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Rosary, Catholic

The Catholic Rosary resembles prayer beads, used as counters, of the Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism. In fact, the first rosaries were probably knotted string or cords dating back to antiquity. Other prayer counters, knotted ropes, originated in the fourth century by the Church Fathers of the Eastern orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholic Churches. These rosaries were used when praying the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart which was composed simply as "Lord, have mercy" or "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner." Other counting methods, such as pebbles and pegboards, were also used by the early Desert Fathers. The various initial type rosaries eventually evolved into the great variety availed today.

In the Western Church, according to the Roman Breviary, The Rosary is a form of prayer which consists of praying five decades or ten Hail Marys (Ave Maria) with the Our Father (Pater noster) and Glory be to the Father (Gloria Patri) between each of the ten. While reciting each of the fifteen decades the one praying is to be in pious meditation upon the mysteries of the Redemption.

The Hail Mary

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.

The origin of the Rosary, according to tradition, began in 1214 when the Virgin Mary gave St. Dominic (c. 1170-1221) the Rosary in the similar form as it exists today except with various wordings of the Hail Mary. It seems the troubling occasion was the Albigensian heresy. During the devastation of the heresy within the area of Toulouse St. Dominic besought the help of the Virgin; she, in turn, instructed him to preach the Rosary to the people to ward off the heresy and sin. Since that time the Rosary has been firmly established within the Church through the apostolic letters of various pontiffs beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1883. All the encyclicals describe the same form of prayer as the Rosary and instituted by St. Dominic as a historical fact.

This historical fact is challenged by archeological evidence of numerous papers and works written by and about St. Dominic which do not mention the rosary or draw any connection between it and the saint. There was no allusion to the Rosary in the eight or nine early works of the saint's life. Witnesses that gave evidence for cause of his canonization were equally reticent. This in itself is a strange coincidence since Mary and the Rosary are so admired by the Church. Furthermore, the constitutions of the different parishes of the Dominican order of the time make no reference of the devotion. There are thousands of pages of information concerning St. Dominic which bear no mention of the Rosary.

However, the biographer of St. Albert (d. 1140) description of the man "A hundred times a day he bent his knees, and fifty times he prostrated himself raising his body again by his fingers and toes, while he repeated at every genuflexion: 'Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb'." The name of Jesus was added by St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). In summary, there is historical information that St. Dominic did not institute the Rosary. There are indications that the initial formulations of the rite begun long before St. Dominic. Others before him were practicing saying the fifteen prescribed decades of the, the doxology. Hail Marys with the Our Father and Glory be to the Father determinedly spaced between them. The mysteries to be meditated upon were not introduced until some two hundred years after St. Dominic's death. Then, the question still remains, why was St. Dominic given encyclical credit for introducing the Rosary to the people.

An answer to this question seemed to have been discovered by the Bollandists, an association of ecclesiastical scholars engaged in editing the Acta Sanctorum, who sought to trace the origin of current tradition. Their findings converged upon the preaching of the Dominican Alan de Rupe, around the years 1470-1475. Apparently he was the first to suggest that St. Dominic instituted or revived the devotion of "Our Lady's Psalter" (one hundred and fifty Hail Marys). It was agreed that de Rupe was a very earnest and devout person but possessed by delusions that caused him to base his revelations on the testimony of writers that never existed. His preaching, however, was well attended leading to the establishment of the Confraternities of the Rosary by de Rupe and his colleagues in Douai, Cologne. De Rupe gained some reputation in the surrounding area that led to printing of books impregnated with his ideas. For these good works he repeatedly received indulgences as was the practice in this uncritical area. The historical information inspired by de Rupe's writings was later contributed by the confraternities themselves in the usual way thus increasing the Dominican influence. The first Papal Bulls wrote of the Rosary's authorship with some reserve but later pontiffs used less caution thus allowing St. Dominic believed to be the author.

Traditionally the recitation of the Rosary means praying five decades of Hail Marys. Assigned to each decade are mysteries of faith which the person is to meditate as he prays the decade. These mysteries are prescribed and are to be meditated upon on certain days of the week. The Joyful Mysteries, said on Mondays and Saturdays, are The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Nativity of Our Lord, The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, and The Finding in the Temple. The Sorrowful Mysteries, said on Tuesdays and Fridays, are The Agony in the Garden; The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crowning with Thorns, The Carrying of the Cross, and The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus. The Glorious Mysteries, said on Wednesdays and Sundays, are The Resurrection of the Lord; The Ascension of the Lord, The Descent of the Holy Ghost, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 2002, Pope John Paul II in an encyclical letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (October 2002) recommended an additional set of Luminus Mysteries (or the "Mysteries of Light"), said on Thursdays, which are The Baptism of Jesus; The Wedding at Cana, The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, The Transfiguration, and The Institution of the Eucharist.

The Rosary has always been used as a form of punishment in the Catholic Church throughout Europe; during the Middle Ages people were frequently forced to wear heavy rosary beads around their necks and occasionally made to stand in front of the cathedral, sometimes in sackcloth, where they were ridiculed. Often the victims were just guilty of minor sacrilegious acts such as falling asleep in church, not giving enough during the taking up of collection, or just not coming to church at all. Even though the Rosary was instituted to honor Jesus and Mary, it can be seen that it also has been used to serve the Church to keep the flock in line.

Even today priests frequently give the Rosary as a form of penance following the absolution for sins in confession. Penance given in this manner is not usually meant as a punishment, but as a form of reflection and spiritual growth to help the penitent to abstain from sin. A.G.H.


Alan de Rupe, <>

Albigensian heresy, <>

Bollandists, <>

Hail Mary, <>

Jesus Prayer, <>

Rosary, <>, <>

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