Lex orandi, lex credendi
The law of praying is the law of believing.
(- An ancient saying of the Church.)
The praying and singing together of the novena by the thousands of devotees at the shrine conveys a special appeal drawing devotees and non-devotees alike. A thanksgiving letter written in January 3, 1951, barely two years after the introduction of the novena, narrates how a non-devotee was drawn to the shrine for the first time because of the novena,
[O]ne day, while I was travelling in a bus which was coming from Cavite City, it was caught in the traffic in the vicinity of Baclaran Church. The crowd of people pushed me along the pathway to the Church until I found myself inside the Church’s patio. I entered the Church and while inside, I heard those beautiful hymns that forced me to forget my loneliness. Then I found out that the people were making a novena in honor of you.
Novena is key to the explosion of devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran. Novena transformed the small wooden chapel in 1948 into a popular shrine and pilgrimage center. Filipino sociologist Manuel Victor Sapitula asserts this in his dissertation:
The introduction of the Perpetual Novena devotion in 1948 was the single most significant development in the transformation of the shrine from a local chapel to a pilgrimage site of national proportions.
Thousands of devotees came in droves after the novena was introduced in 1948. Soon the small chapel couldn’t accommodate the crowd anymore. This paved the way to building a bigger shrine twice, first in 1949 and second in 1954.
The novena prayed in the shrine is not just an ordinary novena; it is called a perpetual novena. A novena is a series of prayers recited over nine days or nine weeks consecutively, usually in preparation for a major feast or to ask for a special favor. The ordinary novena stops after the nine occasions until resumed the next time around, often the following year when connected with feasts, or whenever a devotee decides to resume it privately. A perpetual novena, on the other hand, is a series of nine occasions of prayer but repeated continuously. When one series is finished, it begins again. In practice, it becomes an unending series of weekly sessions, usually associated with a particular day of the week, not necessarily Wednesday. Some stop after nine consecutive Wednesdays of novena but most devotees pray the perpetual novena. We can call them perpetual devotees or devotees for life.
A frequent question about the novena is: Why Wednesday? Hechanova explains that there was no definitive historical answer about the choice of Wednesday (Hechanova 1998). The choice of Wednesday seemed to be a practical choice. Wednesday was the only day vacant in a week where each day was devoted to a particular devotion or saint. For example, Tuesday is for San Antonio de Padua, Thursday is for St. Jude, Friday is Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturdays and so on.
As we have mentioned before, there were already various versions of the novena published even before the novena explosion in 1948. The first one was in 1926 and the second one was in 1936. Why did the 1948 novena become an instant hit whereas 1926 and 1936 did not? What was the difference of the 1948 novena from the 1926 and 1936 novena? To answer these questions, we need to examine each version of the novena.
Pre 1948 Novena
The novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help was first introduced by the Redemptorists to the country immediately after they settled at Opon, Cebu. The first reported recitation of the novena in the country was in the church of Opon in 1907. Novena were also recited during the hundreds of missions that the Redemptorist gave to the barrios in the Visayas and Luzon. We do not have a copy of the text and format of the novena used in Opon and in the barrio missions. These texts, however, most certainly have spread throughout the country.
The novena in 1926, is titled Maikling Pagsisiyam sa Mahal na Virgen sa Tawag na Ina ng Laging Saklolo (Short Novena to the Blessed Virgin under the Title of Mother of Perpetual Help), with an imprimi potest granted by Fr. O’Callaghan, C.Ss.R. and imprimatur given by Fr. Jose Bustamante. It was published by UST Press. Interestingly, this novena was published even before the Redemptorist settled in Baclaran in 1932. We do not know, how many of this novena were printed, but it certainly help in the propagation of the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help in Luzon.
The novena contained several interesting features. An introductory part contains the narration of the origins of the icon and a brief explanation of the icon. For the nine days novena, each day begins with a meditation focusing on a specific part of the icon and its meaning, then the common prayer for each day and a pagsasanay (exercise) which recommends some forms of call to action. The common prayer is very theocentric and centered on surrendering to the will of God. Clearly the format and text of the novena is intended for individual devotion.
