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A not-so-perpetual novena for peace. (Odds & Ends).

The war in Iraq had me thinking, of all things, of the Sorrowful Mother Novena. My own memories date to the 1950s when, as an altar boy, I served at this Friday night service. It was an easy job; all I needed to do was to bring the priest holy water for the Blessing of the Sick and to assist him at Benediction. During the rest of the service we altar boys usually clowned around in the sacristy.

I had always thought that the Sorrowful Mother Novena's one-time popularity was inextricably yoked to the Second World War. But even be fore the United States entered that conflict, Sorrowful Mother Novenas drew crowds. At the novena's 1937 inauguration by Servite Father James Keane, an immense congregation filled Chicago's Our Lady of Sorrows Church. Two years later, more than half a million were attending the weekly novena in 662 locations.

How did it become so popular? One answer lies in the promotional abilities of its founder. Keane and his cohorts established an elaborate network that delivered people to the novena and sustained participation. They developed novena clubs that sponsored lectures, tours, dinners, and conventions. Keane tinkered with the tradition that kept novena sessions to nine and billed his novena as "perpetual."

The popularity of the Sorrowful Mother Novena was further primed by intense media campaigns. The public relations firm of Bozell and Jacobs, which had worked miracles promoting Father Flanagan's Boys Town, counted the novena among its clients. A radio show, "An Hour with the Queen of Heaven," was broadcast weekly from Our Lady of Sorrows Church. And the weekly Novena Notes became a spunky little magazine handed out to novena attendees.

During the Second World War, prayers for peace became a focal point. Participants were encouraged to send novena publications and other religious goods to the front. While praying for peace every Friday evening, novena-goers also had the satisfaction of supporting the war effort.

Later the Cold War and the perceived Communist menace kept this novena popular. An added ejaculation, "Virgin most sorrowful, convert the Russian people" was prayed. But things changed drastically in the early 1960s, when "the decline of the novena ... was as rapid as its growth in the late '30s," according to a 1977 Servite publication, The Friday Night Novena. The Servites abolished the official position of "novena promoter," and the Novena Notes, by then reflecting a more progressive Vatican II theology, lost popularity among devotees and ceased publication in 1966.

More importantly, broader cultural and theological shifts led to the demise of the Sorrowful Mother Novena. Younger Catholics saw deficiencies in the novena service itself, e.g., its lengthy repetitious monotony, its disconnect from the liturgy, and its excessively sentimental tone. This new generation of Catholics looked to the Vatican II renewal of Catholic liturgy to guide their ritual practice.

During the recent war, it was almost impossible to find a Sorrowful Mother Novena service. Yet Catholics, as well as people in other religious and spiritual traditions, continue to pray for peace. They do so during the Prayers of the Faithful and the handshake of peace in the liturgy, during interfaith prayer services and vigils, and during their private and small-group prayer practices.

The Sorrowful Mother Novena, billed by its creator as "perpetual," was not. However, prayers for peace, regrettably, need to be perpetual, especially in countries whose leaders turn too quickly and easily to war.

PETER GILMOUR ( teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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