Not so coincidentally for this time of year there is a great article entitled "Rogationtide" by Dr. Michael P. Foley in the Spring 2008 issue of The Latin Mass magazine (all quotations below are from Dr. Foley's article unless noted otherwise). Dr. Foley starts with a basic introduction to the celebration, which is now almost completely unknown to Catholics:
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 these days their name: 'rogation' is from the Latin rogare, to petition earnestly.
The Rogation Days used to be a prescribed annual observance in the Roman Rite. Certainly, at a bare minimum they represent one of many perennial traditions that were set aside with, perhaps, not nearly enough forethought. As Dr. Foley notes, they in fact occupy a unique part of the Church's life of prayer.
[T]he 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."For me, recalling the days in which these special prayers were solemnly enacted in self-consciously Catholic countries evokes a yearning to live in such a distinctively Catholic culture. They embody the wonderful earthiness and hominess of Catholicism, a feature seriously lacking in the evangelical Protestantism of my youth. As Dr. Foley says of these Rogationtide celebrations of yore: "The Rogation Days’ roots in the agrarian led to a number of memorable rural customs. In England processions would wind their way 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." Ale and victuals while on procession? Sign me up!
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 years’ crops and laying eggs that would destroy next year’s as well. Minnesota’s governor declared April 26th of the following year a day of prayer and fasting. The Catholic folk of Cold Spring (near Saint 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.” When April 26th 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.
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.
Dr. Foley notes that after Vatican II " Rogation Days were removed from the universal calendar in 1969, but they were not supressed." This was followed by a directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship in which the content of the now-optional Rogation celebration was made entirely free-form: ". . . 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" (Notitiae 5 (1969) 405). But as with the venerable custom of abstinence from eating meat on Friday, once the practice was made optional and a free-form observance urged in its place, most Catholics basically said, "Never mind" and dropped observance completely. Dr. Foley has some important insights on just what the Church lost:
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 . . . 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 products 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 doing so remind us that there are farms and fields that need praying for. They reconnect us with the soil, which even reconnects us to the bounds of our neighborhood, our parish, and each other. They remind us of earth’s fragility as well as its awesome power.
For 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. The church's teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man's nature. Man is composed of body and soul, and he needs these external festivities so that the sacred rites, in all their beauty and variety, may stimulate him to drink more deeply of the fountain of God's teaching, that he may make it a part of himself, and use it with profit for his spiritual life. (Quas Primas §21)