Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting
A Prayer for All Seasons
Like an Olympic champion emerging from early retirement,
the rosary has come back into its own as a prayer beloved by everyday
Catholics. It had suffered a slow decline after Vatican Council
II. Now, after celebrating the Year of the Rosary, we look back
and celebrate this newly expanded and ever-reliable prayer for
The reemergence of the rosary has been propelled
by Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae
(The Rosary of the Virgin Mary) published in October 2002.
The letter announced a Year of the Rosary and expressed the Holy
Father's hope that the prayer would once again be embraced by
families and all who seek the gift of peace.
In the letter's introduction, John Paul II emphasizes that though
we pray for Mary's intercession, the rosary is truly about Jesus.
It is "at heart a Christo-centric prayer" that can be seen as
a compendium or short summary of the gospel. The first chapter
then reflects on the theme of "Contemplating Christ with Mary."
As Chapter 2 begins, the unsuspecting reader has
no idea that something new and groundbreaking is about to occur.
With the skill of a preacher who rouses his congregation with
a just-minted story, the Holy Father then introduces five new
mysteries to be added to the traditional 15.
The effect on most Catholics, reading news summaries
of the apostolic letter, was an enlivening mix of surprise, curiosity
and a pleased recognition that John Paul II was right on the mark.
His proposed Luminous Mysteries (mysteries of light) would focus
on Christ's public ministry between his baptism and his passion.
These five new mysteries would take their place
between the joyful and the sorrowful mysteries, which focus respectively
on Christ's childhood and on his suffering and death. "Why didn't
I ever notice what was missing before?" people asked themselves.
The traditional 15 mysteries, including the glorious mysteries
which follow the sorrowful, had become so familiar that few ever
questioned whether the rosary might be incomplete as a Christ-centered
prayer. However, once the proposed addition became known, a common
response went something like this: "The rosary used to be like
a biography that jumped from birth to death without an in-between.
Now, we can stay with Jesus as he gathers his disciples and gets
them ready for what's to come."
Roots of the rosary
Before moving on to the revived rosary with its
mysteries of light, we look back to the—origins of this time-honored
prayer. Where did it come from? When did it arise as a popular
devotion? What is it about the rosary that has enabled it to remain,
over nine centuries, a prayer for all seasons?
The historical particulars are hard to pin down.
But the custom of praying on——— a string of beads was already
common in the 12th century. Anyone who has done so intuitively
understands the tactile appeal of praying with the hands, as well
as hearts and voices. Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims had long used
beads to count certain prayers that were repeated.
Christian monks ran beads or knotted string through
their fingers as they chanted their required 150 psalms. Because
these religious professionals prayed in Latin, the common folk
could not chime in. Some resourcefully started praying 150 Our
Fathers on the beads as their version of the monks' prayer.
Any account of how the rosary developed has to
pause and make a respectful bow to St. Dominic (1170-1221) and
the Order of Preachers, which he founded. Whether or not Dominic
actually received the rosary from Mary during an apparition is
unknown. However, he and his followers certainly propagated the
prayer from the 13th century onward.
One measure of the prayer's early popularity is
the jealous infighting among religious orders to claim it as their
own. Both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius were at various
times accredited as the recipients of Our Lady's rosary. To stake
their respective claims, members of these religious orders commissioned
paintings of Mary passing the rosary to Francis or Ignatius.
Not to be outdone, the Dominicans convinced the
pope to ban any art depicting anyone but their founder from receiving
in his outstretched hands the coveted string of beads from Mary.
Since that time, Dominic has remained the undisputed champion
of the rosary, which was often called Our Lady's Psalter or Book
The rosary took its familiar form in the 16th century.
Pope Pius V recommended that Catholics pray on their beads 150
Hail Marys in decades separated by an Our Father while reflecting
on the life of Christ. Pius left his distinctive mark on the prayer
by adding the second half of the Hail Mary to the biblical beginning
Having endured the centuries with varying degrees
of fidelity paid to it, the rosary has always been seen as a prayer
of the people. It has been described as "a garland of roses" (the
meaning of its name), "a string of pearls" (poet Robert Cameron
Rogers) and "one harp that any hand can play" (poet Joyce Kilmer).
