History tends to repeat itself. Calamity. Crisis. Plague. Pestilence. Peace. Prosperity. Apathy. Wash, rinse, repeat. As the faith instituted by Christ to grant Salvation to mankind, Catholicism has seen this cycle play out since the Last Supper. Tradition, “little t,” developed over time as the faith spread and matured. It includes practices, customs, even interpretations of the Gospel, that may sometimes be more relevant for a certain time and/or place in the history of the Church. This is opposed to Tradition, “big T,” which is one of the two sources of Divine Revelation recognized by the Catholic Church. (The other is Scripture). It includes the teachings, life and worship of the Catholic Church that have been passed down through history as the the revealed mystery of the faith and are considered to be Divine (of God) in origin. Perhaps in our present day and age, faced with our own calamities and crises, it is time to revisit and revive one of these traditions: the Rogation Days, and to think about what this tradition can teach us in our own time.
Isn’t that a hair growth product?
No, not Rogaine, Rogation. (Though if you are a child of the 90s, you’ll surely remember those hair loss and regrowth commercials!) The word rogation is derived from the Latin word rogare which means “to ask.” The Rogation days are times that were set aside by the Church for prayer and penance to ask God’s mercy and blessing for specific circumstances. April 25th is traditionally referred to as the Major Rogation day. It is also the Feast of St. Mark the Apostle. The Minor Rogations begin with Rogation Sunday, the fifth Sunday after Easter (the Sunday before Ascension Thursday), and are traditionally observed on the 3 days (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) preceding Ascension Thursday. On these days the feasts of Sts. Mary Major, John Lateran, and Peter the Apostle are traditionally celebrated. It was the custom, starting in the 5th and 6th centuries, to observe these Rogation days with processions, litanies of the saints, acts of penance and mortification, and public blessings and supplications to God.
Earthquakes, and pestilence, and plague, oh my!
The “Greater Litanies” or Major Rogations observed on April 25th were instituted by Pope St. Gregory the Great around 598 in response to a great plague that struck Rome. This plague was said to bring death and great suffering. (It was this same plague that historically began the custom of saying “God bless you” after one sneezes because this particular plague was said to make people sneeze to death.) Earlier around 470, in the Diocese of Vienne, France, Bishop St. Mamertus called for what we now refer to as the Minor Rogations or “Lesser Litanies” (so called because of the various litanies to the saints prayed during the three day period). He instituted these days of fasting, prayer, and penance in reaction to the “great calamities” that were afflicting his people in Dauphiny, France. According to some (rather dramatic) historical accounts, there were terrible earthquakes, fires, pestilence, and attacks by wild animals upon men, women, and children. At the same time there was fear over crops failing and famine striking. Yikes! What else is a good shepherd to do but instruct his flock to pray, make acts of mortification and penance, and publicly ask God to bless the crops and harvest when faced with such disasters? Thus, the tradition of the Minor Rogation days, or Rogationtide began.
History on repeat?
The world now finds itself over a year into the global pandemic of COVID-19. There are famines and food shortages in some countries. Gas shortages, lumber shortages, increasing food prices as demand outweighs supply, the 17 year Cicada “plague,” inflation, continuing social tensions and escalating violence are afflicting different parts of the United States just a year after devastating fires ravaged Australia and parts of the U.S. West coast. History has repeated itself once again. Even as she is rocked by some of her own scandals and a possible looming schism in Germany, the Church stands firm in the truth.
In the haunting and timeless hymn Oh Beauty Ever Ancient, St. Augustine profoundly reminds us that our faith and the truth which it proclaims, never changes. Our circumstances may seem to change, but even then, the faith of Christ has already outlasted disaster and evil time and time again. This should give us great hope! The Catholic Church throughout history has faced whatever present day crisis was afflicting her people and provided not only a refuge from it, but a remedy. Yet, true to our fallen nature, we so often have ignored the remedy and instead sought new and innovative ways that we could play god and control our circumstances, our environment, and even each other. If history repeats itself, so too does mankind; over and over again, as we try to out-god God, and try to convince ourselves that we do not need him. Isn’t this the very story of salvation history? Wash, rinse, repeat.
So what can the tradition of the Rogation Days teach us? First, they can remind us that we do not need to wait for April to come around again in order to make acts of supplication and penance. The Rogation Days were a response to the difficulties afflicting a certain place in a certain time that became part of the “little t” tradition of the Church. We can ask ourselves if our present times require a similar response; instead of once again trying to be the sole masters of our own salvation, perhaps the remedy for our present crises calls for our own repeat of history, Church history, and the revival of processions, prayers, penance, and earnest supplications to God to once again provide for and protect His people. Perhaps what we can learn from the tradition of the greater and lesser Rogations is that which is echoed in scripture: “And my people, upon whom my name is called, being converted, shall make supplication to me, and seek out my face, and do penance for their most wicked ways: then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sins and will heal their land” (2 Chr. 7:14, Duay Rheims).
Featured image photo credit: Photo Attribution: Ray Trevena / The Ancient Custom of Blessing the Fields on Rogation Sunday at Hever, Kent / CC BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. The_Ancient_Custom_of_Blessing_the_Fields_on_Rogation_Sunday_at_Hever,_Kent_-_geograph.org.uk_-_556094.jpg