What is the Rosary?

 

Since October is the Month of the Rosary I thought it would be appropriate to do a series of posts on what the rosary is, how to pray it and also answer some questions people have about the rosary.

If you want to read some lengthier historical pieces, there are some here, here and here. I will distill these articles into a shorter summary.

History of the Rosary

The rosary as it is known today is the product of hundreds of years of tradition and variation.

The Rosary in the East

The use of beads to keep track of prayers has been a common practice throughout Church history. Monks in the Eastern Churches used bead ropes of varying length to keep track of prayers. The length and prayers vary considerably in the Eastern Churches and don’t actually incorporate the Hail Mary.

Precursor to the Rosary

In the Western Church a string of beads was used to keep track of praying the 150 Psalms during the Divine Office. Adaptations were made since most couldn’t read to recite shorter prayers, especially the Our Father and the beads became known as “Pater Noster” beads. Over time, the first half of the Hail Mary, minus the words “Jesus Christ”, came to be included in the prayers and eventually to become the more popular method of recitation by the twelfth century.

The Albigensian Heresy

The Albigensian heresy that plagued southern France in St. Dominic’s time was based on a dual view of the world similar to that of the Manicheans of the 3rd century, namely, that there are two supreme beings, a good God who created the spirit world, and an evil god who created the material world. The spiritual world is essentially good, and the material world (including the human body) is essentially evil. The evil god (Satan) imprisoned spirits in material bodies, so whatever one can do to be released from that prison (including suicide) is good. Since matter is evil, marriage and the procreation of mankind is evil. The proponents of this heresy rejected Catholic belief regarding the Trinity, the Incarnation, the sacraments, hell and purgatory, but believed in the transmigration of souls. Christ was not truly a man, nor therefore, was Mary truly the Mother of God. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ were only illusions, and the whole concept of the cross in the Christian life was rejected. (source)

This is where the history gets muddy. Tradition has it that St. Dominic called for praying the Rosary as a weapon to assist in the fight against the Albigensians but nowhere in his writings can this be found. It appears that the tradition linking St. Dominic to the Rosary was created by Alan de Rupe, O.P. who lived in the 1400’s.

Even though the Rosary as we know it today can’t be traced back to St. Dominic, the spirit of the Rosary can be found in his methods of preaching which included reflections on the life of Christ interspersed with Hail Mary’s. There was also an organization founded by St. Dominic called the Militia of Jesus Christ that prayed the Marian Psalter daily and another group founded by a Dominican bishop during the 1200’s that also prayed 150 Hail Mary’s every day.

Current Use of the Rosary

The Rosary as we know it today consists of 200 Hail Mary’s divided into groups of ten by single Our Father’s and Glory Be’s. Each decade is introduced by a part of Christ’s life to meditate upon. The length of the rosary was extended from 150 to 200 beads in 2002 by Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae to include five more mysteries from the latter part of Christ’s life. These additions are typically called the “Luminous Mysteries” or the “Mysteries of Light”. It has also become common practice to say the “Fatima Prayer” in between each decade. This prayer:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.

was part of the apparitions at Fatima back in the early 1900’s.

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