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Forgotten Customs of Rogation Days

Above: priest and school children on Rogation procession, c. 1950. The little boy is carrying a symbolic tree of plenty. Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


What are Rogation Days? summarizes these forgotten elements of our Catholic heritage as follows:

Rogation Days are the four days set apart to bless the fields and invoke God’s mercy on all of creation. The 4 days are April 25, which is called the Major Rogation (and is only coincidentally the same day as the Feast of St. Mark); and the three days preceding Ascension Thursday, which are called the Minor Rogations. Traditionally, on these days, the congregation marches the boundaries of the parish, blessing every tree and stone, while chanting or reciting a Litany of Mercy, usually a Litany of the Saints.

Rogations and Moveable Feasts

As stated, the Major Rogation Day is on April 25th, the Feast of St. Mark. Should it happen that the feast of St. Mark the Evangelist is transferred to another day (e.g., when a day in the Octave of Easter falls on April 25th), the Rogation procession is held nevertheless on April 25th, unless the feast falls on Easter Sunday or Monday, in which case the procession is transferred to Easter Tuesday. April 25th is the latest date that Easter may ever fall on. And as Dom Guéranger in The Liturgical Year states, “If April 25 occur during Easter week, the procession takes place on that day (unless it be Easter Sunday), but the feast of the Evangelist is not kept till after the octave.”

Since the Minor Rogation Days are correspond with Ascension Thursday, the date of the Minor Rogation Days varies.

The History of the Major Rogation Day

Major and Minor Rogation Days are also known as the Greater Litanies and Lesser Litanies, respectively, on account of the traditional custom of praying litanies on these days in the form of the Rogation Procession. Dom Guéranger explains more about the characteristic procession on these days and how they originated:

The Greater Litanies, (or Processions,) are so called to distinguish them from the Minor Litanies, that is, Processions of less importance as far as the solemnity and concourse of the Faithful were concerned. We gather from an expression of St. Gregory the Great, that it was an ancient custom in the Roman Church to celebrate, once each year, a Greater Litany, at which all the Clergy and people assisted. This holy Pontiff chose the 25th of April as the fixed day for this Procession and appointed the Basilica of St. Peter as the Station.

Several writers on the Liturgy have erroneously confounded this institution with the Processions prescribed by St. Gregory for times of public calamity. It existed long before his time, and all that he had to do with it was the fixing it to the 25th of April. It is quite independent of the Feast of St. Mark, which was instituted at a much later period.

The History of the Minor Rogation Days

In 2020, Dom Alcuin Reid gave a monastic conference on the Minor Rogation Days where he said in part:

Their observance is now similar in format to the Greater Litanies of April 25th, but these three days have a different origin, having been instituted in Gaul in the fifth century as days of fasting, abstinence and abstention from servile work in which all took part in an extensive penitential procession, often barefoot. The procession and litanies only found a place in the Roman liturgy much later (around the beginning of the ninth century) and even then purely as days of rogation – of intercession – rather than as ones of fasting and penance; the latter being deemed incompatible with the nature of Eastertide.

He continued:

Indeed, this ancient tradition itself is now widely lost in the West. How many Catholics understand what is meant by the greater or lesser litanies, or by the expression “the Rogations” – clergy included?

…Dom Guéranger himself lamented the lack of appreciation of the Rogations in his own day: “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 has been a great falling off in faith and piety. Knowing, as we do, the great 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 choosing.”

The origin of the Minor Rogation Days that Dom Alcuin Reid alludes to goes back to 470 AD when Bishop Mamertus of Vienne in Gaul instituted an annual observance of penance on the three days immediately before the Feast of the Ascension. He prescribed litanies in the form of processions for all three days. Thereafter they spread to the Frankish part of France in 511, to Spain in the 6th century, and to the German park of the Frankish empire in 813. In 816, Pope Leo III incorporated the lesser litanies into the Roman Liturgy, and during the subsequent centuries the custom of holding these litanies being custom for each year.

While the Lesser Litanies (i.e., Minor Rogation Days) are kept on the three days leading up to Ascension Day, Father Francis Weiser notes an important exception: “Pope Pius XII granted to some Catholic missions in the Pacific Islands the permission to celebrate both the major and minor litanies in October or November” (Christian Feasts and Customs, p. 42).

Is Penance Unbefitting for the Pascal Season?

