UR CHURCH boasts a multiplicity of processions. These processions pervade not only the liturgical year, but even every Mass. In the Roman Rite, for example, we have a procession to the altar at the start of Mass and another one to the place for the reading of the Gospel. There also developed a procession at the offertory and a procession of the faithful to the communion rail. We have festive processions on Corpus Christi, commemorative processions on Candlemas and Palm Sunday, and penitential processions on Rogation days. We also have special processions at our disposal for all sorts of intentions: for imploring rain, for imploring fair weather, in time of famine, in time of pandemic, in time of war, and for giving thanks to God.
What is the purpose of all this processing? What is the meaning of all this walking around?
On one level, liturgical processions remind us that we are pilgrims—members of a pilgrim Church, making our way on toward eternity. When we join in a procession, we are praying with our bodies, just like when we stand, sit, and kneel. We are an incarnational people, and processing is one way in which we express who we are as wayfarers en route to heaven.
On another level, the particular procession observed annually on April 25th has a specific significance that should not be overlooked. The Rogation procession is one of the oldest processions in the whole of Christian liturgy, and it is also one of the clearest examples of a Christian celebration that was developed to replace a pagan celebration.
The pagan festival of Robigalia was celebrated in ancient Rome each year on April 25th. Robigalia was a celebration that besought the “god” Robigo to spare the crops, preserving the grain from mildew. Around the year AD 450, however, this date was given a new Christian significance. Nearly sixteen centuries old at this point, the Rogation procession is an incredibly ancient tradition.
What is the meaning of this particular procession? The Greater Litanies and the Rogation procession are about beseeching God’s mercy, that He might govern the world and all that lies therein with gentle providence. When Christians baptized the festival of Robigalia, we kept the sense of needing God’s help, but we placed our needfulness not in the hands of a false “god,” but rather in the hands of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In the course of time, Christians gave to this occasion a beautiful reading from the Epistle of St. James, wherein we recall the humble trust of Elijah. Elijah prayed for a drought . . . and a drought of three-and-a-half years ensued (cf., 1 Kgs 17)! Then Elijah prayed for rain, and the Scriptures tells us that “the sky gave rain and the Earth brought forth its fruit” (James 5:18).
Today’s ceremonies, therefore, are about invoking the merciful providence of the living God upon our world. They are about acknowledging our own powerlessness to govern the affairs of our lives and our world. They are about expressing trust in the goodness of God, Who wills to provide for us, if only we will let Him. All of this is bound up in the ritual action of the Greater Litanies and the Rogation procession and Mass.
Rogation days are not something that ought to be consigned to a former era, when “less-sophisticated” people had minimal “control” over their environment and were therefore somehow more dependent upon the Deity to look favorably upon them. Modern man has just as much need for such an occasion today as the ancients had back in the fifth century when the Rogation procession began.
In fact, in a world that sees itself as self-sufficient—a world that thinks it has it all figured out and that seems to believe it can operate perfectly well without the intervention of any Godhead at all—perhaps the Greater Litanies and the Rogation Mass are needed more than ever before.
From volume 1 (“The Sacraments and Processions”) of Rev. Philip T. Weller’s edition of the Roman Ritual:
Precisely because the world openly flaunts its indifference and incredulity, the true followers of Christ should accept the challenge and seize the opportunity of holding public processions, so as to avow their unflinching stand. If these proceed from the heart, if they are carried out in a spirit of earnest prayer, deep reverence, and faith, characterized by penitence, gratitude, and Christian joy, the grace they procure and the edification they give will be inestimable.
When a ruthless and greedy government parades its manpower in threat for or incitement to war, the Church can counteract with a calm and confident procession for peace. When the downtrodden are driven angrily to demand bread of their overlords, the Church instead has a procession for the time of famine. When the worldlings curse and despair in their powerlessness against the acts of God and His visitations, the people of God have recourse to the ritual prayers and processions for the time of plague, drought, flood, or tempest.
In place of revelry and gross ebullition to celebrate a victory or a bountiful harvest, Christ’s Mystic Body can celebrate with a procession of thanksgiving. While the world honors its dubious heroes with fanfare and confetti, the Church pays homage and respect to the bones of the glorious company of martyrs, confessors, and virgins. To atone for the heresiarchs’ blasphemy in rejecting our Lord’s gift of His Body and Blood, Catholics venerate and adore It in streets and fields on Corpus Christi. As an aid to enhance and explain the mystery re-enacted in the Mass of Candlemas and Palm Sunday, there is a preliminary procession of the Church, the Bride of Jesus, going to meet her divine Spouse.1
May our time spent processing here on Earth prepare us for the life of heaven!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The Roman Ritual in Latin and English with Rubrics and Plainchant Notation, vol. 1, trans. and ed. Philip T. Weller (1950; repr. Boonville, NY: Preserving Christian Publications, 2007), 478-479.