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Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Origins of the Rosary

Jan 14, 2019
woman holds a rosary

According to one tradition, the rosary’s defining moment came during an apparition of Mary to Saint Dominic around the year 1221. Dominic was combating a popular heresy in France called Albigensianism. Mary gave him the rosary, told him to teach people this devotion, and promised that his apostolic efforts would be blessed with much success if he did. We know the religious order Dominic founded (the Dominicans) clearly played a major role in promoting the rosary throughout the world in the early years of this devotion.


The Poor Man’s Breviary

Another important development in the history of the rosary is found in its roots in the liturgical prayer of the Church. In the medieval period, there was a desire to give the laity a form of common prayer similar to that of the monasteries. Monastic prayer was structured around the Psalter—the recitation of all 150 psalms from the Bible. At that time, however, most laity could not afford a Psalter, and most could not even read.

As a parallel to the monastic reading of the 150 psalms, the practice developed among the laity of praying the Our Father 150 times throughout the day. ­is devotion came to be known as “the poor man’s breviary.” ­e laity eventually were given beads to help them count their prayers.

Marian devotion followed a similar pattern. Gabriel’s words, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28), sometimes were read in the monasteries at the end of a psalm, showing how the psalms found fulfillment in the New Testament with the coming of Christ through the Virgin Mary.

Some laity began to recite these words in the manner of the Our Father—150 times, while counting their prayers on beads. In repeating the words of Gabriel, they were reliving the joy of the annunciation and celebrating the mystery of God becoming man in Mary’s womb.

Christians linked this prayer with Elizabeth’s words to Mary at the Visitation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Finally, with the addition of the name “Jesus” in the thirteenth century, the first half of the Hail Mary was in place. ­is early form of the Hail Mary was recited 150 times on the beads. By the fifteenth century, the 150 Hail Marys had been divided into sets of ten, known as “decades,” with an Our Father at the beginning of each.


Meditating on Mysteries

Another line of development in monastic prayer eventually led to the practice of contemplating Christ’s life while reciting the Hail Marys. Some monasteries began associating the psalms with an aspect of Jesus’s life. At the end of each psalm, the monks would recite a phrase relating that psalm to the life of Jesus or Mary. Taken together, these phrases formed a brief life of Christ and his mother.

A devotion that joined fifty of these phrases with the praying of fifty Hail Marys began in the early fifteenth century. However, since fifty points of reflection generally could not be recalled without a book, the devotion was simplified by reducing the meditation points to fifteen, with one for every decade. ­us, by the end of the fifteenth century, the basic structure of the rosary was in place: Our Fathers dividing decades of Hail Marys, with meditations on the life of Christ and Mary.

In the sixteenth century, the sets of five Joyful, five Sorrowful, and five Glorious Mysteries as we know them today began to emerge. Also, the vocal prayers of the rosary were finalized. Th­e Glory Be was added to the end of every decade, and the second half of the Hail Mary was formalized: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” In 1569, Pope Saint Pius V officially approved the rosary in this form: fifteen decades of Hail Marys introduced by the Our Father and concluded with the Glory Be.

And so the rosary remained for over four centuries. ­Then, in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II proposed something new.


The Luminous Mysteries

You know you are living in a historic moment when USA Today is teaching people how to pray the rosary. Its October 17, 2002, edition featured an article that included a typical USA Today visual aid graphic with very atypical content: a diagram of the rosary.

­The graphic offered clear instructions on how to pray the rosary, explaining which prayer—Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be—should be recited with which bead. While one might expect to find such a picture and explanation in pamphlets in the back of a church, it was surprising to find it in the pages of the secular press and, no less, in one of our nation’s most widely read newspapers.

What was the impulse for such catechetical instruction in this most unusual of settings?

The day before the article’s publication, Pope John Paul II published his Apostolic Letter on the Most Holy Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. The letter announced the Year of the Rosary and called on Catholics to renew their devotion to this traditional prayer. However, what grabbed the attention of USA Today and the entire Catholic world was John Paul II’s proposal of a whole new set of mysteries for contemplation in the rosary, the “Mysteries of Light” or “Luminous Mysteries.” 

John Paul II suggested that reflection on the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry would help Catholics enter more fully into the life of Jesus through the rosary: “To bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which…could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his passion” (RVM, 19). ­e pope proposed the following scenes to be contemplated: (1) Christ’s baptism, (2) the wedding feast at Cana, (3) the proclamation of the kingdom, (4) the Transfiguration, and (5) the institution of the Eucharist.

