Rorate Caeli

Rogationtide: Rediscovering Yet Another Treasure of Traditional Catholicism

by Michael P. Foley

Immediately before the crescendo of Ascension Thursday, before that triumphant culmination of the Pasch (a time so glorious that it was forbidden to fast), we encounter three days of violet vestments and anxious pleading. For in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the Feast of the Ascension are the Lesser Rogation Days.


What are Rogations?  They are times in which entreaties for safety, salvation, and a good harvest are made through a litany to God and the saints. The prayers’ plaintive aspect gives the days their name: “rogation” is from the Latin rogare, to petition earnestly. These litanies are meant to be made during a procession in which the priest blesses his parishioners’ land before Mass. The processions were not mandatory, but reciting the litany was required of clerics if they missed them before Mass. Indeed, the word litaneia means essentially the same thing in Greek as the Latin rogare; and so powerful was the association of Rogationtide with processing that they were once called “Gang Days,” from an Old English word for walking.[1]

In the traditional calendar there are two sets of Rogation Days. The first, the “Major” or “Greater” Litanies, are celebrated on April 25th (coincidentally, also the Feast of St. Mark). On that day the ancient Romans held the Robigalia, a procession to appease Robigo, the god of blight. Since the Church had no objection to praying for the harvest, it threw out Robigo and the ribald games held in his honor while keeping the procession; it even kept much of the same route. This year, because April 25 falls on the Friday before the Ascension, we have all of the Rogations within a week’s span.

The “Minor” or “Lesser” Litanies, as we noted above, are celebrated on the three days preceding Ascension Thursday. While the Major Rogation Day is quintessentially Roman, the Minor Rogations are the product of Gaul, instituted in A.D. 470 by Bishop Mamertus of Vienne in response to a terrifying series of catastrophes (storms, floods, earthquakes, etc.). In cooperation with the civil authorities, Mamertus decreed that the faithful should fast, abstain from servile work, and do penance. The practice soon spread throughout France and Germany, and eventually Charlemagne pressured Pope Leo III to add them to the Roman rite. The Pope acquiesced on condition that the fast be removed; in gratitude the Franks removed theirs as well.[2]

Universally Christian

Despite the unmistakable stamp of the Latin West, the essence of Rogationtide goes back to the Old Testament, when the cantor would recite something and the congregation would reply with a verse such as “His mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 135). Litanies are the most sensible form of prayer for pedestrians, as they enable both cantor and congregation to catch their breath between verses. The Israelites also prayed for blessings on their crops and homes at certain key points of the year. In fact, two of the three great annual feasts—the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost) and of Tabernacles—were related to the harvest.

Christianity retained the spirit of both practices, and rightfully so, as everything in the Old Testament is meant to instruct us on a deeper figurative level in the art of living well.[3] Litanies such as the Kyrie eleison, for example, were treasured by both Eastern and Western Christians, as were blessings over the fruits of the earth. And processions not only dramatize the radiation of the Light from the Church to the world, they epitomize our status as pilgrims passing through this earthly way station.

Usefully Natural

But the Rogation Days ground us in more than our Catholic heritage. The Major and Lesser Litanies are the only prescribed days in the calendar that are explicitly agricultural and that explicitly concern the all-too-real dangers of natural disasters. While the Ember Days (which we will visit in a future article) commemorate nature from the perspective of its four seasons, Rogationtide commemorates nature in relation to man and the city, from his tilling of the soil to his collective aversion of meteorological and seismic calamities. This not only invites a deeper meditation on our stewardship of the earth, it adds a communal dimension to Rogationtide’s acknowledgement of nature as both a source of bounty and potential harm. As one introduction puts it, “the processions are a reminder to feeble man to turn with humility and confidence to the Giver of all good.”[4]

The Rogation Days’ roots in the agrarian led to a number of memorable rural customs. In England processions would wind their through field and fen and stop at various stations in order for the priest to read a Gospel and for the laity to fortify themselves with ale and victuals. Because these stations were marked by a cross and because of the cross heading the procession, the Lesser Litanies were sometimes known as “Crosse weke” or Crosstide. On the first two days of Cross week, the processions would be led by the standard of a dragon with a long cloth tail; on the third day the dragon was moved to the back of the procession and his tail cut, symbolizing the expulsion of the demonic from the blessed territory.[5]

