Why St. Dominic loved the Rosary
Discover the story behind this beloved Catholic devotion
By Robert Feeney
It was said that Jane of Aza was so holy that she shone like the stars on a beautiful night. Born in 1140, Jane lived in a castle in Spain with her husband Felix, a respected member of the rural knighthood. She was a merciful woman, full of compassion for the unfortunate, and gave many of her goods to the poor.
Jane had two sons —
Mannes and Anthony — but longed for more children. One day she went to the nearby Abbey of Silos to pray for another son, asking St. Dominic of Silos to intercede for her. “My daughter,” he said, appearing to her, “your prayers are heard and God will send you a son. He will be a great servant of God and do mighty deeds for Christ and the Church.”
In thanksgiving, Jane named her son Dominic.
But that wasn’t the end of visions for Jane. Before the child’s birth, Jane had a prophetic dream presaging his preaching in which Dominic, in the form of a black-and-white dog, was running with a lighted torch in his jaws, setting the world aflame. Nor was Jane alone in envisioning an illustrious future for Dominic: When he was baptized in the parish church, his godmother saw a bright shining light, like a star, on his brow. Dominic, then, was destined to be a light, one who would illumine those who sit in darkness.
Dominic was born under high expectations, but he did not disappoint. He was a radiant and joyous youth of average height, with a handsome face, slightly ruddy complexion, and a voice as full and rich as a bell. From his mother he acquired a devotion to Mary, learned the value of combining vocal and mental prayer, and heard stories from the life of Jesus that he would come to know as mysteries, and which he would one day preach.
Dominic dedicated his life to God, becoming a priest in his mid-20s and serving for nine years in Osma, living the Rule of St. Augustine. Having keen compassion for the sufferings of others, Dominic prayed and wept for sinners and the afflicted. A certain radiance about the young man attracted many to love and respect him.
In 1203, when Dominic was 33, he left Osma for a town called Fanjeaux in the southern French region of Languedoc, where he preached for nearly 13 years. During his apostolate journeys, Dominic often stopped to pray at his favorite spot: the Chapel of Mary in Prouille, a small village on the plain between Fanjeaux and Montreal and not far from the foot of the Pyrenees.
Dominic’s work wasn’t easy. At the time, France was threatened by the Albigensian heresy, whose roots were centuries old. The Albigensians, basing their belief on the idea that all being is divided into “bad” matter and “good” spirit, believed that all life on Earth was the work of Satan and therefore evil. This belief produced a terrible culture of death. The Albigensians renounced the sanctity of marriage and the procreation of children. Suicide was considered praiseworthy since it put an end to the existence of matter. The Albigensians totally renounced the teachings of the Church, including the Incarnation.
Things were not going well, then, when Dominic, praying and weeping in the Chapel of St. Mary in 1208, lamented to Mary about the lack of results from his preaching to the Albigensians. It was in the middle of his laments that the Mother of God appeared to him.
“Wonder not,” she said, “that until now you have obtained so little fruit by your labors: you have spent them on a barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the Earth, He began by sending down on it the fertilizing rain of the Angelic Salutation. Preach my Psalter (the Rosary) composed of 150 Angelic Salutations and 15 Our Fathers and you will obtain an abundant harvest.”
Dominic wasted no time. Following Mary’s orders, he began preaching the Rosary far and wide, starting with Toulouse, a town not far from Prouille. According to the writings of St. Louis Montfort, an 18th century French missionary, Dominic went to the cathedral, where angels rang the bells to gather the people. As Dominic preached, it is said that God lent impressive support: The earth shook, the sun was darkened, and thunder and lightning crashed to great effect. Almost all the people of Toulouse renounced their false beliefs and began leading Christian lives.
Following the success at Toulouse, Dominic traveled from town to town in France, Spain, and Italy to preach. In his travels he showed tremendous physical endurance, so much so that his contemporaries described him as the “strong athlete.” His spiritual endurance was similarly impressive. Wherever he went, he preached on the Gospel truths that centered on the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious life of Christ. Having mentioned a mystery and given a sermon on a phase of Jesus’ life, he then would invite his hearers to pick up the beads or string of knots — commonly used as a means of “counting prayers” — and pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, the only elements of faith remaining to the Albigensians. Heeding Mary’s first words to him, and an apparition of Jesus — who instructed him to kindle in people’s hearts a love of prayer before preaching against sin — Dominic and other priests began saying the Hail Mary with the faithful before preaching to ask for God’s grace. His speech was simple, and his explanations of the Hail Mary were full of instances of everyday life.