­The pope’s invitation to reflect on these mysteries makes a lot of sense. As some have noted, in the traditional form of the rosary, the transition from the fifth Joyful Mystery to the first Sorrowful Mystery seemed rather abrupt. We moved from Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy found by his parents in the temple to Jesus as a 33-year-old man about to be crucified on Calvary. ­The Mysteries of Light fill in the gap.

­The pope also said he hoped the addition of new mysteries would give the rosary “fresh life” at a time when the rosary was devalued in many parts of the Church. He hoped this new vitality would help “enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the Heart of Christ, ocean of joy and of light, of suffering and of glory” (RVM, 19). Indeed, the Mysteries of Light seem to be not only a most fitting development of the rosary, but also a providential one for our age and one that is likely to stand the test of time.

Praying the Rosary Like Never Before


Sat, 11/28/2020 - 08:59 AM
The sorrowful mysteries were once my least favorite part of the rosary.... the sadness was overwhelming! What an immature perception that was! Now each and every mystery is my favorite!
Tue, 08/24/2021 - 09:23 PM
I struggle to comprehend that Our Lady is pleased with words of praise and supplication directed at her while our minds are completely elsewhere.
Jesse Stone
Sat, 08/28/2021 - 06:46 PM
Jesse Stone
Alphonce: If Mary gave the Rosary as perceived, then she must get some benefit from it. But perhaps it’s better to think of it as more for our benefit then hers. When we pray to God, he already knows what we are doing better than we. So that the benefit of prayer is more for us than for God. Something similar is true in regards to the Rosary. It is for our benefit. Even if one wishes to think of it man-made, it is still designed for the benefit of man. Realizing the humility of Mary, which is through the Spirit of God, from the Son of God, which is from God himself; presumably prayer and the Rosary is for the benefit of those who practice it alone. If there is a benefit to the supernatural, it is that the natural is following the supernatural. The love of which for the natural is exemplified and described in 1Cor 13:1-8. The Rosary is made up of two aspects. The Prayer Hail Mary, and the meditation on the Mysteries. They are to be properly done simultaneously. Those who practice the Rosary devoutly among my acquaintances practice the Rosary in a linear fashion, wherein the extent of meditation on the Mysteries is the mention of the mystery prior to praying the ten Hail Mary beads. Historically, the Divine Office began simply as the daily recitation (that included prayer and meditation) of the 150 Psalms as adapted from the Jewish Tabernacle Ritual (some say it was from the Synagogue Ritual, but note that the disciples attended the Tabernacle Ritual for as long as it remained). Benedict claimed that his change from a daily to a weekly recitation was due to the weakness of the Church of that time. Currently, the Psalms are recited less than 150 Psalms (minus the so-called imprecatory Psalms and Psalm portions) once a month. Which speaks to the present state of the Church. Historically, the Rosary began as a substitution for the Divine Office. Initially 150 Our Fathers and later 150 Hail Marys as an alternate form. The latter was called Mary’s Psalter. This was intended for the illiterate or those who could not memorize the 150 Psalms, but desired to participate in some way. It was a special prayer form for special people. The Rosary as it is known today began with the St. Dominic incident using and developing from Mary’s Psalter. Other incidents followed such as the Blessed Allan de la Roche incident, the Pius V incident, and the Fatima incident. Such incidents together reveal that rather than a private devotion, this Rosary has always been by design intended to be used under certain special circumstances. Pope Paul VI had a purpose for the changes he allowed to be made to the Mass and the Divine Office. He wished to bring the laity into greater participation in both. He wished to return to the living Tradition that existed prior to the dead Tradition that had developed prior to the Vatican II Council era. Since Vatican II, the Divine Office began to be called the Liturgy of the Hours. This emphasis on the Liturgical aspect of the Divine Office and that the Divine Office is the Prayer of the Church, revealed that the Divine Office was as much a part of the general Priestly (not the special Priesthood) function of the laity and all the members of the Church as the Liturgy of the Mass. A revelation that has been the excuse for a great deal of confusion relating to the Special Priesthood as it relates to the Novus Ordo Mass. The meaning of the term Liturgy (A rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship) implies the use of vernacular language. Something the Traditional extreme can’t