The novena is written in rich and old Tagalog. The daily prayer (PANALANGIN SA ARAO ARAO) of the novena exemplifies this,
Kabanalbanalang Virgen, saklolo sa twitwina ng mga kaluluwang napaaampon sa iyong makainang pagibig: Marapatin mong idalangin ako sa iyong mahal na Anak at Panginoon naming Jesucristo upang kalugdan Niya ang lahat kong panimdim, wika at gawa sa araw na ito at habang ako’y nabubuhay.
Tangapin mo oh! mahal kong Ina ang munting handog ko sa iyo sa pagcisiyam na ito, at ipagkaloob mo sa akin ang biyayang hinihingi ko kung nauukol sa lalong ikalulualhati Niya sa kapurihan mo at ikagagaling ng kaluluwa ko. Siya Nawa.
The 1936 version of the novena is written in English titled Novena in Honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. The Imprimatur was by Francis I. Cosgrave, CSsR. and nihil obstat by William E. Finnemann, Episcopus Auxiliaris. The publisher is not indicated. The format of the novena contains the history of the icon, explanation of the meaning of the parts of the icon, meditation and prayers for each day of the nine days novena
There is an added general remark in the instructions:
- The person making the novena should go to confession and Holy Communion at least once during the nine days.
- The prayers of the novena should be recited in a church in which the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour is publicly exposed or in your own home before the same picture.
- The novena is made by each day reading the set meditation and then reciting the prayers which follow each meditation.
Common Elements between 1926 and 1936 Novena
Both the 1926 and 1936 novena had similar characteristics: Both consist of nine successive days and a meditation each day followed by a common prayer. The format of the novena clearly shows that they were meant for individual devotion not for collective prayer in the church. The theology of both 1926 and 1936 novena shows a high theology of Mary where Mary is shown closer, almost equal, to Jesus. Mary is apart from us bestowed with the highest honor in heaven.
The meditation on the different parts of the icon and its meaning was a strong point of the 1926 and 1936 novena over 1948. This remarkable part disappeared in the 1948, 1951 and 1973 versions of the novena. The most recent 2016 jubilee version of the novena brought back this essential feature.
1948 Novena: Perpetual Novena
The origins of the 1948 Our Mother of Perpetual Help novena in Baclaran can be traced to the United States. A novena in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was began in St. Alphonsus “Rock” Liguori Church, in St. Louis, Missouri, USA in July 11, 1922. In 1924, in the same church, Father Henry Sutton began novenas in which people participated through singing, praying with the priest, rather than remaining silent while the priests prayed. This devotional style which was collective in nature spread throughout the congregation.
In 1928, the novena began by Father Henry Sutton grew to eleven services every Tuesday to accommodate 15,000 people. In 1928, the name “Perpetual Novena” for this new form of devotion was suggested: a Perpetual Novena was to be performed for nine consecutive days (hence novena), but the nine-day cycle can be repeated continuously (hence perpetual). This form is the most impressive Our Mother of Perpetual Help devotional form today. The Perpetual Novena flourished in Australia and United States as well as in India, the Philippines and Singapore. It suffered, however, a gradual decline in Australia, Europe and United States beginning in the 1970s.
The perpetual novena in the country, however, did not begin in Baclaran but in Iloilo. Hechanova recounts that in the year 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, American troops, some from the famous Battle of Guadalcanal, found themselves stationed in Iloilo. Among them were Irish-American Catholics from Boston who were delighted to find that St. Clement’s Church in La Paz, Iloilo City, was run by Irish Redemptorists. They were disappointed, however, that the Perpetual Novena then flourishing in the popular Mission Church of the Redemptorists in Boston was not part of church services. Thus, they requested the Redemptorist to start a novena in Ilo-ilo patterned after the novena in Boston.
The novena in Ilo-ilo was followed by Lipa in 1946 and Cebu in 1947. Both were well-attended novena. But they were not as phenomenal as Baclaran.
