The devotion of praying the rosary has been an integral part of the Roman Catholic experience for over 500 years. It is a method of prayer which combines the tactile senses (feeling the beads in your hand), verbal prayer, and mental reflection upon the central mysteries of Christianity. The rosary is a powerful method of prayer. Pope John Paul II, a great lover of the rosary, declared it “a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness.” It is perhaps fitting, then, that October, the month of the earthly harvest, should be dedicated as the month of the Most Holy Rosary. In honor of this and because I have personally found the rosary to be a spiritual fount of great wealth, I would like to do a short series on this ancient devotional method.
Please know that devotion to the rosary is not relegated to Catholics. Any Christian can benefit from the practice of praying the rosary. In fact, there are many testimonies of people who were not Christians who came to faith in part by praying the rosary. During this month of the rosary, why not try praying it for the first time, and witness the grace that God can bestow through this most holy method of prayer.
A Brief History of the Rosary
The practice of praying with counters predates Christianity and is believed to have originated in Hinduism. The early Christians adopted the idea of prayer counters. One popular method was to place a certain number of stones in one’s pocket or purse and cast one away for every prayer recited. In the ninth century, Irish monks used knotted ropes as an aid in reciting all 150 psalms. The devotion became popularized among the lay faithful by replacing the psalms, which were difficult to memorize, with 150 “Our Fathers.” In the thirteenth century, Medieval theologians began interpreting the psalms as “mysteries” speaking about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They developed Psalters in honor of Jesus and Mary in response to these interpretations. Each of these two sets of 150 Psalters was divided into groups of 50 that became known as Rosariums, a reference to an analogy of a collection of prayers to a bouquet of roses. Later, during the fifteenth century, the Dominican order developed a particular method of counter prayer, which has become the foundation of what we know as the rosary today.
The Dominicans replaced the more complex Psalters with familiar prayers: “The Our Father,” drawn verbatim from the Gospel of Matthew and the “Glory Be,” a common doxology used from the very earliest days of the Church. The “Hail Mary” was developed around this time from the scriptural greetings of the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation and St. Elizabeth at the Visitation; both accounts can be found at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. These prayers became the foundational structure of the verbal prayer of the rosary, though other prayers would be added later. These prayers were set in a certain order, one prayer for each knot or bead on a thread. Each set of 10 prayers came to be known as a “decade.” While reciting the decades, one would meditate on the mysteries of the Christian faith. Around the year 1700, the meditation aspect of the rosary started to take on the character of narratives. St. Louis de Monfort composed the most popular set of these narratives, which were later divided into three sets of five mysteries: the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. In 2002, Pope John Paul II added a fourth set of five Luminous mysteries.
Why Pray the Rosary?
Our age is a spontaneous one. Tradition is often viewed today as quaint, at best, and archaically sterile, at worst. I would argue against both of these perspectives and declare with G.K. Chesterton that
Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father.However, the perspective persists, and many ask why anyone today would want to engage in a method of prayer that seems to some quaint, at best, and archaically sterile, at worst—or worse yet, superstitious.
First, let us be clear that the rosary is not a superstition. There is no teaching within the Catholic Church that says, “Pray so many decades of the rosary and Aunt Mildred will be cured of cancer.” The rosary is a form of prayer. As such, it is a communion with God, a yielding to Him, and it can be used for reflection, petition, or intercession. Just as God is not a genie-in-a-bottle, so the rosary and other forms of prayer are not magic wishes. Using the rosary beads and rote prayers is not a form of superstitious mumbo-jumbo; these are tools to help quiet the body and still the mind in a holy attitude of prayer.
An article from EWTN.com says this about the rosary:
The rosary has been called the preparation for contemplation and the prayer of saints...[T]he heart, mind, and soul of the Christian is formed according to the Gospel examples of the Savior and His First Disciple, His Mother. In God's own time, when this purification of the heart, mind, and soul has advanced sufficiently the Lord may give the grace of contemplative prayer, that special divine insight into the truth which human effort cannot achieve on its own.
