Is the rosary going to survive? Since the early
60s, there has been a rather obvious decline in the rosary's
popularity, at least in the United States. Whether the rosary
will continue in this slump or make a comeback is anyone's guess.
Yet there are still numerous groups around the
world today, and these include young Catholics, for whom the
rosary remainsor is even increasingly becominga
vital form of prayer.
Another sign of hope for the rosary's rebirth
is a renewed understanding of Mary and her mission in the Church.
Perhaps as we bring our image of Mary more in line with contemporary
Church teaching and the signs of the times, we will also begin
seeing new possibilities in the rosary.
Among the reasons some give for the rosary's fall
from popularity are these: It is too mechanical, repetitive
and boring, or it is a relic of the past not suited to our times.
Others say they shy away from the rosary because
of the tunnel vision of a few who so exaggerate its importance
that it begins to eclipse Jesus and the Eucharist as the central
focus of Catholic life. Still others are turned off by the lopsided
theology of those who present the rosary as a simple cure for
all evils while failing to note that action must be combined
with prayer in eliminating those evils.
Pope Paul VI warned against exaggerated approaches
when he wrote in 1974: "We...recommend that this very worthy
devotion not be propagated in a way that is too one-sided or
exclusive. The rosary is an excellent prayer, but the faithful
should be serenely free toward it. Its intrinsic appeal should
draw them to calm recitation" (On Devotion to the Blessed
Praise from the popes
Although Paul VI felt a need in the same document
to point out "certain devotional deviations" in Marian practice,
he showed himselfeven more emphaticallya champion
of Our Lady and of the rosary. He devoted some six or seven
of the document's pages to praising this devotion and explaining
its place in the life of the followers of Christ.
Pope John Paul II has also been a frequent and
staunch advocate of the rosary. In June of 1987by way
of a remarkable, live satellite telecasthe celebrated
the opening of the Marian year by praying the rosary with the
faithful from around the world.
This event, in which millions participated, showed
that the rosary is still a Catholic devotion with worldwide
appeal. Through the miracle of television, the Pope linked five
continents together in one global prayer for world peace. The
telecast carried mass audiences live to places like Bombay,
Manila, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Fatima, Lourdes, Frankfurt,
Washington, D.C., and Dakar (Senegal, Africa), where vast throngs
of the faithful were participating in the rosary at these cities'
great Marian shrines.
On the first Saturday of each month, moreover,
Pope John Paul II recites the rosary with the faithful on Vatican
When the same pope survived an assassin's bullet
in 1981, he credited his safety to the protection of Mary and
expressed his gratitude by way of the rosary. The assassination
attempt had taken place in St. Peter's Square on May 13the
anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady to the children
at Fatima 64 years earlier in 1917.
On the day the pope resumed his public appearances,
October 7 (the feast of the Holy Rosary), he pointed out the
connection with Fatima, saying he was "indebted to the Blessed
Virgin" and adding: "In everything that happened to me on that
very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and
care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.
"Today," he continued, "is the memorial of Our
Lady of the Holy Rosary. The whole month of October is the month
of the rosary....I want these first words...to be words of gratitude,
love and deep trust, just as the holy rosary is and always remains
a prayer of gratitude, love and trustful request: the prayer
of the Mother of the Church. I...invite you all to this prayer."
A bit later, the pope added: "The rosary is my
favorite prayera marvelous prayer, marvelous in its simplicity
and depth....In the last few weeks I have had numerous proofs
of kindness on the part of people all over the world. I want
to express my gratitude in decades of the rosary,...in the prayer,
so simple and so rich, that the rosary is. I cordially exhort
everyone to recite it" (quoted in The Pope Speaks, Vol.
26, No. 4, 1981).
The origin of the rosary
It is obvious, therefore, that the rosary deserves
our study and attention. But before we look at the rosary as
a meaningful prayer for our day, we need quickly to review its
Pinpointing the origin of the rosary is not easy.
The familiar legend that St. Dominic (1170-1221) received the
rosary from Our Lady is difficult to substantiate, and most
historians believe the rosary developed slowly during a time-span
stretching possibly from the 1100s to 1569, when Pope Pius V
officially approved the devotion. Reflected in the legend, no
doubt, is the historical truth of St. Dominic's great devotion
to Our Lady and the key role played by his followers, the Dominican
Order, in the promotion of the rosary over the centuries.
Apparently, the rosary developed out of the laity's
desire to have a form of prayer similar to that practiced by
the monks, who prayed the psalterthe 150 psalms of the
Bible. The faithfulespecially those unable to readbegan
the practice of saying 150 Our Fathers in place of the psalms.
