The Greater and Lesser Rogation Days
What Are They?
- The Rogation Days consist of plaintive litanies to God and the saints chanted while the faithful proceed through town and country and the priest blesses their land and property. These processions, which are penitential in character, end at the church, where Mass is then celebrated.
- “Rogation” is from the Latin rogare, to petition earnestly. The word “litany” comes from the Greek litaneia (lite), meaning the same thing.
- There are two sets of Rogation Days. The first, called the “Major” or “Greater” Litanies, is celebrated on April 25th. The second, called the “Minor” or “Lesser” Litanies, is celebrated on the three days immediately preceding Ascension Thursday.
What Is Their Significance?
The Rogation Days Are…
- The use of litanies goes back to the Old Testament, when the cantor would recite something and the congregation would reply with a set line, such as “His mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 135) or “Praise and exalt Him above all forever” (Dan. 3.57-87). Litanies are the most sensible form of song for pedestrians, as they enable both cantor and congregation to catch their breath in between verses.
- The Jews also prayed for blessings on their crops and homes at certain key points of the year. In fact, two of the three great Hebrew feasts of the year—the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and the Feast of Tabernacles—were related to the harvest.
- Christianity retained the spirit of both of these practices, and rightfully so, as everything that happened in the Old Testament happened so that it might instruct us on a deeper figurative level. Litanies such as the Kyrie eleison, for example, were treasured by both Eastern and Western Christians, as were blessings over the fruits of the earth.
- While the Rogation Days tie into a universally Christian tradition, they are nevertheless quintessentially Roman. The Major litanies on April 25, for example, are a Roman Catholic “baptism” of the Robigalia, a pagan procession to gain favor from the Robigo, the Roman god of grain. Since the Church had no objection to praying for the harvest, it threw out Robigo while keeping the procession.
- Interestingly enough, the Lesser litanies are not, strictly speaking, Roman at all. They were begun in 470 by Bishop Mamertus of Vienne, whose diocese (along with the rest of France) practiced not the Roman rite, but the Gallican. Mamertus instituted these petitions in response to a terrifying series of natural calamities (storm, floods, earthquakes, etc.). The practice spread through France and Germany, and was eventually incorporated into the Roman rite. Despite this fact, however, they are still a good example of a uniquely Roman phenomenon, which is the engrafting of Gallican or Frankish practices onto the Roman rite. Not only were the other historic apostolic rites far more self-sufficient, but there is no other instance in Christendom of an area under a patriarch’s authority practicing a rite different than his own.
- Rogationtide not only crystallizes the prayers of those whose livelihood depends on the harvest, but it reminds all of us of our dependence on the fruits of the earth. The Rogation Days are in fact the only days in the church calendar which are explicitly agricultural.
- Rogationtide also makes us aware of our reliance on nature’s clemency. Natural disasters such as those experienced in fifth-century Gaul ever threaten to disrupt civilization. The Lesser Rogation Days are the only days in the church calendar which explicitly remind us of this fact.
- Thus, whereas the Ember Days commemorate nature from the perspective of its seasons, Rogationtide commemorates it vis-a-vis its relation to man and the city, both as a source of bounty and as a source of potential harm.
- Put differently, there is a communal dimension to Rogationtide’s portrayal of nature. This can be adapted to modern parish life in ingenious ways. The Catholics of Cold Springs, Minnesota, for example, erected “Grasshopper Chapel” in thanksgiving for the end to an 1877 grasshopper plague that was miraculously stopped by their prayers. To commemorate their deliverance, parish Rogation Days thereafter were marked by processions to this chapel.
- The Rogation Days (especially the Lesser) were also used as occasions of reconciliation among parishioners who had grown angry at each other. This custom, popular in the Middle Ages, also stems from the communal dimension of Rogationtide and could apparently be quite successful.
And Personally Prayerful
- The Litanies used for both the Greater and Lesser Rogation Days are exquisite. God and the saints are invoked in a perfect theological hierarchy, followed by a touching plea for deliverance from various evils. The psalms that are used—the seven penitential psalms of David—also beatify the ceremony immensely. The litanies are therefore not only an excellent mode of prayer, but an objection of great reflection.
- Finally, the Lesser Litanies are a good preparation for Ascension Thursday. Psychologically, it is difficult to keep up the jubilance of Pashaltide for forty days. The penitential character of the Lesser Litanies allows for an emotional denoument so that we may rejoice all the more for the “novena” from Ascension Thursday to Whitsunday.