The crazy history of the Rogation Days

Blessing of the Wheat at Artois by Jules Breton (1827 - 1906)
Blessing of the Wheat at Artois | by Jules Breton (1827 – 1906)

Human frailty examined

Nature can be a chaotic force. We’re reminded of this during powerful weather events like Hurricane Michael or the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, or when sickness afflicts hundreds, even thousands, of people. When these events happen, we often ponder why God allows such things. In the midst of that chaos and destruction, we contemplate our human frailty and own need for forgiveness.

The “asking” days

This realization of human frailty was all the more apparent to the early Church. A series of calamities afflicted Rome and France and the Rogation Days were born.

The word “rogation” comes from the Latin verb rogare, which means “to ask.” Literally, the Rogation Days are the “asking days,” when the Church formerly fasted and prayed for forgiveness for sins. But where did these days come from?

The first Rogation Day

The first Rogation day (called the Major Rogation Day) is on April 25th every year. It was instituted by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century after Rome was afflicted by a plague during the Easter season.

St. Gregory the Great, the pope who instituted the Major Rogation day

Apparently, everyone had fasted so much during Lent that they went a little too far with their Easter revelries. Although we’ll probably never know the exact cause of the sickness that followed, it was assumed at the time that the plague was a punishment for their extreme gluttony. The symptoms of the plague were severe: people would drop dead in the streets, and sometimes they would die after sneezing. People started saying “God help you,” after they heard someone sneeze. So, the next time you say “Gesundheit,” know that the custom of wishing someone well after they sneeze comes from this plague!

In light of all this, Pope St. Gregory the Great set up a liturgy for April 25th that involved a procession and the litany of the saints. People were called upon to fast and abstain and violet vestments were worn. Eventually, however, another set of similar Rogation Days were added to the calendar, and their origin is equally astounding.

Minor Rogation Days

The rest of the Rogation Days (called the Minor Rogation Days) fall on the three days preceding the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. These days were also instituted in the sixth century, but unlike the Major Rogation Day, they originated in Vienne, France. St. Mamertus, the Bishop of the diocese, called for them after a series of weird natural disasters.

Earthquakes, fire from the heavens, and wolves

St. Mamertus, leading the first Minor Rogation days (source)

The first disasters were earthquakes that decimated homes and churches. These were followed by a fire that apparently came down from the sky and engulfed the King’s palace in flames. The last and weirdest of these disasters was an attack by wild wolves on towns and cities! St. Mamertus, no doubt overwhelmed by these occurrences, called upon the people to fast for three days and had a special litany said, and the disasters stopped.

Later, in the 9th century, Pope St. Leo III extended the observance of the Minor Rogation days to the universal calendar of the Church, when they became more like the Major Rogation day. All the Rogation days came to be a prayer for God’s blessings, but also a reminder of the terrible power of nature.

Rogation Days activities

Besides fasting and abstaining from meat, people would attend special liturgies that contained the litany of the saints and processions. In farming communities, the procession would go out to the fields, where the priest would bless the fields and ask God’s blessing for a bountiful harvest. In France, it was the custom to carry a dragon during the minor Rogation days:

In some churches, and in especial in them of France, is accustomed to bear a dragon with a long tail filled full of chaff or other things. The two first days it is borne before the Cross, and on the third day they bear it after the Cross, with the tail all void, by which is understood that the first day before the law, or the second under the law, the devil reigned in the world, and on the third day, of grace, by the Passion of Jesus Christ, he was put out of his realm.

(Source)

What can we do today?

After the Second Vatican Council, the Rogation days were removed from the Church’s official public calendar. However, we can still observe them privately. Here are some suggestions:

  • Abstain from meat, either full (all day) or partial (only eat meat at one meal)
  • Fast (2 small meals which don’t equal a full meal and one full meal, no eating between meals)
  • Offer up penances, make it a mini-Lent!  
    • Some ideas include social media “fasting,” not salting your food, skipping your favorite TV show, or sleeping without a pillow.
  • Bless your home garden with holy water
  • Read the creation story (Gn 1:1-28)
  • Read God’s covenant with (Noah Gn 9:8-17)

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