Looking at any traditional missal, one will come across a couple somewhat puzzling observances: the Greater and Lesser Litanies — the former on the feast of St. Mark (April 25), and the latter on the “Rogation Days” (the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday preceding the feast of the Ascension). These required violet vestments, proper Masses, and processions during which the Litany of the Saints was chanted. Most Catholics of the time perhaps never saw these rites performed, and they were eliminated by Paul VI. Church historians would note that in earlier times the Rogations were days of Fast and Abstinence, and the processions wound around the borders of the given parish — “beating the bounds” (a tradition kept up today in England by some Anglican parishes).
Dom Gueranger’s Liturgical Year makes some commentary on the Rogation Days, which is worth reproducing in full:
It seems strange that there should be anything like mourning during Paschal Time: and yet these three days are days of penance. A moment’s reflection, however, will show us that the institution of the Rogation Days is a most appropriate one. True, our Saviour told us, before his Passion, that the children of the Bridegroom should not fast whilst the Bridegroom is with them: but is not sadness in keeping with these the last hours of Jesus’ presence on earth? Were not his Mother and Disciples oppressed with grief at the thought of their having so soon to lose Him, whose company had been to them a foretaste of heaven?
Let us see how the Liturgical Year came to have inserted in its Calendar these three days, during which Holy Church, though radiant with the joy of Easter, seems to go back to her Lenten observances. The Holy Ghost, who guides her in all things, willed that this completion of her Paschal Liturgy should owe its origin to a devotion peculiar to one of the most illustrious and venerable Churches of southern Gaul: it was the Church of Vienne.
The second half of the 5th century had but just commenced, when the country round Vienne, which had been recently conquered by the Burgundians, was visited with calamities of every kind. The people were struck with fear at these indications of God’s anger. St. Mamertus, who, at the time, was Bishop of Vienne, prescribed three days’ public expiation, during which the Faithful were to devote themselves to penance, and walk in procession chanting appropriate Psalms. The three days preceding the Ascension were the ones chosen. Unknown to himself, the holy Bishop was thus instituting a practice, which was afterwards to form part of the Liturgy of the universal Church.
The Churches of Gaul, as might naturally be expected, were the first to adopt the devotion. St. Alcimus Avitus, who was one of the earliest successors of St. Mamertus in the See of Vienne, informs us that the custom of keeping the Rogation Days was, at that time, firmly established in his Diocese. St. Caesarius of Arles, who lived in the early part of the 6th century, speaks of their being observed in countries afar off; by which he meant, at the very least, to designate all that portion of Gaul which was under the Visigoths. That the whole of Gaul soon adopted the custom, is evident from the Canons drawn up at the first Council of Orleans, held in 511, and which represented all the Provinces that were in allegiance to Clovis. The regulations, made by the Council regarding the Rogations, give us a great idea of the importance attached to their observance. Not only abstinence from flesh-meat, but even fasting, is made of obligation. Masters are also required to dispense their servants from work, in order that they may assist at the long functions which fill up almost the whole of these three days. In 567, the Council of Tours, likewise, imposed the precept of fasting during the Rogation Days; and as to the obligation of resting from servile work, we find it recognised in the Capitularia of Charlemagne and Charles the Bald.
The main part of the Rogation rite originally consisted, (at least in Gaul,) in singing canticles of supplication whilst passing from place to place,—and hence the word Procession. We learn from St. Caesarius of Arles, that each day’s Procession lasted six hours; and that when the Clergy became tired, the women took up the chanting. The Faithful of those days had not made the discovery, which was reserved for modern times, that one requisite for religious Processions is that they be as short as possible.
The Procession for the Rogation Days was preceded by the Faithful receiving the Ashes upon their heads, as now at the beginning of Lent; they were then sprinkled with Holy Water, and the Procession began. It was made up of the Clergy and people of several of the smaller parishes, who were headed by the Cross of the principal Church, which conducted the whole ceremony. All walked bare-foot, singing the Litany, Psalms and Antiphons. They entered the Churches that lay on their route, and sang an Antiphon or Responsory appropriate to each.
