It seems strange that there should be anything like mourning during Paschal Time: and yet the three days preceding Ascension Thursday are days of penance. A moment's reflection, however, will show us that the institution of the Rogation days is a most appropriate one. True, our Savior tells us before His Passion that "the children of the Bridegroom should not fast whilst the Bridegroom is with them" (Luke 5: 34); but is not sadness in keeping with these the last hours of Jesus' presence on earth? Were not His Blessed Mother and disciples oppressed with grief at the thought of their having so soon to lose Him, Whose company had been to them a foretaste of Heaven?
Let us see how the liturgical year came to have inserted in its calendar these three days, during which Holy Church, though radiant with the joy of Easter, seems to go back to Her Lenten observances. The Holy Ghost, Who guides Her in all things, willed that this completion of Her Paschal Liturgy should owe its origin to a devotion peculiar to one of the most illustrious and venerable Churches of southern Gaul, the Church of Vienne.
The second half of the 5th century had but just commenced, when the country around Vienne, which had been recently conquered by the Burgundians, was visited with calamities of every kind. The people were struck with fear at these indications of God's anger. St. Mamertus, who, at the time, was Bishop of Vienne, prescribed three days of public expiation, during which the faithful were to devote themselves to penance, and walk in procession chanting appropriate psalms. The three days preceding the Ascension were the ones chosen. Unknown to himself, the holy Bishop was thus instituting a practice, which was afterwards to form part of the Liturgy of the Universal Church.
The Churches of Gaul, as might naturally be expected, were the first to adopt the devotion. St. Alcimus Avitus, who was one of the earliest successors of St. Mamertus in the See of Vienne, informs us that the custom of keeping the Rogation days was, at that time, firmly established in his diocese. St. Caesarius of Arles, who lived in the early part of the 6th century, speaks of them as being observed in countries afar off; by which he meant, at the very least, to designate all that portion of Gaul which was under the Visigoths. That the whole of Gaul soon adopted the custom is evident from the canons drawn up at the first Council of Orleans, held in 511, which represented all the provinces that were in allegiance to Clovis. The regulations made by the Council regarding the Rogations, give us a great idea of the importance attached to their observance. Not only abstinence from meat, but even fasting, is made of obligation. Masters are also required to dispense their servants from work, in order that they may assist at the long functions which fill up almost the whole of these three days. In 567 the Council of Tours, likewise imposed the precept of fasting during the Rogation days; and as to the obligation of resting from servile work, we find it recognized in the Capitularia of St. Karl the Great and Charles the Bald.
The main part of the Rogation rite originally consisted, at least in Gaul, in singing canticles of supplication while passing from place to place; and hence the word Procession. We learn from St. Caesarius of Arles, that each day's procession lasted six hours; and that when the clergy became tired, the women took up the chanting. The faithful of those days did not suppose, as many have in modern times, that religious processions are required to be as short as possible.
The procession for the Rogation days was preceded by the faithful receiving the ashes upon their heads, as now at the beginning of Lent; they were then sprinkled with holy water, and the procession began. It was made up of the clergy and people of several of the smaller parishes, who were headed by the Cross of the principal church, which conducted the whole ceremony. All walked barefoot, singing the litany, psalms and antiphons, until they reached the church appointed for the station, where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered. They entered the churches that lay on their route, and sang an antiphon or responsory appropriate to each.
Such was the original ceremony of the Rogation days, and it was thus observed for a very long period. The monk of St. Gall's who has left us so many interesting details regarding the life of St. Karl the Great, tells us that this holy emperor used to join the processions of these three days, and walk barefooted from his palace to the stational church. We find St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in the 13th century, setting the like example: during the Rogation days, she used to mingle with the poorest women of the place, and walk barefooted, wearing a dress of coarse material. St. Charles Borromeo, who restored in his diocese of Milan so many ancient practices of piety, was sure not to be indifferent about the Rogation days. He spared neither word nor example to reanimate this salutary devotion among his people. He ordered fasting to be observed during these three days; he himself fasted on bread and water. The procession, in which all the clergy of the city were obliged to join, and which began after the sprinkling of ashes, started from the cathedral at an early hour in the morning, and was not over till three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Thirteen churches were visited on Monday; nine on Tuesday; and eleven on Wednesday. The saintly Archbishop celebrated Mass and preached in one of these churches.
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 whole western Church soon adopted the Rogation days. They were introduced into England at an early period; likewise into Spain and Germany. Rome herself sanctioned them by herself observing them; this she did in the 8th century, during the pontificate of St. Leo III. She gave them the name of the Lesser Litanies, in contradistinction to the procession of April 25, which she calls the Greater Litanies. With regard to the fast which the Churches of Gaul observed during the Rogation days, Rome did not adopt that part of the institution. Fasting seemed to her to throw a gloom over the joyous forty days, which our risen Jesus grants to His disciples; she therefore formerly enjoined only abstinence from meat during the Rogation days. The Church of Milan, which, as we have just seen, so strictly observed the Rogations, kept them on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Sunday following the Ascension, that is to say, after the forty days devoted to the celebration of the Resurrection.
If then we would have a correct idea of the Rogation days, we must consider them as Rome does – that is, as a holy institution which, without interrupting our paschal joy, tempers it. The violet vestments used during the procession and Mass do not signify that our Jesus has left us, but that the time for His departure is approaching.
Abstinence is no longer of obligation during the Rogation days. This should be an additional motive to induce the faithful to assist at the processions and litanies, and to make some compensation by fervently uniting in the prayers of the Church. We need so much penance, and we do so little! If we are truly in earnest, we shall be most fervent in doing the little that is left us to do.
The object of the Rogation days is to appease the anger of God, and avert the chastisements which the sins of the world so justly deserve; moreover, to draw down the divine blessing on the fruits of the earth. The Litany of the Saints is sung during the procession, which is sometimes followed by a special Rogation Mass. This Litany is one of the most efficacious of prayers. The Church makes use of it on all solemn occasions, as a means of rendering God propitious through the intercession of the whole court of Heaven. They who are prevented from assisting at the procession, should recite the Litany in union with Holy Church; they will thus share in the graces attached to the Rogation days; they will be joining in the supplications now being made in Christendom; they will be proving themselves to be faithful Catholics.
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