Some used a string of 150 beads to keep count. In a parallel
development, people devoted to Mary said 150 Ave Marias (only
the Angel Gabriel's greeting to Marynot the entire Hail
Mary as we know it today), mixed with verses from the psalms,
a devotion sometimes known as Our Lady's Psalter. With time,
mysteries from the life of Christ were addedto give those
praying material for contemplation and to keep Christ as the
central focus of the devotion.
The rosary took its present form between the 14th
and 15th centuries. A Carthusian monk divided the 150 Ave Marias
into the 15 decades, with each decade preceded by the Lord's
In 1569, as indicated earlier, Pope Pius V officially
recommended this prayer of "150 angelic salutations...with the
Lord's Prayer at each decade...while meditating on the mysteries
which recall the entire life of our Lord Jesus Christ." This
same pope added the second part of the Hail Mary, and this form
of the prayer was eventually adopted for the rosary.
For the next 400 years, the rosary has remained
unchanged. During the past centuryfrom Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903)
to John Paul IIthis prayer has been consistently and highly
recommended by the popes.
Today people usually pray five decadesor
one set of mysteriesat a time rather than all 15 decades
(or 150 Hail Marys) that make up the whole rosary. Although,
strictly speaking, the rosary is all 15 decades (often called
the Dominican rosary), the form most of us are familiar with
is the so-called five-decade rosary.
A Gospel prayer
A quick look at the structure of the rosary shows
it to be truly a Scripture-based prayer drawing especially upon
the Gospels. The Apostles' Creed itself, leading off the rosary,
is nothing other than a summary of the great mysteries of the
Catholic faith, most of which are standard Gospel teachings.
Each decade is preceded by the Our Father, a prayer straight
from the Gospels and taught by Jesus himself as a model of all
The first part of the Hail Mary is composed of
verses from the Gospel of Luke (1:28 and 1:42): the angel's
words announcing Christ's birth and Elizabeth's greeting to
Mary. Both of these gospel passages are rich in meaning and
point to the central mystery of our faith, the incarnation of
New translations of these verses and recent studies
indicate that the angel's greeting to Mary is one of joy announcing
the "breakthrough" of a new age: "Rejoice, God's favored one,
the Lord is with you." Gabriel's greeting recalls the Prophet
Zephaniah's description of the joy which would accompany the
Messiah's coming: "Rejoice, exult with all your heart, daughter
of Jerusalem! Yahweh has repealed your sentence: He has turned
your enemy away. Yahweh is king among you, Israel, you have
nothing to fear" (Zephaniah 3:14-15). At the moment of the Annunciation,
Marythe Daughter of Zion and the Mother of the Churchrepresents
both those who have awaited the Savior and those who now accept
him in faith.
Mary's key role in the mystery of Christ is not
a rosary invention. Rather, it is a vital part of the Gospel
that is simply reflected in the rosary. The sense of the faithful
that the rosary is a prayer of confidence in Mary's love and
intercession for us is rooted in the Good News of the Gospel.
The Gospel passages from which the Hail Mary was
drawn, moreover, reveal the virgin as a dynamic, grace-filled
woman to whom God offered a pivotal and active role in the drama
of salvation. Pope Paul VI saw this clearly when he wrote: "Mary...gives
her active and responsible consent...to the 'event of the ages,'
as the Incarnation of the Word has been rightly called....The
modern woman will note with glad surprise that Mary of Nazareth,
while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being
a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent
to others; on the contrary, she did not hesitate to proclaim
[in the Magnificat by which she responds to Elizabeth's
greeting] that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed and
removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged
positions" (On Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, #37).
Expanding on this theme, Pope John Paul II wrote
in Mother of the Redeemer (#37): "The Church's love of
preference for the poor is wonderfully inscribed in Mary's Magnificat....Mary
is deeply imbued with the spirit of the 'poor of Yahweh' and
truly proclaims the coming of the 'Messiah of the poor'" (Isaiah
If the rosary is truly to reflect the spirit of
the Gospel and that of the Virgin Mary as portrayed there, then
it must encourage, among other things, dynamic responsibility
on the part of both women and men as well as a commitment to
walking with God's poor.
A Christ-centered prayer
At some point in history, the name of Jesus was
added to the first part of the Hail Mary, indicating that all
that precedes it can be fully understood only in the person
of Christ. Jesus, the fruit of Mary's womb, is truly the center
and summit of this prayer.
The mysteries of the rosary are clearly centered
on events in Christ's lifethe joyful mysteries on his
incarnation, the sorrowful mysteries on his suffering and death,
and the glorious mysteries on his resurrection. "In praying
the rosary with devotion," says Mother Teresa of Calcutta, "we
are reliving the life of Christ."
On one occasion in the Vatican, Pope Paul VI is
reported to have held up his rosary and proclaimed: "This is
the Bible for those who can neither read nor write." The whole
history of our salvation, the pope went on to explain, is contained
in these mysteries which summarize the life of Christ.
