The Feast of Our Lady of Rosary, October 07, 2011

On the seventh of October each year the church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary.  The Rosary is a family devotion and a family prayer. It is a personal devotion which is at the heart of Christian and religious practice which invites all to mediate upon the mysteries of Christ, following the example of Mary who was so singularly associated with the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The church celebrates this feast to honour Mary and commemorates this day for the graces received through her intercession. This feast was established in 1573 by St. Pius V, a Dominican pope who had great personal devotion to the prayer. He instituted the feast in thanksgiving for the Christian victory over the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. Because the feast falls in October, the entire month is dedicated to honouring Mary with the rosary.  The devotion of the Holy Rosary has been treasured in the church for many centuries.  It is a summary of Christian faith in language and prayers inspired by the Bible.  Precisely because it starts with Mary’s own experience, the rosary is an exquisitely contemplative prayer. Pope Paul VI described it saying: “As a Gospel prayer, centred on the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation, the Rosary is a prayer with a clearly christological orientation.”

The devotion of the Holy Rosary is a popular family devotion and at the same time a community prayer.  During the apparitions at Lourdes to Bernadette and in Fatima to Lucia, Jacinta and Francesco, Mary instructed them to pray the Holy Rosary.  Later the crowds too joined them in reciting the rosary at the place of the apparition. This devotion of the Rosary, as a gift of prayer from the Mother of God, leads us to Christ in a way unique among the devotions in the Church. Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, focuses with particular attention on the special way she is active on the soul as we ponder or contemplate Jesus through the eyes of His Mother. We put ourselves under her maternal guidance and allow her to direct our hearts. The Pontiff tells us that the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mould us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us. What is happening through this “contemplation of the face of Christ” in union with Mary is far more than just a dry and abstract exercise of thought. The Rosary brings us, through a devoted pondering of its mysteries, into intimate union with the very Person of Jesus.

The word rosary comes from Latin and means a garland of roses, the rose being one of the flowers used to symbolize the Virgin Mary. Rosary means a crown of roses, a spiritual bouquet given to the Blessed Mother. It is sometimes called the Dominican Rosary, to distinguish it from other rosary-like prayers, for example, the Franciscan Rosary of the Seven Joys or Franciscan Crown, the Servite Rosary of the Seven Sorrows. It is also, in a general sense, a form of chaplet or corona or the crown, of which there are many varieties in the Church. Finally, in English it has been called “Our Lady’s Psalter” or “the beads.”  The earliest records of the practice of counting prayers among religions of Western culture can be traced to the 11th and 12th centuries. It is believed that people carried small stones or pebbles in their pockets with which to count prayers.  However, there is evidence that Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all had traditions of prayer counting that predate this pebble counting, and these faiths had incorporated a string of beads for this counting. There is some belief that the word “rosary” has its origins in the travels of Romans to India many centuries ago. The term “bead” seems to derive from the Saxon word “bede,” meaning prayer.

The Rosary is a school of contemplation and silence. At first glance, it could seem a prayer that accumulates words, therefore difficult to reconcile with the silence that is rightly recommended for meditation and contemplation. In fact, this cadent repetition of the Hail Mary does not disturb inner silence but indeed both demands and nourishes it. Similarly to what happens for the Psalms when one prays the Liturgy of the Hours, the silence surfaces through the words and sentences, not as emptiness, but rather as the presence of an ultimate meaning that transcends the words themselves and through them speaks to the heart. Thus, in reciting the Hail Mary, we must be careful that our voices do not “cover” the voice of God who always speaks to us in the silence of our heart. Even when the Rosary is prayed by great assemblies, and as we often do at different Shrines every day, it must be perceived as a contemplative prayer.  Such a spirit of prayer cannot happen without an atmosphere of inner silence.

