I recently read Pope Saint John Paul II’s apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“On the Most Holy Rosary”), promulgated in 2002, and thought I would offer something of a summary of it here. The Rosary might be one of the most misunderstood prayers that Catholics use – and that includes a lot of Catholics! I wrote about my own struggles with the Rosary here. You can read more about what an apostolic letter is (and how it differs from an encyclical) at this link.
This is the fourth in a series of posts, which I am breaking down along the lines of the letter:
- Chapter I: Contemplating with Mary
- Chapter II: Mysteries of Christ – Mysteries of His Mother
- Chapter III: “For Me, to Live is Christ”
Please feel free to share your experiences praying the Rosary in the comments below.
Chapter III: “For Me, to Live is Christ”
The Rosary, a Way of Assimilating the Mystery
The Rosary, Pope John John Paul II tells us, is a way to assimilate the mystery of Christ through meditation and through the repetition of prayers, especially the Hail Mary. Each of the mysteries is contemplated over the background of ten Hail Marys. It is this very repetition that some Protestants find troubling, but the pope tells us that we should look more deeply at the prayer (and the repetition) to see its real meaning. “If this repetition is considered superficially, there could be a temptation to see the Rosary as a dry and boring. It is quite another thing, however, when the Rosary is thought of as an outpouring of that love which tirelessly returns to the person loved with expressions similar in their content but ever fresh in terms of the feeling pervading them.” To put it another way, and I believe it might have been Scott Hahn who said this, praying the Rosary is a way to ask the Blessed Mother to pray for and with us while telling her “I love you” with each Hail Mary. What mother ever tires of hearing her children tell her this?
And this kind of repetition – a repetition out of love – is not something God will begrudge us. After all, Jesus was fully Divine and yet also fully Human, and His own heart can understand our human affections. John Paul reminds us of the time when Jesus asked Saint Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” and three times Peter replied that he did, indeed, love Jesus. The pope says “none can fail to recognize the beauty of this triple repetition, in which the insistent request and the corresponding reply are expressed in terms of familiar from the universal experience of human love.”
Another aspect of the Rosary that is commonly misunderstood is the direction of the Hail Mary throughout it’s recitation. But the Hail Mary is a prayer rooted in Scripture, and therefore it is a prayer rooted in Christ. Jesus lies at the very center of the prayer (literally and figuratively), for “although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her.” He says that our repetition of this prayer is because of our desire to become more like Christ, to conform ourselves to Him. If we look carefully at the words of the prayer that is the main body of the Rosary, we see that all of it is directed towards growing closer to Christ.
A Valid Method…
When we pray the Rosary, we create a rhythm with the repeated prayers and the back-and-forth that goes on when it’s recited in a group. This is a way that God reaches out to us, as human beings: He “respects our human nature” and allows us to use our nature in our worship of Him. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Grace perfects nature.” God’s grace will work within our human nature and make it more perfect, more conformed to Christ. (More on this idea in a bit…) Pope John Paul II tells us “Christian spirituality…normally engages the whole person in all his complex psychological, physical, and relational reality.”
This, he tells us, is nowhere more evident than it is in the Liturgy, where we worship God with every bit of our being, using all five of our senses in the process. Sacraments and sacramentals are used as a way to physically engage us in our worship of God and in our salvation. This applies, too, to non-liturgical prayers, including the ancient Jesus Prayer, which is “traditionally linked to the rhythm of breathing.”
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Rosary is just another way to use our natural human rhythms to help us focus on the meditations and the mysteries. The repetition creates a soothing rhythm in the background of our thoughts about the life of Christ.
…Which Can Nevertheless be Improved
Saint John Paul II says that the West is experiencing a “renewed demand for meditation,” which some people find leading them to certain aspects of other religions. The Rosary, however, fits into this kind of prayer and also corresponds with “specifically Christian requirements.”
