Read an Excerpt
Why the Rosary?
“Why are two billion Hail Marys said daily?”
—Life, December 1996
Why the Rosary?
When children ask questions about the universe, such as “Why is the sky blue?” it’s likely that they are not looking for scientifically precise answers. Their burgeoning curiosity probably has more to do with their driving need for connection— to their parents and to the world—than with their desire to clearly understand the physical principles of nature. Still, as their brains begin to discover the laws of cause and effect, they are anxious to make their own connections, to find their own place in relationship to things.
When you or someone else asks, “Why the rosary?” the real question probably goes much deeper than mere theology or church tradition. You may really be asking, “What does the rosary have to do with my life?” or “Will the rosary really help me?” Or you may be saying, “Please translate all the odd legends and practices into something that has meaning to me.” “Why the rosary?” is a question asked by people who are searching for connection, for meaning, even for help.
It’s a legitimate question. If you have doubts about rosary meditation, you are not alone. For all of the two billion Hail Marys that are said daily, an equal number of questions are likely raised about it. Why then, when there are so many other methods by which one might meditate, would someone pick up rosary beads?
First, let’s go through some of the objections. Do any of these sound familiar?
Some people feel that praying the rosary is a pious practice from the distant past that has little relevance for them today. “The rosary is outdated. It’s boring. It’s for little old ladies and children. It’s repetitive and nonsensical. It does not fit with my active lifestyle.”
Others object on very different grounds: they feel that the rosary is a highly demanding devotion only suitable for prayer “specialists.” “I’m not a monk, priest, deacon, or sister. I’m too young. I’m not holy enough. I’m not highly educated. I don’t have enough time, imagination, energy, willpower, selfdiscipline to say the rosary effectively.”
Then there are those who believe that the rosary does not fit into what they think is a modern lifestyle. “I’m too hip, too together, too liberated, too intelligent, too sophisticated to be praying this way.”
Many are disturbed by what they think are the ominous implications of a habit of rosary devotion. “If I say the rosary, I’ll have to become a nun, priest, deacon, monk, religious nut. What will people think?”
In short, it’s not uncommon for those unfamiliar with rosary devotion to respond with hesitation, indifference, fear, disbelief, cynicism, antagonism, laughter, mockery, even outright disdain. I believe these objections are based primarily on common misconceptions. The rosary is a practical and gratifying means of meditation suitable for everyone. It is simple but profound, both traditional and modern. It is easy to say the rosary, but the spiritual riches of this devotion are as deep and spiritually satisfying as any prayer discipline you can practice.
The variety of people who practice rosary devotion might come as a surprise.
Kate, a songwriter who is not even a Catholic, said, “It gives me a sense of comfort.”
Kenneth, a nurse who works a very demanding schedule, said, “I feel closer to God when I pray the rosary. I feel at peace. It helps me to get through my workday.”
Charles, a college student and an ex-convict, said he prays the rosary because “it is so powerful! It helped to change me.”
Jennifer, a new mother, said after praying the rosary for some time, “I’ve found myself really turned away from and turned-off by materialism. [The rosary] seems to have opened my eyes to an entirely new world: one where spiritual matters are so much more important and more interesting than physical things.”
Rudolph, a Dominican priest, commented that “when I pray the rosary regularly, I worry far less and am more at peace with the world in general.”
Margaret, a lifelong devotee at eighty years old, said, “It’s like a conversation with the Blessed Mother, and you know nothing helps you better than to have someone to talk to about your problems.”
Perhaps the most common problem people have with the rosary is their bewilderment that something so simple—a repetitious fingering of a string of beads while praying—can yield such great spiritual benefits. They think, “How can something like this bring me closer to God?”
The rosary is not magic. It’s not going to rob you of your personality or turn you into a religious fanatic. It’s not a superstitious ritual or the mechanical rattling off of antiquated prayers that have little depth or meaning. The myriad people who practice this devotion have found it to be a powerful prayer, a tool of transformation, and a traditional meditation that is well suited even to this modern world.
