The Rosary: An Introduction

Tim’s rosary from the 1st grade.

I’ve been around rosaries so long that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “rosary” was one of the first words I ever spoke. I’ve always been a fan of sacramentals in general, and rosaries in particular. I still have the rosary I made in the first grade with aquamarine colored plastic beads and knotted together with white string. I also have the rosary I was given by the Knights of Columbus after my Confirmation in the 5th grade. These both hold sentimental and spiritual value for me, and I’m sure I’ll have them for a long time to come.

Throughout my life, I’ve spent a lot of time praying the rosary. As a child, it was only with a vague understanding of what I was doing. It felt both pious and magical, both of which appealed to me at the time. Then in college, I took up the practice of praying the rosary again, this time usually as a result of a sense of helplessness and a desperation to be delivered out of one crisis or another. It was the same magic/piety idea, but in adolescent form. On its surface, I knew it wasn’t magic, and I had no interest in being pious. I knew it wouldn’t, by itself, fix anything that was wrong. What I knew for sure, however, was that it provided comfort, which is what I was seeking, and if there was some added bonus of it helping to get rid of any of my problems, I figured it was worth it. It was also the best non-narcotic sleep aid I had ever had success with.

Shortly after college, I found myself more or less praying the rosary every night before bed, as well as during the day under certain, specific circumstances:  during long drives, sitting in traffic, and when I felt inspired to pray for someone else (or myself) and didn’t have any other words to express my petitions. It was around this time, and coinciding with the development of the luminous mysteries of the rosary by Blessed Pope John Paul II, that I became more interested in finding out the basis for the rosary – its history and significance. All I really knew about the devotion was that it was essentially a Marian devotion. I’ve always felt an affinity for the Blessed Virgin Mary. (In fact, I don’t think there is a corner of my house where I could walk where I wouldn’t be within eyeshot of one of my Mary statues.) So the simple idea that praying the rosary was drawing me closer to the Virgin Mary was, to my way of thinking, reason enough. All the same, I wanted to know more.

I came across and read several books about the rosary, many of which were perplexing or off-putting, very few of which I would consider reading again, and none of which I’m comfortable recommending. So for the sake of simplicity, I want to examine just two sources with you – neither of which should be terribly controversial.

The Rosary in the Catechism

I don’t know if you have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (you really should), but it’s a big book. My copy of the second edition runs to over 900 pages. There are a quarter of a million words in the Catechism; the word “rosary” is mentioned only four times. And in three of those four occasions, the rosary is mentioned incidentally, in passing. Be that as it may, the Catechism is a good starting point.

Our Lady of the Rosary
Our Lady of the Rosary

“Medieval piety in the West developed the prayer of the rosary as a popular substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours” (CCC 2678). So here is our starting point, an origin for the rosary. As it turns out, the prayer of the rosary began with the laity who sought to imitate the religious devotions of the consecrated people they saw in their communities, but who lacked the means and/or the literacy to perform the Liturgy of the Hours. Lay Catholics witnessed the devotion of the consecrated religious piously performing “the prayer of the Church,” which is open to all, but complicated. Although it includes a variety of readings, it is both based and heavily focused on the psalms.

So what is the connection? The rosary consists of (or used to consist of…more on that later) 15 decades of 10 instances of the Hail Mary. That’s 150 Hail Marys. There are, not coincidentally in this case, 150 psalms. So by praying an entire rosary, the average man or woman was repeating the Hail Mary 150 times, rather than reciting the 150 psalms. It became popular as more and more people sought to integrate their prayer life throughout their day, counting off Hail Marys in place of the psalms. This was the humble beginning of the rosary.

The Rosary in “Rosarium Virginis Mariae”

Blessed Pope John Paul II prays the rosary.

In October of 2002, Blessed Pope John Paul II published an apostolic letter entitled “Rosarium Virginis Mariae,” which means “The Rosary of the Virgin Mary.” (An apostolic letter is basically what it sounds like: a letter, usually from the pope, to all of us. If you’ve never read an apostolic letter, why not give it a try? After all, it is a letter to you from the pope! I promise it isn’t junk mail. You can find apostolic letters on the Vatican website, organized by pope.) Following the release of this particular apostolic letter, I became even more interested in praying the rosary, and was excited about the addition of the “luminous” mysteries, which filled the void that was left by the other mysteries the rosary, as I had known it.

According to Blessed Pope John Paul II, the rosary “gradually took form…under the guidance of the Spirit of God, is a prayer loved by countless Saints and encouraged by the Magisterium.” He goes on to write about the rosary as a Christocentric prayer that is Marian in character. He candidly admits that the rosary is his favorite prayer, and sums up the experience of the rosary nicely when he writes:

With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love.

In his own youth, and throughout his life, John Paul had a similar experience of the rosary that I have had.

From my youthful years this prayer has held a important place in my spiritual life…The rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort.

The rosary is and ought to be, according to John Paul, a contemplative prayer. In recounting the mysteries of Christ’s birth, public ministry, death, and Resurrection, while repeating the prayers of the Church, we are drawn in to that quiet place inside where we can be still, and know God.

