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Catholic Update

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The Rosary of the Virgin Mary

Pope John Paul II's Apostolic
Letter Rosarium Virginis
Mariae in condensed form

The rosary of the Virgin Mary, which gradually took form in the second millennium under the guidance of the Spirit of God, is a prayer loved by countless saints and encouraged by the magisterium. Simple yet profound, it still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness.

It blends easily into the spiritual journey of the Christian life, which, after 2,000 years, has lost none of the freshness of its beginnings. The rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christ-centered prayer. It has all the depth of the gospel message in its entirety. It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb.

The rosary is my favorite prayer, marvelous in its simplicity and its depth. It can be said that the rosary is, in some sense, a prayer-commentary on the final chapter of the Vatican II Constitution Lumen Gentium, a chapter that discusses the wondrous presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and the Church.

An age seeking prayer—

The West is now experiencing a renewed demand for meditation, which at times leads to a keen interest in aspects of other religions. Some Christians, limited in their knowledge of the Christian contemplative tradition, are attracted by those forms of prayer.

The rosary is distinguished by its specifically Christian characteristics. This is a methodology, moreover, which corresponds to the inner logic of the Incarnation: In Jesus, God wanted to take on human features. It is through his bodily reality that we are led into contact with the mystery of his divinity.

Against the background of the words Hail Mary the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul. They take shape in the complete series of the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, and they put us in living communion with Jesus through—we might say—the heart of his Mother. At the same time our heart can embrace in the decades of the rosary all the events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the Church, and all mankind; our personal concerns and those of our neighbor, especially those who are closest to us. Thus the simple prayer of the rosary marks the rhythm of human life.

Not outdated, not against Vatican II

There are some who think that the centrality of the Liturgy, rightly stressed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, necessarily entails giving less importance to the rosary.

Yet, as Pope Paul VI made clear, not only does this prayer not conflict with the liturgy, it sustains it, since it serves as an excellent introduction and a faithful echo of the liturgy, enabling people to participate fully and interiorly in it and to reap its fruits in their daily lives.

If properly revitalized, the rosary is an aid and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism! But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery as a genuine —training in holiness.— It is more urgent than ever that our Christian communities should become —genuine schools of prayer.—

Meditation on the mysteries of Christ in the rosary is a method based on repetition. This applies above all to the Hail Mary, repeated 10 times in each mystery. If this repetition is considered superficially, there could be a temptation to see the rosary as a dry and boring exercise.

One thing is clear: Although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her. The repetition is nourished by the desire to be conformed ever more completely to Christ, the true program of the Christian life. St. Paul expressed this project with words of fire: —For me to live is Christ and to die is gain— (Phil 1:21). And again: —It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me— (Gal 2:20). The rosary helps us to be conformed ever more closely to Christ until we attain true holiness.

The rosary remembers Jesus

Mary lived with her eyes fixed on Christ, treasuring his every word: —She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart— (Lk 2:19; see 2:51). The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her son—s side. In a way those memories were to be the —rosary— which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life.

Even now, Mary constantly sets before the faithful the —mysteries— of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power. In the recitation of the rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary. The rosary, precisely because it starts with Mary—s own experience, is an exquisitely contemplative prayer.

Mary—s contemplation is above all a remembering. We need to understand this word in the biblical sense of remembrance (zakar) as a making present of the works brought about by God in the history of salvation. The Bible is an account of saving events culminating in Christ himself. These events not only belong to —yesterday—; they are also part of the —today— of salvation. This making present comes about above all in the liturgy: What God accomplished centuries ago did not only affect the direct witnesses of those events; it continues to affect people in every age with its gift of grace.

Christians, while they are called to prayer in common, must also go to their own rooms to pray to their Father in secret (see Mt 6:6); indeed, according to the teaching of the Apostle they must pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17). The rosary, in its own particular way, is part of this varied panorama of —ceaseless— prayer. By immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer—s life, it ensures that what he has done and what the liturgy makes present are profoundly assimilated and shape our existence.

Learning Christ from Mary

Christ is the supreme Teacher, the revealer and the one revealed. It is not just a question of learning what he taught but of —learning him.— From the divine standpoint, the Spirit is the interior teacher who leads us to the full truth of Christ (see Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13).

But among creatures no one knows Christ better than Mary; no one can introduce us to a profound knowledge of his mystery better than his Mother. Contemplating the scenes of the rosary in union with Mary is a means of learning from her to —read— Christ, to discover his secrets and to understand his message.

As we contemplate each mystery of her Son—s life, she invites us to do as she did at the Annunciation: to ask humbly the questions which open us to the light, in order to end with the obedience of faith: —Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word— (Lk 1:38).