How well suited? Many have found that the rosary has been an effective prayer to help them overcome a character defect. Joe, an attorney in a high-profile law firm, said that the things that used to set off his temper and send his blood pressure soaring now don’t seem so bothersome. “I’ve realized I’m not alone here, trying to do everything by myself,” he said. Others have found themselves freed of addictions, crippling self-pity, or nagging resentments.
Still others have found that the rosary has been effective in intercession. Rod, a thirty-two-year-old writer, prayed many rosary novenas for the intention that he would meet a woman and marry or, if that wasn’t God’s will, that he would be able to accept and be content with single life. In time he did marry; he and his wife just had their first child. A grandmother concerned about the religious education of her grandchildren prayed the rosary, asking that her grandchildren get accepted into Catholic schools. All did, despite a variety of obstacles. John, a B-29 gunner during World War II, prayed the rosary on every one of his thirty-nine dangerous missions over Japan and returned home safely.
Still others have prayed the rosary as a sheer act of love. According to those close to him, Padre Pio, an Italian Capuchin monk who died in 1968, was said to have prayed the rosary constantly, up to thirty-five times a day. Padre Pio prayed for the conversion of sinners and for all those who requested his prayers. He often said, “Love the Madonna and pray the rosary, for her rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today.” Many healings have been attributed to his intercessory prayer.
For countless people, the rosary has become a central element in their prayer life, serving many purposes—personal spiritual growth, intercessory prayer, healing, and contemplative prayer among them. These people are saints, laypersons, religious, parents, singles, children, and even non-Catholics.
Still, there are cultural and historical reasons for resistance to rosary meditation. American culture tends to place extreme trust in the power of the intellect. The rosary sounds a wrong note; it seems anti-intellectual. This was a particular problem for me when I began to think about saying the rosary as an adult. But I found that my intellectual preoccupations were contributing to the problem, not helping to relieve it. I believed that I would be saved if I just knew enough, just filled my brain with enough knowledge. Such a distorted outlook kept my brain frenzied and my spirit in turmoil.
Now I say the rosary because it helps me to enter into deeper stillness where my intellect alone cannot take me. As with most prayer, it works simply because it does, not because I understand how it works. In his book A Western Way of Meditation: The Rosary Revisited, David Burton Byran draws an analogy between the mysteries of prayer and the mysteries of science.
The greatest discoveries of physics (relativity and quantum mechanics, for example) are but imperfectly understood, even by great physicists. But however imperfectly understood, these discoveries are effectively used in the uncovering of further truths and in the design of new techniques and inventions. Using these discoveries helps to appreciate them. It would be sophomoric to deny the new discoveries simply because their deepest meaning continually eludes us.
Clearly, we were not meant to live on intellect alone. War, disease, and other social, economic, and environmental problems have all flourished in this enlightened, technologically advanced age. We can e-mail over oceans in seconds and use satellites to track weather in distant lands we will never visit—yet we’ve never struggled more with isolation and loneliness. Rosary meditation is an opportunity to shed intellectual, emotional, and physical restrictions and to tap into a spiritual relationship that has no limits—the kind of connection that tells us who we are and sustains lasting peace, the kind of connection intrinsic to our nature as human beings with eternal souls.
The rosary reflects the divine order of things, a hierarchy within which science, natural law, mathematics, and the arts all find their proper places. A person who prays the rosary becomes aware of the order of things: problems don’t seem so big, and God doesn’t seem so distant or indifferent. Any meditation is really a call-and-response, an action and reaction, an attempt to connect two divided parties—the meditator and God—all within God’s divine order and purpose. When we make that connection, transformation can begin to take place, change can be effected, and peace of mind has a place to grow.
Why the rosary? It’s tempting to say, “Why not?” and leave it at that. Instead, I suggest that you may find your answer in the experiences of others who have asked the same question and, like children, helpless to their need for connection, have proceeded forward without understanding entirely why.
