It is believed that our blessed Lady appeared to St Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), in 1214 in Prouille, France, to give him the Rosary. Actually, no trace of this story can be found until about two hundred fifty years after Dominic died; but it is certain that the development and promotion of the Rosary owe a great deal to the Dominican Order.
The custom of using knotted prayer ropes to count one’s prayers was known among the early Desert Fathers, ancient hermit monks. Devout laity learned this custom and practiced it with various prayers. During the Middle Ages the Rosary as we know it took shape. One inspiration for it was the Divine Office, the daily worship of the Catholic Church in which the one hundred fifty psalms are chanted in daily prayer services over the course of a week. The fifteen decades of the Rosary, each consisting of ten Hail Mary’s (one hundred fifty Hail Mary’s for the one hundred fifty psalms), were inspired by the Office and gave the laity a structured form of prayer for each day. As the monks meditated on the psalms and scripture readings of each Office, the laity joined their vocal prayer (Our Father and Hail Mary) to meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary, fifteen events in the lives of the Lord Jesus and our blessed Lady.
The Rosary grew to be enormously popular. Its most popular form was the Dominican Rosary (with the fifteen Mysteries), but the Franciscans had their own form (the Seraphic Rosary or Franciscan Crown, with seven decades of meditation on the seven joys of our blessed Lady, and two additional Hail Mary’s to bring the total number to seventy-two: the traditional number of years our blessed Lady lived here on earth).
In 1571 Europe was threatened by an invasion of the Mediterranean by the fleet of the Ottoman Empire, seeking to expand the Islamic dominion to Europe. Christianity had been shattered by the Protestant Reformation and it was with great difficulty that the Pope, St Pius V, cobbled together a coalition of different countries and their navies. A glorious victory was won by the Christian forces on October 7th, 1571, which Pius attributed to the Faithful praying the Rosary throughout the Catholic countries. He established October 7th as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory (later rechristened The Feast of the Holy Rosary).
Pope Leo XIII (reigned 1879-1903) wrote no fewer than twelve encyclicals and five apostolic letters on the Rosary. Pope St. John XXIII (1958-1963) requested the Faithful of the whole Catholic world to pray the Rosary for his upcoming Vatican Council II. The devotion of the Holy Father, St John Paul II (1978-2005), to the Rosary was legendary; he was very frequently seen with his Rosary in his hands. Even if he were not actually praying the Rosary, just the act of picking up and holding his rosary beads was a prelude to prayer, to contemplation for him, and he sought to live always in the Presence of God.
The Holy Rosary has occupied a unique place in Catholic spirituality. Kings, Queens and peasants have been devoted to it; families made it their daily common prayer; it was part of the Religious habit of many communities, including the Dominicans and the Franciscans.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and well known spiritual writer, kept a Journal, and this Journal has been published in seven or eight volumes. It’s an interesting mix of observations on daily life and spiritual reflections. At one point he was hospitalized in a Catholic hospital and found the experience of the chapel interesting: the Sisters, staff and patients had frequent devotions – litanies, novenas, etc. These things a monastery does not have; the focus is on the Mass, the Divine Office, and on contemplative prayer. But Father Merton, reflecting on his experience of the hospital chapel, saw the benefit of the devotions for others, although the devotions did not belong in a monastery; but he closed out his reflection by saying, emphatically, “I would never do without the Rosary.”
Which, coming from an author who was an authority on the contemplative life, I found very interesting. Clearly, Father Thomas Merton found the holy Rosary a great help to his contemplative life.
One moving example of the place of the Rosary in Catholic life comes from Japan. Foreign missionaries had been expelled from Japan and the Christian religion was outlawed throughout the country by 1620, with severe persecution and even martyrdom. Only in 1865 was Japan reopened to foreign influences, and the Paris Foreign Mission Society built a Catholic church. One surprising day, a few Japanese from a nearby village visited the church and one timid lady spoke to a Priest; from her he learned of the existence of what, upon his investigating, proved to be underground communities of Faithful Catholics. The Holy Rosary had nourished their faith literally for centuries, and after 250 years they were found still faithful, although some remote communities had changed over those centuries and chose to continue apart from the Church, following what they regarded as the religion of their ancestors.
The Rosary has been an important sacramental that has enriched the faith of Catholics for centuries.
It is a timeless aid to contemplation that marks the special rhythm of human life on a beaded rope that can serve as a lifeline to individual salvation.
But what makes the Rosary an aid to salvation is the fact of its deep and powerful connection to the Bible and the Divine mysteries that are tied to Jesus’ redemptive stay on earth.
As author Father Oscar Lukefahr has written, “the mysteries of the rosary translate the Bible into prayer.” The Rosary then binds Catholics to the historical life of Christ and foreshadows their eternal destiny and union with Christ in heaven.
The Rosary is primarily a Christ-centered prayer in which Catholics pray to the Son through His Mother. In the words of the Hail Mary, it is Christ, as Luke reported, who is the ultimate object both of the announcement and of the greeting of the Mother of John the Baptist: Blessed is the fruit of your womb.
While traditionalists have always come to the prompt aid of the Rosary, one of its best defenses has come from Garry Wills’ 2005 book, The Rosary: Prayer Comes Round. Wills, who is known for his heterodox views on Catholic morality and papal history, has written a splendid apologia for the time-honored religious tradition that surprises because of its truly traditional point of view and the author’s deep-felt devotion. The Rosary is a marvelously written exercise in love and respect for one of the Church’s oldest traditions. Wills clearly demonstrates that the Rosary is deeply grounded in Scripture and serves as an excellent way for Catholics to participate in the life of Christ.
As many post-conciliar Catholics have ignored the Rosary’s saving powers, countless have sought inner fulfillment in the Eastern methods of meditation, such as transcendental meditation, yoga and mysticism. The bookstore shelves bristle and groan with a plethora of titles that promise inner peace through meditation.
The Rosary is relevant for these times, a way for Catholics to satisfy their need to meditate, contemplate, and find the inner calm with Christ that the Eastern methods only promise.