understand. It also implies an Alter rather than a communal Table. Something the Novus Ordo extreme can’t understand. It also implies the devotion toward the Theocentric in the name of the Christocentric. Something that neither extreme can understand. Leading to notable personages such as Fr. Sri, Scott Hahn, and the Traditionalist Taylor Marshall (“pray the rosary or you’re not on the team”) who emphasize the Rosary without a mention of the Divine Office. Do they think that the obligation to pray the Divine Office by the special Priesthood and Religious Orders are sufficient to that purpose? One Traditionalist (Timothy S. Flanders) claims that no less a personage than St. Luis de Montfort relegates the Divine Office to a position below the Rosary. Having perused the writings of St. Montfort, I found nothing therein that implies such a claim. To his credit, Flanders does try to explain the use of the Divine Office. If Flanders would quote his sources on the Rosary, it would be beneficial to his integrity. Ergo, I don’t pray the Rosary. Apart from the proper manner in which it is supposed to be prayed, it would be a waste of time. Seeing that the Rosary is a special purpose prayer, it is obviously to be prayed by special people under special circumstances. In the current weakened state of the Church, all are encouraged to pray the Rosary, so that the special people will be more certain to do so. It must be acknowledged that when the Rosary is prayed on YouTube, it is only the prayer that is seen. It does not, indeed can not, show the simultaneous meditation, which can only be instructed. What of the Luminous Mysteries? Presumably, Pope John Paul II only suggested they be added. But it must be considered that in order to break the idea that the current Psalter of Mary or the Rosary by Tradition continues to be a substitute for the Divine Office, Pope John Paul II was used to show the difference between the Rosary and the Divine Office by making 150 beads 200. The Luminous Mysteries have the unique function of completing what in the life of Christ was before missing in the Rosary. Who is to say that Mary herself is not behind the change so that the Rosary can be better understood and brought to its true intention as given to those after St. Dominic? What is implied then is that the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours are equal in status, but different in purpose. One can do one without doing the other. Or one can do both if time permits. Since I have found that I am unable to simultaneously pray and meditate the Rosary as it is intended, I have opted to pray the Divine Office. I leave to the special people to pray the Rosary the way it is supposed to be prayed and meditated, and for the right intention. In hopes that the Church will the sooner be restored to its original intention and purpose.
Sun, 11/21/2021 - 08:54 PM
Timothy Flanders is citing st Luis de Montfort from his work Secret of the Rosary. His explanation of the Rosary as superior in nature to the divine office is found in the beginning chapters of this book. And it is always wise to pray to rosary, every day.Many saints have urged the faithful to pray the rosary despite the natural distractions that occur. God bless
Jesse Stone
Sun, 08/29/2021 - 01:56 PM
Jesse Stone
My post as originally written is divided into paragraphs. Haven't a clue as to how to fix the way it came out.
Jesse Stone
Thu, 09/02/2021 - 08:08 PM
Jesse Stone
Mt 6:9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Mt 9:38 Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest. Mt 26:41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Wed, 11/03/2021 - 10:33 AM
The Rosary was perfect just as it was when Our Lady gave it to St Dominic. She also reaffirmed it was perfect and didn't need changes or additions when she appeared at Fatima and Lourdes. Holy Mary is Queen of Heaven and Earth and over all the Church. How dare this false John Paul II change and add to the traditional Most Holy Rosary. JP II and every post Vatican II false popes are now confirmed freesmasons. Anyone who has researched freemasonry knows it is a camouflage for Satanism. To join the sect involves partaking in inhumane, dreadful rituals.
Jesse Stone
Sat, 11/13/2021 - 03:50 AM
Jesse Stone
Margaret, are you implying that Satan has overcome the Church?
Sun, 01/23/2022 - 03:29 AM
I also wonder how it could’ve Been changed if mother Mary gave it to us herself, why would we make changes if we believe in the rosary. Why would we add to something if she didn’t include it.
Sun, 04/10/2022 - 08:30 PM
So just continue to pray how you like 15 decade or 20 why worry about it (it’s called (detraction)
Jeanie Reese
Sun, 05/22/2022 - 09:12 AM
Jeanie Reese
I love the rosary as it is today. Pope John Paul I I addition to the rosary is beautiful. I pray the 150 beads but sometimes I add the luminous mysteries. I love our lady and so I say the rosary.

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