Begin the rosary with the sign of the cross, followed by the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Then follow the beads down the pendent. On the first bead, announce the mystery and say an Our Father; on each of the next three beads say a Hail Mary. In the space that follows, recite the doxology. The next bead begins the body of the rosary pattern: an Our Father on the first large bead followed by ten Hail Marys on the next ten beads and the doxology in the following space. Repeat that pattern throughout the rest of the rosary. At the beginning of each decade, announce a mystery. You may pause for a moment and think about the meaning of that mystery and then continue on with the rest of the decade.
What Is the Rosary?
The rosary, like anything that has spanned centuries, has had a richly complex evolution. It has borrowed from many traditions and has been influenced by many people. It has been prayed in a variety of ways and continues to spawn variations and inspire supplements. But the traditional rosary is a simple thing, a devotional tool that teaches through prayerful meditation the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The Catechism calls the rosary the “epitome of the whole Gospel.” It is a scriptural meditation; eighteen of the twenty mysteries, or meditations, are drawn directly from the New Testament. The person praying the rosary repeats several common Catholic prayers and uses the beads to help him or her keep track of both the meditation and the prayer. The rosary works on multiple levels: it is a physical object; it involves the intellect and the imagination in meditation; and its purpose is developing spiritual insight and, ultimately, connection with God.
The mysteries of the contemporary rosary focus on Christ’s early life, public life, passion, death, and resurrection. However, because most of the rosary prayers are Hail Marys and because two of the mysteries are dedicated to Marian events, the rosary sometimes appears to be focused on Mary rather than on Christ. Thus people sometimes ask if Catholics are worshiping Mary and want to know what it means to pray to Mary. Why would people ask Mary to pray for them? they wonder. This question will be addressed in detail in chapter 3. For now, I would just like to point out that the focus of the rosary is on Christ. This will become clearer as we take a more concentrated look at the evolution of the rosary as a devotional tool.
We must keep in mind three major histories when considering the development of the rosary: the prayers themselves and their origins; the actual physical rosary (beads, chain, and crucifix); and the addition of the mysteries. All three elements developed in combination with each other to finally make up the rosary we know today.
“The rosary provides me with so many opportunities to connect with God. There’s the physical part, moving the beads through the fingers; the vocal prayer; and then the mental, meditative reflecting on the scene. The rosary fulfills St. Paul’s command that we ‘pray without ceasing.’”
Carl, systems analyst
The Prayers of the Rosary
The prayers of the rosary are the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the doxology. They make up a conversation with God that essentially follows the pattern of how we greet and respond and communicate with one another.
Imagine being approached by someone who has been standing off in the distance, someone you have been hoping and waiting for. You first note whether the person is male or female; as he or she draws closer you begin to identify other characteristics—eyes, hair, the way the person walks or dresses. Perhaps you recognize the hair, the eyes, and the smile of your mother. As she approaches and greets you, you recognize her voice and observe her gait, which has slowed as she’s gotten older. When the two of you embrace, an even more complete experience of her—brown eyes, white hair, gentle, affectionate embrace—fills your senses: “This is my mother who loves me, and I’m happy we are together.” You then have a conversation with her about those things that you have in common. You direct your speech and comportment in a way that is appropriate for your mother, for your relationship with her and the history you share together.
This is the experience of the rosary. Prayer is coming to know someone. It creates a common language for communication.
The rosary begins with the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed on the crucifix.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Derived from the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed is a dec-laration of the basic tenets of the faith. It reflects and prepares us for the coming meditations. It serves a communal purpose by establishing a common language of faith for all those who may be praying the rosary. It also serves a personal faith-fortifying purpose by allowing us to declare our faith vocally and by reminding us of the signal characteristics of our triune God.
The Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer, follows the creed. It is recited on the first bead and introduces each decade, or group of ten Hail Marys.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
Given to us from the lips of Christ himself, the Our Father is the most important prayer in the entire devotion. Because it is taken directly from Scripture, the Our Father has a simple history, but its meaning is certainly rich. Space does not allow for a lengthy study of the prayer, but a brief overview will help place it in the proper context. You may find it helpful to consult some of the many commentaries and devotional books that discuss the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name: We begin by identifying the one being addressed: our Father. We recognize other characteristics of his nature: he is of a divine, or heavenly, nature. Thus he is worthy of praise—his name is holy, honored, and uniquely his. With these basic characteristics in mind, we have become aware of the one to whom we are speaking, and we will conduct ourselves accordingly.
The Our Father remains significant for many reasons. Christ taught us to address God in the most personal way imaginable, as Abba—a word close to “Papa” or “Dad.” This emphasizes the intimacy of Christ’s relationship to God, and by teaching his disciples to pray in this manner, Christ was inviting us to enjoy the same intimacy. The Our Father, then, is a constant reminder of our childlike dependence on God and of the profound level of intimacy into which he invites us. But addressing God as Father was also problematic and would continue to be throughout early church history. For example, during the rule of the Romans, the Our Father was considered subversive because it addressed God as Father rather than as emperor.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven: The next phrase of the Our Father continues the process of recognition and begins the transition into petition. We recognize that, because God is our Father, his kingdom will be established and his will will be enacted in our earthly lives, just as his will is the central cause and meaning of heaven. This part of the prayer also expresses our desire that the order of heaven come and visit the earth. We make a conscious choice to bend our will to God’s and to join our plans with his, rather than the other way around.
Give us this day our daily bread: Because God is our Father, we come with confidence to ask him to provide for all our needs—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. The emphasis here on “this day” should not be overlooked; we ask for God’s provision for this day and this day only. By doing so, we choose to leave our future needs completely in God’s hands, trusting that his word is true and that we need not worry about tomorrow, for “tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). In other words, Christ is reminding us that we do not need to borrow trouble we don’t have.
Furthermore, there is an obvious link between “daily bread” and the Last Supper. The daily bread we now celebrate is the Eucharist at Mass.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: We’ve already asked for God’s provision; now we request his forgiveness. To trespass essentially means to sin against or violate someone else. We have injured and been injured by others, but we ardently seek to forgive as we have been forgiven. A contrite heart is essential to communion with God. Forgiving and forgiveness go hand in hand. As it is repeated throughout the rosary, the Our Father offers us multiple opportunities to reconcile ourselves to God, ourselves, and others.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen: Finally, we ask that God make one last provision: to protect us against temptation and evil in whatever form it may take in our lives. Saying “Amen” is simply another way of saying “I believe” or “So be it.”
The Our Father is a beautiful, complete prayer, but it can be difficult to say. To ask for God’s will and not your own; to concern yourself with this day only and not worry about what the future may hold; to be forgiving, even of those who persecute you and cause you pain—all this takes effort that goes against our human grain. We continually struggle to recognize God as our Father, as the source of our life and the one completely dedicated to our well-being.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
The doxology, a simple prayer of praise, follows each decade of Hail Mary prayers and is the continuation of the Our Father.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: Because we recognize God and the ways in which he has created us, provided for us, and saved us, we praise him in his triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen: This phrase captures another characteristic of God and his kingdom: they are eternal, never changing. He is above and beyond time in ways we cannot comprehend. But we can rest assured that because of his eternal, never-changing nature, he is and is available to us for eternity.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The Hail Mary is recited on each of the ten beads between the Our Father and the doxology. Rosary meditation, like all Marian devotion, hinges on the angelic salutation “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). God enters human history in a unique way through the Incarnation at this specific point, with this specific address to this specific girl. The angel’s words introduce Mary into the Gospels and begin the Hail Mary, but the Hail Mary is not the first prayer addressed to Mary, historically speaking.
