The Rogations

May 16, 2023

"And yet it is by prayer alone that we can heal ourselves of the ills that have befallen us, ward off those that threaten us, save ourselves temporally, and attain eternal salvation."

The first institution of the Rogations is very old, but before entering the considerations which these solemn prayers must suggest, it is advisable to give a brief account of the history of their establishment.

Saint Mamert was placed on the episcopal see of Vienne, in France, a little after the middle of the fifth century. Despite his virtues, or perhaps because of his virtues, he had to undergo many persecutions. However, his personal sorrows were of less concern to him than public calamities. At that time, earthquakes were almost continuous and so violent that they shook and overturned a great number of houses; fires had never been more frequent; one spoke only of spectres and nocturnal phantoms which caused terror in all; ferocious beasts penetrated even into the villages and the cities, making great ravages there with numerous victims. The historians of the time have left us with distressing descriptions of all these plagues.

During the night of Easter 469, while the faithful were assembled in the church to prepare for the great solemnity, a fire broke out in the townhouse, which was not far away. The crowd left the church in a hurry, each one wanting to protect himself from the danger or to run to protect his own house. The holy bishop did not leave the altar, and he offered his prayers and tears to God with faith to ward off this new misfortune. At daybreak, the terrible conflagration suddenly ceased and the people, rightly attributing this miracle to their bishop, returned to the church to thank God and continue the interrupted service. Saint Mamert, addressing the faithful, showed them that prayer and penance were the only remedies for the evils they were suffering and the only means capable of preserving them in the future. He solemnly promised God Rogations or Litanies, that is, public supplications accompanied by fasts. As they had to go to another church to make these prayers, this ceremony was also called a Procession.

In making this vow, Saint Mamert was not exactly instituting a new thing, for Rogations had already been held before his time. But they were not perfectly regulated, and they had never been fixed at precise times. The faithful no longer attached as much importance to them as in the beginning, and various changes had been introduced. The holy bishop wanted to give back to this religious practice its true character and ensure its perpetuity. The clergy lent themselves to this with eagerness, and he obtained more easily than one hoped the assistance of the senate. By common agreement, the fulfillment of this vow was set for the three days preceding the Ascension. In order to spare the weakness of those who could not make a long walk on an empty stomach, Saint Mamert indicated the station of the first procession in a church, not far from the walls. The whole city went there in a penitent and humbled manner, and the multitude showed great compunction of heart, mingling their tears and groans with the singing of the Psalms. The public calamities ceased, and this pious institution produced excellent effects, not only in the city of Vienna, where the practice of penance became more frequent, but also in the neighboring cities, where it was adopted. A few years later, St. Sidonius Apollinaris, bishop of Clermont, publicly attributed to St. Mamert the establishment of the three days of Rogations and praised him for having given the other bishops the opportunity to correct, according to his example, the disorders which were committed in the old processions.

Some churches in France wanted, from the first years, to imitate the example given by the church of Vienna, without nevertheless being obliged to make these processions at the same time. Saint Avit, the successor of Saint Mamert, says on this subject that “the number of days, the choice of the season or any other circumstance depending on local convenience, or the disposition of the people mattered little, provided that one remained faithful to fulfilling this duty of piety every year by prayer and penance, mixing the tears of the heart with the chanting of the Psalms”. (1) However, the bishops, considering the wisdom of Saint Mamert's institution, believed that it was best to conform entirely to what he had established, and, as in Vienna, they prescribed that the processions should take place on the three days preceding the Ascension.

Saint Caesarius, bishop of Arles, who presided over the Council of Agde in 506, speaks of the Rogations of Saint Mamert in terms that make us suppose, at least, that they were established in his time in the provinces of France subjected to the domination of the Visigoths. They also penetrated, towards the beginning of the sixth century, into the other parts of Gaul of which the States of Clovis I were composed. The first Council of Orleans, assembled in 511, issued a special decree ordering that they be celebrated before the Ascension in all the churches over which it had authority.

Rogations were already observed in Spain at the beginning of the sixth century, since they are mentioned in the acts of the Council of Girona, held in 517. They were celebrated, not on the three days preceding the Ascension, but on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday after Pentecost. In some places, they were brought forward to the Monday of the same week, as was later practiced in Milan.

