happens to be the very first novena made by the first Christians!
Pope Leo XIII
In the year 1897, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical (Divinum Illud Munus) on the Holy Ghost. He said that so many Catholics were so ignorant about the Holy Ghost that they might repeat what was said to Saint Paul when he asked believers if they had received the Holy Ghost, "We have not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost!" (Acts 19:2).
The Pope wanted pastors to correct this, and to promote among the faithful a knowledge of and a devotion to the Holy Ghost, who is the soul of the Church. Just as a body is dead without a soul, the Church, the Body of Christ, cannot live without the Holy Ghost.
Christ ascended into heaven in order to send us the Holy Ghost. Our salvation, and all our works here on earth, depend on the grace of the Holy Ghost.
Pope Leo was very conscious of this as he tried to accomplish two great goals of his papacy; 1) the restoration of Christian values in secular society, which by his time had been eroded by a century of revolutionary ideas and 2) the reconciliation of all those who had broken unity with the Church of Rome through heresy and schism.
Aren't those two goals valid for today? If Pope Leo was concerned about the weakening of Christian values in society back in 1897, imagine his horror if we lived in 2013!
The First Novena
The first novena, in fact, was a novena to the Holy Ghost. Before the Lord ascended into heaven, He ordered the Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Ghost (Acts 1:4-5) and so the Apostles stayed together in prayer (Acts 1:14). Joining them in prayer was the Blessed Mother and other disciples, male and female.
Counting from the evening of Ascension Thursday till the night before Pentecost, this period of prayerful waiting for the grace of the Holy Ghost makes nine days/nights. Hence, novena, from the Latin word for nine.
It normally takes nine months in the womb for a child to be born. During those nine months, the mother, father and the rest of the family wait and prepare. So it is with all the graces we ask for. They are given to us from the Father, through the merits of Jesus Christ, through the agency of the Holy Ghost. We need to prayerful wait and prepare ourselves to ask for and receive these graces. A novena is an effective way of doing this.
The First Papally-Mandated Novena
Up to 1897, many popes had recommended and encouraged different novenas, giving some of them indulgences under certain conditions. But Pope Leo XIII was the first to mandate a novena, and this was to the Holy Ghost.
He says in paragraph 13 of Divinum Illud Munus : "Wherefore, We decree and command that throughout the whole Catholic Church, this year and in every subsequent year, a Novena shall take place before Whit-Sunday, in all parish churches, and also, if the local Ordinaries think fit, in other churches and oratories."
The emphasis added is mine, to show that the Holy Father did not simply recommend, but ordered this novena to be said. "Whit-Sunday" is an older name for Pentecost Sunday.
Notice that Pope Leo expects this to be said every subsequent year. Let us fulfill his wish!
Now let's take a look at the wonderful indulgences attached to this novena. Again, from the Pope's encyclical :
"To all who take part in this Novena and duly pray for Our intention, We grant for each day an Indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines; moreover, a Plenary Indulgence on any one of the days of the Novena, or on Whit-Sunday itself, or on any day during the Octave; provided they shall have received the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and devoutly prayed for Our intention."
A "quarantine" is a period of forty days; so the Pope is saying seven years and seven 40-day periods of remission of temporal punishments due to sin. A Plenary Indulgence is a full remission of temporal punishments. Only God knows how these indulgences are effectively applied to our souls. Also, the indulgences we gain in this novena can be applied to the souls in Purgatory.
The Octave refers to the eight days after Pentecost. This means that, having completed the novena and the conditions necessary for gaining a Plenary Indulgence, we can gain that even on a day within the Octave, or on Pentecost Sunday itself. The usual conditions for gaining a Plenary Indulgence are 1. to do the indulgenced act (in this case the novena), 2. to be free of all attachment even to venial sin, 3. to confess and receive communion, especially on the day one gains the Plenary Indulgence, but also 20 days prior or after and 4. to pray for the intention of the Holy Father (one Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be minimally, though 6 each is the tradition).
If one cannot fulfill the conditions for a Plenary Indulgence, a Partial Indulgence can be gained if one is in the state of grace, completes the indulgenced act and is sorry for even venial sins.
So generous is the Pope in this matter that any prayers at all, private or public, made daily to the Holy Ghost during the Octave of Pentecost up to Trinity Sunday inclusive shall enjoy the same benefits under the same conditions.
What if I cannot legitimately make it to a church or oratory?
The encyclical states that, if a person truly, for a valid reason, cannot make it to a church or oratory to join in this public novena, he or she can make the novena privately as long as they fulfill the other conditions needed for gaining the indulgence.
Since we do not have daily Mass at the friary in the Extraordinary Form; since we do not have Mass even in the Ordinary Form on Saturdays, most of this novena has to be prayed privately in your homes. So you have a valid reason for saying this novena privately in your homes. But I strongly recommend that you do them as a family, together at the same time.
We will say the novena publicly in our chapel on the days we do have Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
What is the Novena?
I will have copies made for distribution after Ascension Day Mass, and I will also post the novena daily on this site.