The Roman Catholic devotion places its emphasis on the rosary as “participation in the life of Mary, whose focus is Christ”. This view that in Roman Catholic Mariology the path to Christ is through Mary, with Mariology being inherent in Christology; a sentiment also expressed by saints such as Louis de Montfort who was a strong rosary advocate.  Pope Leo XIII also viewed the rosary as a vital means to participate in the life of Mary and to find the way to Christ.  The rosary in simplest terms is a tool used to aid prayer and meditation. The beads of a rosary count the prayers as they are recited out loud or in the mind. Relying on the rosary beads to keep track of how many times you’ve said a particular prayer allows you to clear the mind and meditate more effectively.

The Rosary is part of the Catholic veneration of Mary, which has been promoted by numerous popes, especially Leo XIII, known as “The Rosary Pope”, who issued twelve encyclicals and five apostolic letters on the rosary and added the invocation Queen of the most Holy Rosary to the Litany of Loreto. Pope Pius V introduced the rosary into the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrated on October 7.  Most recently, on May 3, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated that the Rosary is experiencing a new springtime: “It is one of the most eloquent signs of love that the young generation nourish for Jesus and his Mother.” To Pope Benedict XVI, the rosary is a meditation on all important moments of salvation history. Before him, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae built on the “total Marian devotion” pioneered by Saint Louis de Montfort. Pope Pius XII and his successors actively promoted the veneration of the Virgin in Lourdes and Fatima, which is credited with a new resurgence of the rosary within the Catholic Church.

Historically, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary in relation to the method of prayer known as the rosary, whose origin has been attributed to a Marian apparition to Saint Dominic in 1208 in the church of Prouille. In 1571 when Pope Pius V instituted “Our Lady of Victory” as an annual feast to commemorate the victory of Lepanto, a procession was offered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome for the success of the mission of the Holy League to hold back Muslim forces from overrunning Western Europe. In 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of this feast-day to “Feast of the Holy Rosary”. This feast was extended by Pope Clement XII to the whole of the Latin Rite Church, inserting it into the Roman Catholic calendar of saints in 1716, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. Pope Pius X changed the date to 7 October in 1913. In 1969, Pope Paul VI changed the name of the feast to “Our Lady of the Rosary”, and it is celebrated as a memorial in the ordinary form. Prior to the battle of Lepanto, in gratitude to the victory of the Battle of Muret, Simon de Montfort, 5th Earl of Leicester built the first shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Victory.

The exact origin of the devotion and the way it began is understood only through the tradition of the church. The Rosary probably began as a practice by the laity to imitate the monastic Divine Office or the Breviary or Liturgy of the Hours, during the course of which the monks daily prayed the 150 Psalms. The laity, many of whom could not read, substituted 50 or even 150 Hail Mary for the Psalms. This prayer, at least the first half of it so directly biblically, seems to date from as early as the 2nd century, as ancient graffiti at Christian sites has suggested. Sometimes a cord with knots on it was used to keep an accurate count of the Hail Mary.  Even though it is commonly said that St. Dominic instituted the rosary, it is found that centuries before Dominic, monks had begun to recite all 150 psalms on a regular basis. As time went on, it was felt that the lay brothers, who were also religious, should have some form of prayer of their own. They were distinct from the choir monks, and a chief distinction was that they were illiterate. Since they couldn’t read the psalms and could not recite them with the monks a different type of repetitive prayer was given to them, namely the Rosary.  For the Catholics these prayers are meditations on the mysteries of the life of Jesus that gives them their staying power.  When Catholics recite the prayers that form a decade of the rosary, they meditate on the mystery associated with that decade. It isn’t just a recitation of prayers, but a meditation on the grace of God. Critics, not knowing about the meditation part, imagine the rosary must be boring, uselessly repetitious, meaningless, and their criticism carries weight if you reduce the rosary to a formula. Christ forbade meaningless repetition as we read in the Gospel of Matthew, but the Bible itself prescribes some prayers that involve repetition, leading us to contemplate on Christ.