Rogations were not introduced in Rome until the end of the eighth century. Before that, only the procession of April 25, called the Great Litany, was known. It was Pope Leo III, elevated to the Holy See in the year 795, who prescribed them after Charlemagne, or some of the bishops of his states, had established in France the procession known as “St. Mark's” because it was held on the day of his feast, although it was in no way connected with it. It is by comparison with this procession that those of the Rogations are called the Small Litanies.

The Council of Mainz, in the year 813, prescribed by a special decree that the Rogations be observed everywhere. These three days were to be non-working, and servile works were forbidden as on Sundays. However, this last obligation was not general in the Western Church; it was never admitted to Rome, nor did it penetrate Spain, nor even England, where the customs of the Gallican church were nevertheless willingly followed. The prohibition of servile works was not maintained; when the capitulars of Charles the Bald, in which this prohibition was recorded, lost their authority, the processions of Rogations were only pure devotion. The church of Trier (in Germany) is one of the last to have kept the obligation to celebrate Rogations. The council held in Trier in 1549 reduced these three days to half-festivals, which ended at noon, like the one on April 25 (the Great Litany), Ash Wednesday, and the last three days of Holy Week.

The obligation of fasting during Rogations persisted for even less time than that of the prohibition of servile work. In the ninth century, a lively discussion arose on this point between Amalaire and Agobard of Lyons. The former opposed the institution of fasting on these days as contrary to the spirit and practice of the universal Church, which was careful not to prescribe any fasting during the whole of the Paschal season, when the faithful should indulge in holy joy, because of the Saviour's resurrection. Soon the sentiment of Amalaire prevailed. Abstinence has been maintained to this day, and if, in a certain number of dioceses in France, it is no longer observed in fact, it is by virtue of annual dispensations granted by the bishops, by delegation of the Holy See.

The main characteristic of the Rogations is the processions that take place on these days. As in the past, wherever possible, the procession leaves one church and goes to another, where a station is made, during which the specially indicated Mass is celebrated. These processions were first called Litanies, and they have kept this name in our liturgical books. One should not conclude from this, that the series of invocations of the saints, which are in use today, were originally sung. They were composed only later, and not all at once. The word Litany, taken from Greek, has the same meaning as Rogations, borrowed from Latin, and properly means supplications. Our litanies of the saints are therefore only particular formulas of supplication. In the ancient Greek Church, prayers of this kind usually began with the words: Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy on us, which were repeated often, without adding any other invocations. The Roman Church adopted this usage, preserving the formula, although it was foreign to the Latin language. This way of praying continued until the end of the sixth century. Saint Gregory the Great added these other words: Christe Eleison, which established a difference between the litanies of the Latins and those of the Greeks. In the latter, the whole congregation said: Kyrie Eleison; in the West, the clerics said: Kyrie Eleison, and the laity answered as many times: Christe Eleison. For a long time in all the Churches of the West, the litanies had already begun with three invocations. The first Kyrie Eleison is addressed to the Father, Christe Eleison, to the Son, and the second Kyrie Eleison to the Holy Spirit. The custom of following these supplications with invocations of the saints is certainly very old and must have been introduced shortly after the institution of processions. The principal saints were invoked everywhere, and the particular churches also claimed the intercession of those who were already in heaven and whom they rightly considered as their particular protectors. The various Litanies were brought back to unity by Pope St. Pius V. Today, all those which are not contained in the liturgical books are on the index, and their use is forbidden, unless they have been specially approved and permitted by the Holy See.

The Rogation processions are intended to turn away from us all evils, all spiritual and temporal scourges. This must be done in a spirit of penitence and compunction, as the meaning of the prayers sufficiently indicates, and to recall this spirit in a more expressive way, priests used to wear black vestments. However, today they wear purple ones, which is the colour adopted by the Church for times of penitence. The Roman Ritual recalls the necessity of this arrangement: “The clergy and the people,” it says, “being assembled in the church in the morning at the appointed hour, all kneel down and pray to God for some time with a contrite and humbled heart.”

