Full of grace: Reclaiming the rosary
Image: WE GET TO reclaim all hours of our experience as holy hours when we pass these simple beads through our hands.
THE RECENT RESURGENCE in the rosary’s popularity has made it much more than the fashion accessory singer Madonna inaugurated a few years ago. From kitsch to cool to contemplative tool again, in a single generation! not bad for a devotion that’s been kicking around the church in various forms for almost a millennium.
Catholicism was “Marian” a generation ago—or at least, the church gave Protestants plenty of reasons to see it that way. While other Christians adhered to Jesus and the Bible, Catholics prayed to Mary and the saints. That was a false dichotomy, of course, based mostly on externals: Some older Catholic churches were miniature museums of sacred art, with varying degrees of good taste on display. Thoughtful Catholics always understood that they didn’t worship Mary, because worship is reserved to God alone. It is veneration of Mary that honors her crucial role in the story of Jesus and the life of the church.
“Call your Mother!”
When the Second Vatican Council swept the halls of Catholicism with broad reforms in the late 1960s, the way Catholics expressed their identity on the street changed, too. The church was moving toward a deepened engagement with the modern world. Catholics were all invited to move with it, surrendering a bit of the otherworldly focus that made them seem separate and their witness perhaps too hidden.
For some that movement into the marketplace made scripture and social justice teaching of more practical use than rosaries and statues. When Catholics turned their attention to the modern world in teaching and testimony, many left relics of the otherworldly—the incense and devotions— behind.
Pope Paul VI, Marialis Cultus (1974)
Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002)
These documents are available on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va/.
In driving terms, that’s called an overcorrection. And it often lands you in a ditch. It rarely helps to replace one dichotomy with another. Minimizing Mary’s role in Catholic identity devalues the critical human response to God’s initiative that she embodies so beautifully. At the same time, to correct maximizing Mary to the diminishment of Jesus it was perhaps necessary to move a few statues from the center of our worship space, not to mention our mental space. Yet renewed interest in traditional prayer forms today makes the rosary T-shirt logo sound like wisdom: “Call your Mother. She hasn’t heard from you in decades.”
Reclaiming the rosary goes hand in hand with a restoration of Mary’s rightful role in Catholic consciousness. What we say about Mary is also necessarily a statement about the church. She is what we must become. Mary models our Christian vocation and shows us how discipleship is done. All teaching about Mary relates to her primary relationship to Jesus. Or as a priest I know likes to say, “We’d never have heard of Mary at all if her son hadn’t turned out so well.”
Our veneration of Mary is not a cult of personality. She’s not a celestial celebrity; she’s better than that: She’s the one who assures us that saying yes to God, fully and completely, is possible.
Pray, reflect, repeat
So how does the rosary assist us in becoming more like Mary, that is, “full of grace”? It offers a unique view of the Christian story through the heart of the woman from Nazareth. Mary was the first to ponder the greatest events of salvation history. Through Mary’s eyes we reflect on these moments of joy, light, sorrow, and glory and can appreciate the rhythms of life in their sacred dimensions. Birth and death, joy and grief, expectation and loss are not only details of our humanity but mysteries connected to sin and grace. We get to reclaim all the hours of our experience as holy hours when we pass these simple beads through our hands.
How to pray the rosary
There are 20 mysteries divided into the following four sets to be meditated upon each week:
JOYFUL MYSTERIES (Mondays and Saturdays; Sundays during the Christmas season)
The Annunciation to Mary
SORROWFUL MYSTERIES (Tuesdays and Fridays; Sundays during Lent)
The Agony of Jesus in the Garden
GLORIOUS MYSTERIES (Wednesdays and Sundays)
The Glorious Resurrection of Jesus
LUMINOUS MYSTERIES (Thursdays)
The Baptism of Jesus
1. Make the Sign of the Cross and say the Apostles’ Creed.
2. Say the Our Father.
3. Say three Hail Marys.
4. Say the Glory Be to the Father.
5. Announce the first mystery, then say the Our Father.
6. Say 10 Hail Marys while meditating on the mystery.
7. Say the Glory Be to the Father.
8. Announce the second mystery; then say the Our Father. Repeat 6 and 7 and continue with the third, fourth, and fifth mysteries in the same way.
