A friend of mine calls the rosary “the gospel on a string.” It’s an apt description for this fruitful devotion in which we meditate on the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, the God-man who came to redeem mankind and offer us the gift of eternal salvation.
We might also describe the rosary as a “contemplative catechism,” for we deepen our relationship with Jesus and his Church through reflecting on the key events of his life: his conception, birth, and boyhood; his preaching the kingdom and instituting the Eucharist; his suffering and death; and his triumph over sin and death in rising from the dead. After his resurrection, we reflect on his sending the Holy Spirit and welcoming his mother into heaven as his greatest disciple and queen of heaven and Earth.
In short, the rosary reaffirms that Catholicism, properly understood, begins and ends with Jesus. In the same vein, our devotion to Mary flows from her being the Mother of God. And Christianity is not simply rooted in something Jesus did 2,000 years ago, a “finished” event (John 19:30) from which we can still draw saving grace; rather, the Faith is rooted in a redemptive sacrifice that continues in his resurrection and culminates in everlasting glory at Christ’s ascension, as “he always lives to make intercession” for us in “heaven itself, now” (Heb. 7:25, 9:24, emphasis added).
The rosary reminds us that Jesus is the high priest of heaven, offering his one and only sacrifice (Heb. 8:1-3), which becomes present on Earth every time we heed Christ in offering the Eucharist—“Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)—and partake of his body and blood as the New Covenant Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Matt. 26:28, 1 Cor. 5:7).
Indeed, as he promised, Jesus is with us until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), most especially in the Eucharist and other sacraments. Praying the rosary helps us better appreciate and access these great gifts our Lord continues to dispense through his Church.
Jesus also gives us his mother, Mary, the exemplar of Christianity, to accompany us on this meditative journey through the four sets of rosary mysteries: joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious. Mary welcomes Jesus from the beginning of his earthly mission, and her Assumption and coronation illustrate that Jesus fulfills his salvific promises and his mother is God-qualified to intercede on our behalf.
From the Annunciation, Mary testifies that God is the object of our worship in the rosary, responding to the angel Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary thus expresses a lifelong commitment to doing God’s will, proclaiming at her visitation that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Also, at the wedding of Cana, in reference to her divine son, she faithfully advises the servants—and us by extension—“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
Given her model discipleship, which she exemplifies all the way to the cross and beyond, the Lord highly exalts Mary. As Scripture attests, Mary is not simply the Mother of God but the spiritual mother of all Christ’s disciples, “her offspring . . . those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17; see John 19:26-27).
Like any good mother, Mary seeks the good of her children, which means helping them attain heaven, in opposition to to the devil, who seeks their destruction (Rev. 12:17). Because of Mary’s concern for her spiritual offspring, we invoke her assistance in the holy rosary, “now and at the hour of our death.”
A gift from above
For much of Church history, most Catholics couldn’t read, including the regular praying of the Psalms, which has its roots in the Old Covenant era. In the New Covenant era, the Psalms eventually became part of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours.
Beginning in the ninth century, particularly with uneducated Irish monks, a “poor man’s psalter” or breviary developed for those who couldn’t read and understand Latin. It consisted of the repeated praying of the Our Father or, in Latin, Pater noster. The term psalter derives from the 150 psalms in the book of Psalms. The monks and lay faithful would use prayer beads to keep track of the number of Our Fathers they prayed.
Devotion to the Blessed Mother also increased over time, with the “Marian Psalter” becoming more common in the twelfth century, the praying of 150 Hail Marys mirroring the Pater nosters prayed in the poor man’s psalter. Also, fifteen Our Fathers were added in short order to divide the Hail Marys into sets of ten, or decades.
In 1208, in Fanjeaux, France, according to longstanding pious tradition to which popes have attested for centuries, St. Dominic received from Our Lady the mandate to combine the recitation of the Marian Psalter with preaching and meditation on the key mysteries of her divine son’s life.
Mary’s timing was providential, because Dominic and the leaders of the Church were combating the Albigensians, a heretical group that believed that the spiritual aspect of man was made by a good god and thus was morally good, whereas the body was made by an evil god and thus morally bad.
Consequently, mysteries of our Lord’s life that countered this dualistic error—e.g., the Incarnation and Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension—enabled Dominic and his confreres to form the faithful well through preaching and related meditation.
Some critics have countered that the tradition that Mary gave Dominic originated later in 1470, the miscreation of another Dominican, Bl. Alan de la Roche. In addition, these critics have argued, Dominic the Prussian, a Carthusian monk, actually started the meditative rosary—versus simply praying Hail Marys—earlier in the 1400s.
