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History of the Rosary

This article was written by Fr. William Saunders and provides a wonderful history of the Rosary.

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Fr. William Saunders
Please explain the history and background of the rosary. Is it true that the Blessed Mother gave it to St. Dominic?

The rosary is one of the most cherished prayers of our Catholic Church. Introduced by the Creed, the Our Father, three Hail Marys and the Doxology ("Glory Be"), and concluded with the Salve Regina, the rosary involves the recitation of five decades consisting of the Our Father, 10 Hail Marys and the Doxology. During this recitation, the individual meditates on the saving mysteries of our Lord's life and the faithful witness of our Blessed Mother.

Journeying through the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the rosary, the individual brings to mind our Lord's incarnation, His passion and death and His resurrection from the dead. In so doing, the rosary assists us in growing in a deeper appreciation of these mysteries, in uniting our life more closely to our Lord and in imploring His graced assistance to live the faith. We also ask for the prayers of our Blessed Mother, who leads all believers to her Son.

The origins of the rosary are "sketchy" at best. The use of "prayer beads" and the repeated recitation of prayers to aid in meditation stem from the earliest days of the Church and has roots in pre-Christian times. Evidence exists from the Middle Ages that strings of beads were used to count Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Actually, these strings of beads became known as "Paternosters," the Latin for "Our Father."

The structure of the rosary gradually evolved between the 12th and 15th centuries. Eventually 50 Hail Marys were recited and linked with verses of psalms or other phrases evoking the lives of Jesus and Mary. During this time, this prayer form became known as the rosarium ("rose garden"), actually a common term to designate a collection of similar material, such as an anthology of stories on the same subject or theme. During the 16th century, the structure of the five-decade rosary based on the three sets of mysteries prevailed.

Tradition does hold that St. Dominic (d. 1221) devised the rosary as we know it. Moved by a vision of our Blessed Mother, he preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work among the Albigensians, who had denied the mystery of Christ. Some scholars take exception to St. Dominic's role in forming the rosary. The earliest accounts of his life do not mention it, the Dominican constitutions do not link him with it and contemporaneous portraits do not include it as a symbol to identify the saint.

In 1922, Dom Louis Cougaud stated, "The various elements which enter into the composition of that Catholic devotion commonly called the rosary are the product of a long and gradual development which began before St. Dominic's time, which continued without his having any share in it, and which only attained its final shape several centuries after his death." However, other scholars would rebut that St. Dominic not so much "invented" the rosary as he preached its use to convert sinners and those who had strayed from the faith. Moreover, at least a dozen popes have mentioned St. Dominic's connection with the rosary, sanctioning his role as at least a "pious belief."

The rosary gained greater popularity in the 1500s, when Moslem Turks were ravaging Eastern Europe. Recall that in 1453, Constantinople had fallen to the Moslems, leaving the Balkans and Hungary open to conquest. With Moslems raiding even the coast of Italy, the control of the Mediterranean was now at stake.

In 1571, Pope Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked all of the faithful to say the rosary and implore our Blessed Mother's prayers, under the title Our Lady of Victory, that our Lord would grant victory to the Christians. Although the Moslem fleet outnumbered that of the Christians in both vessels and sailors, the forces were ready to meet in battle. The Christian flagship flew a blue banner depicting Christ crucified. On October 7, 1571, the Moslems were defeated at the Battle of Lepanto. The following year, Pope St. Pius V established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7, where the faithful would not only remember this victory, but also give thanks to the Lord for all of His benefits and remember the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother.

The fact that our Church continues to include the Feast of the Holy Rosary on the liturgical calendar testifies to the importance and goodness of this form of prayer. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, "The rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known; it is the book of the simple, which initiates them into mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world, and open on the substance of the next. The power of the rosary is beyond description."

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the October 6, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese.

By Father Richard Gribble, CSC

The Rosary has been a major influence in Roman Catholic thought for over 500 years while paving the way for a greater understanding of the mystery of Christ celebrated within family prayer.

The Rosary is the tradition-distilled essence of Christian devotion in which vocal and mental prayer unite the whole person in effective and purposeful meditation on the central mysteries of Christian belief. The Rosary thus joins the human race to God through Mary whom God chose from all time for the specific purposes of mother and intercessor.

The historical development of the Rosary begins with the desert fathers and their need to find a system to ease their laborious and repetitive prayer life. It is generally agreed by scholars that a system for counting repetitive prayers began with the Hindus some nine centuries before Christ. Prayer counters such as rocks, sticks or notches in wood were employed to ensure that the proper number of prayers were recited. Over time, counters and psalms were united into a "three groups of fifty" format (Na tri coicat) so that "fifties" could be used for personal and/or penitential prayer.

The fifteenth century provided the development period for the many facets of today's Rosary. During this period the Dominican influence with the Rosary grew and was fostered through both fact and legend. Although the Dominicans were not the sole originators of the Rosary, their influence in the growth, devotion and spread of this prayer cannot be denied. It would not be inaccurate to call them the principal promoters and defenders of the Rosary through history.

