Rogation Days. Sounds good and Catholic. Doesn’t it? It has that formal, pre-conciliar air about it. Sounds like something from the days of St. Joan of Arc.
Actually, given the old and French roots of Rogation Days, St. Joan may very well have been quite familiar with them.
As with many things Catholic, we have here a pretty fancy and fun name for something quite simple. The word, “rogation” comes from the Latin word “rogare”—meaning, “to ask.” Rogation Days are days on which supplicants ask God for special mercy, particularly the protection of cropland and communities from disaster.
There are four Rogation Days in the course of a year. The first one (the Major Rogation) is celebrated on April 25th and was established by Pope St. Gregory the Great. The other three (the Minor Rogations) came along later and were introduced by St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne, France in the 5th Century.
As the story is told, the Vienne area was a magnet for disaster: the king’s palace destroyed by fire, cattle-killing disease, wolf attacks and earthquakes. Bishop Mamertus decided to wage war against hardship through prayer and gathered his people for three days of prayer and processions leading up to the Feast of the Ascension. It worked. Other bishops began the practice as well, which was eventually ordered by the Gallic (French) bishops for their people at the Fifth Council of Orléans in 511 A.D.
Official papal approval and addition of the Minor Rogation Days to the Roman Rite came from Pope Leo III roughly three hundred years later (if you’re not Catholic, that probably sounds like a lot of time, but in “Church years” it really isn’t).
What happens on Rogation Days?
In its earliest form, the supplicants would process, often around the bounds of their parish reciting a Litany of Saints, requesting intercession and blessing for every tree, stone and inch of the parish.
The Roman Ritual (title X, ch. iv.) lays out specifics of how to conduct the procession, adding that if the procession is held, the Rogation Mass is obligatory. The liturgical color of Rogations Days is violet.
This isn’t to say that certain local customs haven’t cropped up in the course of Rogation History. In some places, Rogation Days have been used as a way to mark the parish boundaries while processing and praying. This could be done by beating the ground with sticks and branches or, as in some locales, gently tapping a choirboy on the occasional perimeter rock. Judging by some existing photos, it seems the air of a goofy hike sometimes took over during Rogation Day processions.
These days, marching the perimeter of a huge contemporary American parish, beating the sidewalks and strip mall parking lots, isn’t a very likely occurrence. But maybe we could bring back Rogation Days with a little procession and prayer around the grounds of the parish church? It also sounds like a cute thing for a few families to do at their houses.
Anyway, that’s a little lesson on Rogation Days, courtesy of your friends at Aquinas and More and with thanks to the Catholic Encyclopedia online, liturgies.net and teabagsinfusion.blogspot.com.