Monday, April 19, 2010

Novena to St Jude and other spiritual chain letters

I found myself last week getting flustered over something that seems to be a common ‘phenomenon’ in Singapore churches. I discovered stacks of photocopied “Novena to St Jude” placed conspicuously amongst the other brochures, forms and parish bulletins.

St Jude is one saint who is often called the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases, and was one of the 12 apostles of Christ. St Jude is often invoked when times are desperate because of his New Testament letter that encourages the faithful to persevere when times are harsh or when circumstances are tough.

I have no problems with devotions and novenas, when prayed properly and understood with a mature faith. However, I find my spiritual blood pressure rising when I read some of these devotions and find that their original intention (which is always good) have been twisted or deformed into something that reeks of superstition and something that enchains rather than frees. And the stack of the Novena to St Jude was one such glaring example.

The prayer asks that the person make 9 copies of the prayer and leave it in church for 9 consecutive days, before the petition will be granted. That means leaving 81 (at least) photocopied sheets in a public place. Imagine if there are 10 such people observing the same thing? Wouldn’t that litter our churches to no end?

I discarded the stack of paper immediately to be recycled, and after I cooled down a bit, I chose to look at the heart of the person who resorted to this act, and what must have driven him or her to comply with such a strange request. Obviously, this person was desperate, but over what, no one but God would know.

9 copies of a prayer, for 9 days in a church? What gives? I can only think of one thing that this kind of diligence is trying to do, but it involves not the use of our modern technology of printing or photocopying, but actually using our hands to write each long novena prayer out.

It doesn’t take long for us to press “9 copies” on the photocopy machine. But try writing those long prayers out by hand, and meditating on your request and your needs with each stroke of the pen. Perhaps what this novena was actually trying to do was to make the writer or petitioner think deeply about what his or her needs were, and why he or she has been led to that point of time in his or her life.

I imagined someone having a very difficult relationship with his spouse or her mother-in-law, and was desperate to get to a better ‘space’ in the relationship. He or she has tried so many ways to get them to change, but has failed. In actually writing this out 81 times, one will inevitably think about one’s own choices, one’s actions, one’s own reactions and yes, even how one may have contributed to the situation at hand. And this is where the grace of God comes is. When one’s heart and mind becomes supple and yes, even malleable, conversion can happen. This is when God and man’s path meet. This must be the miracle point.

But when one simply uses the photocopy machine and churns out 81 (or more, just in case) there is hardly any space or time for that conversion experience that unfortunately, requires of us so much more in terms of heart and will. In some ways, we really have become victims of technological advancement, haven’t we?

And why place these in a church? I can only see that the person has to invoke the prayers of a gathered community who is willing to spend some time and heart with a fellow Christian who is pining for God’s grace in life.

Will I ever see 81 handwritten prayers like this? I doubt it. Why? Not because I don’t think people can be desperate, but because I believe in God’s mercy on brokenness. When one really articulate one’s needs and brokenness on paper, revealing oneself to the community at prayer, one will definitely find another heart, another person who will walk that journey with you, and conversion will begin to take place.

Having said this, I don’t think I will have seen the last of the photocopied novenas to St Jude in my parish.


  1. Dear Fr. Luke,
    I myself have received many "chain letters" exhorting me to, "send this on to 7 people within 24 hours of receiving it" with the result that I would "receive a special blessing" or words to that effect. Messages like these never fail to evoke some measure of disgust within me. One time, when I was promised "a special blessing" I responded by sms'ing that " But I already receive many blessings each day". The result was that the sender got somewhat cross with me, assuming that I was being facetious. I wasn't. Father, I think we all need to come to the realisation that, GOD IS NOT A VENDING MACHINE. Nor can He be manipulated. I really find this (what I call) "sentimentalist" approach to religion rather disturbing. It smacks of a kind of escapism and unwillingness to face the (sometimes painful) realities of life.

