Youth Update

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The Rosary:
A Gospel Prayer

by Thomas A. Thompson, S.M., and Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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 remains—or is even increasingly becoming—a 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 Virgin, #55).

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 himself—even more emphatically—a 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 1987—by way of a remarkable, live satellite telecast—he 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 Radio.

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 13—the 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 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 prayer—a 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, 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 history.

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 psalter—the 150 psalms of the Bible. The faithful—especially those unable to read—began 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 Mary—not 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 added—to 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 Prayer.

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 century—from Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) to John Paul II—this prayer has been consistently and highly recommended by the popes.

Today people usually pray five decades—or one set of mysteries—at 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 prayer.

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 the Messiah.

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, Mary—the Daughter of Zion and the Mother of the Church—represents 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: " her active and responsible 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 11:4).

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 life—the 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 Mother—Woman 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 Christ—the wedding feast of Cana, the healing of the sick, speaking with the woman at the well—that 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 mantras—the repeating of sacred words—as 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 God—a 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 the rosary.


The Mysteries of the Rosary
(Web-exclusive Revision)

The Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays)

1. The annunciation to Mary that she is to be Mother of Savior (Luke 1:26-38).
2. The visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth
(Luke 1:39 47).
3. The nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Like 2:1-7).
4. The presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22- 32).
5. The finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52).

The Mysteries of Light (Thursdays)

1. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan (Matt 3:17).
2. The wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1- 12).
3. The proclamation of the Kingdom of God/the call to conversion (Mark 1:15, Mark 2:3-13; Luke 7:47-48, John 20:22-23).
4. The transfiguration (Luke 9:35).
5. The first Eucharist (John 13:1).

The Sorrowful Mysteries (Tuesdays and Fridays)

1. The agony of Christ in the garden (Mark 14:32-36).
2. The scourging of Jesus at the pillar (John 18:28-38;19:1).
3. The crowning with thorns (Mark 15:16-20).
4. The carrying of the cross (John 19:l2-16).
5. The crucifixion and death of Jesus (Luke 23:33-34; 39-46).

The Glorious Mysteries (Sundays and Wednesdays)

1. The resurrection of Jesus (Luke 24:1-6).
2. The ascension of our Lord into heaven (Luke 24:50-53).
3. The descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).
4. The assumption of Mary into heaven (Song of Songs 2:8-14).
5. The coronation of our Lady in heaven (Revelation 12:1-6).


Father Thomas Thompson, S.M. (Society of Mary), is director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton.
Father Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is editor of
Catholic Update and editor of St. Anthony Messenger.


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