Such was the original ceremony of the Rogation Days, and it was thus observed for a very long period. The Monk of St. Gall’s, who has left us so many interesting details regarding the life of Charlemagne, tells us that this holy Emperor used to join the Processions of these three Days, and walk barefooted from his palace to the Stational Church. We find St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in the 14th century, setting the like example: during the Rogation Days, she used to mingle with the poorest women of the place, and walked bare-footed, wearing a dress of coarse stuff. St. Charles Borromeo, who restored in his Diocese of Milan so many ancient practices of piety, was sure not to be indifferent about the Rogation Days. He spared neither word nor example to reanimate this salutary devotion among his people. He ordered fasting to be observed during these three Days; he fasted himself on bread and water. The Procession, in which all the Clergy of the City were obliged to join, and which began after the sprinkling of Ashes, started from the Cathedral at an early hour in the morning, and was not over till three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Thirteen Churches were visited on the Monday; nine, on the Tuesday; and eleven, on the Wednesday. The saintly Archbishop celebrated Mass and preached in one of these Churches.
If we compare the indifference shown by the Catholics of the present age, for the Rogation Days, with the devotion wherewith our ancestors kept them, we cannot but acknowledge that there is a great falling off in faith and piety. Knowing, as we do, the importance attached to these Processions by the Church, we cannot help wondering how it is that there are so few among the Faithful who assist at them. Our surprise increases when we find persons preferring their own private devotions to these public Prayers of the Church, which to say nothing of the result of good example, merit far greater graces than any exercises of our own fancying.
The whole Western Church soon adopted the Rogation Days. They were introduced into England at an early period; so, likewise, into Spain, and Germany. Rome herself sanctioned them by her own observing them; this she did in the 8th century, during the Pontificate of St. Leo the Third. She gave them the name of the Lesser Litanies, in contradistinction to the Procession of the 25th of April, which she calls the Greater Litanies. With regard to the Fast which the Churches of Gaul observed during the Rogation Days, Rome did not adopt that part of the institution. Fasting seemed to her to throw a gloom over the joyous forty days, which our Risen Jesus grants to his Disciples; she therefore enjoined only abstinence from flesh-meat during the Rogation Days. The Church of Milan, which, as we have just seen, so strictly observes the Rogations, keeps them on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension, that is to say, after the forty days devoted to the celebration of the Resurrection.
If, then, we would have a correct idea of the Rogation Days, we must consider them as Rome does, — that is, as a holy institution which, without interrupting our Paschal joy, tempers it. The purple vestments used during the Procession and Mass do not signify that our Jesus has fled from us, but that the time for his departure is approaching. By prescribing Abstinence for these three days, the Church would express how much she will feel the loss of her Spouse, who is so soon to be taken from her.
In England, as in many other countries, abstinence is no longer of obligation for the Rogation Days. This should be an additional motive to induce the Faithful to assist at the Processions and Litanies, and, by their fervently uniting in the prayers of the Church, to make some compensation for the abolition of the law of Abstinence. We need so much penance, and we take so little! If we are truly in earnest, we shall be most fervent in doing the little that is left us to do.
The object of the Rogation Days is to appease the anger of God, and avert the chastisements which the sins of the world so justly deserve; moreover, to draw down the divine blessing on the fruits of the earth. The Litany of the Saints is sung during the Procession, which is followed by a special Mass said in the Stational Church, or, if there be no Station appointed, in the Church whence the Procession first started.
As usual, the learned Benedictine has stated his points with erudition and piety — but in this case, just a touch of sarcasm! Still, he has pointed out the grave importance given these practices by our ancestors — as well as the first of the two objects for which the Rogations are offered. But in his usual stirring manner, Dom Gueranger also writes of the second, and what is required of Catholics as a result:
The Rogation Days were instituted for another end besides this of averting the Divine anger. We must beg our Heavenly Father to bless the fruits of the earth; we must beseech him, with all the earnestness of public prayer, to give us our daily bread. The eyes of all, says the Psalmist, hope in thee, O Lord! and thou givest them food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, and fittest with blessing every living creature. In accordance with the consoling doctrine conveyed by these words, the Church prays to God, that he would, this year, give to all living creatures on earth the food they stand in need of. She acknowledges that we are not worthy of the favour, for we are sinners: let us unite with her in this humble confession; but, at the same time, let us join her in beseeching our Lord to make mercy triumph over justice. How easily could he not frustrate the self-conceited hopes, and the clever systems of men! They own that all depends on the weather; and on whom does that depend? They cannot do without God! True,—they seldom speak of him, and he permits himself to be forgotten by them; but he neither sleepeth nor slumbereth, that keepeth Israel. He has but to withhold his blessing, and all their progress in agricultural science, whereby they boast to have made famine an impossibility, is of no effect. Some unknown disease comes upon a vegetable; it causes distress among the people, and endangers the social order of a world that has secularised itself from the Christian Law, and would at once perish, but for the mercy of the God it affects to ignore.
