In recent memory, the Church has been blessed with Marian popes. Paul VI authored the Magna Carta of Mariology in his apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus. John Paul II’s mantra was Totus Tuus, Totally Yours Mary, and he gave the Church the five Luminous Mysteries in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. Pope Benedict also expressed his devotion to Mary in varied ways. And of course, Pope Francis is a devotee of Mary, Undoer of Knots, and he regularly prays at St. Mary Major in front of the Madonna for safe travels, giving a marvelous example of Marian piety.
Perhaps less well known is the Marian devotion of Pope Leo XIII who could be dubbed “The Rosary Pope” since he published twelve encyclicals and several letters on the rosary over the course of his pontificate (1878-1903). Given that the Church annually observes October as a month dedicated to the holy rosary and encourages its recitation, let us turn to the rosary encyclicals of Leo XIII and find the treasure contained therein. Let us examine eight lessons Pope Leo XIII teaches the Church about Mary and the rosary.
Lesson One: Emphasis on October
Pope Leo XIII published his rosary encyclicals in September (with few exceptions) in anticipation of special devotions in October. The encyclicals called for a focus within parishes on the rosary devotion, emphasizing evening prayer services in the local parish community. With each encyclical, Pope Leo XIII opened the treasury of grace (i.e. indulgences) especially for those who attended the evening services in the parish. For those unable to do so due to work in the fields, Leo extended provisions for them to also obtain the indulgences. In addition to praying the rosary, Leo XIII called for the recitation of the Litany of Loreto during the month of October.
Lesson Two: Role of the Hierarchy
Most of the encyclicals were addressed to the “Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops and Bishops of the Catholic World” and some of them were addressed only to the Bishops of Italy. Regardless of who the intended recipients were, all the encyclicals have lessons to teach us about the rosary and Mary’s role in the life of the pilgrim Church. The encyclicals of Leo XIII challenged bishops to promote the rosary in their dioceses with great zeal and ardor. Specifically Leo says “Let it be your work venerable brethren to revive the Christian feeling among your people, and interest in the Catholic cause, a confidence in Our Lady’s help, and a spirit of prayer” (Quod Auctoritate, 4). For the Catholic faithful, pray for your priests and bishops, that they may have a Marian fervor and promote Marian devotion in their parishes and dioceses.
Lesson Three: Spirit of the Times
Over and over again Leo XIII wrote about the error of his times and the need to pray the rosary. Oftentimes in our postmodern culture we romanticize about previous eras and how much better they were. Just think, if Leo XIII was writing about the errors and evil sprit of his time, how much more do we need the rosary in our day and age. Consider the moral decline of our times, with the legalization of abortion and so-called same sex marriages, or the moral depravity involved with the sexual license of our times through contraception and pornography. Just as Leo XIII relied on Mary’s intercession for his time, how much more do we need Mary’s prayers in the third millennium? We need her prayers for the conversion of our hearts so that we may turn away from the sins that plague our lives. In the rosary we ask Mary to pray for us sinners, that is you and me, and the whole world. We need her prayers.
Lesson Four: Insights into the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries
In the encyclicals, Pope Leo reflected on the three sets of mysteries and gave new insights for meditation.
Pope Leo XIII In Laetitiae Sanctae names three principal spirits which downgrade society: distaste for the simple, rejection of suffering, and forgetfulness of heaven. Leo goes on to explain how the rosary corrects these spirits specifically by the mysteries of the rosary. The joyful mysteries propose the simplicity of Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth, and how the incarnate son of God was born in simplicity–in a cave and placed in a manger. When Jesus is presented in the temple, the Holy Family offered a pair of turtle doves, the simpler offering. Meditating on these mysteries cultivates an awareness of Jesus’ simplicity and the call to implement it in one’s own life. In the sorrowful mysteries, the suffering of Jesus is placed before the eyes of the devotee. If society rejects suffering, one can look to Jesus who took on suffering for the salvation of all. Lastly the glorious mysteries reflect on Jesus’ defeat over death and ascension into heaven, and ends with Mary’s glorification in her Assumption and coronation as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Praying the rosary does not allow one to forget heaven, but rather, focus on the mysteries of Heaven. As we ask Mary to pray for us now and at the hour of our death, we beseech her to help us get to Heaven by her prayers. The rosary is an antidote for whatever troubles our times.
In Pope Leo’s 1894 encyclical Iucunda Semper Expectatione he reflected on Mary’s role as the co-redemptress and Mediatrix of Divine Grace within the tripartite mysteries. For a further review, see paragraphs two, three, and four of that encyclical.
In Augustissimae Virginis Mariae (1897), Pope Leo XIII in paragraph 10 reflects on how the rosary proposes the mysteries of our redemption for consideration. Contained within those mysteries includes the contemplation of Angelic hosts. This is seen in the joyful mysteries when an angel announces the birth of Christ and then the hosts of angels sing Gloria in excelsis Deo at the Messiah’s birth. In the sorrowful mysteries, Jesus is consoled by an angel in the Garden. And in the glorious mysteries, angels announce the resurrection of Christ, Jesus is accompanied by angels in His ascension, and Mary is taken up by the angels to be their Queen. Have you considered the angelic connection to the rosary? If you have not, thank Pope Leo XIII for this new insight.
