The Rosary is one of the most well known devotions within the Catholic Church, and for good reason. It includes the central prayers of our faith – the Sign of the Cross, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be, and the Hail Mary; it can be prayed in solitude or with a group; the Mysteries of the Rosary call to mind the life and death of Jesus (what better subject for meditation?); and the beads often used as an aid in counting the prayers are an iconic and beautiful sacramental (a sacramental is an item that is spiritually beneficial to the faithful and part of the “furniture” of our lives as Catholics).
When I consider images of my faith, a set of Rosary beads is one of the first pictures that comes to mind. And yet when I was asked recently when and where the devotion began, I didn’t have the faintest idea. I certainly don’t think that a person needs to know the history of the Rosary to benefit from praying it, but the question did make me think that I would like to have a broader and deeper knowledge about this prayerful practice.
If you, too, would like to know more about the Rosary, read on!
The Rosary is both relatively young…
The version of the Hail Mary that we pray today, as the central prayer of the Rosary, wasn’t given official approval until the year 1568. In other words, it has only been in the final quarter of the Church’s existence that believers have prayed:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Then, in 1569, Pope Saint Pius V officially approved the Rosary (albeit not quite as we know it today, but I’ll get to that).
…And is very old!
While the Rosary in its general and completed form are mere centuries old, the prayers (at least some of them) that fill it, as well as the roots of its format, go back to the early years of Christianity.
Jesus himself instituted the Lord’s Prayer when he taught his disciples how to pray (Luke 11 and Matthew 6).
The opening lines of the Hail Mary also have their origins in Scripture, when the angel Gabriel greeted Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28).
As for the format, the Rosary shares several similarities with early Christian prayer traditions. For instance, the Desert Fathers (hermits and monks who lived in Egypt during the third century) used stones and prayer ropes to keep count as they prayed the 150 psalms.
For that matter, Catholics were not the first to pray using beads; many faith traditions from around the world, including Buddhism and Hinduism, include practices that involve prayer beads. (Tangential fun fact: the word bead is derived from the Old English word for prayer - bede).
The Rosary most recently took a change in 2002
While the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries of the rosary began to emerge in the sixteenth century, the Luminous Mysteries were not introduced until this century, when Pope Saint John Paul II called for them in his Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary.
The Rosary makes a difference to entire nations…
There are countless stories of the miracles to which individuals and groups praying the Rosary have led…and some of them are really big! Perhaps you have heard of Our Lady of Victory? Mary was given this title during the 1600s after Pope Pius V begged Catholics everywhere to pray the Rosary with the intention of preserving Christianity from the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, which was intent on destroying Christianity forever. Though the Catholic forces were hopelessly outnumbered, the Ottoman foes were miraculously defeated after the Pope's instruction.
…And to individuals across eras and areas.
The big miracles grab our attention (who doesn’t love a story of heroic proportions!), but I think that what moves me the most is considering the millions of lives that have been touched – in humble but no less significant ways – through praying the rosary. I’ll never forget the time when I worked as a hospital chaplain and was called by a patient begging me to find her a radio. She told me that she prayed the rosary everyday and liked to do it “with others” through an early-morning radio show. A few days after bringing her the radio, I stopped in to check on her, and she told me that these morning prayers sustained her spirit during her anxiety-filled hospital stay. This is just one example of millions and millions in which individuals have found strength, peace and hope through their recitation of the prayers of the Rosary.