By Cardinal Justin Rigali
The precise origins of the Rosary are lost in the mists of time. However, we do know that the practice of counting prayers on beads is over a thousand years old. There is a constant pious belief that attributes the popularization of the Rosary, in the form in which we know it, to Saint Dominic (1170-1221). It is from the circumstances that surround Saint Dominic and the Rosary that I would like to take some of our thoughts, as we prepare to celebrate the month of the Holy Rosary.
We know that Saint Dominic was a zealous and effective preacher and the founder of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. During his lifetime, there was a particularly tenacious heresy, which had attracted a large number of people. This error taught that Christ was merely a created being, who never really took on a human body and never actually died on the cross. His redemption gave us only the example of a noble life and a moral lesson of virtue but did not bring about the remission of sin.
In the face of these errors, Dominic’s preaching seemed powerless. Pious custom tells us that Our Lady appeared to Dominic, asking him to preach devotion to the Rosary as a way of combating the errors. Dominic did so and the strength of the heresy was finally broken. For many centuries, the Dominicans have considered the Rosary and the propagation of devotion to it as one of their greatest treasures.
The Rosary as guardian of the faith and friend to the simple and scholarly
Just as its beginnings in popular piety were associated with the purity of the faith, so it has been down through the centuries. Among many peoples and cultures, the Rosary has been a means of maintaining the Catholic faith, even in the midst of difficulties and persecutions. We think, for example, of the people of Ireland, who were persecuted for their faith and often deprived of the consolations of the Mass and the Sacraments. The Rosary kept their faith alive, united them with the mysteries of the Redemption and gave them a means of transmitting the faith from generation to generation. This is one of the reasons why the Rosary has long been so beloved by the people of Ireland and their descendants.
Among many other immigrant groups who came to this country without the advantage of being able to read or write, and without a priest who could minister to them in their own language, the Rosary became their catechism, Bible and missal and they preserved the faith intact for their descendants through their devotion to it.
The Dominican Order, which has preached the Rosary for over 800 years, is also known for its teaching and its scholarly work. It is significant that this prayer of the Rosary, which is so simple and which can be been said by those who are illiterate, has been preached by those involved in scholarship.
We know that the Rosary is not merely made up of the repetition of prayers. An integral part of this devotion is the meditation on the mysteries of our salvation, which we recall as we recite the prayers. We may say that the vocal prayers serve as “background music” for our calm reflection on the gifts of God to us, His People. We might also say that the chain of the Rosary is like a bridge, uniting both the learned and the simple as they travel on their journey of faith, with Mary as their sure guide. Great scholars have held the Rosary in great esteem as well as the poor and illiterate, for whom this was their only book of prayers.
For each and for all, there are endless riches to be found in meditation upon the mysteries of the Rosary, which has been called a “school of prayer,” because of all the lessons that we can learn in reciting it.
Our Lady of Victory
There is another historical incident clearly associated with the Rosary which shows forth another aspect of the Rosary: its great spiritual power. On October 7, 1571, one of the greatest and most decisive naval battles in history took place at Lepanto, when Christian forces defeated the ships of the Ottoman Empire, which had enslaved more than 10,000 Christians. The mission had been placed under the special protection of Our Lady and her Rosary. The Pope at the time, Pope Saint Pius V, asked for a crusade of the Rosary to pray for victory.
In a time when communication was very slow, Pope Pius V had a vision of the battle as it was taking place and saw the victory of the liberating forces as the people of Rome were joining him in the recitation of the Rosary. Messengers, arriving a couple of weeks later, confirmed the date and time of the victory as seen by the Pope in his vision.
To commemorate the event, the Pope designated October 7 as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, recalling the victory won through Our Lady’s Rosary. The name of this Feast was later changed to that of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and I am so pleased to have been installed as the Archbishop of Philadelphia on that date five years ago.
This great historical example of the power of the Rosary has been repeated countless times in your lives and in mine and in the lives of numberless faithful who have turned to Mary, through her Rosary, in times of need and even desperation.
In our own age, after the Second World War, it was thought to be a foregone conclusion that the country of Austria would become a satellite state of Soviet Russia, as all her Eastern neighbors were slowly being swallowed up. The people of Austria engaged in a great crusade of the Rosary and, to the astonishment of the entire world, the Russian forces surprisingly and mysteriously withdrew from Austria, never to return.
The Popes and the Rosary
We have already noted the connection between Pope Saint Pius V and the Rosary, and so many Popes have continued to extol this prayer.
Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) was especially known as “The Pope of the Rosary,” for the many documents he wrote extolling the Rosary and encouraging the Christian people in its recitation.
Within a year of his election, Blessed John XXIII wrote an Encyclical on the subject of the Rosary and recalled “the Encyclicals which Pope Leo XIII used to write to the whole Catholic world as the month of October drew near, in order to urge the faithful to devout recitation of Mary’s Rosary during that month in particular.
These Encyclicals had varied contents, but they were all very wise, vibrant with fresh inspiration, and directly relevant to the practice of the Christian life. For the Rosary is a very commendable form of prayer and meditation. In saying it we weave a mystic garland of Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory be’s. And as we recite these vocal prayers, we meditate upon the principal mysteries of our religion.
Pope John continued with a touching reflection on his own personal devotion to the Rosary. He wrote: “These pleasant memories of our younger days have not faded or vanished as the years of our life have passed. On the contrary, we want to declare in complete frankness and simplicity that the years have made Mary’s Rosary all the dearer to us and we never fail to recite it each day in its entirety” (Grata Recordatio, 26 September 1959).
Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical on the Rosary, wanted to recall in a special way “Pope Paul VI, who in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus emphasized, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the Rosary’s evangelical character and its Christocentric inspiration.
It can be said that the Rosary is, in some sense, a prayer-commentary on the final chapter of the Vatican II Constitution Lumen Gentium, a chapter which discusses the wondrous presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and the Church. Against the background of the words ‘Hail Mary,’ the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 16 October 2002).
Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, presided at a solemn recitation of the Rosary at the beginning of the month of May of this year. In the course of the address he gave on that day, he reflected on the timeliness of the Rosary and its renewed popularity among the young.
He said: “Today, together we confirm that the Holy Rosary is not a pious practice banished to the past, like prayers of other times thought of with nostalgia. Instead, the Rosary is experiencing a new springtime. Without a doubt, this is one of the most eloquent signs of love that the young generation nourish for Jesus and his Mother, Mary. In the current world, so dispersive, this prayer helps to put Christ at the center, as the Virgin did, who meditated on all that was said about her Son, and also what He did and said. When reciting the Rosary, the important and meaningful moments of salvation history are relived” (Address, Basilica of Saint Mary Major, 3 May 2008).
As we reflect this month on the gift of the Rosary, its place within the Church, its power and its many Christocentric lessons, I ask a favor of you who are reading these words. Would you also take part in a crusade of the Rosary? Would you do so for the gift of priestly vocations in this Archdiocese?
When I became your Archbishop on the Feast of the Rosary five years ago, I assumed the responsibility of providing priests to serve you, Christ’s faithful, in this Archdiocese. Help me, especially by praying the Rosary, that powerful chain that unites earth to heaven!
25 September 2008