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The Novena to St. Francis Xavier, since the 17th Century


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Chair of Heritage and Art in Navarre

Between March 4 and 12, since the 17th century, the Novena of Grace is celebrated to commemorate the date of the canonization of St. Francis Xavier. Its origin lies in the healing, in 1634, of the Jesuit Marcelo Mastrilli, who was at death's door and was healed through the intercession of the saint from Navarre. A little later, another prodigy worked on Father Alexander Philippuci, in 1658, boosted the popularity of the novena. It spread rapidly in the Jesuit schools: Malinas (1661), Segorbe (1670), Barcelona (1671), Valencia (1672), Mallorca (1674), Calatayud and Madrid (1676). That devotional internship , together with the sermons and the theater, constituted important means for the diffusion of the Xaverian epic.

At high school of the Jesuits in the Navarrese capital.

We do not know the specific date of its introduction in Pamplona. Surely, it was done from 1657 onwards. By 1682 it was already an established function and its text was published in the Pamplona printing house of the Herederos de Labayen. Throughout the last decade of the XVII century, alms are documented for its solemnization, highlighting those of Don Mateo de Galdeano, related to the Galdeano de Peralta house, in which a relic of the saint was kept. In 1692, the expenses of the mass and the villancico (singing in language vernacular) of the first day, the singing of the daily gozos and villancicos, plus the musical composition of the litany of the saint amounted to 363 reales. In 1693, the music was concentrated on the first day, while the rest of the days a harpist by the name of Gregorio played, interpreting the gozos and the litanies. In 1694, the organist of San Cernin put the carols in solfa and played the harp. In 1713 the novena was reinforced by means of a foundation endowed with 600 ducats made by Don Francisco Antonio de Galdeano, lord of Pozuelo and the palaces of Sagüés and Iza.

The music chapel of the cathedral of Pamplona intervened on some occasions. The requests of the Jesuits for the ensemble to perform free of charge gave rise to differences that, at some point, were solved by the prior of the cathedral, Don Fermín de Lubián, although the friction continued until the essay of a agreement signed in 1764 by the President of the high school and the prior of the cathedral.

Diffusion in Navarra

The novena achieved great popularity in Navarre, partly because its celebration was sponsored by the highest authorities of the Kingdom. The Diputación, in 1782, following a mandate of the Cortes, arranged for its celebration in the parish of San Saturnino in the morning and in the afternoon, with the participation of the instrumental and vocal ensemble of the music chapel of the cathedral, which would interpret the gozos daily.

The Diputación made an effort to obtain spiritual graces for those who attended. In 1803 printed posters were distributed with the plenary indulgence granted to those who visited the parish churches on the days of the novena. In 1922 the bishop of Pamplona declared it an obligatory celebration in all the parishes of the diocese, warning that until then it had been carried out by custom.

The text of the joys

The most widespread text for the exercise of the novena in Navarra and in other parts of Spain and Latin America was by the Jesuit Francisco García, author of one of the biographies of the saint. There are known editions of García's novena, printed in Pamplona in 1700, 1721, 1744, 1767, 1847, 1865, 1876 and many others without a year.

At the end of the exercise, the joys were sung, which had a great diffusion. On the one hand, they were a simple way of teaching the people about his life and work. On the other hand, when they were sung, either with a small chamber orchestra, with organ, or simply with the voices, they became the part that aroused the greatest expectation among the attendees. The rules of the Sangüesa confraternity, founded in 1742, are a testimony of the latter, where we read: "at the time of the joys, six candles will burn on the altar table, four on Our Lady and two on the saint".

With an obvious didactic purpose for a people who could neither read nor write, his verses sing of his prodigious feats, miracles and prophecies...etc. The refrain reads: "For you are in every portent / such a sovereign apostle / Give us, O Javier, your hand / to imitate your breath".

The first stanza says: "Being noble Navarre gave you / Full Professor Paris/ soldier to Ignatius you follow / when heaven reformed you / you despise the value / and all the human applause". Many faithful from beyond our borders, would hear the toponym Navarra on that singular occasion, turning the saint into something that was affiliated with the Kingdom of Navarra. Immediately, he was given the title of nobleman. Nobility and sanctity are two concepts that are skillfully handled throughout his hagiography of the Ancien Régime. The passage through Paris, his conversion and captation by Saint Ignatius are narrated in the second, third and fourth verses, calling him a soldier of that Society of Jesus, using terms of military content, very much in use in all the Ignatian language of those times. The fifth and sixth verses present him to us as detached from all earthly desires. The rest of the couplets, up to the ninth, gloss his prodigies, pondering his protection against the plague.

We know of some musical adaptations. From what we have been able to hear we can infer that, in many occasions, they were adaptations of the novenas of other saints. In any case, their variety is relevant, since the dynamic nineteenth-century melodies of some villages of the Ribera are not at all similar to those we have collected in the Pamplona Basin, which are similar to the characteristics of plainchant. The file of music of the cathedral of Pamplona conserves, among other scores dedicated to the saint, the Gozos de Julián Prieto (1765-1844), dated 1806.