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The Rosary

If you were to ask what object is most emblematic of Catholics, people would probably say, "The rosary, of course." We're familiar with the images: the silently moving lips of the old woman fingering her beads; the oversized rosary hanging from the waist of the wimpled nun; more recently, the merely decorative rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror.

After Vatican II the rosary fell into relative disuse. The same is true for Marian devotions as a whole. But in recent years the rosary has made a comeback, and not just among Catholics. Many Protestants now say the rosary, recognizing it as a truly biblical form of prayer--after all, the prayers that comprise it come mainly from the Bible.

The rosary is a devotion to, and in honor of, the Virgin Mary. It consists of a set number of specific prayers. First are the introductory prayers: one Apostle's Creed, one Our Father (or Lord's Prayer), three Hail Marys, one Gloria Patri or Glory Be).

The Apostles' Creed

The Apostles Creed was not composed by the apostles themselves, but it expresses their teachings. The original form of the creed came into use around A.D. 125, and the present form dates from the 400s. It reads this way:

Traditional Protestants are able to recite the Apostle's Creed without qualms, meaning every line of it, though to some lines they must give meanings different from those given by Catholics (who composed the creed). For instance, we refer to "the holy Catholic Church," meaning a particular, identifiable Church on earth (what is popularly called the "Roman Catholic" Church, although this is not technically correct, the term "Roman Catholic" being a Protestant invention as a way to minimize the Catholic Church).

Protestants, when they say the prayer, refer to the (lower-cased) "holy catholic church," using "catholic" merely in the sense of "universal," not implying any connection with the (upper-case) Catholic Church, which is based in Rome. (This is despite the fact that the term "Catholic" was already used to refer to a particular, visible Church in the second century and had already lost its meaning of "universal"). Similarly, they acknowledge "the forgiveness of sins," but not through a sacrament known variously as confession, penance, or reconciliation.

The Lord's Prayer

Despite these differencesProtestants embrace the Apostle's Creed without reluctance, seeing it as embodying basic Christian truths as they understand them. The next prayer in the rosary--: the Our Father, also known as the Lord's Prayer or the Pater (from its opening word in Latin) even more acceptable to Protestants because Jesus himself taught it to his disciples.

It is given in the Bible in two slightly different versions (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). The one given in Matthew is the one we say. (We won't reproduce it here. All Christians should have it memorized.)

The Hail Mary

The next prayer in the rosary, and the prayer which is really at the center of the devotion, is the Hail Mary. Since the Hail Mary is a prayer to Mary, many Protestants assume it's unbiblical. Quite the contrary, actually. Let's look at it.

The prayer begins, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." This is nothing other than the greeting the Angel Gabriel gave Mary in Luke 1:28 (Confraternity Version). The next part reads this way: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." This was exactly what Mary's cousin Elizabeth said to her in Luke 1:42. The only thing that has been added to these two verses are the names "Jesus" and "Mary," to make clear who is being referred to. So the first part of the Hail Mary is entirely biblical.

The second part of the Hail Mary is not taken straight from Scripture, but it is entirely biblical in the thoughts it expresses. It reads: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." Let's look at the first words. "Holy Mary" should be unobjectionable to all, one might think, but some Protestants do object to it, saying Mary was a sinner like the rest of us. But Mary was a Christian (the first Christian, actually--cf. Luke 1:45), and the Bible describes Christians in general as holy. In fact, they are called saints, which means "holy ones" (Eph. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:2). Furthermore, as the mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Mary was certainly a very holy woman.

Some Protestants object to the title "Mother of God," but suffice it to say that the title doesn't mean Mary is older than God; it means the Person who was born of her was a divine Person, not a human person. (Jesus is one Person, the divine, but has two natures, the divine and the human; it is incorrect to say he is a human person.) The denial that Mary had God in her womb is a heresy known as Nestorianism (which claims that Jesus was two persons, one divine and one human), which has been condemned since the early 400s and which the Reformers and Protestant Bible scholars have always rejected.

Another Mediator?

The most problematic line for non-Catholics is usually the last: "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." Many non-Catholics think such a request denies the teaching of 1Timothy 2:5: "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." But in the preceding four verses (1 Tim. 2:1-4), Paul instructs Christians to pray for each other, meaning it cannot interfere with Christ's mediatorship: "I urge that prayers, supplications, petitions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone . . . This is good, and pleasing to God our Savior."

We know this exhortation to pray for others applies to the saints in heaven who, as Revelation 5:8 reveals, intercede for us by offering our prayers to God: "[T]he twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints."

The Glory Be

The fourth prayer found in the rosary is the Gloria or Glory Be, sometimes called the Gloria Patri. These names are taken from the opening words of the Latin version of the prayer, which in English reads: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen." The Gloria is a brief hymn of praise in which all Christians can join. It has been used since the fourth century (though its present form is from the seventh) and traditionally has been recited at the end of each Psalm in the Divine Office.

The Closing Prayer

We've covered the opening prayers of the rosary. In fact, we've covered all the prayers of the rosary except the very last one, which is usually the Salve Regina (Latin, "Hail, Queen"). It's the most commonly recited prayer in praise of Mary, after the Hail Mary itself, and was composed at the end of the eleventh century. It reads like this (there are several variants):

So those are the prayers of the rosary. Between the introductory prayers and the concluding prayer is the meat of the rosary: the decades. Each decade--there are fifteen in a full rosary (which takes about forty-five minutes to say)--is composed of ten Hail Marys. Each decade is bracketed between an Our Father and a Gloria, so each decade actually has twelve prayers.