If, then, our Heavenly Father deign, this year, to bless the fruits of the earth, we may say, in all truth, that he gives food to them that forget and blaspheme him, as well as to them that make him the great object of their thoughts and service. Men of no religion will profit of the blessing, but they will not acknowledge it to be His; they will proclaim louder than ever, that Nature’s laws are now so well regulated by modern science, that she cannot help going on well! God will be silent, and feed the men that thus insult him. But why does he not speak? Why does be not make his wrath be felt? Because his Church has prayed; because he has found the ten just men, that is, the few for whose sake he mercifully consents to spare the world. He therefore permits these learned Economists, whom he could so easily stultify, to go on talking and writing. Thanks to this his patience, some of them will grow tired of their impious absurdity; an unexpected circumstance will open their eyes to the truth, and they will, one day, join us both in faith and prayer. Others will go deeper and deeper into blasphemy; they will go on to the last, defying God’s justice, and fulfilling in themselves that terrible saying of holy Scripture: The Lord hath made all things for himself; the wicked also for the evil day.
As to us, — who glory in the simplicity of our Faith, who acknowledge that we have all from God and nothing from ourselves, who confess that we are sinners and undeserving of his gifts,—we will ask him, during these three days, to give us the food we require; we will say to him, with holy Church: That thou vouchsafe to give and preserve the fruits of the earth: We beseech thee, hear us! May he have pity on us in our necessities! Next year, we will return to him, with the same earnest request. We will march, under the standard of the Cross, through the same roads, making the air resound with the same Litanies. We will do this with all the greater confidence, at the thought that our holy Mother is marshalling her children in every part of Christendom, in this solemn and suppliant Procession. For thirteen hundred years has our God been accustomed to receive the petitions of his faithful people, at this season of the year; he shall have the same homage from us; nay, we will endeavour, by the fervour of our prayer, to make amends for the indifference and ignorance which are combining to do away with old Catholic customs, which our forefathers prized and loved.
Of course, despite his stirring words, few — even of those who call themselves “traditional” Catholics — have any regard for the Rogation Days. Certainly one of the reasons they were scrapped from the Missal of Paul VI is that they were seen to be “too rural.” Yet even though most Catholics in developed countries now live in cities, all of us, regardless of domicile, still require both forgiveness and food: now perhaps more than ever before. That being the case, how do we celebrate the Rogation Days in circumstances so different from those of yore?
To start, we should observe them, at the very least, by reading the propers and litany on the correct days. Although it is not required, we might fast and abstain on those days for the two ends for which the days’ prayers are offered; we might even go to confession for the same purpose. If it is possible, we might well ask our pastor to commemorate them. Nor ought it to be thought that the Rogation Days are purely the province of Extraordinary Form Catholics: the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (of which more momentarily) advocates their observance in rural parishes, as do such dioceses as Sioux City, Bismarck, Indianapolis, Lubbock, and many others. Even today they may be found throughout rural sections of Catholic Europe.
We might also take this time to educate ourselves about the various Catholic rural and farmers’ movements, starting with the International Catholic Rural Association, the International Federation of Adult Catholic Rural Movements, and our own aforementioned National Catholic Rural Life Conference, their prayer book, and the celebrated Msgr. Luigi Ligutti, their most famous leader. We need to learn also about the important role farming has played in Catholic Social movements, such as Distributism, many of whose proponents contributed back in 1934 to a volume entitled Flee to the Fields. This kind of Catholic “back to the land” stance has had many supporters and gave birth to attempts to put such ideas into practice — with varying success, such as Marycrest and certain of the Catholic Worker communities. There is much interest even today online with such sites as the Catholic Land Movement and Caelum et Terra. Agrarianism in general, and such Catholic writers as H.J. Massingham in particular, are well worth study. Understanding these things will do much to give the Rogation Days their proper importance in our minds.
But the truth, sad or otherwise, is that few of us Catholics in the developed world live on the farm or are likely to move to one — for all the good it might do our piety and sanity. We can, however, honor the Rogation Days as well by educating ourselves a bit more about the mechanics of agriculture and food production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN gives an interesting online overview of the topic, and such bodies as the United States and various state Departments of Agriculture can also be helpful. Most counties have an agricultural commissioner as well. The websites of such specific farming groups as grains, corn, rice, wheat, barley, dairy, beef, sheep, pigs, and so on, as well as that of the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance will not only help educate one about the given crop and the professions dependent upon them, they will often provide good recipes as well.