9. Conclude with the Hail, Holy Queen prayer and the verse “Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God” and response “that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”
One objection onlookers have to the rosary is that it appears to be a magical device. Although a rosary may be blessed, Catholics attribute no magical power to its beads. The repetitions of prayers may sound like an incantation, but repetition is a feature, not a formula. So why do we say the same prayers over and over? Does saying something 10 times, or 50 times, make it more sincere?
Ask Saint Peter, who after the resurrection was asked three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). Peter needed to repeat his answer more than Jesus needed to hear it—he’d recently denied his friend and teacher that same number of times. If you’re quite sure you haven’t turned from grace 50 times, I’m sure one Hail Mary will suffice. Many of us would more likely go another time around those beads.
Repetition is also liberating: It frees the mind to widen into the unconscious. Don’t you often think better when you’re doing some task you know by heart? Apart from the mechanics of it the rosary offers us a multiplication of ways to pray. It’s scripture meditation, petition, song of praise, and instruction on the faith all at once. Pope Pius XII called it a “compendium of the entire gospel,” tracing beliefs about the Incarnation, Epiphany, kingdom of God, Eucharist, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in jewel-like cameos. Cardinal John Henry Newman declared that the rosary provides us with a way of “holding in our hands all that we believe”—and it’s a whole lot easier to put a rosary in your pocket than, say, The Catechism of the Catholic Church!
The most-repeated prayer of the rosary is the Hail Mary, which is part scripture—Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb (Luke 1:28, 42)—and part supplication—Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Pope Paul VI emphasized how the Hail Mary hinges on the fatefully placed name of Jesus at its center of gravity. He compared the rosary to weaving cloth on a loom, identifying the Hail Mary as the warp upon which the mysteries of our faith are woven.
Along with these mysteries we also weave our intentions, thoughts, imagination, emotions, and desire for union with Christ. That’s a tall order, which is why the rosary benefits from a lingering pace. Silence and vocal prayer are its alternating energies. If we race through it we miss the graced encounter that lurks between the beads. When teaching scripture, rabbis have noted, God speaks in the white space around each letter as much as in the words themselves. White space, or silence, is often where God offers a fresh response to our prayer.
The test of time
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the rosary’s success is its longevity in practice. In the Middle Ages a rosarium was the term for a collection of devotional readings, but praying on knotted strings had been a poor person’s devotion 300 years earlier. At a time when few were literate but many wanted to share in the prayer of the monasteries that loomed above town, reciting 150 paternosters (Our Fathers) was as good as chanting 150 psalms as the monks did.
Starting in the 13th century religious orders such as the Franciscans, Servites, Cistercians, and Dominicans promoted and expanded the rosary. Its form remained fairly constant until the 20th century, when Father George Preca of Malta, recently canonized, offered a new set of mysteries on the public ministry of Jesus, including the Beatitudes. Admiring the innovation, Pope John Paul II chose to focus on five moments of “epiphany” in which Jesus revealed his divine origins and added the Proclamation of the Kingdom to Preca’s reflections to create the Luminous Mysteries.
The rosary’s thoughtful and deliberate history demonstrates that this practice is hardly a theological sideshow in the life of the church. It incorporates the highlights of Christian scripture, doctrine, and liturgy in an entirely accessible prayer form that the humblest person can learn. Even a Doctor of the Church can benefit from its wisdom, as Saint Teresa of Avila did. Toward the end of her life, after the great revelations and ecstasies abandoned her, she focused on the spiritual benefits of one simple prayer: the Hail Mary.
A prayer for everyone
Pope John Paul II suggested that the rosary, while composed of simple parts, is hardly simplistic. Contained in each drama of its decades is a contradiction: The joy of finding a child also implies the terror of losing one. Presenting a child to God means also surrendering him to his destiny. Christian joy, the pope wrote, is not uncomplicated nor does it imply freedom from care. Adopting the practice of the rosary prepares us for Christian life as a whole, in which mysteries of joy, light, sorrow, and glory often exchange places in short order.
The rosary is a traditional prayer, yet its evolution suggests that it also contains much room to breathe in modern times. It can be prayed alone or with others. It is appropriate as family prayer, in preparation for Mass, or to console mourners at a wake service.
Pope John Paul recommended it as a prayer for peace, based on the mystery of Christ who is our peace. A “rosary personality,” he suggested, is a witness against violence, injustice, arrogance, and intolerance in any form. “In turning our eyes to Jesus and Mary, we might regain the ability to look one another in the eye,” the pope said (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 41). In which case praying the rosary isn’t only what traditional Catholics do. It’s what all Catholics might want to do more.
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