The earliest Marian prayer we know about was written in Egypt in the third century. It is called Sub Tuum Praesidium: “Under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications in necessity, but deliver us from danger, [O you] alone pure and alone blessed.” Clearly, this early prayer had already delineated a number of important characteristics of Mary’s role in the church and in prayer.
Under your mercy we take refuge, O Mother of God: This address asserts that Christ is indeed divine; it is not an attempt to assign to Mary the divinity that is reserved solely for God. But because she is the mother of the wholly human, wholly divine Jesus, Mary’s relationship with Christ is especially intimate and blessed. It places her particularly close to him, like any mother to her child.
Do not reject our supplications in necessity, but deliver us from danger: This portion of the earliest Marian prayer is obviously modeled after the Our Father. The intention is not so much to glorify Mary as to point out her special role as intercessor. As the last portion of the prayer points out—“[O you] alone pure and alone blessed”—no one else was chosen to carry Christ.
No one else had been prepared with enough purity to bear the Incarnation.
This early Marian prayer contains the general sentiment of the present-day Hail Mary:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you: The angelic salutation is taken directly from the New Testament, Luke 1:28. It is spoken in a moment of recognition. The angel calls Mary “full of grace” because he recognizes her as the one God has chosen, the one he has been developing—not only since her own earthly conception but since the beginning of time—as the vessel for the Messiah.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus: This portion of the prayer is also taken from Scripture, Luke 1:42, during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Elizabeth greets Mary with these words, calling her blessed because the fruit of her womb is Jesus, the Messiah. Mary is blessed not through any merit of her own, but because she has been chosen by God. Jesus’ name was added during the development of this prayer, probably during the thirteenth century. Not only is the word Jesus physically central to the prayer, it is also spiritually central to it, as it is in all Marian devotion.
Holy Mary, Mother of God: “Holy Mary” is self-explanatory. The Messiah entered human history in a vessel prepared for him by God, a vessel that is therefore holy. The title “Mother of God” is a commentary on the role of Christ among us. Mary was declared Theotokos, or “Mother of God,” at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431. This went against the Nestorian heresy, which suggested that Christ was not one divine person but a human person joined to the divine person of God’s Son. The title “Mother of God” tells us unequivocally that Christ is at the same time fully divine and fully human—“true God and true Man” “born according to the flesh,” according to the Catechism. There is evidence that “Mother of God” was added to the prayer around the fourteenth century.
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen: We ask Mary to intercede for us, to pray for us, because she is the honored mother of God and her prayers are invaluable. Furthermore, we ask that in the same way that she endured and suffered with her Son while he was dying on the cross, a witness and a source of comfort until his final breath, she be with us when we die—leading us, as the Catechism says, “to her Son, Jesus, in paradise.”
The Hail Mary prayer has been in development since the earliest days of the church. The prayer’s present form was not established until 1568, when it, along with the Our Father, was added to the published Roman Breviary. At the time of its inclusion in the Breviary, it was not necessarily intended for use in rosary meditation. The popularity of the Hail Mary and the rosary in general soared thanks to the efforts of men like St. Dominic, a missionary who lived in southern France during the thirteenth century, and others who had a deep personal devotion to Mary.
Pier’s Secret Life
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901–1925) was young, handsome, popular, well educated, and wealthy. He was also remarkably devoted to the rosary.
Beloved especially among young people and among university students in particular, Blessed Pier Giorgio was an extraordinary young person who had the fervent prayer life of a mystic. As the son of a socially prominent Italian businessman and politician, Pier Giorgio was a member of the Turinese elite. He was as rigorous and ardent about his athletic life as he was about his prayer life; hiking, horseback riding, mountain climbing, skiing, and bicycling were some of his favorite activities. He often attended the theater and was fond of art, literature, and music. Behind the scenes, however, lived a different Pier Giorgio.