Each decades is devoted to a mystery regarding the life of Jesus or his mother. Here the word mystery refers to a truth of the faith, not to something incomprehensible, as in the line, "It's a mystery to me!" The fifteen mysteries are divided into three groups of five: the Joyful, the Sorrowful, the Glorious. When people speak of "saying the rosary" they usually mean saying any set of five (which takes about fifteen minutes) rather than the recitation of all fifteen mysteries. Let's look at the mysteries.

Meditation the Key

First we must understand what they are meditations. When Catholics recite the twelve prayers that form a decade of the rosary, they meditate on the mystery associated with that decade. If they merely recite the prayers, whether vocally or silently, they're missing the essence of the rosary. It isn't just a recitation of prayers, but a meditation on the grace of God. Critics, not knowing about the meditation part, imagine the rosary must be boring, uselessly repetitious, meaningless, and their criticism carries weight if you reduce the rosary to a formula. Christ forbade meaningless repetition (Matt. 6:7), but the Bible itself prescribes some prayers that involve repetition. Look at Psalm 136, which is a litany (a prayer with a recurring refrain) meant to be sung in the Jewish Temple. In Psalm 136 the refrain is "His mercy endures forever." Sometimes in Psalm 136 the refrain starts before a sentence is finished, meaning it is far more repetitious than the rosary, though this prayer was written directly under the inspiration of God.

It is the meditation on the mysteries that gives the rosary its power and its staying power.

The Joyful Mysteries are these: the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the Visitation (Luke 1:40-55), the Nativity (Luke 2:6-20), the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:21-39), and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51).

Then come the Sorrowful Mysteries: the Agony in the Garden (Matt. 26:36-46), the Scourging (Matt. 27:26), the Crowing with Thorns (Matt. 27:29), the Carrying of the Cross (Luke 23:26-32), and the Crucifixion (Luke 23:33-46).

The final Mysteries are the Glorious: the Resurrection (Luke 24:1-12), the Ascension (Luke 24:50-51), the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), the Assumption of Mary into heaven, and her Coronation.

With the exception of the last two, each mystery is explicitly scriptural. True, the Assumption and Coronation of Mary are not found in the Bible, but they are not contrary to it, so there is no reason to reject them out of hand. Given the scriptural basis of most of the mysteries, it's little wonder that many Protestants, once they understand the meditations that are the essence of the rosary, happily take it up as a devotion. We've looked at the prayers found in the rosary and the mysteries around which it is formed. Now let's see how it was formed historically.

The Secret of Paternoster Row

It's commonly said that St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), instituted the rosary. Not so. Certain parts of the rosary predated Dominic; others arose only after his death.

Centuries before Dominic, monks had begun to recite all 150 psalms on a regular basis. As time went on, it was felt that the lay brothers, known as the conversi, should have some form of prayer of their own. They were distinct from the choir monks, and a chief distinction was that they were illiterate. Since they couldn't read the psalms, they couldn't recite them with the monks. They needed an easily remembered prayer.

The prayer first chosen was the Our Father, and, depending on circumstances, it was said either fifty or a hundred times. These conversi used rosaries to keep count, and the rosaries were known then as Paternosters ("Our Fathers").

In England there arose a craftsmen's guild of some importance, the members of which made these rosaries. In London you can find a street, named Paternoster Row, which preserves the memory of the area where these craftsmen worked.

The rosaries that originally were used to count Our Fathers came to be used, during the twelfth century, to count Hail Marys--or, more properly, the first half of what we now call the Hail Mary. (The second half was added some time later.)

Dominic was born in 1170 and died in 1221. There is evidence of Marian rosaries consisting of fifty or a hundred and fifty prayers being recited in England, for example, twenty years before the first Dominican foundation in that country.

None of the early biographies of Dominic even mentions the rosary, and no treatise by a Dominican written in the two centuries following Dominic's death claims that he instituted the rosary. In short, the Catholic rosary doesn't owe its invention to Dominic.

So how did Dominic get the credit? Apparently through the preaching of a Dominican, Alan de Rupe, during the years 1470 to 1475. He suggested that a rosary of a hundred and fifty Hail Marys was instituted by Dominic. Unfortunately, Alan de Rupe was a born exaggerator, and, in those historically uncritical years, his claims were accepted as true.

Rosary: A Prayer of Union

Decades ago, Fr. Herbert Thurston wrote that it should not "be necessary to urge that the freest criticism of the historical origin of the devotion, which involves no point of doctrine, is compatible with a full appreciation of the devotional treasures which this pious exercise brings within the reach of all." St. Dominic, from his present seat, surely doesn't mind if he can't have the credit for establishing the rosary. The fact is that no one person can take credit for it, the rosary having developed over centuries into what is still the most popular Catholic devotion, one that many non-Catholics find themselves attracted to.

The word "rosary" comes from Latin and means a garland of roses, the rose being one of the flowers used to symbolize the Virgin Mary. Both Catholics and non-Catholics, as they learn more about the rosary and make more frequent use of it, come to see how its meditations bring to mind the sweet fragrance, not only of the Mother of God, but of Christ himself.

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