Dom Guéranger answers this question which many liturgically-minded Catholics ask:

The question naturally presents itself, why did St. Gregory choose the 25th of April for a Procession and Station, in which everything reminds us of compunction and penance, and which would seem so out of keeping with the joyous Season of Easter?

The first to give a satisfactory answer to this difficulty, was Canon Moretti, a learned Liturgiologist of last century. In a dissertation of great erudition, he proves that in the 5th, and probably even in the 4th, century, the 25th of April was observed at Rome as a day of great solemnity. The Faithful went, on that day, to the Basilica of St. Peter, in order to celebrate the anniversary of the first entrance of the Prince of the Apostles into Rome, upon which he thus conferred the inalienable privilege of being the Capital of Christendom. It is from that day that we count the twenty-five years, two months and some days that St. Peter reigned as Bishop of Rome. The Sacramentary of St. Leo gives us the Mass of this Solemnity, which afterwards ceased to be kept. St. Gregory, to whom we are mainly indebted for the arrangement of the Roman Liturgy, was anxious to perpetuate the memory of a day, which gave to Rome her grandest glory. He, therefore, ordained that the Church of St. Peter should be the Station of the Great Litany, which was always to be celebrated on that auspicious day. The 25th of April comes so frequently during the Octave of Easter, that it could not be kept as a Feast, properly so called, in honor of St. Peter’s entrance into Rome; St. Gregory, therefore, adopted the only means left of commemorating the great event.

Hence from ancient times the Church kept these days as days of supplication. And even if fasting, the hallmark of Lent, would be ill-suited for Pascaltide, abstinence is still permitted and even obligatory in the Pascal Season. For instance, Friday abstinence is mandatory in the Pascal Season both in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and in all prior times, back to the establishment of Wednesday and Friday fasting and abstinence by the Apostles.

In former times, Rome enjoined abstinence from meat on the faithful during Rogationtide. Other places, however, such as the Churches in Gaul where Rogation Days originated, required fasting. Dom Guéranger explains:

A day, then, like this, of reparation to God’s offended majesty, would naturally suggest the necessity of joining some exterior penance to the interior dispositions of contrition which filled the hearts of Christians. Abstinence from flesh meat has always been observed on this day at Rome; and when the Roman Liturgy was established in France by Pepin and Charlemagne, the Great Litany of April 25 was, of course, celebrated, and the abstinence kept by the faithful of that country. A Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 836, enjoined the additional obligation of resting from servile work on this day: the same enactment is found in the Capitularia of Charles the Bald. As regards fasting, properly so-called, being contrary to the spirit of Paschal Time, it would seem never to have been observed on this day, at least not generally. Amalarius, who lived in the ninth century, asserts that it was not then practiced even in Rome.

Fasting was championed as well by St. Charles Borromeo in Milan although Rome has never obligated fasting during the Pascal Season. Fasting during the Pascal Season though is not a sin, just as almsgiving and prayer, the other Lenten pillars, are certainly praiseworthy during Pascaltide.

Abstain from Meat and Join in the Processions

I highly encourage all Catholics to observe these days and spend time praying the Litany of Saints not only for a bountiful harvest but also for mercy and repentance. The Rogation Days are also days we could at least abstain from meat as penance to implore the mercy of God during our present chastisements.

Priests, please offer for the benefit of the faithful public Rogation Day processions. Advertise them. Encourage people to voluntarily abstain from meat and offer it up to implore God’s mercy for our nation, our country, and our families. Please make these days known and loved again by the faithful.

For those looking for Rogation Day prayers for the procession, including the Litany, please click here. And for those who would like prayers of blessings to be said on one’s property, especially appropriate for Rogation Day, please click here. These prayers may be said by the laity.

Lastly, Fr. Christopher Smith, a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina put together a truly beautiful and excellent illustrated guide explaining both the Rogations and Ember Days, with a number of very useful quotes from various liturgical sources. Download that to further your knowledge of Rogation and Ember Days by clicking here.

Prayer from the Rogation Mass of the ancient Gallican Rite:

It is from thee, O Lord, we receive the food, wherewith we are daily supported; to thee also do we offer these fasts, whereby, according to thy command, we put upon our flesh the restraint from dangerous indulgence. Thou hast so ordered the changes of seasons, as to afford us consolation: thus, the time for eating gives nourishment to the body, by sober repasts; and the time for fasting inflicts on them a chastisement pleasing to thy justice. Vouchsafe to bless and receive this our offering of a three days’ penitential fast; and mercifully grant, that whilst our bodies abstain from gratification, our souls also may rest from sin. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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