For many non-Catholics, the rosary can be quite perplexing, even scandalous. [One critic went so far as to call it a sign of violent extremism. —ed.] In this prayer, Catholics recite five sets of ten Hail Marys. Each set, called a “decade,” is introduced by the Our Father and concluded with praise of the Holy Trinity in the Glory Be.
From an outsider’s perspective, the score at the end of each decade seems to be:
God the Father: 1
The Holy Trinity: 1
Looked at this way, the rosary seems to be primarily about Mary. At best, this repetitive attention to Mary can seem unbalanced, distracting us from a relationship with Jesus Christ. At worst, this prayer may seem idolatrous, treating Mary as if she were more important than God.
But the Hail Mary is centered on Jesus Christ, and the rosary, far from being unbiblical, is actually a beautiful scriptural way of praying that leads us closer to him. In his apostolic letter on the rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II emphasized that this prayer is meant to focus our attention on Jesus Christ: “Although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed” (26).
The opening of the Hail Mary is drawn from the words the angel Gabriel (and later her relative Elizabeth) used to greet the mother of the Messiah.
In awe that the Almighty God he has worshiped from the beginning of time was about to become a little baby inside Mary, Gabriel greeted the chosen woman from Nazareth with wonder over this profound mystery: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Similarly, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and given prophetic insight into this child’s identity. In response to the profound mystery of Christ taking place inside Mary’s womb, she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (1:42). These words focus not on Mary herself, but on the mystery of the Incarnation taking place inside her. In fact, John Paul II noted that every time we pray the Hail Mary, we participate in “the wonder of heaven and earth” at the mystery of God becoming man. Gabriel represents the wonder of heaven, and Elizabeth represents the wonder of earth.
When we repeat Gabriel’s and Elizabeth’s words, we participate in the joyful response to the mystery of Jesus Christ—the mystery of God becoming man. You can’t get much more Christ-centered than that!
As John Paul II explained,
these words . . . could be said to give a glimpse of God’s own wonderment as he contemplates his masterpiece—the Incarnation of the Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary. . . . 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 (Rosarium 33).
As a model disciple of Christ, Mary consented to God’s will when the angel Gabriel appeared to her (Luke 1:38), and she persevered in faith throughout her life (John 19:25-27; Acts 1:14). When we say, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” we ask Mary to pray for us to be faithful in our walk with the Lord, every day. She is the ideal person to intercede for us, to pray that we may walk in faith as she did. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains,
She prays for us as she prayed for herself: “Let it be to me according to your word.” By entrusting ourselves to her prayer, we abandon ourselves to the will of God together with her: “Thy will be done” (2677).
But at the heart of the Hail Mary is the holy name of Jesus: “And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” John Paul II says that Jesus’ name not only serves as the hinge joining the two parts of the Hail Mary, but is also this prayer’s “center of gravity.” The Hail Mary leads us to the person of Jesus, and at the center of this prayer, we speak his sacred name with reverence and with love.
Christ’s name is the only name under heaven through which we may hope for salvation (Acts 4:12). That we can even call upon the name of Jesus is astonishing. In the Old Testament, the Jews approached God’s name (“Yahweh”) with so much reverence that they eventually avoided speaking it. Instead, they often used the less personal title “Lord” when calling on God in prayer. But since God entered into humanity in Christ, we have the privilege of calling on the personal name of the Lord: “Jesus” (CCC 2666). Christians throughout the centuries have found in the name of Jesus a source of strength and meditation. As we utter the sacred name at the center of this prayer, the Hail Mary leads us to that divine source.
But what about “vain repetition”? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:7-8).
With Hail Mary after Hail Mary after Hail Mary, the rosary appears to some people to be the kind of repetitious prayer Jesus condemned—a superficial, mechanical way of praying to God that can be boring and empty of life. It is sometimes said to be “vain repetition” rather than true, intimate prayer flowing from the heart. Shouldn’t Christians, some ask, speak openly to Jesus rather than relying on a repetitious formula?
Jesus, though, was not condemning repetitive prayer. Rather, he was criticizing the Gentiles’ practice of reciting endless formulations and divine names in order to say the words that would force the gods to answer their petitions. Magical formulas were not the way to get God to answer prayers. Jesus challenged us to approach our heavenly Father not the way the pagans do their deities, but rather in confident trust that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Indeed, he knows what we need better than we do and is providing for those needs even before we realize them ourselves (Matt. 6:25-34).
Moreover, in the very next verse, Jesus gives us a new prayer to recite: the Our Father. Jesus says, “Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” (Matt. 6:9).
If it were wrong to use repetitive prayers, Jesus certainly would not have done it. Yet in the garden of Gethsemane, he spoke the same prayer three times: “Leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (Matt. 26:44). We cannot think of this repetition as anything but heartfelt.
Similarly, in the Old Testament, parts of Psalm 118 are structured around the repeated phrase “his steadfast love endures forever,” and the book of Daniel presents the three men in the fiery furnace constantly repeating the phrase “sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever” (Dan. 3:52-88). God looks favorably on their prayers and answers them in their time of need (Ps. 118:21; Dan. 3:94-95).
In the New Testament, the book of Revelation describes how the worship of God in heaven includes words of holy praise that are repeated without end. The four living creatures, gathered around God’s throne, “never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”(4:8). Although trying to manipulate God by vain repetition is always wrong, proper repetitious prayer is very biblical and pleasing to God.
We may still wonder why there is so much repetition in the rosary. John Paul II noted that it is similar to the “Jesus Prayer” that people have recited for centuries: Christians slowly repeat the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us,” often in rhythm with their breathing. Whispered over and over again, this prayer calms the mind so that we may be more disposed to meet God himself in prayer. It helps us follow the admonition of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.”
The succession of Hail Marys in the rosary achieves the same purpose. Anyone who prays the rosary knows that the peaceful cadence created by the repetition of the prayers slows down our minds and spirits and focuses our attention so that we can prayerfully reflect on different aspects of Christ’s life.
On another level, John Paul II encouraged us to think of the repetition of Hail Marys within the context of a relationship of love. I may tell my wife “I love you” several times a day. Sometimes I say these words to her as I am going out the door for work in the morning. Other times I whisper them just before we fall asleep at night. On special occasions, I may write these words in a card. When we are out to dinner, I may look her in the eyes as I say, “I love you.” Although she has heard me repeat these same words to her thousands of times, never once has she complained, “Stop saying the same thing over and over again!”
In an intimate, personal relationship such as marriage, two people may repeat to each other certain expressions of love, but each time the same words express anew the heartfelt affection the people have for one another. Indeed, repetition is part of the language of love.
We have an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. By reciting the Hail Mary throughout the rosary, we participate over and over again in the wonder-filled response of Gabriel and Elizabeth to the mystery of Christ. Bead after bead, we ask Mary to pray for us that we may be drawn closer to her Son. And most of all, prayer after prayer, we affectionately speak the name of our Beloved at the center of each Hail Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus . . . Jesus . . . Jesus.” The holy name of Jesus, repeated with tender love, is the heartbeat of the entire rosary.