The first novena in Baclaran was presided by Father Leo English on June, 23, 1948. There were only seventy people present. The following week the number doubled to one hundred and fifty. Before the year ended, more novena sessions had to be added since the original chapel was good for only three hundred people. By the end of 1949, there were eight crowded sessions of the novena, and many others were following it from the parking area. The rest is history.
Sapitula noted that the text of the 1948 Perpetual Novena, contrary to expectations, did not begin as a fixed text but assumed its final form only after months of experimentation. A “core format” of the novena text was established around three months after it was begun, which in turn became the basis of the 1950, 1951 and 1953 editions of the novena booklet (Gornez 2003).
Even as the 1948 novena was public and collective, it’s theological and spiritual orientation bears much resemblance with the individually oriented 1926 and 1936 novena. Both novena emphasized life after death and salvation of the soul. The goal of life in this world is personal sanctification so as to be ready to enter into eternal life after death. Both novena also reflected the high Mariology of pre-Vatican II which promoted a maximalist theological view on Mary that saw Mary as an altogether special creature whose privileges paralleled those of Christ. By putting Mary on a pedestal with all her titles and glories, she becomes distant from the ordinary devotee and the whole church.
Two years after the inauguration of the Perpetual Novena in Baclaran, the prayers were already recited in parishes in Quezon City, Quiapo and Sampaloc in Manila, Taguig, and Marilao, Obando and Barasoain in Bulacan province (entry dated 1-7 April 1950; cited in Gornez 2003). This shows the rapid adoption of the novena by the different parishes in Manila and nearby provinces.
A Prayer for Peace was added to the Novena Prayers each Wednesday in 1951 at the request of Ramon Magsaysay who was then the Minister for defense.
1973 Revised Novena
Nothing changed in the official text of the Perpetual Novena for twenty-five years until Redemptorists and some devotees felt the need for reform. The need for revision emerged in the light of the reforms inspired by Vatican II and the social upheavals in the country and in the world. Hechanova recalls,
In the early 1970s, the Redemptorists of the Manila and Cebu Vice-Provinces set up a common Commission to study how the novena itself could be renewed along the Vatican II principles on liturgy and devotion.
The call for renewal of popular devotion, particularly the renewal of the Novena structure and prayers, was also echoed by Ang Mahal na Birhen: “Novenas will then be renewed by making them more scriptural, avoiding a verbosity present in some of them and a sentimentality less in consonance with today’s religious attitudes.”
One of the strongest points of the 1973 novena is the emphasis on the social dimension of the Christian faith. A closer reading of the 1973 Perpetual Novena reveals that social justice and peace dimensions are given more attention, perhaps as a corrective to the perceived overemphasis on personal needs in the 1948 Perpetual Novena text (Gornez 2003; Hechanova 1998). Ramon Echica claims that it is in the aspect of social justice that the 1973 novena stands out from other popular Marian devotions. Echica contrasted the prayers in the novena of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, for example, with that of the Santo Niňo devotion in Cebu City. Echica considers the Santo Niňo devotion as having an “apolitical nature” extremely lacking in social dimension. He adds that there is hardly any prayer that the Sto. Niňo would disturb and afflict the consciences of people whenever they have been unjust to their fellow men and women as these prayers “do not spell out the broader social and political context of one’s concern” for others. Moreover, prayers in this novena are “most explicitly other-worldly” (2010, 44-45).
On the other hand, Echica cites the prayers of the 1973 Our Mother of Perpetual Help novena as calling devotees to serve the community. Sins against justice, like usury, bribery, and perjury are also virtually condemned when devotees pray that they or others may never involve in them. There are also prayers for workers to take pride in their work and be given just compensation. Echica affirms that these prayers help the devotees to include questions of social justice in their examination of conscience. Echica also underscored the enumerations of petitions of a this-worldly character as one of the distinctive appeal of the 1973 novena:
There is no flight from the world spirituality in this devotion. Furthermore, there is no reference to some apparitions or some extraordinary celestial phenomena, or miracles which may be outside the realm of human causality. It is distinctive at least in terms of quantity of concrete occasion mentioned in the perpetual novena. There are prayers for scenarios that may occur in one’s daily life; worries about finances, misunderstanding with loved ones, choice of recreation, avoidance of prohibited drugs, and temptation to take revenge.