While contemplative prayer—indeed any form of prayer—is a worthy endeavor, there are reasons why praying the rosary is a particularly important and worthy devotion. For one thing, it enables us to recite regularly the foundational prayers of our faith. It also takes us through the mysteries of the Christian faith, centering on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord. It takes approximately twenty minutes to half-and-hour to pray a full rosary; this is a very workable time frame for most people today. The rosary is portable and can be prayed anywhere, even while driving: a useful aspect for many in our on-the-go modern age. You can’t exactly read Scripture or do a Bible study on your morning commute. The rosary is universal and unitive. On any given day, millions of the faithful all over the world are joining together in praying the same prayers, reflecting on the same mysteries.
The rosary is not a panacea or a magic wand, but it has been proven to be highly efficacious as a form of prayer and a channel of God’s grace. Pope Pius IX said, “Among all the devotions approved by the Church none has been so favored by so many miracles as the devotion of the Most Holy Rosary.” And again, “There is no surer means of calling down God's blessings upon the family . . . than the daily recitation of the Rosary.”
As a practice that calls the Christian to regular communion with God and reflection upon His life, Passion, and Resurrection, the rosary is a constant call to holiness. Bishop Hugh Doyle once said, “No one can live continually in sin and continue to say the Rosary: either they will give up sin or they will give up the Rosary.”
Our Lady has referred to the practice of the rosary in many of her apparitions. Our Lady of Lourdes taught St. Bernadette to pray the rosary. When Our Lady appeared at Fatima in 1917, she exhorted us, “Say the Rosary every day to obtain peace for the world,” and she even added a prayer to the recitation of the decades. When Our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Dominic and Bl. Alan, she spoke of fifteen promises to those who faithfully recited the Most Holy Rosary:
- Whoever shall faithfully serve me by the recitation of the rosary, shall receive signal graces.
- I promise my special protection and the greatest graces to all those who shall recite the rosary.
- The rosary shall be a powerful armor against hell, it will destroy vice, decrease sin, and defeat heresies.
- It will cause virtue and good works to flourish; it will obtain for souls the abundant mercy of God; it will withdraw the hearts of men from the love of the world and its vanities, and will lift them to the desire of eternal things. Oh, that souls would sanctify themselves by this means.
- The soul which recommends itself to me by the recitation of the rosary, shall not perish.
- Whoever shall recite the rosary devoutly, applying himself to the consideration of its sacred mysteries shall never be conquered by misfortune. God will not chastise him in His justice, he shall not perish by an unprovided death; if he be just he shall remain in the grace of God, and become worthy of eternal life.
- Whoever shall have a true devotion for the rosary shall not die without the sacraments of the Church.
- Those who are faithful to recite the rosary shall have during their life and at their death the light of God and the plentitude of His graces; at the moment of death they shall participate in the merits of the saints in paradise.
- I shall deliver from purgatory those who have been devoted to the rosary.
- The faithful children of the rosary shall merit a high degree of glory in heaven.
- You shall obtain all you ask of me by the recitation of the rosary.
- All those who propagate the holy rosary shall be aided by me in their necessities.
- I have obtained from my Divine Son that all the advocates of the rosary shall have for intercessors the entire celestial court during their life and at the hour of death.
- All who recite the rosary are my sons, and brothers of my only son Jesus Christ.
- Devotion of my rosary is a great sign of predestination.
But, perhaps you are not Catholic. Perhaps you do not believe in the apparitions of Our Lady. Perhaps you do not trust the wisdom of the Church or the assurances of the Holy Fathers. Then, do not take my word for it. Do not take the word of the Church or the popes or even Our Blessed Mother. Take up the beads, and begin the practice of praying the rosary. God’s grace in your life will be your assurance.
In the rest of this series on the Most Holy Rosary, I plan to cover
- the prayers of the rosary
- the mysteries of the rosary
- how to pray the rosary
- my own experience with praying the rosary