The History and Mystery of the Holy Rosary
On October 16th, 2002, on the Year of the Rosary, Blessed Pope John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“The Rosary of the Virgin Mary”) and dedicated it to Bishops, Clergy, and Faithful. It was through this letter that the “luminous mysteries” where added to the “Most Holy Rosary.”
The Holy Father writes this apostolic letter in the second year of the Third Millennium and describes this letter as a “complement” to his previous Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (“At the Close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000”). The latter being the letter where he calls all the faithful to a New Evangelization in the life of the Church – we hear a lot of talk today about the New Evangelization; this is where it comes from.
The New Evangelization according to Pope John Paul II can only be accomplished by Christ through his Church. And the first step to this process of evangelization is to know and love Him who loved us first by contemplating His Face through prayer and worship.
In the Rosarium Virginis Mariae the Holy Father states:
“…[i]n continuity with my reflection in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, in which, after the experience of the Jubilee, I invited the people of God to “start afresh from Christ”, I have felt drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary, as a kind of Marian complement to that Letter and an exhortation to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother.”
The fact that Pope John Paul II felt “drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary” cannot be overemphasized given the deep prayer life of this spiritual giant and his love for the Blessed Mother. In a sense, the Holy Father presents the Rosary (with its added luminous mysteries) as the key into the School of Mary which trains us for the New Evangelization. A term I will come back to later.
It should also be highlighted that our reflection this evening comes at the cusp of not only the 10th anniversary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Rosarium Virginis Mariae but also at the cusp of the 50th Jubilee Year of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (on October 11, 1962) and the Year of Faith declared by Pope Benedict XVI in his apostolic letter this past October 11, 2011. I recommend to everyone to read the recent document - Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith released this past January 6 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It presents a whole program for this great Jubilee Year.
All of this just to say that our reflection on the Rosary this evening is provident given all the impending Jubilee celebrations.
In his commentary on Rosarium Virginis Mariae, His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke makes mention of Michelangelo’s masterpiece fresco painting entitled The Last Judgement painted on the wall behind the altar of sacrifice. The image depicts the Final Coming of the Lord when the bodies of the just will be received into Heaven and the bodies of the impenitent will be consigned to Hell.
If you look at the lower left corner of the fresco there are two figures of the just whose bodies are being drawn into Heaven by an angel who is using the Rosary as a life rope. It speaks volumes of the mindset of the Church during the Renaissance regarding the power of the Rosary.
Today, however, one gets the idea that the place of the Rosary in the life of a Catholic is nominal if not light years away from where it was just 50 years ago. I believe it is because of this that there is great misunderstanding and confusion as to what the Holy Rosary is and what power there is in the Rosary in fortifying the Christian life.
In part, the unfortunate devaluation of the Rosary can be attributed to the overall de-emphasis of popular devotion in the Church after the Second Vatican Council. There was a well deserved emphasis on the Liturgy and full participation rather than the praying of the Rosary during mass. However, the consequence was that the Rosary was seen in a negative light – basically another form of external piety that needed to be replaced with theo-praxis in the key of social justice.
The Rosary has made a significant comeback in the last decades in large part because of the example of Blessed Pope John Paul II and his devotion to the Blessed Mother.
In Rosarium Virginis Mariae Pope John Paul II makes clear that the Rosary does not conflict with the Liturgy but rather sustains it since it serves as an excellent introduction and faithful echo of the Liturgy enabling full participation.
History of the Rosary
Where does the Rosary come from?
According to tradition the Rosary was a gift to the Church by the Blessed Virgin Mary in response to the great heresy of Albigensianism. It is important to note the nature of this heresy since it has many parallels to our present culture.
According to the late Fr. John Hardon SJ, “Albigensianism, was a Christian heresy prevalent in western Europe, particularly in southern France and northern Italy, during the 12th and 13th centuries. Adherents were variously called Albigenses, from the city of Albi, where they flourished, or Cathari (Greek katharos, pure), from the earlier Manichaean sect which St. Augustine battled in the early Church, which sought purification from bodily and material things. Jesus was a mere creature that came to show us how to live a good life. There could be no incarnation of God since the body was evil and this would mean that the good God of the NT would be under the control of the evil God of nature.