“In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation.” [emphasis original] And yet it is not the end for which we strive, but a means to it. The Rosary is not the purpose of the meditation, but it is a tool to lead us to Christ. Becoming more like Christ, becoming a better Christian, learning to love the Lord more fully…these are the ends that the Rosary is a means to bring us to. This is the whole reason that John Paul added the Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary: to enable us to more deeply enter into the mystery of the life of Christ and to find new ways to emulate Him. These mysteries and the suggestions for recitation that will follow “are intended to help the faithful to understand [the Rosary] in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life.” What the pope wants to avoid is the idea that the Rosary beads are some sort of amulet, magic object, or superstition rather than a way to improve the spiritual life of the people who pray with them. To regard them as some kind of lucky charm would “radically [distort] their meaning and function.
Announcing Each Mystery
The reason we announce the mystery as we begin each decade of the Rosary is to give our minds something to focus on as we pray. “The words direct the imagination and the mind towards a particular episode or moment in the life of Christ. In the Church’s traditional spirituality, the veneration of icons and the many devotions appealing to the senses, as well as the method of prayer proposed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises, make use of visual and imaginative elements (the compositio loci), judged to be of great help in concentrating the mind on the particular mystery.” This method reinforces the idea that God became Man, and it is through this “bodily reality” that we grow closer to Him and are “led into contact with the mystery of his divinity.”
Personally, I have a set of Ignatian-style meditations on the Rosary that I find very helpful when I pray. I use the Biblical stories that the mysteries are based upon and place myself into the story, watching the Apostles and disciples and the Blessed Virgin take part in Christ’s life. I pray that the Blessed Virgin Mary can teach me through the mystery. (I shared my meditation on the Presentation of the Lord, the Fourth Joyful Mystery, here.)
John Paul II comments that, although this is a beautiful way to encounter the Gospel, it is not a replacement for reading the Scriptures, nor is it exhaustive in its content. So the Rosary should be considered a companion to, not a replacement for, lectio divina. The Rosary, even with the addition of the Luminous Mysteries, should be an introduction to deeper study of Scripture.
Listening to the Word of God
After his comments on announcing each mystery, John Paul II also recommends proclaiming a related Biblical passage before beginning the decade of prayer. “If received in this way, the word of God can become a part of the Rosary’s methodology of repetition without giving rise to the ennui derived from the simple recollection of something already well known. It is not a matter of recalling information but of allowing God to speak.” [emphasis original]
After announcing the mystery and reading a passage from Scripture, it is fitting to also pause in silence to contemplate the mystery before beginning to pray aloud. Silence should be an important part of our prayer life, and John Paul II remarks how difficult it is to achieve silence in our technologically-focused world (even back in 2002!). “One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.” Now more than ever, we should seek that silence in our prayer life, and a short pause to reset our minds on the Rosary and the Mystery at hand is a perfect time and place to practice it.
The “Our Father”
Once we have announced the mystery, proclaimed the Scripture, and paused in silence, our minds are ready to be lifted up to the Father. “Jesus always leads us to the Father” John Paul tells us. Beginning each decade of the Rosary with the Our Father reminds us that we, too, can call Him “Abba/Daddy.” With God the Father as our own Father, too, we become brothers and sisters to Christ.
The Ten “Hail Marys”
The main body of a recitation is made up of this prayer, and it’s the reason Catholics call it a Marian devotion. It’s also a reason many Protestants don’t like it. But Pope John Paul II tells us that this need not be so. He has much to say about this, and I mainly want his own words to speak for him:
“Yet when the Hail Mary is properly understood, we come to see clearly that its Marian character is not opposed to its Christological character, but that it actually emphasizes and increases it. The first part of the Hail Mary … is a contemplation in adoration of the mystery accomplished in the Virgin of Nazareth. … The repetition of the Hail Mary in the Rosary gives us a share in God’s own wonder and pleasure: in jubilant amazement we acknowledge the greatest miracle of history. Mary’s prophecy here finds its fulfillment: ‘Henceforth all generations will call me blessed’ (Luke 1:48).
“The centre of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus. … Pope Paul VI drew attention, in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultis, to the custom in certain regions of highlighting the name of Christ by the addition of a clause referring to the mystery being contemplated. … When we repeat the name of Jesus … in close association with the name of his Blessed Mother, almost as if it were done at her suggestion, we set out on a path of assimilation meant to help us enter more deeply into the life of Christ.
“From Mary’s uniquely privileged relationship with Christ, which makes her the Mother of God, Theotókos, derives the forcefulness of the appeal we make to her in the second half of the prayer, as we entrust to her maternal intercession our lives and the hour of our death.”
In other words, though the Hail Mary is directed at Mary, its real aim in Christ. Mary always leads us to her Divine Son, gently moving us towards Him with the words she spoke in Cana, “Do whatever He tells you.”
The Trinity is the goal of Christian contemplation. John Paul tells us that Christ is the way that leads us to the Father through the Spirit. “It is important that the Gloria, the high-point of contemplation, be given due prominence in the Rosary. He suggests even singing it in public recitations to give it extra emphasis as the central goal of our prayers. He goes on to say that we have been led by Christ to the Father at the beginning of the decade, then we go to Mary, who leads us to her Son with the love of a mother, and we complete the decade by raising our minds “to the heights of heaven and enabling us in some way to relive the experience of Tabor … ‘It is good for us to be here!’ (Luke 9:33)”
The Concluding Short Prayer
At the end of each decade, there is usually a recitation of a short prayer of some kind, which can vary depending on the local custom. While respecting this custom, John Paul suggests that perhaps it would be worthwhile to conclude with a short prayer that relates to the mystery just contemplated, and to pray for fruits specific to that particular mystery. This prayer could take a variety of forms, could be adapted to different spiritual traditions and to different Christian communities. (In my own reflections, I complete my meditation with a short prayer asking the Blessed Virgin to help me learn a lesson from the mystery that was just completed.)
The Rosary Beads
Traditionally, Catholics use Rosary beads to help navigate the Rosary. “At the most superficial level, the beads often become a simple counting mechanism to mark the succession of Hail Marys.” However, there is symbolism to be found in our Rosary beads that can aid our contemplation and bring us deeper into the mystery of Christ.
First of all, the beads all converge on the Crucifix. We begin and end the Rosary with Christ Crucified. So should our prayers and our very lives be, as well. “Everything begins from him, everything leads towards him, everything, though him, in the Holy Spirit, attains to the Father.”
The beads themselves, in their simple circle, also “evoke the unending path of contemplation and of Christian perfection.” Blessed Bartolo Longo saw them as a sweet chain that binds us to God, as a “filial” chain that puts us in tune with Mary and (even more importantly) with Christ Himself. Both Mary and Christ are examples of servants for us: Mary called herself the “handmaid of the Lord” and Christ made Himself a “servant” for love of us.
The Opening and Closing
There are different ways to open the Rosary within the Church. Dominicans begin with “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The Creed is often the opening prayer of the Rosary, as well, which allows us to make “the profession of faith in the basis of the contemplative journey about to be undertaken.” The pope says that these, as well as other customs, are all legitimate ways of beginning our prayer. The Rosary is usually ended with a prayer for the intentions of the pope, “as if to expand the vision of the one praying to embrace all the needs of the Church.”
Praying the Rosary well means that we pray a litany “in which Mary acts as Mother, Teacher, and Guide” for those of us who pray. Because Mary has been our guide throughout our contemplations, we finish our Rosary with the Salve Regina (“Hail, Holy Queen”).
Distribution Over Time
The Rosary can be prayed daily, giving our everyday lives a rhythm of prayers. It can be prayed with and for the sick and dying, or in times of trouble. When praying the Rosary, we often pray particular mysteries on particular days, “giving the different days of the week a certain spiritual ‘color’.”
The pope offers the following pattern for each day of the week:
- Sunday: Glorious
- Monday: Joyful
- Tuesday: Sorrowful
- Wednesday: Glorious
- Thursday: Luminous
- Friday: Sorrowful
- Saturday: Joyful
While these are offered as a suggested pattern for our week, St. John Paul emphasizes, “What is really important is that the Rosary should always be seen and experienced as a path of contemplation.” Whatever mysteries we pray on a given day, the most important thing is that our contemplation of the life of Christ brings us closer to God and to Christian perfection.
Has the Rosary led you closer to Christ and His Blessed Mother? How has this affected your own spiritual journey as a Christian?
© 2017 Christine Johnson