The traditional 15 Mysteries of the Rosary were standardized, based on the long-standing custom, by Pope St. Pius V in the 16th century. The mysteries are grouped into three sets: the joyful mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries, and the glorious mysteries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II announced five new optional mysteries, the luminous mysteries, bringing the total number of mysteries to 20. The joyful mysteries contemplate the hidden life of the Child Jesus and induce one to accept and promote life. In the mysteries of light we contemplate the proclamation of the Kingdom of Christ and this impels us to live in daily life the beatitudes. In the sorrowful mysteries, we fix our gaze on the crucified Christ and, like Simon of Cyrene, this involves bending over suffering man. In the glorious mysteries we contemplate the risen Christ, but this means our dedication to making all things new. The paragraph concludes this perspective and points out to us, in a synthesis, the essential function of the Rosary that “by focusing our eyes on Christ, it also makes us peacemakers in the world”.  The Joyful Mysteries are the Annunciation by Angel Gabriel to Mary, the Visitation to Elizabeth, the Nativity of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. The Sorrowful Mysteries are the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning of Jesus with Thorns, Jesus Carrying of the Cross to Calvary, and the Crucifixion of Jesus at Golgotha. The Glorious Mysteries are the Resurrection of Our Lord, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on our Lady and the Apostles, the Assumption of Mary into heaven and the Coronation and Exaltation of Mary.  The Luminous Mysteries added by Pope John Paul II are the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, The Wedding Feast at Cana, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, The Transfiguration of our Lord, and The Institution of the Holy Eucharist.

In his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Holy Father John Paul II urged Christian families to pray in their home by reciting the Rosary: “We need to return to the practice of family prayer and prayer for families, continuing to use the Rosary”.  With his Letter on the Rosary Pope John Paul II has touched the hearts of the faithful. Indeed, the recitation of the Rosary does not only “go to the very heart of Christian life, offering a familiar yet fruitful spiritual and educational opportunity for personal contemplation”, but also enables people to recover “the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the spirit of God”. The recitation of the Rosary in the family captures something of the spiritual atmosphere of the household at Nazareth, “because its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on”.  

In our Christian life, prayer reinforces the spiritual soundness and solidity of the family, helping to ensure that it shares in the strength of God. Indeed all the power of the Rosary lies in its Gospel character and in its distinctly Christ Centered dimension, for it makes us think specifically and in our own way of the most important events of salvation that were brought about in Christ, seen through the heart of Mary. Indeed, the main feature of the Rosary is contemplation, without which it would be like a body without a soul; the typical features are constituted by the petition of the Our Father, the recitation of Hail Mary’s, the adoration of the doxology, Glory to the Father. The Rosary was also prominently featured in the Lourdes apparitions in 1858.  The apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima are sometimes also called Our Lady of the Rosary as Mary specifically identified herself to the children as “the Lady of the Rosary.” She asked the children to say the Rosary every day, reiterating many times that the Rosary was the key to personal and world peace.

Several Popes in recent years have encouraged the devotion to the Holy Rosary. Pope Pius IX says that “Among all the devotions approved by the Church none has been so favoured by so many miracles as the devotion of the Most Holy Rosary.”   Pope Pius XII indicates that “We do not hesitate to affirm again publicly that we put great confidence in the Holy Rosary for the healing of evils of our times.”   Pope John XXIII says that the Rosary is a magnificent and universal prayer for the needs of the Church, the nations and the entire world.   In the words of Pope Paul VI:  “Meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary can be an excellent preparation for the celebration of those same mysteries in the liturgical actions namely the Mass and can also become a continuing echo thereof.”   Pope John Paul II has called the Rosary his “favourite prayer,” after the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. Pope Benedict XVI said that the Holy Rosary, the unique contemplative prayer through which, guided by the Lord’s Heavenly Mother, we fix our gaze on the face of the Redeemer in order to be conformed to his joyful, light-filled, sorrowful and glorious mysteries.  

Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J.

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