In America the Church probably never hosted such colorful Rogation spectacles, but it does have one story worth telling. In 1876, millions of Rocky Mountain grasshoppers descended upon Minnesota, destroying this year’s crops and laying eggs that would destroy next year’s as well.  Minnesota’s governor declared April 26 of the following year a day of prayer and fasting. The Catholic folk of Cold Spring (near St. Cloud) added a vow of their own: if the Blessed Virgin Mary “would rid them of the grasshoppers, they would build a chapel and offer prayers to her for the next fifteen years.”[6]  When April 26 arrived,

all businesses, theaters, stores and bars were closed. Churches were filled. Midnight approached, the sky clouded over, and a cold rain began. The wind shifted from the south to the north and the rain turned to heavy snow. The storm raged throughout the following day. The next day, farmers hurried to their fields and found that the vast majority of grasshoppers had been frozen just as they were hatching.[7]

True to their word, the people of Cold Spring built Assumption Chapel (a.k.a. Grasshopper Chapel) on a high hill. And every Rogationtide, they would process up to the chapel in gratitude for Our Lady’s protection, up to the front doors and under the archway depicting grasshoppers bowing down to her.

Grasshopper Chapel in Minnesota
Our Lady triumphing over the grasshopper swarms

As these stories illustrate, while the Rogation Days stem from the traditions of ancient Rome and Gaul, they are easily “inculturated” into any number of local settings. Perhaps this is why the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) has been promoting Rogation processions for decades. In the 1950s it published booklets such as A Manual of Ceremonies for the Parish Observance of the Rogation Days[8] and pamphlets like “Rogations at Maranatha” that ruminate on the “sacramentality of the land and the spirit of the Church.”[9] The author of the latter was a Mrs. Josephine Drabek who was new to farming as well as Rogationtide, but the experience of both helped her see more clearly “the intimate link between the life of the Church and the cycle of the land.” For, she explains,

The liturgy had given significance and dignity to all our work on the farm, and our life on the land had opened new vistas to our understanding and appreciation of the liturgy.[10] 

The Rogations were even allowed to be moved in order to accommodate the inverted seasons below the equator. In the 1950s Pope Pius XII gave permission to some Catholic missions in the Pacific islands to hold major and lesser litanies in October or November.[11]

Fostering Community

The Rogation stations in England also marked the boundaries of the parish, and thus the processions took on additional meaning as a parish activity. “Beating the bounds,” i.e., circling the parish territory in procession, was a way of affirming parish identity and fostering charity, and it was an effective occasion for healing old rifts. (This should come as no surprise given the communal dimension we noted above.) Of course, every good thing can be abused. While the processions increased charity within the parish, they sometimes led to scuffles outside it, as when two different parochial processions came into contact![12] Nevertheless, beating the bounds remained a popular tradition in England despite the Reformers’ condemnation of it as “wholly popish,” which is why high church Anglicans still practice it today.

Personally Prayerful

Even if one cannot participate in a procession, the litany and Mass of Rogation (which are the same throughout Rogationtide) are worth praying.  In the prescribed Litany of the Saints, God and His holy ones are first invoked in so perfect a theological and historical order that one can survey most of Church history simply by reciting it. The litany then prays for deliverance from a host of physical and spiritual evils, reminding one of the fragility of life. Next, the faithful request a series of blessings, such as a restoration “to the unity of Church all who have strayed from the truth,” “the fruits of the earth,” and “eternal rest to all the faithful departed.” Finally, after chanting or reciting Psalm 69, the priest prays ten collects of exceptional quality. When the litany is finished, the Mass begins, the central theme of which is the efficacy of prayer, especially for the righteous and humble. Thus, the Epistle mentions Elias’ successful prayer for rain and the Gospel contains the passage, “Ask and it shall be given you.” Happily, Holy Church still grants a partial indulgence for praying the Litany of the Saints.

The Lesser Litanies are also a good preparation for Ascension Thursday. Psychologically, it is difficult to maintain the jubilance of Paschaltide for forty consecutive days. The penitential character of Minor Rogation allows for an emotional dénouement so that we may rejoice all the more for the novena from Ascension Thursday to Whitsunday.

The Ebbing Tides of Rogation 

Rogation Days were removed from the universal calendar in 1969, but they were not suppressed. The Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship’s General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar from February 14, 1969, n. 46, states:

In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration.

One can sympathize with the goal: as we saw with Pius XII’s adaptation, in a Church spanning every inhabitable latitude, not every parish will be able to link April 25 or the three days prior to Ascension to their agricultural rhythms, especially not in the southern hemisphere.[13] Yet the CDW also weakened, perhaps inadvertently, the link between Rogationtide and agriculture by allowing adjustments for “the intentions of the petitioners” (n. 47):

the celebrations may be varied, e.g., for rural or for urban settings, and may relate to different themes, like the harvest, peace, the unity of the Church, the spread of the faith, etc.[14]

By contrasting rural and urban and by listing a number of equally valid themes (as opposed to one primary theme and several ancillary), the norms conceivably allow for a Rogation that has nothing to do with the land.