His secret life as an extraordinarily generous and humble servant to the poor began to be revealed after his death from polio at age twenty-four. Pier Giorgio most likely contracted the disease when he was visiting the sick. When his funeral was held, the streets of Turin were filled with mourners, many of them the poor, sick, lonely, and aged that Pier Giorgio had helped throughout his short life. He sacrificed much to help Turin’s downtrodden, such as when he took all the money his father had given him at his graduation and gave it to the poor. Even on his deathbed, he offered instructions to his friends and family about how to care for the poor who had come to depend upon him. Much to the surprise of even his own family, Pier Giorgio had impacted the lives of thousands of the faceless poor of Turin.
Pier Giorgio’s inner life was rich as well. He often spent the night in the tabernacle, kneeling before the Eucharist in profound prayer. He belonged to a nocturnal eucharistic adoration group and was one of the most devoted members. One of his favorite prayers was the rosary. He even cultivated plants whose seeds he would use to make rosaries for his friends. His rosary was always with him, either encircling his hand as he walked to and from church or hiked up mountains, or in his pocket, to be retrieved at any moment. In the final years of his life, Pier Giorgio prayed the full fifteen mysteries daily and was a steadfast promoter of the rosary, something that did not always draw favorable attention. While he was entirely silent about his help to the poor, he was sometimes criticized for being an exhibitionist with regard to his rosary devotion. But those who criticized him were often won over in time.
Pier Giorgio was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990. During the process, numerous testimonies were gathered from those who knew him. These testimonies have been collected by his niece, Wanda Gawronska, of the Associazione Pier Giorgio Frassati. In these testimonies, many remarked on the attentiveness with which Pier Giorgio recited the prayers of the rosary, a devotion that inspired all who were aware of it. Anne Deppe Rahner, sister of eminent theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., said that on the first night she and her family met Pier Giorgio, he prayed the rosary in his bedroom. The family was deeply touched. Fr. Rahner later remarked that “I was amazed when he recited the rosary aloud in his room. I could not understand it at the time. A youngster from our time had to have a beautiful piety first in order to then love the rosary as much as he did.”
Pier Giorgio’s love for the rosary and the Eucharist was accompanied by a great simplicity of faith in action. He would offer the coat off his back to someone without one; he fed the hungry and housed the homeless. He led a positive, simple, faithful life, and this was the measure of his sanctity. Recently exhumed as part of the canonization process, Blessed Pier Giorgio’s body was found incorrupt, a sign of his great purity, piety, and faith.
The Physical Rosary
Beads, knotted cords, ropes, chains, and other tallying devices have been used in prayer for centuries, not only by Christians, but by religious believers of all kinds—such as Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. In the Middle Ages, Christians began to say 150 Our Fathers as a substitute for the 150 psalms that priests said in the Divine Office, using beads as a way to keep track of the prayers. Sometimes they gathered 150 stones and cast one away with each prayer. In the late Middle Ages, the Hail Mary replaced the Our Father in the daily recitation of 150 prayers—a devotion called the Marian Psalter. When the traditional rosary came into use, the Our Father was once again included in the meditation, claiming an appropriate place at the beginning of each decade.
At different points in its development, the rosary was a simple long cord that had 150 knots, and at other times it had only 50. The tallying devices of early rosaries were made from whatever material was on hand, including apricot or olive pits, bone, wood, stones, or pebbles. As the rosary developed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, metalsmiths began mass-producing rosaries using glass, pewter, lead, and iron. Beginning in the eighteenth century, women would sometimes adorn their rosary chains or cords with figurines, dried flowers, gems, even dried fruit. Eventually, the crucifix was added to the rosary and reserved for the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. The crucifix and the first five beads make up the pendent. The first three Hail Marys were added as a petition for faith, hope, and charity. In calling upon these virtues at the beginning of each rosary, we are calling upon the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary, the same Holy Spirit we call upon at every Mass and in all the sacraments.
