How the Rosary teaches us to pray

Like many Catholics, I grew up in a family that recited the Rosary every night. And we knew why we did; as Mom would often assure us, the most effective person to take our prayers to Jesus was his own mother. As a good son, how could He refuse her?


As children, we often came to the nightly Rosary with protest — “in a minute, Ma” — but having settled on our knees, it was a lovely, quieting time, one that bonded our family of nine kids at the end of a day of the usual sibling tensions. Years later, when we gathered for our parents’ wakes, and then for those of siblings, we prayed the Rosary together and it bonded us still. The Rosary crusader Father Paddy Peyton was right when he said, “The family that prays together, stays together.”


The gentle drone of the Hail Marys helped introduce me to what I later knew as meditation. My mother would encourage us to “just think about the mysteries.” How wise she was. In his lovely apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM), Pope John Paul II called the Rosary “a path of contemplation.”


If one of us missed the family recitation, our mother’s good night was always accompanied by “Be sure to say your Rosary.” We knew that she kept her own beads under her pillow for waking moments. And my grandmother loved to assure us that if you start the Rosary and then fall asleep, “the angels and saints finish it for you.”

From my childhood, then, I knew the Rosary as both communal and personal prayer, as a quieting mantra-like mode of recitation and contemplation. It convinced me that we can go to Jesus through Mary, and that a great communion of saints prays with us. It taught me the responsibility of praying by myself as well as with others; it taught me that I could pray just about anytime and any place.


The Rosary can have all of these catechetical benefits for postmodern people, in addition to its powerful efficacy as a mode of prayer. Its widespread popularity fell off after Vatican II — an unintended outcome of the council’s efforts to refocus Catholics on Jesus, sacred Scripture, and the liturgy. But as Pope John Paul II noted in RVM, the Rosary, “though clearly Marian in character, at heart is a Christocentric prayer” and “has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety.”


What garnered attention for RVM was that Pope John Paul added five new mysteries to the Rosary. For some 500 years, the full Rosary consisted of 15 decades, each one focused on some mystery from the life of Christ or Mary. Then, the 15 decades were grouped into three sets of five — called a chaplet, meaning crown — designated as the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries, and focusing on the Incarnation, Passion, and glorification of Jesus Christ, respectively.

However, the fifth Joyful mystery focuses on finding Jesus in the temple — when He was 12 — while the first Sorrowful mystery, which follows, contemplates the agony of Jesus in the garden. In other words, no mystery was designated for the public life and ministry of Jesus — an enormous gap. I rejoiced when Pope John Paul II announced the addition of five new mysteries focused precisely on the life of Jesus. As Catholics pray these Mysteries of Light — or Luminous mysteries — we are likely to deepen our recognition and commitment to living as disciples of Jesus now.

We cannot pinpoint how or when the Rosary began as a popular devotion. The old tradition that it was personally delivered to St. Dominic by the Blessed Mother herself is now seriously questioned. On the other hand, the Dominicans certainly helped to standardize and popularize it throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Pope Pius V, a Dominican, instituted the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (now celebrated on October 7); he credited the efficacy of the Rosary with the defeat of the Turks at the battle of Lepanto in 1571.



Around the year 1000, ordinary people began to recite 150 Our Fathers, divided into three sets of 50 and counted on strings of beads called paternosters. This became known as “the poor man’s Psalter” because they were copying the monks and nuns who recited the 150 psalms each day.  As Marian devotion increased in the 12th century, the Carthusians and Cistercians helped develop and popularize a Rosary of Hail Marys.


Significant, too, is that the image of God that the Church preached was a dour and judgmental being. This is one reason why devotion to Mary increased; as beloved mother she seemed far more approachable than a harsh and demanding father God.
The Rosary emerged from the instinct of ordinary Christians that they, too, were called to the practice of regular prayer and to sanctify their time and work throughout the day. They knew the monks and nuns were doing so with their recitation of the Divine Office of the Church. But the peasant people didn’t have the time to pause for choral reading. Yet their instinct was to insist on praying themselves. The Rosary arose from the good instinct of ordinary people that Baptism calls all to holiness of life, and this demands the regular practice of prayer.


We should be inspired today by their wise instincts. For the regular practice of prayer will always be essential to sustain the Christian life. Following on, we need to be conscious of God’s presence and relationship with us throughout the ordinary time and activities of our lives — not just in church. Baptized Christians cannot delegate others — like monks and nuns in monasteries — to pray instead of them; we need to pray ourselves, and both with and as Church — even if we are praying alone.


Surely the hassle of daily life can be calmed by as gentle and meditative a prayer as the Rosary.


What is the best way to say the Rosary? The tradition is to meditate on the mystery of each decade rather than to focus on the words of each prayer. So, with the first Joyful mystery, the Annunciation, one can think about God’s great initiative here, about Mary’s openness to doing God’s will, and so on. Or, more contemplatively, one can imagine and enter into the setting as the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, listen in to the exchange between them, and so on. The purpose of all such contemplation is to take the mystery into daily life to encourage Christian discipleship.


As Pope John Paul II wisely commented, we have in the Rosary “a treasure to be rediscovered.”  CD

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