Traditionally, these three days before the feast of the Ascension are ‘Rogation Days’ – days of prayer and intercession. The Litany of the Saints is prayed each day, and on one of the days a church procession may be held.
The Rogation Days have their roots in the mid-fifth century, in what we would nowadays call southeast France, recently invaded by enemies. In the face of calamities of every kind, the Bishop ordered that the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the Ascension be marked by fasting, and that people stop work so they might take part in the long, penitential processions – from church to church, barefoot.
With modification, this practice spread – eventually throughout the Church. The faithful sought (as Dom Prosper Guéranger puts it in his The Liturgical Year) “to appease the anger of God, and avert the chastisements which the sins of the world so justly deserve”. Dom Guéranger reminds us that in Noah’s day, the great destroying Flood of Divine Justice might yet have been averted, had only the sinful multitude prayed and begged God’s pardon. Many forces of nature are beyond Man’s power to control – including plagues, or natural disasters – but the Church has traditionally confronted them with faith, penance, fasting, prayer, and processions. As one of the petitions of the Litany of Saints prays: A peste, fame et bello, libera nos, Domine – ‘from plague, famine and war, deliver us, O Lord’.
Sadly, observation of the Rogation Days nowadays has mostly disappeared. To lesser degree, so also has the practice of processions – though in the present lockdown situation, processions couldn’t be held anyway. Yet, in the urgent circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment, Rogation Day prayers and processions might have been of great value: to pray for the Church’s freedom to worship publicly once more; for the restoration of people’s freedom to associate, move around, and earn a living; for the health and safety (above all, the eternal welfare) of all those affected by the pandemic – be they suffering themselves, or ministering to those who are.
A public procession wasn’t possible, of course, but before Mass early this morning I made the traditional Rogation procession around our church, with you all in mind and praying the Litany of the Saints – for the intentions just noted.