The next time you pray the rosary, you might want to spare a prayer of thanksgiving for St. Pius V. And for St. Dominic. And maybe one for the Carthusian monks, too.
All of them were instrumental in the development of the set of prayers that has become the modern rosary, which is celebrated every year in the month of October.
The fact is, though, that the roots of praying the rosary — of “telling the beads” — go far earlier than the 12th century.
“Praying with beads was part of a number of religious traditions,” said Father James Presta, who is on the faculty at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. “The Muslims and the Jews certainly have prayer traditions involving beads. There’s just something about having something physical, something tangible to touch while you’re praying.”
The earliest Christian versions of the rosary likely were a way for the lay faithful to imitate monks praying the 150 psalms as part of the Liturgy of the Hours. Lay men and women, who most likely could not read and did not have the leisure time to memorize all the psalms, could use the beads to keep track as they recited 150 Our Fathers, or, at that time, “Pater Nosters,” Presta said.
There is a “pious tradition” that the Blessed Mother herself gave St. Dominic the rosary as it is known today when he was fighting the Albigensian heresy in France, Presta said.
“One thing we can say for certain is that the Dominican family helped the tradition grow,” Presta said, noting the efforts of Blessed Alan de la Roche in the 1400s.
Around the same time, the Carthusian monks were combining Our Fathers and Hail Marys into decades and adding “thoughts about the lives of Jesus and Mary” to specific prayers in the cycle, according to the Immaculate Heart of Mary Carthusian Hermitage in Australia.
Those “thoughts” developed into the joyful mysteries, focused on the incarnation, birth and early years of Jesus; the sorrowful mysteries, focused on his passion and death; and the glorious mysteries, focused on his resurrection and the glory accorded to Mary.
Then, St. Pius V made the rosary uniform with the promulgation of the papal document “Consueverunt Romani Pontifices,” in which he endorsed the Dominican rosary of 15 decades for recitation throughout the Catholic Church. He called on Christians throughout Europe to pray the rosary in support of forces fighting to rescue Christians in Cyprus and stop the spread of the Ottoman Empire, and gave credit to Our Lady of the Rosary, also known as Our Lady of Victory, for the Christian victory at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The basic form of the rosary remained unchanged for more than 400 years, although optional additions such as the Fatima prayer have been included, Presta said. Over the centuries, several popes have written to encourage the faithful to pray the rosary.
In 2002, Pope John Paul II wrote “Rosarium Virginis Maria,” and proposed the addition of the luminous mysteries, which focus on Jesus’ public ministry.
“The rosary is a very scriptural prayer,” Presta said, noting that the first half of the Hail Mary is taken directly from the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, and the Our Father is included in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. All but two of the 20 mysteries are events included in the Gospels, he said.
While the bulk of the individual prayers in the rosary are directed toward Mary, those mysteries mean that it is as much a Christcentered prayer as a Marian one.
“John Paul II said the rosary is an opportunity to contemplate the face of Christ in the school of Mary,” Presta said. “She’ll show us how to give praise and glory to the son.”
Over the centuries, many Catholics of all walks of life have underscored the familial nature of praying the rosary. Notable among these include two great 20th-century rosary devotees, Father Patrick Peyton and St. John Paul II.
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