Where do these country-side processions, known as rogations, come from, which allow us to harvest good crops?
It all started in the 5th century, in Dauphiny. Vienne, now a small and quiet town south of Lyon, was an important metropolis of the Church of Gaul. Saint Mamert became bishop in 463. He was called back to God in 477. His feast day is celebrated on May 11, but his relics, which were venerated in Orléans Cathedral, were unfortunately destroyed by the Huguenots in the 16th century. This prelate was renowned, in addition to his holiness, for his knowledge and miracles. This period was a calamitous one, it is known to be the time of the great invasions, with the eruption of the barbaric nations of the Huns and Goths. But in addition, the Vienne region has suffered many other misfortunes: earthquakes, famines, epidemics... The holy bishop encouraged his people by insisting on the need to implore the mercy of our Heavenly Father, and to atone for our sins. It happened, according to his successor Saint Avit in one of his sermons, that on Easter night, a building in Vienne caught fire. The fire spread with such violence that a general conflagration was expected. Saint Mamert, prostrating himself before the altar, his prayers stopped the fire in that instant: everyone saw in it a miracle. Saint Mamert conceived this very night before God the project of the rogations. He fixed the psalms and prayers, adding a fast, an encouragement to confession and compunction of the heart. It was the three days before the Ascension that were chosen for this local public prayer, which would quickly spread throughout Gaul and then to the West. Saint Césaire d'Arles, at the beginning of the 6th century, pointed out this already widespread custom. In 511, the Council of Orléans officially fixed for all of Gaul the period of three days before Ascension. In 567 the Council of Tours imposed the obligation of fasting during these days, which were also declared public holidays. The rogations were established in Spain in the 7th century, then spread to England and then Germany, and Rome adopted this custom at the end of the 8th century, under Saint Leo III, the pope who crowned Charlemagne. The Church's liturgy then adopted this practice and spread it throughout the world.
From the beginning, this prayer consisted of a procession, that is, a solemn march accompanied by hymns of supplication. Over time, these processions were mainly intended to obtain good harvests, with the addition of protection against disasters or wars, which often began in the spring. Praying and doing penance at this time can also encourage true temperance in a season when the body wants to dominate the Christian soul. It must be added that a famine could always threaten Europe and was one of the main dangers for the populations.
At the beginning of the ceremony, the ashes were placed on the heads of the procession, then the holy water was sprinkled and the procession set off. All of them, clerics and lay people, were barefoot and sang antiphons, psalms and, as now, the litanies of the saints. Let us remember that minor litanies are called rogations, not to be confused with major litanies (on the feast of Saint Mark, not celebrated today). The bishop of Arles, Saint Césaire, adds that the procession lasted six hours! We would go to a basilica where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was celebrated. If this was the urban practice, now forgotten, in the countryside, there was a circuit delimited by temporary or fixed crosses, with stops in chapels or rest houses decorated with flowers. The first day was normally dedicated to meadows, the second to fields and the third to vineyards or other secondary crops. But of course, the uses have been able to adapt according to local needs.
A curious custom existed in Gaul during the rogations: that of carrying, behind the cross, a dragon with a long tail filled with straw, for the first two days. The tail was emptied on the third. This meant that the devil reigned in this world on the first day, time before the law of Moses; then on the second day under the law, in the time of grace, after the Passion of Our Lord, he was driven out of the kingdom.
Let us not abandon the holy practice of this procession and let us keep the spirit of it. The Church has left us the rogations as a heritage to defend and as a prayer to use in difficult times, a liturgical lightning rod. Many farmers will be able to explain to us how effective they are in practice. Let us know how to participate, because not only our fields but our homeland and the Catholic Church need special help at this time. Let us finally try to adopt the spirit of penance that accompanies our supplications and our supernatural trust in Divine Providence.
Abbé Bruno France FSSPX