The fifteenth century saw the Rosary begin its development into the familiar prayer form we know today. The Our Father came intact from the Gospel of Matthew. The Hail Mary developed from the scriptural greetings of Gabriel and Elizabeth to Mary in Luke's Gospel, plus a popular exhortation in use by the laity of that period. The Glory Be was used as a common doxology from the earliest of Christian times when praying the psalms. The Salve Regina, a later addition to the Rosary, states all relevant medieval themes about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its affiliation with the Rosary came about through popular practice although its precise origin within the devotion is not known. The Apostles' Creed along with the rosary pendant were also later developments, being added to the Rosary only in the early seventeenth century.

The voices of those who have promoted the Rosary have continued to speak. Probably the most significant comment which has come forward is the emphasis on the family as the principal body around which the Rosary can be most effectively utilized. Pope Pius XII spoke of the use of the Rosary in the family setting. The Pope's words were in keeping with the trend initiated in 1942 by Father Patrick Peyton, CSC, who became internationally known as "The Rosary Priest." Through his Family Theater productions and international rosary crusades, the Rosary and family prayer became common practices in the typical Roman Catholic household. Father Peyton's expression, "The Family That Prays Together Stays Together ™," became a rallying cry for many of the faithful.

Popes John XXIII and Paul VI introduced new teachings on the Rosary while continuing the teachings of their predecessors. For Pope John, the Rosary was the universal prayer for all the redeemed. Additionally, he taught that the mysteries of the Rosary must have a three-fold purpose: mystical contemplation, intimate reflection and pious intention. Both popes continued to foster the family rosary through writings and support of Father Peyton's Rosary crusade. The views of the pontiffs show that rosary recitation and teaching continues to be important in our contemporary prayer devotion.

The following article is written by Carol, Mariology, Vol. 3; Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

 The first definite evidence for the promotion of what corresponds to the modern Rosary is found in the second half of the fourteenth century, in the work of Alan de la Roche and his fellow Dominicans, but traditionally this devotion goes back to the time of St Dominic himself or even earlier.

According to Alan, Dominic had revived the practice of saying the Rosary in response to revelations from the Blessed Virgin while he was engaged in his fight against the Albigensians, as a means of winning them back to the Church.

The Albigensians opposed Church authority, holding a dualistic view of reality with two 'gods,' one in which the spiritual realm had been created by the good deity and matter by the bad. They rejected the Sacraments as well as many basic Christian principles, including the resurrection of the body, and adopted an extremely rigorous view of life which condemned marriage, while they also favoured a form of suicide by starvation.

These ideas were considered a clear threat not only by the Church but also by society as a whole, and were condemned by numerous Church Councils. Despite this the movement grew rapidly and missionaries including Dominic were sent to convert them. He had partial success, but a Crusade, in which Dominic took no part, had to be launched against them, and this coupled with the Dominican Inquisition managed to destroy this heresy by the end of the fourteenth century.

Dominic's part in the development of the Rosary has been disputed, but there is no question that there has been a long-standing tradition in the Church which regards this particular form of meditative prayer as the best form of devotion to Mary, and hence ultimately to God, since prayer to Mary is not an end in itself, but leads to Christ.

The rosary has been criticised on the grounds that there is insufficient documentary evidence as to its beginnings, but given the extraordinary degree of later Church approval at the highest level, particularly from the Popes, this criticism is not justified. With only a couple of exceptions all the Popes from the late fifteenth century until now have acclaimed the rosary with its mixture of vocal and mental prayer.

It seems that there is a definite tradition within the Dominican order linking the founder to the propagation of the rosary, and that possibly Dominic may have preached sermons on the basics of the faith and interspersed these with 'Hail Marys', thus initiating the idea of 'meditating' on the mysteries surrounding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The complete Rosary consists in the recitation of fifteen groups of ten 'decades' of the Marian prayer the 'Hail Mary', each headed by an 'Our Father', while meditating on the principle events surrounding Jesus' life, especially where these have a specific connection with Mary.

The Rosary then consists of 150 Hail Mary's and this indicates its origin probably lay as a counterpart to the 150 psalms which were recited by religious orders as part of the Divine Office. Generally it is said in three groups of fifty Hail Mary's to correspond to the 'Joyful', 'Sorrowful' and 'Glorious' mysteries of Christ's life, death and Resurrection, which were lived in union with Mary his Mother.

In essence the Rosary is a prayerful Scriptural meditation, since the Our Father is Jesus' own prayer given to his disciples when they had asked him how they should pray (Matt 6:9-13). The first part of the Hail Mary is also Scriptural, being a compilation of part of the dialogue between Mary and the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation (Lk 1:28), combined with the exclamation made by Elizabeth during the Visitation (Lk 1:42). In fact the prayer was originally known as the 'Angelic salutation' (greeting), with Elizabeth's greeting only being added generally during the medieval period.

The second part of the Hail Mary, the intercessory prayer to Mary, seems to date from about the eleventh century and was gradually adopted by the Church in general, with the whole prayer being finally fixed in its present form during the sixteenth century.

Sources: Carol, Mariology, Vol. 3; Cross, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.