May 18, 2020
What to do when your diocese is overwhelmed by hostile invaders and natural disasters? Around 470 Saint Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne in Dauphiny (today’s France), had to figure out a plan of action. The Goths, the Huns, earthquakes, fires and crop failures were plaguing the faithful of his diocese. What to do? How about turning to God? He initiated “rogation” or “asking” processions – several days of penitential processions with public supplications. The devotion soon spread far beyond Vienne. In 816 Pope Leo III introduced this practice into Rome and eventually it was observed throughout the Church. There were processions during which the Litany of the Saints, Psalms and other prayers were chanted, followed by a special Rogation Day Mass on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday.
Down in Rome another liturgical practice had already been on the books. On April 25th, the Feast of St. Mark, the Church began the practice of holding a procession to supplant an existing pagan ceremony, called the robigalia – a procession ending in animal sacrifices to ask a Roman god, Robigus, to protect the sprouting crops, especially grapes, from rust (robigo). During the time of Pope Gregory the Great, this became known as the Greater Litany because of its connection to Saint Mark’s feast and the three Rogation Days before Ascension got the name, Lesser Litanies. Since 1570 in the Roman Missal of Pope St. Pius V these liturgical days were observed annually worldwide.
A 1969 Vatican document on “Norms for the Liturgical Year” directed that each National Conference of Bishops should determine the times and manner for observing the Rogation Days. They still appear in the official liturgical calendar for the U.S. and today, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week are Rogation Days.
The word “Rogation” comes from the Latin “rogatio” from the verb rogo meaning to ask, to petition. We see its root in words like interrogation. Even though Rogation Days are not really prominent in our liturgical practice, they emphasize the necessity of turning to God in supplication, asking Him to preserve us from calamities, to bless the crops so that they to yield a good harvest. Daily we hear reports of the plight of farmers, whether they tend crops and herds. Because of the lesser demand for their crops, milk and meat products they are really struggling. We need to unite ourselves to them in prayer.
Saint Mamertus set us a good example that in times of calamity – whether moments or months – we need to turn to God to offer prayers for the needs of all people, for the productivity of the earth, for the labor of farmers, to acknowledge our need to do penance and to entrust creation into the provident hands of its Creator. We might not be able to walk in a penitential procession today but each of us can invoke the names of the saints and our Blessed Mother, pray a few Psalms and ask God to bless our farmers, give success to their labors and bring us all safely through this difficult time.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer