A conflicted history
The true history of the Rosary is not without its own controversy. Its roots lie in the efforts of lay people in the Middle Ages to have their own extended prayer, not unlike the Divine Office that was reserved for the religious, friars and monks.
A new prayer for the layman began with the recitation of the 150 entries in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. When this practice proved cumbersome, they divided the 150 Psalms into three parts. Soon even the shortened use of the Psalms proved too unwieldy to become widely accepted. Others suggested that they say the Pater Noster (Our Father)150 times, 100 times or even 50 times. This new form of prayer became known as the Pater Noster Psalter, later changed to the Pater Noster Rosary.
Some histories attribute the Rosary’s origins to Saint Dominic (1170-1221). Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to him in 1208 in a French church in Prouille and gave him the Rosary to help combat the Albigensian heresy of that time.
Another Dominic, a Carthusian monk from Prussia, (1382-1460) is regarded as the first to connect the Rosary to different episodes in the life of Christ. In keeping with the psalm-based numerology, this Dominic proposed 50 events in Christ’s life to serve as meditations for the Rosary.
The history of the Rosary is further conflicted by the fact that the word Rosary comes from rosarium, or rose garden. Rosarium was used as a secular symbol for romantic love in classical times.
This prompted the 15th-century Dominican monk, Alanus de Rupe, to reject its use for the Virgin. He favored the old designation, the Psalter of the Virgin. However, Christian usage increasingly connected the word with a rose garland or chaplet of the Virgin to suggest a circulet of beads, so even the word has a life of its own.
History does prove that whatever its true origins, the Dominican Order has been the principal promoter and defender of the Rosary throughout history.
The Rosary has always enjoyed a long and intimate relationship with the papacy. Popes have used the Rosary to fight battles, defeat diseases, overcome natural disasters and reinvigorate the faith.
In 1571 Pope Pius V instituted Our Lady of Victory as an annual feast to commemorate the victory of Lepanto.
As a Rosary procession was offered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the success of the mission of the Holy League, just before Lepanto, this seminal Christian naval victory over the invading Muslim forces was attributed to Our Lady’s intercession.
Since then most of the modern popes have enjoyed a special devotion to the Rosary.
In the 1880s Pope Leo XIII highlighted devotion to the Rosary with several encyclicals to Catholics urging the faithful to a devout recitation of Mary’s Rosary, especially during October. He saw the Rosary as an "effective spiritual weapon against the evils afflicting society."
Pope John XXIII also had a special devotion to the Rosary. In his 1959 letter, Grata Recordatio, Prayer For the Church, Missions, International and Social Problems, the Pope stressed a special call to the rosary.
Pope Paul VI said that "by its very nature the recitation of the rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and lingering pace." He is also reported to have held up his Rosary and proclaimed "this is the Bible for those who can neither read nor write."
No pontiff had a greater devotion to the Rosary and Our Lady then Pope John Paul II. When he nearly was assassinated in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, he credited his survival to the protection of Mary and expressed his gratitude by way of the Rosary. He knew only too well that May 13th was the anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady to the children at Fatima in 1917.
In his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary) Pope John Paul II proclaimed 2002 as the Year of the Rosary and expressed his hope that families would once again embrace the Holy Rosary.
The pontiff emphasized that "the West is now experiencing a renewed demand for meditation, which at times leads to a keen interest in aspects of their religions…" He added that "t
he Rosary is situated within the broad gamut of religious phenomena and transports the person into the heart and soul of so many of the pivotal events in Jesus’ life."
The sweet chain of prayer
The form of the Rosary remained essentially unchanged until 2002 when John Paul II instituted five new mysteries.
He called them the Luminous Mysteries because they portray Jesus’ public ministry, including His baptism, Cana, the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration and the Last Supper in a new light. Since His public ministry is an important link between His early years and His passion and death on the Cross, these new mysteries reveal the true meaning of His earthly presence, while filling in the public gap between his joyful youth and the sadness and pain associated with Calvary. The Pope also added the Luminous Mysteries to enkindle a renewed interest in the Rosary as a true gateway into the Incarnation.
With the addition of the Luminous Mysteries the Rosary’s intimate connection with the Gospels is even more apparent.
It completed what Blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926) called "the sweet chain linking us to God." It is Christ’s years of his public ministry that most demonstrate the Incarnation as a "mystery of light." As John’s Gospel says "while I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
The mystery of light that best illustrates the importance of the Luminous Mysteries is the Transfiguration.
The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished apostles to listen to him
and to prepare to experience with Him the agonies of Good Friday, so that they may be able to enjoy their own Easter with Him in heaven.
Mary and the Rosary
Even Mary’s relationship to the Rosary has not been without conflict. Since the Hail Mary is the dominant prayer of the Rosary, her critics contend that Mary and her Rosary are a distraction from Jesus Christ, the true focal point of Christianity. Religious scholars have long noted that this is a canard that has no bearing on the Rosary’s true history.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 settled her title in the Hail Mary, the "Mother of God" in light of the Arian heresy that denied Christ’s divinity. Arians called Mary only the Mother of Christ because they believed Jesus to be just a man and so His mother could not be the Mother of God.
On another note, to correct what some theologians thought was an unbalanced devotion to Mary, the post-Vatican II Church has toned down its devotional practices honoring Mary in order to refocus on her Son.
Mary’s Fatima apparitions are the event that has most dramatized the power and majesty of the Rosary.
On October 13, 1917, Our Lady of Fatima told three Portuguese shepherd children, "I am the Lady of the Rosary.
I have come to warn the faithful to amend their lives and to ask pardon for their sins…. People must say the Rosary." Mary impressed upon the children how important it was to pray the Rosary daily for world peace.She warned them that Russia would spread its errors throughout the world.
During a 1957 interview, the sole surviving witness, Sister Lucy, urged her interviewer: "Tell them…that many times the Most Holy Virgin told my cousins Francisco and Jacinta, as well as myself, that many nations will disappear from the face of the earth." She also said that Russia would be the instrument of chastisement chosen by Heaven to punish the world if we do not beforehand obtain the conversion of that poor nation.
A secret weapon
In fact the Rosary has been a constant source of devotion throughout the history of the Church. Garry Wills’ book, The Rosary highlights that for countless Catholics who matured before the Second Vatican Council the Rosary was a daily habit. He cites the story of the late William F. Buckley who developed the habit of saying the rosary as a small boy.
In his published diary, Overdrive, Buckley revealed that he had learned to count on his fingers the decades of the Rosary when one wasn’t available. It was to him "alifelong habit acquired in childhood."
It is a fact that innumerable preconciliar Catholics fervently prayed the Rosary in their homes or parishes.
To them saying the Rosary has always brought back fond memories of their grandparents and parents who used the Rosary to further their devotion to Christ and His Church.
The Rosary can help Catholics transform their communities into genuine schools of prayer.
The late Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who knew more about Communism than his contemporaries, strongly believed that the Rosary was "a secret military weapon of the Catholic Church." In his last sermon before his Communist imprisonment he said, "Give me a million families with Rosaries in their hands, uplifted to Mary, they will be a military power, not against other people but for all mankind…for their welfare, for their healing…"
The Cardinal echoed the fact that since the Albigensian heresy in the 12th century through modernism with its socialist, fascist and communist derivatives, the Rosary has stood up to the evils that have plagued mankind.
But the message of its power as a lifeline for salvation needs to be revitalized for a new generation of families who have been battered in a sea of moral relativity, secularism and apostasy.
All this underscores the fact that the Rosary can be an effective antidote for the tremors of the times and an important way of fostering among Catholics a deeper commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery and as a genuine training in holiness. And more importantly the regular devout use of the Rosary can serve as a Michelangeloean Lifeline to Heaven.
William Borstholds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.
He is the editor of the Mindszenty Review and has published commentaries in many local and national publications. This article was originally published by CatholicJournal.