Pope Paul VI even referred to the rosary as a Bible for those
unable to read.
Praying the beads can be as simple as breathing,
and as satisfying as holding a mother's hand. That simplicity
may be reason enough to guarantee its survival until kingdom come.
The revival of a Gospel prayer
When Mary appeared to three children in Fatima
at the turn of the last century, she identified herself as the
Lady of the rosary. She impressed on the children how important
it was to pray the rosary daily for world peace.
From that time until the mid-1960s, many Catholics
took Mary at her word. If they did not pray the rosary with their
families or in their parishes, they fingered their beads on the
way to work or while waiting in airports. Even those who neglected
to use the beads for their intended purpose often had rosaries
dangling from their rearview mirrors or their bedposts, like portraits
of Mother that are prominently displayed whether we are remembering
to visit her or not.
In the early 1960s, Vatican II realigned Catholic
priorities in many areas, including the liturgy and the Scriptures.
It had been a common practice among older people especially to
pray the rosary during the Mass. Since the liturgy was then celebrated
in Latin at an altar facing away from the people, the rosary was
once again satisfying those who needed a simple form of prayer.
They were not at ease with the missals that often ran parallel
columns of Latin and English Mass texts.
To correct what had become for some an unbalanced
devotion to Mary, the Church toned down its devotional practices
honoring the Mother in order to refocus on the Son. In the intervening
decades, the rosary receded from the forefront of many Catholics'
Now it is coming into its own once again with a
reinforced recognition of its Gospel character. Each of the constituent
prayers of the rosary (the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer,
the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be) is rooted directly or indirectly
in the Gospels. Whether Catholics are praying "Blessed are you
among women" (Luke 1:42) or "He ascended into heaven" (Luke 24:51),
their awareness of where these verses come from has been heightened
by Bible study groups, now active in many parishes.
As a result, Mary's authentic importance in the
Gospels and in the life of the Church has become more evident.
Pope Paul VI in Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (1974)
emphasized that all Christian piety should have a biblical imprint.
He advised that devotion to Mary as "Mother and
Associate of the Savior" should be permeated with "the great themes
of the Christian message" as we find it in the Scriptures (#30).Paul
VI called the attention of modern women to the reality that the
Mary we hail in the Ave Maria was a dynamic, grace-filled woman
who gave her "active and responsible consent" to the Incarnation.
When she proclaimed her radical Magnificat, she announced God's
vindication of the oppressed against the powerful and privileged
of this world (#37).
Those who picture her as a passive woman uninvolved
in the work of forging God's kingdom of justice and peace have
not yet encountered the Mary of the Gospels. They have yet to
reconcile their malleable Mary with the prophetic one who rejoices
in the downfall of the mighty and the lifting up of the lowly.
And those who view her rosary as an outdated devotion
for their pious elders are similarly off-base. Pope Leo XIII saw
the rosary as "an effective spiritual weapon against the evils
afflicting society" (RVM, #2). And John Paul II himself,
hardly a homebound pope uninvolved in critical global issues,
calls it his favorite prayer.
These misconceptions will be short-lived as the
teaching of John Paul II in his recent letter sinks into the minds
and hearts of believers. His primary purpose in adding the five
mysteries of light to
the rosary was to make the prayer "more fully a
compendium of the Gospel" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, #21).
The five new mysteries begin with the Baptism of
Jesus (spotlighting his identity as God's beloved Son and his
mission as the Messiah). The Baptism is followed by the Wedding
at Cana (illuminating the first sign Jesus gave of his yet-to-be-revealed
glory) and the Proclamation of the Kingdom (holding a bright candle
to Jesus' saving work of healing and forgiveness).
These three mysteries are followed by the Transfiguration
(the most luminous of the mysteries, in which Jesus' glory and
divine nature shine) and the First Eucharist (enlightening our
understanding of Jesus' self-gift to us at the Last Supper, as
well as our identity as the one Body of Christ).
