Like most things in the Catholic Church the word ‘Novena' comes to us from Latin, the language of the Romans. The Roman Empire ruled all of Europe and the Mediterranean - it was at the height of its power one hundred years after Jesus Christ walked the earth, (under the emperor Trajan in 117 AD, when Roman Legions conquered Mesopotamia ).
The word ‘novem' meant the number ‘nine' and would have been used in everyday conversation as such – The month of November is the ninth month. The word novena is the feminine form of the medieval Latin word, "novenus", "ninth", which is the number from novem, nine.
In the Catholic Church, a novena is a devotion consisting of prayer for nine straight days, in which the faithful ask God for special graces. These prayers may be simply a recitation of the Rosary, or small prayers throughout the day. This website offers several excellent examples that anyone may use on this occasion.
HISTORY OF NOVENAS
The practice of saying novenas is derived from Scripture. After Jesus' Ascension into heaven, he told his disciples to pray together and devote themselves to constant prayer (Acts 1:14). The Apostles, Blessed Virgin Mary, and other followers of Jesus prayed together for nine consecutive days, and they were rewarded with a truly amazing miracle: the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
From that story in the Holy Scripture the Novena has evolved as a mortuary ritual. People gather to pray for the departed using special prayers nine times after the funeral. "The number nine in Holy Writ is indicative of suffering and grief" ( St. Jerome , in Ezech., vii, 24; -- P.L., XXV, 238, cf. XXV, 1473).
But not all novenas are the same, for example in some places the congregation feasts on the ninth day, and certain prayers are observed in some regions and not at all in others.
After the fall of the Roman Empire , the peripheral provinces and emerging kingdoms adopted ‘blends of Christianity' subtly flavored with aspects and idioms of previous local pagan deities. This is why the novena is slightly different from place to place – the French practice is very different from the Irish Catholic interpretation.
Indeed the Catholic religion itself is in many ways the evolution of Roman and Judaic cultures and rituals in a monotheistic context. The Jewish religion holds seven to be more sacred while Roman paganism celebrated a nine day ritual religious celebration whose origin is related in Livy (I, xxxi). After a shower of stones on the Alban Mount, an official sacrifice, whether because of a warning from above or of the augurs' advice, was held on nine days to appease the gods and avert evil.
From then on the same novena of sacrifices was made whenever the like wonder was announced (cf. Livy, XXI, lxii; XXV, vii; XXVI, xxiii etc.).
FOUR TYPES OF NOVENAS
There are four types of Novenas,
1. A novena of mourning – is the first and most easily understood novena. Jesus instructed his disciples to pray for nine days. A good modern day example is the Pope's Novena – nine days of mourning prayer devoted to the departed - each day's devotions is preceded by solemn mass.
2. A novena of preparation – So it has come to pass that festivities such as Christmas and The Annunciation (the revelation to Mary, the mother of Jesus by the archangel Gabriel that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God) have nine days of prayer BEFORE the celebrations begin. This is called a novena of preparation.
3. A novena of prayer is a series of devotions given for nine straight days. This novena is offered as a sacrifice to God. Our lord sees a novena as a sign of devotion especially when the person saying the novena asks for a specific reason.
4. A novena of indulgence is defined as "the remission before God of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned." The first thing to note is that forgiveness of a sin is separate from punishment for the sin. Through sacramental confession we obtain forgiveness, but we aren't let off the hook as far as punishment goes…
The indulgenced novena is when you ‘purchase' the Lord's forgiveness in exchange for nine days of prayer. Indulgences are two kinds: partial and plenary. A partial indulgences removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of it. This punishment may come either in this life, in the form of various sufferings, or in the afterlife, in purgatory. What we don't get rid of here, we will suffer there.
The novena is permitted and even recommended by ecclesiastical authority, but still has no proper and fully set place in the liturgy of the Church. It has, however, more and more been prized and utilized by the faithful.