The method worked. In nearly every town he preached, Dominic established the Confraternity of the Rosary, and his preaching, says Montfort, caused such fervor that it converted hardened sinners. Once, Montfort writes, a man possessed by the devil shrieked that by his preaching, Dominic had put fear and horror into the very depths of hell. The Rosary also was credited with the victory of the Catholic army, led by Count Simon de Montfort, in the September 1213 battle of Muret in southern France, fought by 800 men against the king of Aragon and 40,000 Albigensian soldiers. It was as the battle raged beyond the walls of the Church of St. James that Dominic, his arms outstretched, prayed the Rosary.
By 1215, two years after the battle of Muret, Dominic had drawn six companions into the apostolate and invested them with the habit like the one he wore. The pattern for a Religious Order was taking shape with a program of prayer, common life, and a program of study under Alexander Stavensky, an Englishman and doctor of theology. Preaching, teaching, and working for the salvation of souls was Dominic’s ideal. A rich layman named Peter Siela, who would come to be one of Dominic’s followers, offered Dominic his house, near the Narbonne Gate in Toulouse, for his use while working in that diocese. In the same year, 1215, St. Dominic went to Rome and in the words of Benedict XV “prostrated himself at the feet of Pope Innocent III” and appealed for permission to found an Order of preachers to preach and teach throughout the world. The pope directed him to adopt a rule already in existence to live by. St. Dominic and his followers unanimously chose the Rule of St. Augustine. On December 22, 1216, a new pope, Honorius III, granted full approval, and declared St. Dominic to be a “true light of the world.”
During his lifetime Dominic healed the sick, raised the dead, and multiplied food (miracles would continue after his death). He encouraged the young, was affectionate to all he met, and, though he grew older in years, he remained young and playful at heart. Five years after his Order was approved, on August 6, 1221 in Bologna, Italy, Dominic died. Even facing the end of his life, Dominic comforted others. “Do not weep, my children,” he said. “I shall be more useful to you where I am going than I have ever been in this life.”
The long-past dream of Dominic’s mother, Blessed Jane, had come true: Her son had surely set the world aflame. CD
Adapted from The Rosary: “The Little Summa” by Robert Feeney. Fourth Edition. © 2003. Available from Ignatius Press at 800-651-1531 or www.ignatius.com.
Psalter or Rosary?
In Dominic’s time, the Rosary was referred to as the “Psalter of Mary” and it wasn’t until the 15th century that the word Rosary came into use. But 100 years after Dominic introduced the Rosary, it had been all but forgotten.
Derived possibly from the Latin ros, or “dew,” referring to Mary’s statement to Dominic about the “dew of divine grace,” or from the Latin rosarium, for “crown of roses” — the word “Rosary” came into use after Alan de la Roche, O.P., a French Dominican Father, received visions from Jesus, Mary, and Dominic encouraging him to restore the Rosary.
The form of the Rosary as we know it today also did not exist in Dominic’s time. The fixing of definite mysteries was a long process that took centuries to evolve and determine. This was done by Pope St. Pius V, himself a Dominican, in 1569. On October 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II proposed the addition of five new mysteries to the traditional 15. Called the “mysteries of light,” they include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and Passion.
The gift of the scapular
In 1218, Mary appeared in Rome to a Dominican named Master Reginald of Orleans, who had been a famous professor of canon law at the University of Paris before meeting St. Dominic and entering the Order. The magnetic quality of his sermons drew many into the Order. At the time of Mary’s appearance, Reginald was ill. Smiling at him, Mary anointed him, cured him, and presented him with a white scapular. “Behold,” she said, “the habit of your Order.”
A feast for St. Dominic
St. Dominic’s feast day is August 8.
Join the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary
The Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, originated by St. Dominic in the 13th century, still exists today. The only obligation (which does not bind under sin) is to recite three five-decade Rosaries (which includes meditation on the 15 mysteries) each week. All members pray for one another and for each others’ intentions.
To become a member, send your name and address to:
P.O. Box 3617
Portland, OR 97208
Why pray the Rosary?
The 15th century Dominican Alan de la Roche, O.P., assured people of his time that the Holy Rosary is the source of countless blessings:
1. Sinners are forgiven
2. Souls that thirst are refreshed
3. Those who weep find happiness
4. Those who are tempted find peace
5. The poor find help
6. Religious are reformed
7. Those who are ignorant are instructed
John Paul II on the Rosary
To pray the Rosary is to hand over our burdens to the merciful hearts of Christ and his mother.
Pope John Paul II