  2. Thank you for our comment, Robbie. Perhaps what I may have left out from my blog entry is that fact that many of us, yes, including Catholics, fail to see blessings that God has given us, and is constantly giving us throughout our lives. If we only see blessings in terms of extraordinary times of joy and abundance (often, and sadly only in terms of financial windfalls), we blind ourselves to the fact that our very lives IS a blessing, whether we have those windfall moments or not. And when we fail to see that life itself is a blessing, that is when we begin to manipulate and control life, as if it were our right, and not a gift which we certainly do not deserve.

    God bless

    Fr Luke

  3. Fr. Luke,


    I have a prayer that I say often and I believe it shares your sentiment and puts things into perspective.

    -Enable me, O my God to return Thee thanks as I ought for Thine inestimable blessings and favors. Thou hast thought of me and loved me from all eternity; Thou hast formed me out of nothing; Thou hast delivered up Thy beloved Son to the ignominous death of the cross for my redemption; Thou hast made me a member of Thy holy Church; Thou hast preserved me from falling into the abyss of eternal misery, when my sins had provoked Thee to punish me; Thou hast graciously continued to spare me, even though I have not ceased to offend Thee. What return, O my God, can I make for Thy innumerable blessings, and particularly for the favors of this day? O all ye saints and angels, unite with me in praising th God of mercies, Who is so bountiful to so unworthy a creature.-

    It is followed by the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostle's Creed, Glory be and Confiteor.

    I know it is a bit verbose and I apologise for that, but I believe the prayer has a tendency of helping people see their blessings in the proper light.

    Pax tecum.

  4. i agree with your view on the manual photocopying of the prayer to st jude and how by writing it out we're more consciously meditating on the prayer. often when i find myself angry or upset i try write down the entire situation. and after a while i just realize that there was nothing much to be upset about because God has already blessed me so abundantly!

    hope you're doing well in sots, (:


  5. Whilst I've been irked by "chain letters" both in the email & sms, I somehow feel that those who inundated the church with 'photocopied novenas' may be in a different category of their own.We've taken literacy for granted & to be properly catechized seems to be a personal inclination or choice. However, there remains a section of the faithful who, though cradle-catholics, yet continues to perpetuate such acts of devotion due to a lack of proper catechesis. They are not properly informed, so are not formed & are thus not easily to be transformed. Theirs is a child-like the footsteps of their parents. So for them to photocopy so many copies of novena prayer is perhaps a way of expressing their humble perseverance in faith & their belief in the veracity of the written word.
    I've met one who paid for the photocopy in Upper Serangoon Plaza & literally played 'hide & seek' with out former parish priest - for she would stash 9 copies of prayers in various dark niches of the church & hope that for at least the 9 days he would not find all of them ! When such people are scouring the bottom of the barrel of hope, near plunging into the abyss of despair, this act of flooding the church with their pieces of prayer may be their 'whisper of hope'. They bring this whispering hope to the church - a sacred place, a place set apart from the profane so that perhaps St Jude (?) - the help of the hopeless would have the quiet to "give ear to their distress " & hence be their advocate to the All- Merciful ? So though these pieces of paper do litter the church & we can and should recycle them....we are also glad that the church continues to be a sanctuary for the hopeless?
    God bless you.

  6. I suppose some people might be nursing the assumption that the answer to their prayers might lie in their own efforts - be this in writing out a novena prayerfully 81 times or hitting the "photocopy" button on the machine for 81 copies. Might they be forgetting that the power to grant a heart's desires lies with the One who answers our prayers rather than in the power of the novena per se?

  7. Thanks Fr.Luke and all for the blog n reflections.
    Hm... always wondered why there was this "resent to n people" part that makes some nice emails into a chain mail. Guess, at one point this mails do carry some scripts that will divert readers to other sites for a purpose but the payload was possibly sanitized b4 it reaches us. No one was expected to follow the "sent to n people" part, but we need be cautious as senders; some hoax looks cruel.
    Sad to hear; but for the one printing his/her misery, may God give him comfort. Then, a smile from our heart because there is one sheep out there that at least try to seek Divine help on his/her moment of being lost. Met before a Catholic that can sense people who came looking for God in church, what a divine gift. She helped them and introduced some to RCIA and ALPHA; I am still amazed for God boundless wisdom.

    Joy to all- Charles Marcus