Indeed, concrete needs in concrete situations spur the faithful to their devotions, particularly to the Blessed Virgin. [M]any petitions are not actually for the individual self but for society at large or one’s country in particular.
2016 Jubilee Edition of the Novena
Despite the strong integration of social reality and devotion in 1973 novena, there were other areas that will need reform and improvement in the years to come. As early as the 90s, calls to revise the novena once again began to surface. Among the reasons for the proposed updating was the need to reflect ‘new’ signs of the times in the novena, for example, gender sensitivity, ecological awareness, migrants’ concerns and a more sound theology on Mary. The aims of the revised 2016 novena reflected these issues:
- To help in the renewal towards an authentic devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help
- To adopt the novena to the signs of the times particularly the new issues and challenges that our world is confronted today.
- To express a more healthy and meaningful understanding and practice of devotion to our Blessed Mother.
- To incorporate an inclusive language into the novena.
The Prayer for the Sick was also seen as needing some major revision. The 1973 novena seemed to romanticize sickness by projecting an image of the sick who have nothing else they can do about their sickness except to embrace it. God’s compassion and strong desire for the healing of the sick is not much evident. A more redemptive healing not only for that person, but for the whole family was desired.
Here’s a comparison between the 1973 and 2016 Prayer for the Sick:
Lord Jesus Christ * you bore our sufferings and carried our sorrows * in order to show us clearly * the value of human weakness and patience. * Graciously hear our prayers for the sick. * Grant that those who are weighed down * with pain and other afflictions of illness * may realize that they are among the chosen ones * whom you called blessed. * Help them to understand * that they are united with You in Your sufferings * for the salvation of the world. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ * you bore our sufferings and carried our sorrows * in order to show us clearly * the value of human weakness and patience; * graciously hear our prayer for the sick especially (pause and remember your sick loved ones). Grant that they who are weighed down * with pain and other affliction of illness * may experience God’s healing power and comfort*. Restore them to health* in body and soul* so that they can continue to serve you* and their brothers and sisters. Amen.
There was also the desire to reflect in the novena a more healthy theology about Mary. There was a strong desire to show that the real source of “saklolo” (help) is not Mary but Jesus. A major expression of this in the new novena is changing the response for every petition to Our Mother of Perpetual Help from Loving Mother, HELP US to Loving Mother, PRAY FOR US.
There were also suggestions to make the language of the novena direct the people more to Jesus and to the celebration of the Eucharist. There was also the longing to change the seeming economy outlook to a more healthy outlook of the novena. Other points suggested to include into the revision of the novena were:
- a greater appreciation of the lay and avoiding clericalization,
- inclusive language,
- a more healthy expression of solidarity with the poor,
- clearer and consistent wording,
- better wording about religious vocation,
- omitting some repetitive petitions (particularly on death).
There were three new petitions to reflect the new signs of the times particularly on ecology, sanctity of life and peace in the world:
That we may care and protect God’s creation, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
That we may defend the human dignity and sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
That there will be genuine and lasting peace in the world, LOVING MOTHER PRAY FOR US.
An interesting feature of the 2016 novena is the return of the contemplation of the meaning and spirituality of the icon and its parts as an essential part of praying the novena. As the 2016 revised novena states in its introduction,
The purpose of the novena is not just to bring our needs and aspirations to God through the prayers of Our Mother of Perpetual Help but to let Mary bring us to Jesus in order to follow him—the true path to God. This is the main message of the Icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It would be a great means, therefore, that in praying the novena for nine days, we contemplate on the meaning of the whole Icon and its parts. The whole purpose of this contemplation is to live our daily lives and experiences in the example of Mary— following the path of Jesus towards true happiness and peace.
The Redemptorist community of Baclaran saw the 150th Jubilee of the icon in 2016 as an opportune time to implement the revision. In the spirit of the 150th Jubilee of the Icon, a new version of the novena was published.