However, in his book Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon, Fr. Donald Calloway provides persuasive counterevidence. For example, in the mid-twentieth century, Mathieu Gorce, a French Dominican, reported on a fellow Dominican who describes in a document from the early 1300s the praying of the Hail Mary while meditating on mysteries of the Faith, a preaching-praying method St. Dominic received as a heavenly mission.
In addition, in 1977, Andreas Heinz, who served as a historian at the University of Trier in Germany, discovered a manuscript that detailed the praying of a rosary with meditations on Christ’s life that also dated from the early 1300s.
The last portion of the Hail Mary, in which Mary is prayerfully invoked, dates to the mid-1300s, as a response to the Black Plague that ravaged Europe. Though variations on the mysteries developed over time, the fifteen traditional mysteries became standardized, beginning with the rosary revival Alan de la Roche started in the 1400s, which Pope St. Pius V reaffirmed in his 1569 papal bull Consueverunt Romani.
Finally, in 2002, through his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope St. John Paul II instituted the luminous mysteries, which cover the period of Christ’s life from his adolescence to the beginning of Holy Week.
The rosary and Christ-centered apologetics
Protestant Christians oppose the rosary because they say it violates the biblical doctrine that Jesus is the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim 2:4, emphasis added). Ironically, in that same passage, St. Paul urges us to be collaborators with Jesus in bringing about the salvation of the souls: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis added).
Scripture also shows that the faithful departed can heed Paul’s call:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8, emphasis added).
As their name implies (see, e.g., James. 5:14), the twenty-four elders are humans, Christians who have attained heaven. St. John illustrates they are able to receive the prayers of the faithful on earth and bring them to Jesus.
And if rank-and-file saints in heaven can aid us, how much more can the Mother of God? As a mother on Earth works for her natural children’s welfare, Mary similarly advocates for her spiritual children (Rev. 12:17) through her intercessory prayer as queen of heaven and earth (Rev. 12:1). To argue otherwise is to contradict Scripture and disparage her divinely appointed maternal role.
In this light, Mary and the other saints are not would-be competitors with Christ, but God-ordained collaborators with Jesus. Their prayerful collaboration—like ours on Earth—is rooted in and made possible by Jesus, as the great apologist Frank Sheed summarizes so well in his book Theology for Beginners:
None of these things . . . love, prayer (the Mass above all) suffering . . . would be of any effect if Christ had not died for us; but in union with his redemptive act, they are of immense power. From the beginning of the Christian Church, their effect is taken for granted. Thus St. Paul can tell his converts to pray for others precisely because there is one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
In other words, the fact that Our Lord is mediator does not make our prayer for one another unnecessary; it makes it effective.
But the rosary focuses on Mary, not Jesus. Isn’t that blasphemous?
This is a misunderstanding based on the greater number of Hail Marys than Our Fathers. First, the Hail Mary is a biblically based prayer, including, as we have noted, that Mary and the other saints can intercede for us. Also, the Hail Mary itself is an affirmation of Jesus, because Mary is the “Mother of God,” who is thus her creator. Fittingly, the rosary is also distinguished by a cross or crucifix, recalling Christ—not a symbol of the Blessed Mother.
In addition, the repeated Hail Marys are a means to an end. They aid our meditating on the central events and mysteries of Christ’s life and their fruitful impact on his mother. Also, Christ is the focus of each and every Hail Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
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 very 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.
In short, the saving ministry of Jesus is the focus and goal of the rosary. Because Mary is the Mother of our Savior and has attained our heavenly goal in full glory, body and soul, she is uniquely positioned to collaborate with her son in his mission. Indeed, Scripture describes Mary as the spiritual mother of all her son’s disciples, “those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).
Why? Because the Blessed Mother always works in union with Jesus and thus always leads people to him, beginning with her “yes” to become Christ’s mother at the Annunciation and in her perennial exhortation to follow Jesus: “do whatever he tells you.” So Mary isn’t a distraction from encountering Jesus.
On the contrary, we honor Mary precisely because she is the Mother of God, as we similarly respect the pope because he holds the God-ordained office of “vicar of Christ.” And so we honor Jesus by honoring his mother in fulfilling the Fourth Commandment, and she in turn blesses us through her intercessory role as our spiritual mother.
Mary is a paragon of humility and childlike docility. Even though she is without sin, she recognized the need for a savior (Luke 1:47). She is also our exemplar in following her savior Son. Because she is the Mother of God and the spiritual mother of all his disciples, little wonder that, filled with the Holy Spirit, she is able to proclaim, “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48).