As far as I can tell, however, the U.S. bishops’ conference never arranged a new time and plan for rogations, and so in the few places where the litanies are still practiced, they remain agricultural.[15] The Catholic Conference of Illinois published its own version of Rogationtide in 1989[16] while every year the NCRLC continues to receive requests from farming communities for information about the practice. Some rural parishes have become quite ingenious in their methods. According to a 2002 issue of Faith and Family, “in recent years, the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, has sent out a priest in a crop-duster plane to sprinkle holy water across the sprawling family farms!”[17] This news surprised but tickled the chancellor of Fargo when I recently asked him to confirm it, but he did tell me that he could think of three priests in his diocese “just crazy enough to do it.”[18]


On average, however, contemporary Catholics are ignorant of the Rogation Days, leading us to conclude that something good was lost, and at one of the worst possible times. We live in an age marked by an unprecedented disconnect from the land and by a growing anxiety over it. On the one hand, we fret over the barbaric or hazardous treatment of livestock, commercial pesticides, genetically modified foods, the demise of the family farm, and the rise of food cartels (did you know that 80% of the beef market is controlled by only four firms?[19]); and we call for agrarian reform, farm subsidies, the fair treatment of migrant workers, and more organic foods. On the other hand, at no point in American history have so many of us lived away from the farm: we buy our produce in supermarket cellophane and never think it odd that we can eat watermelons in January.

Obligatory traditional Rogation Days are the religious antidote to this schizophrenia. They call all believers, be they city slickers or country bumpkins, to recognize at the same time and in a shared way our common dependency on the land and on God’s mercy for putting food on the table. They ask us to pray for farms and fields and in so doing remind us that there are farms and fields that need praying for. They reconnect us to the soil, which even reconnects us to the bounds of our neighborhood, our parish, and each other. They remind us of the earth’s fragility as well as its awesome powers.

Vatican agencies such as the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace pursue some of these topics with great vim, even at the risk of recommending policies not always thought through;[20] but their impact will always be limited. We have forgotten what Pope Pius XI said when he instituted the Feast of Christ the King:

People are instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all. The former speak but once, the latter speak every year—in fact, forever.[21]

Well, almost forever. The beautiful springtime processions to Grasshopper Chapel are now a distant memory for the older residents of Cold Spring, but we can hope that some day the annual celebration of these mysteries will again “bring the faithful to a fuller knowledge of their dependence on God for all things... and a greater love of God as their Divine Provider.”[22]

Dr. Michael P. Foley is an Assistant Professor of Patristics at Baylor University and the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything and Drinking with the Saints. Portions of this article are taken from an earlier treatment posted on the internet under the title, “Ember Days,Rogations Days, and Station Churches.”


[1] Specifically, the Lesser Litanies (cf. Oxford English Dictionary, “gang-days”).
[2] Francis Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958) 41-42.
[3] Cf. Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 10:11.
[4] Diocesan Catholic Rural Life Conference, A Manual of Ceremonies for the Parish Observance of the Rogation Days (National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1953), 5.
[5] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 279.
[6] Link.
[7] Metro Travel Guide.
[8] Op. cit.
[9] Undated, p. 4.
[10] Ibid., p. 3.
[11] Weiser, Handbook, 42.
[12] Duffy, Stripping, pp. 136-39.
[13] One wonders, following Pius XII’s example, if the problem could not have been solved by a process of local addition rather than universal subtraction.
[14] Response to the query “How should rogation days and ember days be celebrated?”
[15] This is an interesting confirmation of the principle that omission of a practice in a new liturgical edition does not eo ipso mean its suppression.
[16] Mary Jo Valenziano, Rogation Days (Oak Park, IL: C.E. Dienberg Printing Co., 1989).
[17] “April 25: Major Rogation Day,” Faith and Family Magazine (April 2002), p. 25.
[18] Many thanks to the Very Rev. Brian Moen for his generous time.
[19] A Time to Act: A Report of the USDA National Commission on Small Farms, Jennifer Yezak Molen, Director, January 1998, p. 4.
[20] Cf. Towards a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (1989).
[21] Quas Primas, 21.
[22] Bishop William A. O’Connor, D.D., in A Manual of Ceremonies, foreword.

A Rogation Idea for the Home

“Beat the bounds” of your home while sprinkling your property with holy water and chanting or reciting the litanies (such private paraliturgical perambulations were fairly common in the Middle Ages). Or bless your garden with holy water in the same manner.