The mysteries of Christ (and Mary) do not simply
refer to past events. Christ truly lives among us now, continuing
to be born, to suffer, die and rise again in the Church of our
day. When we pray, "Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,"
we need to remember that we, too, the body of Christ, are also
the fruit of her womb, for we are born of the Christ who was
born of Mary. Mary is not only the Mother of Christ, but also
the Mother of the Church, whom Pope Paul VI described as "the
new Eve....cooperating in the birth and development of divine
life in the souls of the redeemed" (quoted by Pope John Paul
II in Mother of the Redeemer, #47).
A tool for contemplation
The rosary is meant to be a prayer that leads
us to Christ and into union with God. If it only locks us into
a meaningless circle of mechanically recited prayers, the rosary
is not achieving its purpose. And Mary would be the first one
to tell us to find a better way to God and love of neighbor.
The words of the rosary are meant to launch us
into the mysteries of Christ's life or, better, into the living
mystery of Christ himself, who says, "I am with you always even
until the end of time." Just as each Hail Mary builds up to
the word Jesus, so the whole rosary leads to union with
him. And through Jesus we come into union with the Triune God.
Each decade ends in a "Glory be to Father, Son and Spirit,"
suggesting that the whole rosary is a movement toward praise
and joyful union with God.
In praying the rosary, it's important not to get
too tied down or worried about the words, at least, not to get
anxious about them. It you feel inspired to savor the words
and their meaning, fine. There is a scriptural richness and
a spiritual energy to be tapped from the words themselves. But
don't hesitate to soar beyond the words to the mysteries of
Christ or into the loving presence of God. If distracting thoughts
come and your mind drifts to last night's dinner, to a movie
or to personal problems, that's O.K. Be at peace. Gently move
back to the words or mysteries or talk to Jesus about your distractions.
We should feel comfortable allowing ourselves
a certain flexibility with the rosary, as the U.S. bishops noted
in their 1973 pastoral letter, Behold Your MotherWoman
of Faith. "Besides the precise rosary pattern long known
to Catholics," they write, "we can freely experiment. New sets
of mysteries are possible. We have customarily gone from the
childhood of Jesus [the finding of Jesus in the Temple] to his
Passion, bypassing the whole public life. There is rich matter
here for rosary meditation" (#97). For example, one might search
for events in the life of Christthe wedding feast of Cana,
the healing of the sick, speaking with the woman at the wellthat
speak to our personal life at any given moment.
As mentioned above, it's not always necessary
to focus on the words. More important is to pray from the
heart. Many people who say the rosary consider the words
to be like background music leading them more deeply into the
mysteries or into God's loving presence within. The gentle murmur
of the words, for example can take us into that silent center
within us where Jesus' Spirit dwells as in a temple.
In his book, Doorway to Silence: The Contemplative
Use of the Rosary (Paulist Press, 1986), Robert Llewelyn
proposes this image: "The words are like the banks of a river
and the prayer is like the river itself. The banks are necessary
to give direction and to keep the river flowing. But it is the
river with which we are concerned. So in prayer it is the inclination
of the heart to God which alone matters. The words are...the
framework in which the prayer is held. The words are not the
prayer. The prayer lies always beyond the words. As the river
moves into the sea, the banks drop away. So, too, as we move
into the deeper sense of God's presence the words fall away
and...we shall be left in silence in the ocean of God's love."
The use of repetition as a tool for contemplation
is an ancient practice. Repeating a sacred word or verses of
Scripture, in rhythm with one's breathing perhaps, is a method
of contemplative prayer described by early Christian writers
and which survives today in the Jesus Prayer and in various
forms of centering prayer. Other religious traditions, such
as Hinduism, use mantrasthe repeating of sacred wordsas
an aid to contemplation.
Using beads during prayers is also a custom common
in other religious traditions, such as among Buddhists and Muslims.
Just as the repetition of words and breathing can lead to a
contemplative state, so also can the soothing repetition of
touch. The use of beads brings the sense of touch into the act,
making the rosary a prayer of the body as well as of the mind.
It's also a way of bringing creation itself (wood, metal, artwork)
into the service of Goda very incarnational way of praying.
An 'incarnational' prayer
Taking the beads in hand and coming to Jesus through
Mary is an incarnational prayer in yet another sense. The God
of Christians is not an abstraction but a personal God who "was
born of the Virgin Mary" and who walked with us as a fellow
human in this world.
"Abstractions do not require mothers!" as Jesuit
theologian Karl Rahner has often been quoted as saying. On the
other hand, we know that Jesus Christ, the central figure of
the rosary, did "require" a mother. We are reminded of the realness,
humanness and accessibility of our loving God each time we pray