iStock 487005034 283x300 - Days of Prayer and Special Observances

Sunshine Illuminating a Glorious Stained Glass Window Panel depicting Jesus Christ The Son of God kneeling in Prayer.

Throughout its history, the Church has celebrated special days of prayer for the needs of the local community and the world. These observances are meant to encourage the Church to continually  “entreat the Lord for the various needs of humanity” (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 45).

For centuries, days of prayer took the form of the Ember and Rogation Days. The origins of the Ember Days are enshrouded in mystery, but, suffice it to say, scholars agree that these observances are very ancient. The Ember Days were regularly celebrated four times a year, on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday within the same week. Their name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, which refers to the circuit or revolution of the annual cycle of the year. 

Pope Leo the Great (440-461) is the first pontiff to have written extensively on the celebration and meaning of the Ember Days. In one of his winter Ember Day sermons, he noted that these days had long been marked by Christian fasting, “so that we may learn from the constant recurrent annual cycle that we are in constant need of purification.” He also commented that the Ember Days were a time to thank God for the fruits of the earth that were harvested throughout the year. This expression of gratitude was most properly directed through almsgiving, by which the harvest was offered back to God by means of the divine image present in those who are less fortunate. Finally, Leo stated that the harvest yields were indicative of the blessings of the eternal life to come, for which Christians must prepare themselves by means of fervent prayer. In summary, Leo’s commentary indicates that the Ember Days were regularly scheduled times throughout the year when Christians would engage in special ascetical activities in  thanksgiving for the gifts of the earth and in preparation for the gift of heaven that awaited them. 

The Rogation Days, with which the Ember Days are often grouped, sprang from a different pastoral focus. There was, in the ancient Roman culture, a popular celebration observed on April 25 called Robigalia. This feast was held in honor of the Roman god Robigus, who was associated with mildew and other kinds of agricultural threats. On April 25, Robigus was invoked by the pagan populace to ward off mildew from grain during the growing season. Farmers would even process around the perimeter of their fields, praying to Robigus and asking him to protect their crops. As was often the case in the early centuries of the Church, followers of Jesus sought to suppress this pagan observance by instituting a Christian counterpart. In place of Robigalia, the Roman Church chose to sing a lengthy litany invoking God’s protection on Rome and its inhabitants while processing around the outer limits of the city.

In Gaul, a similar practice was observed on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday; on these days, a procession around diocesan or parish boundaries was accompanied by what were known as the “lesser litanies,”  which were inspired by the “greater litany” sung in Rome on April 25. Altogether, these four days of procession during the year (April 25 and the three days before the Ascension) came to be referred to as “Rogation Days,” whose title stems from the Latin word rogare, or “to ask.” On the Sunday before Ascension Thursday, the Gospel was taken from John 16, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask, and you shall receive.” This focus on asking God for His assistance was linked to the petitionary litanies that took place in the days to follow, and it was this connection that led to referring to these days, along with April 25, as “Rogation Days.”

Closer to our own time, the current General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar instituted the following reforms of these ancient observances: 

On Rogation and Ember Days, the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks. In order to adapt the Rogation and Ember Days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited for the intentions of the petitioners (45-47).

Here, the General Norms emphasize the importance of regularly observing days of prayer for the needs of the local community and offering thanks for blessings received throughout the year. In many ways, this focus corresponds with the motivation behind the Ember and Rogations Days as they had always been celebrated, albeit allowing for greater variation as to how these themes will find expression during the year in light of local needs and circumstances.

During the twentieth century, the Holy See instituted several special annual observances. The World Day of Migrants and Refugees, for example, was first celebrated in 1914, during a time  when many Italians were emigrating to other countries and regions following World War I. The World Day of Peace was inaugurated by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1967 and has since become a day when popes frequently issue magisterial declarations on the Church’s social teaching. In the United States, there is a special observance on January 22 which marks the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. This day is somewhat unique amongst the special days of prayer, in that proper liturgical texts have been composed for this observance; these may be found in the US edition of the Roman Missal, Third Edition.

The Liturgy Office frequently receives requests for a listing of the days of prayer that are observed locally and throughout the Universal Church. These may be found listed below: 

World Day of Peace ………………………….…………………………….….…..….January 1
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity …………………………………………………..January 18–25
[USA] Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children…..……………..January 22
Sunday of the Word of God ………………….……………………………………………Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
World Day for Consecrated Life ……………………………………………………………Sunday following February 2 [USA]
World Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking….……….….….February 8
World Day of the Sick…………………………………………………………………..February 11
World Day of Prayer for the Church in China…………………………………..……May 24
World Day of Prayer for Vocations………………………………………………….……Fourth Sunday of Easter
World Communications Day ……………………………….……………………..……. Seventh Sunday of Easter
World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests……………………………………..Solemnity of the Sacred Heart
World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation ……………………………….……. September 1
Catechetical Sunday ……………………………………………………………………………… Third Sunday of September [USA]
World Day of Migrants and Refugees…………………………………………..…..…..Last Sunday of September
World Mission Sunday …………………………………………………………………………… Penultimate Sunday of October
World Youth Day ………………………….……………………………………………..…. Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time [USA]
World Day of the Poor ………………………………………………………………….…..Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time