The bishop was worried. The disasters had been coming in quick succession for the French diocese of Vienne (now part of the Archdiocese of Lyon). Earthquakes had destroyed churches and homes, wild animals had consumed children and the elderly. On Easter Sunday, fire fell from the heavens and burned the royal palace to the ground. Clearly, something needed to be done.
When the bishop [St. Mamertus] saw that every day [happened] such sorrowful adventures, he commanded and ordained that the people should fast three days; and he instituted the litanies, and then the tribulation ceased.
These litanies prescribed by St. Mamertus in the fifth century were prayers to avert divine wrath and to beseech protection from natural disasters. They were called rogations, derived from the Latin verb rogare (“to ask”). A century later, St. Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) also instituted rogations in response to a plague that devastated Rome. A few centuries later, St. Leo III (r. 795–816) instituted the Days of Rogation throughout the Latin church. Until the reform of the liturgical calendar following the Second Vatican Council, the Rogation days were celebrated every year on April 25 and on the three days preceding Ascension Thursday.
Despite being times of prayer and fasting, the Rogation days were quite popular—especially in England, where observance of them survived the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformers and later was incorporated into the prayer books of Anglicans and Methodists. Perhaps their popularity can be attributed to the pageantry of the Rogation processions, in which parishioners would walk the parish boundary lines (called “beating the bounds”) while calling down God’s protection. It was also a time to bless the spring crops.
Although the Rogation days are no longer commonly celebrated, their existence and purpose do raise interesting questions about the Church’s teaching on our relationship to creation and how God works through the natural order.
Throughout history, even before Christianity, man has sought protection from disasters of various types by seeking to appease his gods. The major Rogation on April 25 instituted by St. Gregory the Great was not offered solely in response to a plague; it also was intended to replace a pagan Roman rite in which a dog would be sacrificed once a year to Robigus, a Roman deity, to ensure the health of the crops. Converts to Christianity no longer engaged in animal sacrifice, but they often still believed they needed to appease God’s wrath for their sins, which was one of the purposes of the Rogation days.
It is one thing to engage in penance for sin. Penance is the response we make to conversion from sin after baptism (CCC 1428), and can be undertaken both personally and communally. But the Church has cautioned against the idea of God vengefully punishing us for sin through disasters. The truth is that we don’t fully know why natural calamities occur; we can only know that God’s purpose in allowing them always includes the good he can ultimately bring from them. The Catechism states:
The fact that God permits physical and even moral evil is a mystery that God illuminates by his Son Jesus Christ who died and rose to vanquish evil. Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life (324).
In a papal audience in 2010, Benedict XVI called the idea of evil being a divine punishment a “facile conclusion.” He urged Christians to find in tragedies a call to personal conversion:
Calamities and tragic events must not arouse our curiosity or our desire to find the supposedly guilty, but should be occasions to reflect. . . . In the presence of suffering and tragedy, true wisdom is to ask ourselves about the precarious nature of existence and to read human history with the eye of God who, always wanting only the good of his children for an inscrutable design of his love, sometimes allows them to be tried by pain in order to lead them to a greater good.
The Church’s concern about the possibility for confusion over divine wrath and appeasement may be one reason why, after Vatican II, the Rogation days were taken off of the liturgical calendar in the West. The Church wants us to spend the Easter season celebrating and reflecting upon the mercy of God who so loved the world that he sent his only Son to die to redeem mankind. Ultimately, it is in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ that God’s justice is fully satisfied and by which evil has been definitively conquered:
Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. . . . It is in Christ’s resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe” (CCC 272).
One of the most appealing parts of the Rogation days was the custom of Christians gathering to walk the boundaries of their parishes, praying for the protection of their communities. Springtime, when winter has passed and new life is beginning, seems a providential time to remember the needs not just of ourselves and our families but also of the wider world.
The Gospel readings during the Easter season speak of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances to gatherings of his disciples: in the upper room, where Thomas’s doubts are resolved and the apostles are given the power to forgive sin; at the Sea of Galilee, where the disciples are given a miraculous catch of fish; at the Mount of Olives, where Jesus promised to return again just before his ascension into heaven. The reality of sin and the need for forgiveness is present, but the focus of these stories is hope and trust in God, not fear of his wrath.
In our prayers during the Easter season, let us pray for the needs of our communities in the spirit of the old Rogation days—with hope and trust, founded in Christ’s resurrection.
Despite the faithlessness of men’s sin and the punishment it deserves, [God] keeps “steadfast love for thousands.” By going so far as to give up his own Son for us, God reveals that he is “rich in mercy.” By giving his life to free us from sin, Jesus reveals that he himself bears the divine name: “When you have lifted up the son of man, then you will realize that I AM” (CCC 211).