition is long, some of the hymns are the old favorites, while others are more up to date. The language of the prayer can vary whether the more traditional prayer is used or the modern version. It is traditional in format and contemporary in the message of its inputs. Each Mass in our church ends with a short guided prayer. This prayer with the red lights on the altar at the painting of Xavier in Japan is a popular part of the evening. The novena presents no magical formula. In good gospel tradition it hears the words of Jesus, ‘ask and you shall receive’, and we ask, knowing that God always gives something through prayer. People say sometimes they have received a particular intention, and this is part of why people come. Other times they get something different - nobody goes away disappointed from God.
Deepening of Faith
I have given the novena now for about twenty years in many places. It is a time for me of deepening my faith in being influenced by the faith of people. It is nine days of living in the fragrance of God and the faith of others, as people give time and space to God in the cares of their lives. It is a devotional time focused on growing in love of God and Jesus for the preacher and the choirs and the ministers as well as those who attend. The traffic is no longer diverted, but lives are diverted towards God and others. The novena of grace can divert our lives to open ourselves to God’s love and to his call, as seen in the life of Xavier and in the lives of those who make the novena. In introducing us each year to Xavier, we allow his life introduce us to new and refreshing aspects of Jesus Christ, and to discover anew the challenges and love of his gospel in a new century. Come and see, come and hear and find the Lord Jesus close to you as you give time and space to him over nine days.
Article by Fr Donal Neary SJ - First published in Irish Catholic, March 2003.