In the Roman Catholic tradition, a novena is a series of prayers that are said over the course of nine days. The goal of going through the series is to ask for grace, and to deepen one's spiritual connection with God. Although the practice originated in the Catholic community, similar prayers are also said in other Christian sects.
A novena may be said for oneself, usually as a request for assistance of some form or another, or on behalf of someone else. A classic example is a prayer asking for a sick relative to be healed. In devout communities, people may say novenas for strangers, or say “I'll make a novena for you” upon hearing of someone else's troubles.
The term comes from the Latin word for “nine.” The number nine has classically been associated with sorrow in the Christian Church, and the first novena is believed to have been said by the Virgin Mary on behalf of her Son while He suffered on the cross. Several Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures also associated symbolic meaning with the number nine and with making prayers in sets of nine, and this tradition may have been incorporated into the Christian faith by converts who clung to old beliefs.
Typically, people pray to specific saints when they make a novena. Someone who has lost something might pray to Saint Anthony, for example, asking for assistance with finding the item again. People can also pray to the Virgin Mary or to God. There are hundreds of novenas published in various collections of Catholic prayers and meditations, and people can also make up their own prayers. The prayer may be said at home or in Church, and some people meditate on the rosary as they say their novenas.
Some novenas are public, in which case the whole church prays together with the permission and guidance of the priest, while others are conducted for private purposes. People can use them as a simple form of prayer, but they can also say them during periods of mourning, or in preparation for a major holiday such as Easter. Novenas are said to ease the passage of souls through purgatory, and some people say them to gain an indulgence, a forgiveness from sin. One of indulgence may be said on behalf of someone who has died so that he or she will not have to spend as much time in purgatory.