It is interesting to note that the Albigensians condemned marriage and the procreation of children as demonic because it perpetuated the imprisonment of a soul in a body. Concubinage was tolerated as preferable to the permanent bond of matrimony; and desertion of husband or wife was called praiseworthy. This meant that adultery was sanctioned and consequently that they made wide use of contraception so as to avoid procreation. According to some sources they practiced ritualized euthanasia and taught that suicide was commendable because it liberated the soul from its captivity in the body – the true end of our being. [Catholic Encyclopedia]. Since the Albigensians detested maternity as the propagation of an entrapped soul in a body they therefore detested the Catholic doctrine of the divine maternity of Mary.
I can’t help but think of the today’s ‘culture of death’ when I read these traits.
According to historians the whole region at the turn of the 13th century was plagued by the Albigensian heresy and its related heterodoxies, the Waldensians and the Catharist heresies. As we can imagine these heresies were attractive because they offered a lax morality compared to authentic Christianity – nothing you did or failed to do made a difference to your salvation. Liberation from the body ensured salvation.
St. Dominic, a Spanish nobleman from Castile, who came from a saintly family, formed the Dominican order in order to witness and preach to the people against the Albigensian heresy.
According to tradition St. Dominic, who had a particular love for the Blessed Mother, became downhearted by the enormity of the heresies of his time and went into the forest near Toulouse, France to spend three days and nights in a spiritual retreat and prayer.
During this time the Blessed Mother appeared to him accompanied by three queens and fifty maidens. The Blessed Mother explained to him that preaching in itself would be insufficient to convert the Albigensians and that a higher illuminating grace from the Holy Spirit was needed.
She asked St. Dominic – “Do you know which weapon the Holy Trinity wants [to use in order] to reform the world?”
He answered properly that the Blessed Mother would know better than him. The Blessed Motehr continued, “I want you to know that the battering ram in this of warfare has always been the Angelic Psalter, which is the foundation stone of the NT. Therefore, if you want to reach these hardened hearts and win them over to God, preach my Psalter.”
The Angelic Psalter (based on the angelic salutation to Mary) was also known as the Psalter of Jesus and Mary, because the fifteen decades of ten Hail Mary’s each contained as many Angelic Salutations as the 150 Psalms in the Book of David (David's Psalter).
Dominic made the Psalter of Jesus and Mary easier to say by arranging the repeated prayers into three parts of five mysteries each. The Joyful Mysteries recall the events in the early life of Jesus, the Sorrowful Mysteries tell of the suffering and death of Jesus, while the Glorious Mysteries describe God's glory, power and love. The Rosary encourages both mental meditations on each of the Mysteries, and the vocal recitation of the Our Father, ten Hail Mary’s, and one Glory Be.
Mystery of the Rosary
I want to speak now on the reality of the difficulties one experiences with the recitation of the Holy Rosary. These difficulties can only be overcome by, as St. Paul said, a transformation of the mind. We have to think differently on what we are actually doing when we pray the Rosary. It is not as many think repetitive babbling.
The Rosary is structured around the number 10. And there are 5 decades. The repetition can seem monotonous unless we understand what the repetition is all about.
First of all, the nature of repetitive prayer allows one to enter into a ‘rhythm of prayer.’ There is a silencing of the interior self with the breathing involved in repetition of prayer – this is sometimes called mantra prayer like the Jesus Prayer used by the Orthodox Church. When I use the word mantra here I am not referring to eastern mantra prayer where there is a magical power associated with the prayer. I am using mantra in context of its most basic definition as the repetition of a word or sound to help mediation. The calming effect of the repetition is part of the fruit of the Rosary.
The Apostles Creed, Our Father, and the Hail Maries recited in the Rosary are all biblically based and allow us to enter into a multidimensional modal prayer as we contemplate the four mysteries of the Rosary while at the same time we pray the individual prayers. This makes the Rosary an involved and complex prayer if done right.