“God is the best psychologist. He gave us the rosary because we’re body and soul and we need something to grab onto physically. You need something to help keep you focused.”
Fr. Anthony Anderson, pastor
The Mysteries of the Rosary
In the Middle Ages, a meditation on some event in the life of Jesus or Mary was paired with each of the 150 prayers in the Psalter that eventually became the rosary. These events were drawn from Scripture, but they were not necessarily direct quotes. They helped the praying person focus on a particular virtue. They were also a means of teaching the gospel to a culture that had few books. Even today, some people pray a Scripture verse for each bead of the rosary. The rosary of St. Dominic was probably most like the scriptural rosary. During the Renaissance, picture rosaries became very popular. These rosaries were accompanied by small paintings on wood of the various mysteries. To make the pictures more manageable, the 150 meditations were reduced to the fifteen mysteries we have today. In 1569, Pope Pius V officially recognized fifteen mysteries, separated into three groups:
• The joyful mysteries. The Annunciation, the Visitation, the birth of Jesus, the presentation of Jesus, and the finding of Jesus in the temple
• The sorrowful mysteries. The agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion and death of Jesus
• The glorious mysteries. The Resurrection, the Ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the assumption of Mary, and the coronation of Mary
As further evidence that the rosary is an evolving meditation, in 2002, Pope John Paul II declared the year of 2003 the Year of the Rosary. In celebration of this pronouncement, he recognized the luminous mysteries, five events from the public life of Jesus’ ministry.
• The luminous mysteries. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, the Transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist in the last supper.
It is likely that these mysteries were selected not just for their spiritual merit but also because they could be easily visualized. This made them effective tools for teaching the life of Christ and Mary to people who could not read. Their pictorial quality also makes them suitable for prayerful meditation. At present, a rosary devotee can choose to meditate on any one of many beautiful mysteries.
For instance, one may chose to meditate on the mysteries of the Beatitudes. In this version, the traditional mysteries are replaced with the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–12). The meditator recalls one beatitude for each decade: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”; “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”; “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”; and so on. Other variations on the rosary concentrate on such topics as the Eucharist, the work of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, motherhood, fatherhood, and healing.
“The words are a kind of melody which soothes the ear and isolates us from the noise of the world around us, the fingers being occupied meanwhile in allowing one bead after another to slip through. Thus the imagination is kept tranquil and the mind and will are set free to be united to God.”
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, theologian
The Rosary and the Church
Rosary devotion is entirely optional for Catholics, yet it continues to be very popular. The rosary is a flexible instrument for meditation. Its prayers and mysteries are quite fluid, and many different forms of the rosary exist to help foster the devotee’s spiritual life. Devotions in general are a potent means to developing one’s faith, but a person doesn’t have to practice rosary devotion in order to be a practicing, faithful Catholic.
Nevertheless, Catholic saints and pastors have frequently urged people to pray the rosary. One of the first of these was
St. Dominic, who believed that praying the rosary was a way to reach hardened souls who’d gone astray from the teaching of the church. He believed that by praying the rosary they could be won over to God.
Rosary devotion has been an enormous part of the devotional life of many of the clergy and has garnered much attention from many popes, especially Pope John Paul II. Numerous encyclicals have been written about the rosary. Pope Leo XIII alone wrote thirteen, and the rosary is mentioned in many others, offering substantial support for rosary devotion as a means to bringing the church together and individuals closer to God.
In recent years, people have been encouraged to personalize their private rosary meditation so that it becomes most efficacious for them. Outside of the Mass, it’s one of the best communal prayers for families. It is simple to learn, and many excellent materials on rosary devotion are now available for children.
The rosary is a history lesson, a study in theology, and a simple meditative prayer all in one. When you pick up rosary beads, it’s like you’re picking up the gospel. When you pray the rosary, it’s like you’re taking the hand of Christ and walking through his life with him and his mother, Mary. And she, so close to him, had quite a spectacular view.