It seems strange that there should be anything like mourning during Paschal Time: and yet these three days 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 Saviour told us, before his Passion, that the children of the Bridegroom should not fast whilst the Bride groom is with them; but is not sadness in keeping with these the last hours of Jesus’ presence on earth? Were not his 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: it was the Church of Vienne.
The second half of the 5th century had but just commenced, when the country round 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’ 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. Aleimus 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 their 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, and 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 flesh-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 Charlemagne and Charles the Bald.
The main part of the Rogation rite originally consisted, (at least in Gaul,) in singing canticles of supplication whilst 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 had not made the discovery, which was reserved for modern times, that one requisite for religious Processions is that they 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 bare-foot, singing the Litany, Psalms and Antiphons. 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 Champagne, tells us that this holy Emperor used to join the Processions of these three Days, and walk bare footed from his palace to the Stational Church. We find St. Elizabeth of Hungary, in the 14th century, setting the like example: during the Rogation Days, she used to mingle with the poorest women of the place, and walked bare-footed, wearing a dress of coarse stuff. 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 fasted himself 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 the Monday; nine, on the Tuesday; and eleven, on the 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 is a great falling off in faith and piety. Knowing, as we do, the 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 fancying.
The whole Western Church soon adopted the Rogation Days. They were introduced into England at an early period; so, likewise, into Spain, and Germany. Rome herself sanctioned them by her own observing them; this she did in the 8th century, during the Pontificate of St. Leo the Third. She gave them the name of the Lesser Litanies, in contradistinction to the Procession of the 25th of April, 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 enjoined only abstinence from flesh-meat during the Rogation Days. The Church of Milan, which, as we have just seen, so strictly observes the Rogations, keeps them on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Sunday within the Octave of 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 purple vestments used during the Procession and Mass do not signify that our Jesus has fled from us, but that the time for his departure is approaching. By prescribing Abstinence for these three days, the Church would express how much she will feel the loss of her Spouse, who is so soon to be taken from her.
In England, as in many other countries, abstinence is no longer of obligation for the Rogation Days. This should be an additional motive to induce the Faithful to assist at the Processions and Litanies, and, by their fervently uniting in the prayers of the Church, to make some compensation for the abolition of the law of Abstinence. We need so much penance, and we take 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.