Never as in the rosary do the life of Jesus and that of Mary appear so deeply joined. Mary lives only in Christ and for Christ! If Jesus, the one Mediator, is the Way of our prayer, then Mary, his purest and most transparent reflection, shows us the Way.

The rosary is both meditation and supplication. Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son. The rosary is also a path of proclamation and increasing knowledge, in which the mystery of Christ is presented again and again at different levels of the Christian experience.

—Come unto me——

To pray the rosary is to hand over our burdens to the merciful hearts of Christ and his Mother. It is natural to bring to this encounter with the sacred humanity of the Redeemer all the problems, anxieties, labors and endeavors which go to make up our lives. —Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you— (Ps 55:23).

I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and elderly, and to you, young people: Confidently take up the rosary once again. Rediscover the rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives.


The new mysteries of light

Of the many mysteries of Christ—s life, only a few are indicated by the rosary in the form that has become generally established with the seal of the Church—s approval. The selection was determined by the origin of the prayer, which was based on the number 150, the number of the Psalms in the Psalter.

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the christological depth of the rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ—s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion.

In the course of those mysteries we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: —While I am in the world, I am the light of the world— (Jn 9:5).

Consequently, for the rosary to become more fully a —compendium of the gospel,— it is fitting to add, following reflection on the Incarnation and the hidden life of Christ (the joyful mysteries) and before focusing on the sufferings of his Passion (the sorrowful mysteries) and the triumph of his Resurrection (the glorious mysteries), a meditation on certain particularly significant moments in his public ministry (the mysteries of light, luminous mysteries).

This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer—s traditional format, is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the rosary—s place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the heart of Christ, ocean of joy and of light, of suffering and of glory.

—Moving on from the infancy and the hidden life in Nazareth to the public life of Jesus, our contemplation brings us to those mysteries that may be called in a special way —mysteries of light.— Certainly the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light. He is the —light of the world— (Jn 8:12). Yet this truth emerges in a special way during the years of his public life, when he proclaims the gospel of the Kingdom.

In proposing to the Christian community five significant moments——luminous— mysteries—during this phase of Christ—s life, I think that the following can be fittingly singled out: 1) his Baptism in the Jordan, 2) his self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana, 3) his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion, 4) his Transfiguration and finally 5) his institution of the Eucharist as the sacramental expression of the paschal mystery. Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus.

Baptism in the Jordan is first of all a mystery of light. Here, as Christ descends into the waters, the innocent one who became —sin— for our sake (2 Cor 5:21), the heavens open wide and the voice of the Father declares him the beloved Son (Mt 3:17 and parallels), while the Spirit descends on him to invest him with the mission which he is to carry out.

Cana Wedding. Another mystery of light is the first of the signs, given at Cana (Jn 2:1-12), when Christ changes water into wine and opens the hearts of the disciples to faith, thanks to the intervention of Mary, the first among believers.

Proclamation of the Kingdom. Another mystery of light is the preaching by which Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (see Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (see Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47-48): the inauguration of that ministry of mercy which he continues to exercise until the end of the world, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he has entrusted to his Church (see Jn 20:22-23).

Transfiguration. The mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor. The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished apostles to —listen to him— (see Lk 9:35 and parallels) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit.

First Eucharist. A final mystery of light is the institution of the Eucharist, in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies —to the end— his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice.

The rosary for families—

The family that prays together stays together. The holy rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together. Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.

Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television.

To return to the recitation of the family rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother.

If the rosary is well presented, I am sure that young people will once more surprise adults by the way they make this prayer their own and recite it with the enthusiasm typical of their age group.

The rosary for peace

At the start of a millennium which began with the terrifying attacks of 11 September 2001, a millennium which witnesses every day in numerous parts of the world fresh scenes of bloodshed and violence, to rediscover the rosary means to immerse oneself in contemplation of the mystery of Christ who —is our peace,— since he made —the two of us one, and broke down the dividing wall of hostility— (Eph 2:14).

The rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace. Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ—and this is clearly the goal of the rosary—learns the secret of peace and makes it his life—s project. Moreover, with the tranquil succession of Hail Marys, the rosary has a peaceful effect on those who pray it, disposing them to receive and experience in their innermost depths, and to spread around them, that true peace which is the special gift of the risen Lord (cf. Jn 14:27; 20.21).

In a word, by focusing our eyes on Christ, the rosary also makes us peacemakers in the world. Far from offering an escape from the problems of the world, the rosary obliges us to see them with responsible and generous eyes, and obtains for us the strength to face them with the certainty of God—s help and the firm intention of bearing witness in every situation to —love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony— (Col 3:14).


Next: Lent, Day by Day — Creating Peace (by Karen Berry, O.S.F.)


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