Although Mary remains in the background of four
of the mysteries of light, she stands forth as an intercessor
in the Wedding at Cana. Her words to the wine steward may be taken
as her counsel to the Church in every season: "Do whatever he
tells you" (John 2:5). As the Holy Father points out: "This counsel
is a fitting introduction to the words and signs of Christ's public
ministry and it forms the Marian foundation of all the —mysteries
of light'" (RVM, #21).
Renewal of a Christ-centered prayer
The rosary is a Christ-centered prayer in
which we pray to the Son in the company of—his Mother. With Mary,
we contemplate the face of Christ and the mysteries of the life
he shared with her. Even in the words of the Hail Mary itself,
it is Christ "who is the ultimate object both of the Angel's announcement
and of the greeting of the Mother of John the Baptist: —Blessed
is the fruit of your womb'" (Luke 1:42; RVM, #19).
A clear focus on the life of Christ emerges as
the mysteries of the rosary make the circle from joyful to luminous
to sorrowful to glorious. Our fingers passing from one decade
to the next make the journey with Jesus as he is conceived and
born, as he teaches and heals, as he gives himself to us in forms
of bread and wine, as he suffers and dies, rises and is glorified
in the Church of our day.
Now that the mysteries spotlighting significant
events in Christ's public ministry have been added, the circle
is complete. Their presence gives fresh life to the traditional
rosary and renews it as a prayer for the 21st century. The "sweet
chain linking us to God," as Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926)
described the rosary, continues to give us much to ponder.
Prayer for all seasons
Three centuries ago St. Louis de Montfort wrote
a devotional guide called The Secret of the Rosary. In
it he advises readers that "each mystery reminds us of [Christ's]
goodness to us in some specific way and it is by these mysteries
that He has shown us His overwhelming love and desire for our
St. Louis knew from experience that when we pray
the rosary in a contemplative way, Christ's goodness to us in
each of the mysteries will come home to us. It is only when we
are "out to lunch" via mental distraction that the mysteries march
by without increasing our intimacy with him.
Like the Jesus Prayer and other ancient forms of
meditation, the rosary is, as John Paul II says, "a path of contemplation."
When the fingering of the beads is not accompanied by reflection
on the mysteries, the rosary may readily slip into the realm of
"babbling many words" against which Jesus warned us (Matthew 6:7).
How do we avoid the mindless repetition that sometimes
gives the rosary a bad name? How can we learn from Mary the art
of pondering all these things in our hearts? Why do we have such
trouble entering into the quiet mulling of contemplative prayer?
Probably nobody put it better than Meister Eckhart.
The 14th-century Dominican mystic wrote: "God is always ready
but we are not ready. God is near to us but we are far from him.
God is within; we are without. God is at home; we are abroad."
Breathing life into your prayer
Here are a few simple suggestions about how to
remain "at home" with God no matter where you're praying the rosary.
As skiers do stretching exercises before hitting the slopes, take
time to relax and breathe deeply from your diaphragm before beginning
to pray. Imagine yourself breathing life into your prayer. Then
ease into the prayer while remaining in touch with the steady
rhythm of the Spirit breathing and praying in you.
As schoolchildren read one chapter a day, decide
to reflect on one mystery at a time with the undivided attention
usually reserved for loved ones who have been away too long. The
same approach can be used for each of the consecutive four mysteries.
You can get through an entire decade this way. Be patient with
yourself if distractions come. Gently let them go and move back
to the mystery at hand.
You may find it helpful to pray a mystery that
connects most closely with your life at that particular time.
For instance, when facing a difficult decision or wondering what
direction God wants you to take, ponder the Baptism of the Lord.
Connect with Jesus as he leaves his earlier life behind and emerges
from the Jordan to do the work of the Beloved Son.
Or, when the comfort and predictability of your
life are suddenly disrupted by some unexpected but demanding opportunity,
ponder the Annunciation. Connect with Mary as the blessed disturbance
of Gabriel's message—and her daring "Yes"—turn her young life
upside down and sideways.
More important than any suggestions, tools
or techniques for praying the rosary is the conviction that God
treasures each word, each thought, each quiet pondering in which
our hearts are invested. And the more practiced we become at staying
"at home" with our loving God, the more meaningful the rosary
will become in our daily lives.