In addition to penance and prayers for the food supply, however, there is an unspoken element to the Rogation Days: love of place. It is all well and good to love all Mankind, our country, and our state or province, county, and city. But our family and then our parish are the foundation of all our loves, and the Rogation Days are all bound up with the place of the parish in our lives. It is easy to forget — especially when so many people are so extremely mobile, and when even for Catholics choice of parish is often dependent upon what is offered there, rather than geography — the role the parish traditionally played in daily life. For one thing, throughout Christendom it was often the lowest basic unit of civil government; the parish council, in addition to assisting the priest and looking after the fabric of the parish church, held various civil functions, such as looking after the poor of the parish and enforcing security. In many places a beadle, kerkbaljuw, or Suisse both acted as chief usher at Mass and as constable otherwise.
The various revolutions that shook the Catholic world, starting with the Protestant Revolt, have ended all of that; indeed, in Europe after Vatican II, what the Dutch call the “Second Iconoclasm” did away with most (though not, thankfully, all) of the Suisses and their kin. That same event there and in the rest of the Catholic world drove thousands if not millions out of their parish churches in search of Catholic teaching and liturgy. But this is a highly unusual and artificial situation that suggests another way to observe the Rogation Days: exploring your parish!
Just as a start, let us presume that you are not overly familiar with the parish in which you dwell. Prior to the Rogation Days, look it up on the internet and see if it has a website — and if it does, if that site provides a history. Learn as much as you can about the parish’s early history, pray for its founders, and then visit on one of the days. Pray for the donors of the windows, and enjoy whatever may remain of the place’s original beauty. If you ask at the rectory, very often they can tell you the boundaries of the parish; drive them in a sort of modern-day “beating the bounds.” You can take this opportunity to get to know what is in your own backyard — other churches, abortion mills, cemeteries, museums, libraries, schools, shops, restaurants. You might make a point during the Rogation Days of avoiding chains, and shopping and eating at only local places — sort of a Catholic variant on “Shop Locally.” Should it be less convenient or more expensive to do so, you can chalk it up to penance.
Many of us, especially if we live in cities or — even more so — suburbs, know very little about the districts or towns in which we dwell: much of our lives are spent working at some distance from home, and much more is spent in the planetary wonderland that is cyberspace. Media attempt to focus our political attention on the world and national scenes where, to be honest, our views and votes mean little. Exploring your parish in depth can lead you to a greater understanding and love of your locality as a whole.
There are websites that can help you in this quest. Granted, it is unlikely that you live near anything on the World and Intangible Heritage Lists, but you never know, and they may be worthwhile in helping you plan similar trips. The US National Park Service has all sorts of things on its website, including among other things a set of historical itineraries. The NPS also maintains the National Register of Historic Places — most counties have several places listed within their bounds. The General Services Administration site gives a lot of good information about historic Federal properties, and the US Forest Service will tell you about the local National Forest. Then the websites of your diocese and the state, county, and city or town bodies concerned with tourism and travel, historic preservation, conservation, Indian issues, and parks and recreation will offer ever increasing amounts of detail for your area regarding sites and events. The private sector is helpful too, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation providing guidance for owners and visitors of historic buildings, Old Houses.Com showcasing historic house museums across the country, and the US GenWeb Project and RootsWeb providing local histories and access to historical societies across the nation.
At this point one might well ask: “why all this trouble to find out about obscure bits of local lore? What has this to do with the Faith — especially in a primarily Protestant nation such as ours?” It is a fair question. Understanding how a New England Town Meeting works, knowing why New Jersey County legislators are called “Chosen Freeholders,” or comprehending the place of the units of the Centennial Legion in their respective state military establishments may seem at first glance like mere trivia from the College of Obscure Knowledge. But you cannot really love what you do not know. True patriotism is not merely waving the stars and stripes or toasting the Queen. It builds upon localism and regionalism; nor is this merely a question of secular politics, but the very Catholic teaching of subsidiarity.
But while such patriotism is a religious duty, neither it nor the country to which it pertains are ends in themselves. Rather, the sort of love and knowledge of parish, city, country, and state or province which we are here encouraging ought to be seen as a preparatio evangelium. Just as you cannot love what you do not know, neither can you convert what you do not love. This is why Catholic missionaries became of the greatest anthropologists in the world, and why they produced such great ethnological museums as that of the Vatican.
So during the Rogation Days, offer up your penance and pray for good crops, to be sure. Learn all you can about the latter, as well as the Catholic approach to agriculture. But with all of this, come to know and love your local scene as a field to be planted with the seed of the Faith. In time, like any good farmer, you will realize the best times and seasons for this work. There is no more appropriate observance in the calendar to commence tilling the spiritual soil in which you find yourself.