For many people, the praying of the rosary may seem antiquated, superstitious, or overly formulaic. But the rosary is what we make of it. If the intent is to hold it or wear it as some sort of talisman, then obviously it becomes antiquated and superstitious. If the intent is to count your prayers, then yes, it is overly formulaic. But taken as a form of contemplative prayer, it is a powerful and potentially life-changing tool. To guard against the rosary becoming what it is not, and to defend it as a valid form of contemplative prayer, John Paul quotes from Pope Paul VI‘s apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus:

Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: ‘In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt 6:7). 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 seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.

To further consider the intended, appropriate method, as well as the desired effects of praying the rosary, we ought to keep in mind that John Paul refers to it as a prayer that “marks the rhythm of life.” The rosary

offers the ‘secret’ which leads easily to a profound and inward knowledge of Christ. We might call it Mary’s way. It is the way of the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, a woman of faith, of silence, of attentive listening.”

The rosary, it bears repeating, is a “method of contemplation,” and not “an end in itself.” Blessed John Paul, in his conclusion, exhorts the faithful to rediscover the rosary:

Dear brothers and sisters! A prayer so easy and yet so rich truly deserves to be rediscovered by the Christian community. […] I look to all of you, brothers and sisters of every state of life, to you, Christian families, to you, the sick and elderly, and to you, young people: confidently take up the Rosary once again. Rediscover the Rosary in the light of Scripture, in harmony with the Liturgy, and in the context of your daily lives. May this appeal of mine not go unheard!

To read the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae in its entirety, click here.

The Rosary in Everyday Life

John Paul’s apostolic letter had a profound impact on me. Prior to reading that letter, all I knew about the rosary came from my basic knowledge of the prayers involved, the occasional “mysteries of the rosary” pamphlet, and the (not very good) books that I had read on the topic. This apostolic letter was a revelation, and I felt inspired to pick up my rosary with a renewed sense of devotion and a deeper understanding of the contemplative nature of the rosary.

I became a devotee of praying the scriptural rosary, to help me focus in on the life of Christ, and to reign in my wandering mind. Before too long, I decided that I also wanted to join the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary. I did, and I continue to participate in the practice of saying a complete rosary each week. More often than not, I find such peace in the practice that I end up go through the rosary multiple times each week.

I found, however, that there was one small snafu. The rosaries I had, though they held significant sentimental value, didn’t feel like my rosary. I wanted a rosary that was uniquely mine, beautiful and functional, and a treasure that I could pass along to future generations. I began by visiting my local Catholic bookstore. They had hundreds of rosaries from which to choose, but I didn’t feel compelled to select any of them. To my eye, they were all “old lady rosaries.” Although I now realized that the rosary itself was just a tool for a method of prayer, all the same, I was going to be spending a lot of time with my rosary, and I wanted it to feel right. I then looked online for rosaries, but couldn’t find anything that quite fit the bill.

My desperation for finding and having my rosary finally ended when I began to contemplate the humble beginnings of the rosary. The poor lay people, many of whom were illiterate, had made their own. Frequently, this meant making knots in twine. (There are still rosaries made after this fashion, and some of them are quite beautiful. I have a few in my “collection.”) Others, with slightly more means, were able to make beaded rosaries. Why couldn’t I do the same thing?

My rosary!

After a quick trip to my craft supply store, I found the perfect beads. Made of ceramic, and brown, just like the coffee mug I remember my dad drinking out of when I was little. (And brown is my favorite color!) Of course, wanting to make this rosary from scratch, I needed a few more supplies, so I also purchased some wire and chain. When I got home, I found a rosary supply company online that sold what are known as “rosary pliers” and a whole variety of crosses, crucifixes, and rosary centers. I got a little carried away “adding to cart” (as I’m wont to do) and ended up buying way more than I actually needed. I convinced myself that I couldn’t be sure if I would like something based on a two-dimensional picture online.

Some of Tim’s rosaries for sale at a local coffee shop.

When the supplies arrived, I quickly got to work and created what has become my rosary. I loved it. (And still do!) I selected a crucifix that depicts the Trinity, and a rosary center with the message “To Jesus Through Mary” engraved on the back. It was exactly what I wanted. I also found, to my surprise, that I loved the process of creating rosaries. With all the extra items from the rosary supply store, I decided to take a trip back to the craft store and find more beads. I bought unusual beads, beads you wouldn’t ordinarily see on rosaries. I went to a “bead shop” and bought old, antique beads, former pieces of necklaces, and the like. Before long, I was cranking out rosaries at an incredible pace. I decided to sell them at a nominal price, and have been doing so ever since. (You can see some of my rosaries here.)

The Rosary and You

I hope that you will all consider taking up the rosary, either again, or for the first time. (If you’re skeptical, try it once. If you don’t have a rosary, use your fingers. Or request one for free here.) October is known as the Month of the Holy Rosary. As we get closer to October, I plan to provide additional information about the rosary to help prepare us for this great month.

Tomorrow, I will post an article dedicated to praying the rosary. Essentially, instructions for prayer. Then, on Sunday, September 8, I will post an article that focuses on the first set of mysteries, known as the Joyful Mysteries. From that point, on each Sunday remaining in September, I will post articles about the other mysteries.

I hope that you will join me in learning more about the rosary, just in time to dedicate yourself (or rededicate yourself) to the rosary during the month of October.

Publishing Schedule with Links

To read Tim’s article about another sacramental – relics – click here.

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