Before the procession sets out, these significant words are sung, “Lord, arise, come to our aid and deliver us, for Your Name's sake.” The following verse is added, expressing confidence based on the Christian people's experience of divine goodness: “O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us what you have done for your people.” It is repeated, “Lord, arise, etc.”

In the Litany, first, the mercy of the three persons of the Holy Trinity is implored. Then the intercession of the whole Church Triumphant, of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, of the heavenly spirits, and of all the saints, of whom the most illustrious of each category are named. The spiritual and temporal evils that may befall us are enumerated, and we ask to be delivered from them by virtue of the mysteries of the life of the Saviour Jesus Christ. After that come requests for the Church, the Pope, and the various orders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, for the princes and the Christian people, that is, for the Church militant. The suffering Church is not forgotten, and we pray to God to put the souls who are in Purgatory in possession of eternal rest as soon as possible. All these supplications are finally summed up in invocations to the Son of God, the Lamb of God, through whom alone we have access to the heavenly Father. The verses and prayers that follow repeat and develop the same requests.

If the length of the journey requires it, the Litanies are repeated, or they are supplemented by some of the Psalms of Penance or the Gradual Psalms: only prayers and songs capable of arousing compunction are allowed.

The same rules are followed for the procession of Saint Mark, because it is invariably done on April 25, even when the feast of Saint Mark is transferred to another day.

Since Rogations are essentially supplications addressed to God in order to avert the punishments deserved by men and to attract His mercy, the Church has taken care, in the Mass celebrated at the procession, to inculcate in us the necessity of prayer and to show us the power of prayer.

The Introit is composed of these words: “From His holy temple the Lord has heard my voice, and the cry which I have uttered in His presence has entered into His ears.” Nothing can better excite us, from the very beginning of the Holy Sacrifice, to pray with confidence, than these words, in which it is affirmed to us that the cry of our heart penetrates even to the depths of heaven where God dwells and that He listens to it with kindness.

In the Epistle, St. James reminds us that if the prophet Elijah, inspired by God, closed heaven by his prayer so that the earth was deprived of rain for three and a half years, it was also his prayer that opened it and caused abundant rain to descend, restoring the earth's fertility. To encourage us to pray with confidence and perseverance, the Apostle is careful to point out that, like us, Elijah was a man subject to the miseries of this life.

Confidence breathes in the words that follow the Alleluia, and, as if there were no doubt that God would answer the prayers addressed to Him, they already express, by anticipation, the gratitude that is due to Him, and proclaim His merciful goodness: “Alleluia. Praise the Lord for his goodness; for his mercy is manifested in all times.”

The same idea is most strikingly rendered in the Gospel, in the parabolic form which Jesus Christ loved to employ, to make His great teachings more easily intelligible. A man goes in the middle of the night to wake up his friend to ask him for the bread he needs to feed a guest who has just arrived. At first, he refuses, because the hour is inconvenient and it is impossible, without great inconvenience, to satisfy the request. He insists and, although untimely, his obstinacy is crowned with success. Nothing could show us better that, if God does not immediately answer our prayer, we must repeat it without becoming weary. He will allow Himself to be touched by our perseverance and overcome by our obstinacy, which will only be in His eyes proof of our confidence in His paternal goodness. We must also leave for God the choice of goods that He will judge appropriate to send us. “A father,” says the Saviour, “does not give a stone to his child who asks him for bread, nor a snake for a fish, nor a scorpion instead of an egg. If then,” He concludes, “you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father not give good inspirations to those who ask Him?”

The communion antiphon is the general conclusion of the whole service. In it, the Church repeats the words already sung in the Gospel: “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For he who asks, receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, it is opened. Alleluia.”

Why are Rogations so neglected today? It is probably because many Christians know neither the meaning nor the purpose of Rogations, but it is especially because the spirit of prayer has weakened among us and many no longer pray or pray very badly. And yet it is by prayer alone that we can heal ourselves of the ills that have befallen us, ward off those that threaten us, save ourselves temporally, and attain eternal salvation.



Honorary Canon, Professor of Theology.