October 6, 2006


The rosary

This Saturday, Oct. 7, is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and the whole month of October is traditionally dedicated to the rosary.

The feast was established in 1573 after the great victory two years earlier by Christian navies over a great Turkish Muslim fleet. Known as the Battle of Lepanto, it ended the threat of Ottoman Turkish naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.

From all reports, many Catholics have returned to the practice of praying the rosary daily after some decades of this devotion fading in its popularity. It never should have faded since the rosary had been an important part of Catholicism for about 800 years.

The rosary was begun in the late 12th century when laity began to pray 150 Hail Marys in imitation of the 150 psalms. St. Dominic and his followers popularized it in the 13th century, adding the meditations about the life of Jesus.

In the early 15th century, a Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia, divided the 150 Hail Marys into three sets of 50. He also began to call each of the 50 points of meditation a rosarium (rose garden) because the rose was a symbol of joy and Mary was “the cause of our joy” for bearing Christ. Thus, the name “rosary” became the name for the devotion.

Another 15th-century Carthusian monk, Henry of Kalkar, then divided the 50 Hail Marys into decades with an Our Father between each of them. In 1483, a Dominican priest wrote a book on the rosary called Our Dear Lady’s Psalter. It listed the same 15 mysteries that we meditated about through the 20th century, except that the fourth glorious mystery combined Mary’s assumption and coronation, and the fifth glorious mystery was the Last Judgment.

We think of the rosary as a Marian devotion because of the repetition of the Hail Mary. But, like every devotion to Mary, its main focus is on Jesus.

The purpose of the rosary is to help us meditate on the mysteries of our salvation, on the events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. It combines vocal prayer, mental prayer and Scripture since every mystery except the last two is taken directly from Scripture—as is the first half of the Hail Mary.

For more than 500 years, there were 15 official mysteries—five joyful, which concern the beginning of our redemption (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the presentation in the Temple and finding the child Jesus in the Temple); five sorrowful, which pertain to Christ’s Passion (the agony in the garden, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and the Crucifixion); and the glorious (the Resurrection, the Ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Assumption and the Coronation of Mary).

There was an obvious gap between the finding of Jesus in the Temple when he was 12 and his Passion and death. Therefore, in 2002, Pope John Paul II added the five luminous mysteries, or mysteries of light, recalling events in Jesus’ public ministry—his baptism, the wedding feast at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom, the transfiguration and the institution of the Eucharist.

With those additions, the rosary really is what Pope Paul VI called it in his 1974 apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus—“a compendium of the entire Gospel.” He wrote, “By its nature, the recitation of the rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as grasped by the heart of her who was closer to the Lord than all others.”

Of course, we are not limited to meditating on the official 20 mysteries. The popular Seven-Day Scriptural Rosary has a different set of meditations for each day of the week. Besides the original joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, it included the salvation, healing, eucharistic and consoling mysteries—all with Scriptural meditations. Or we could make up our own mysteries taken from the Gospels.

Fifty years ago, the Catholic world was praying the Family Rosary, a devotion encouraged by Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton. He coined the saying, “The family that prays together stays together.”

His Family Rosary Crusades attracted millions of people throughout the world.

We should return to that devotion today.

— John F. Fink

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