Novena: Prayer of the Communion of the Saints
One of the primary reasons for the explosion of the novena in 1948 was the fact that it was written for public and communal prayer. Whereas the 1926 and 1936 novena were meant to be prayed privately by individual devotees, the 1948 novena brought individual devotees together to pray to Our Mother of Perpetual Help and intercede with one another. The intercessory character of the novena is not just asking the intercession of Mary but of fellow devotees as well. Thus, communal devotion rather than individual devotion catapulted the devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help to national prominence.
The intercessory prayer of the novena instilled a new consciousness upon the devotees. It inculcated the experience that prayer is not just personal but also a prayer for the other and with each other. Indeed, when each devotee goes to the novena, she/he brings her/his own petition but when he/she joins the thousand others who has his/her own individual petitions, each one is transformed that he/she not only pray for his/her own but for and with the others. The Novena helped transform the “I” to “We” consciousness. From a personalist and individualistic attitude, the devotees are not meant to pray only for their own needs but are meant to pray as members of a fellowship, in agreement, remembering that life and the world are not arranged for them as individuals but for the fellowship as a whole. As Karl Rahner states:
A congregation praying, singing, and listening to word of God, is not only an assembly of lonely, solitary people, not only a number of isolated individuals, who impelled by concern for their eternal salvation, gather here for merely practical convenience, in order to try to work out their own private salvation… We are a holy community praising God by praising the glory of the blessed Virgin precisely because in our very salvation we are dependent on this virgin mother of God.
Moreover, the novena experience brings out the essential fact of faith that as church we are a community of both living and dead, interceding for each other. Death does not sever the bonds of the body of Christ. Those who intercede for me are not just my living fellow devotee but even those who have died and are already with God–Mary and all the saints. In this way, the novena truly becomes an experience of the communion of saints. We have no direct route to God only through a relationship mediated and interceded with the communion of the saints, living here on earth and triumphant in heaven. Like Mary, devotees at the shrine are invited to be intercessors not just for one another but for the whole church and the world. As Francia Competente said in July 4, 2016, “I like going to Baclaran Church because I am with the people who are really in need of Mama Mary’s intercession and can feel God’s love thru Mama Mary.”
The novena experience and consciousness recalls for the devotees their indigenous heritage of veneration of the dead. Before Christianity arrived in the country, indigenous Filipinos venerated their deceased ancestors because they are considered still a part of the family and their spirits can have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living. The novena experience has tapped into this primordial worldview of the Filipinos and devotees appropriated it into their warm devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
Mary is the role model of intercessory prayer through her intercessory role for us in heaven. We do not pray to Mary, Mary pray with us. Once again, Rahner reiterates,
[N]o doctrine concerning Mary could have importance and significance for us, if it were not true that each of us is responsible for the salvation of his brethren, and can and must intercede for them with prayer and sacrifice and aid. That is why Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but our mother too.
While novena is central to the devotional experience in the shrine, it is not all there is to the devotion. The experience of devotion is not only the praying of the novena but also the embarking of a faith journey. Devotion as a faith journey is quintessentially conveyed through pilgrimage to Baclaran. We will discuss the notion of devotion as a pilgrimage in the next chapter.
(This article is an excerpt from the book Mary of Baclaran: Our Mother of Perpetual Help and Mission Today by Joey Echano, soon to be published)
 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1124.
 Sapitula, Marian Piety and Modernity, 84.
 Luis Hechanova, Baclaran Story.
 Campos, 250.
 Hechanova, The Baclaran Story
 Hechanova, Baclaran Story.
 Ang Mahal na Birhen, #83.
 Ang Mahal na Birhen, #84.
 Echica, Novena Prayers to One Like Us, 4.
 Ramon D. Echica, Novena Prayers to One Like Us, 2.
 Echica, Novena Prayers to One Like Us, 3.
 Echica, Novena Prayers to One Like Us, 4.
 Novena Prayers, http://www.baclaranchurch.org/prayers.html
 Karl Rahner, Mary, Mother of the Lord: Theological Meditations (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963), 30-31.
 Rahner, 31.