We should be aware that in contemplating the mysteries of the Rosary we exercise one of the most basic principal s of the Christian life – to remember. In praying the Rosary we remember step by step how Our Lord conquered Death, Sin, and Satan. It is a way of contemplating the whole life of Christ and entering into the mystery of the divine life of Christ.
Notice that in the process of this ‘remembering’ we allow a flood of images into our mind. The imagery is often helped by Rosary booklets that have artistic renditions of each mystery of the Rosary. The calling to mind of holy or sacred images is a wonderful help in our spiritual battle which is a battle of images…mental images.
The Number 10 and Its Significance
But there is something else…
The number ten has great significance. Biblically speaking the number 10 has to do with perfection. Rabbinical commentaries make note that in the first chapter of Genesis (the first creation narrative) the phrase “And God said…” appears 10 times in the Hebrew text. Consequently, the rabbis reason that all of Creation was created with 10 words (or phrases) of God.
A Talmudic homily on this suggest that the reason why we have 10 fingers and ten toes is so that we may never forget that we have been created by God who spoke ten times and created everything. Hence, the number 10 has to do with Creation.
The Father of the Church, St. Bernard, teaches that with Mary’s fiat the world undergoes a re-creation through the graces of the Incarnation - a re-creation that is still in process until the Second Coming. Mary’s cooperation with the Will of God and her response of total submission to that will with her fiat – “I am the handmaid of the Lord be it done to me according to thy word” allows for the Redemption of not just humanity but of all Creation.
St. Bernard in his homily – The whole world awaits Mary’s reply – in Praise of the Virgin Mother speaks with the greatest of eloquence to this glorious moment in history.
We should marvel at the fact that Divine Providence has willed that in Greek the words of Mary’s fiat are exactly ten. What God created with ten words, the Blessed Virgin Mary re-creates, always by virtue of the graces of her Son, with ten words of obedience.
As we pray the decades we are then remembering the 10 words of Mary that changed salvation history; hoping that we can also give God our own fiat of fidelity to his will.
Let us enter into the School of Mary then which Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke of in his encyclical. Let us enter into the mystery of God through the Mother of God. Let us enter into the heart of her Son and behold Him face to face through her intercession and the protection of her most chaste spouse St. Joseph.
Ad Jesum per Mariam.
Mary seat of Wisdom – Pray for Us!
Whosoever shall faithfully serve me by the recitation of the Rosary shall receive signal graces.
I promise my special protection and the greatest graces to all those who shall recite the Rosary.
The Rosary shall be a powerful armour against hell, it will destroy vice, decrease sin, and defeat heresies.
It will cause good works to flourish; it will obtain for souls the abundant mercy of God; it will withdraw the hearts of men from the love of the world and its vanities, and will lift them to the desire for Eternal Things. Oh, that souls would sanctify themselves by this means.
The soul which recommends itself to me by the recitation of the Rosary shall not perish.
Whosoever shall recite the Rosary devoutly, applying himself to the consideration of its Sacred Mysteries, shall never be conquered by misfortune. God will not chastise him in His justice, he shall not perish by an unprovided death; if he be just, he shall remain in the grace of God, and become worthy of Eternal Life.
Whosoever shall have a true devotion for the Rosary shall not die without the Sacraments of the Church.
Those who are faithful to recite the Rosary shall have during their life and at their death the Light of God and the plentitude of His Graces; at the moment of death they shall participate in the merits of the saints in Paradise.
I shall deliver from Purgatory those who have been devoted to the Rosary.
The faithful children of the Rosary shall merit a high degree of Glory in heaven.
You shall obtain all you ask of me by recitation of the Rosary.
All those who propagate the Holy Rosary shall be aided by me in their necessities.
I have obtained from My Divine Son that all the advocates of the Rosary shall have for intercessors the entire Celestial Court during their life and at the hour death.
All who recite the Rosary are my sons, and the brothers of My Only Son Jesus Christ.
Devotion to my Rosary is a great sign of predestination.