Lesson Five: Efficacy of the Rosary
Leo XIII made recourse to the efficacy of the rosary. He never relented in sharing Mary’s vanquishing of the Albigensian heresy in the revelation of the rosary to St. Dominic. Similarly, he shared Mary’s defeat of war in a united world joined in prayer to conquer the Turks during the Battle of Lepanto. This victory gave way to the feast of Our Lady of Victories (today, Our Lady of the Rosary) on October 7. In Superiore Anno (1884), Leo acknowledged the cholera outbreak in Italy and the necessity of Mary’s help in driving out that plaque. Leo also referenced the countless fruits of the rosary, which include: faith, nourishment, strength, repentance, unity, growth in virtue, and maternal protection, among many others. Lastly, as mentioned already, Leo exhorted the rosary’s recitation because of the errors of the time. He was confident in Mary’s intercession over the culture and in the lives of Marian devotees. As children of Mary, we too should have that same confidence.
Lesson Six: Language of the Fifth Marian Movement
Some Marian theologians (Dr. Mark Miravalle, Msgr. Arthur Calkins) have called upon the Holy See to define a fifth Marian dogma regarding Mary’s role in redemption as co-redemptrix, mediatrix of grace, and advocate. This topic has been met with some reservation. Regardless of whether or not this should be defined as dogma, the reality is the Church’s tradition has used this language from Patristic writers like Irenaeus of Lyons to more recent theologians (Cardinal Mercier, Fr. Emil Neubert, etc.) and pontiffs. The issue is not whether or not these roles should be accorded to Mary, but rather, whether or not it should be dogmatically defined. The movement employs a specific vocabulary: associate of the redeemer, co-redemptrix, co-redemptress, mediatrix, distributrix, reparatrix, among others. The encyclicals of Leo XIII use this language and explains Mary’s role in salvation history. This appeal of Leo XIII surely fueled the movement which climaxed in the 1950’s and 1960’s but since has lost momentum.
Lesson Seven: Popular Movements
Pope Leo XIII highlighted popular movements within his encyclicals. He referred to two confraternities: the Confraternity of the Holy Family and the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. In the present age of the Church confraternities have not gained much notoriety or interest, perhaps dismissed as old-fashioned. The Rosary Confraternity still exists today. One other movement he referenced in Augustissimae Virginis Mariae (1897) was the Living Rosary, a movement founded by Pauline Jaricot which comprised a group of 15 fifteen individuals who prayed one decade of the rosary each day.
As referenced earlier, Pope Leo XIII called for the praying of the rosary in parishes, especially during the month of October, but he also recommended its recitation on all Marian feast days too. Perhaps in our times this needs to be reintroduced as a way to reclaim Sunday as a day dedicated to the Lord. Maybe today a new movement needs to emerge to reclaim these suggestions of Pope Leo XIII.
Lesson Eight: Titles of Mary
Pope Leo XIII used many titles and described Mary in many ways throughout his twelve encyclicals. I am sure the following list is not exhaustive, but it affords us the opportunity to reflect on Mary’s many titles. These titles go beyond the Litany of Loreto, which the pontiff encouraged to be recited after the rosary during the month of October. The following list of titles could become a secondary litany for you by simply adding the phrase “pray for us” after each one.
Mother of God
Mother of the Almighty
Mother of Sorrows
Mother of God and of Men
Mother of the Church
August Queen of Heaven
Queen of the Rosary
Teacher and Queen of Apostles
Queen of the Universe
Guardian of our Peace
Mighty in War
Giver of Peace
Mighty Helper of Christians
Help of Christians
Vanquisher of Heresies
Authoress and Teacher of the Rosary
Seat of Divine Wisdom
Guardian of Christian Unity
Mystical Rose of Paradise
The Reparatrix of the whole World
Mediatrix of Divine Grace
Mediatrix to the Mediator
Minister of Heavenly Grace
Minister of the Divine Gifts
Dispenser of all Heavenly Gifts
Pope Leo XIII continued the Marian devotion of his predecessors, as he named them in his final encyclical Diuturni Temporis (1898): Sixtus V, Gregory XIII, Clement VIII, Clement XI, and Benedict XIII. In more recent history, that same Marian fervor has been exercised in the papacies of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis. Pope Leo XIII has given us a treasury of teachings on the rosary, and the lessons outlined in this article do not do justice to the many more contained in his writings. If you wish to grow in your appreciation for the rosary, consider seeking out Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals and reading them for yourself.
- Encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII available online at: http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/index.htm
- James Buckley, “Leo XIII and the Rosary” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (May 2003): 18-21.
- Thomas Thompson, “The Rosary Encyclicals” The Priest (October 1998): 39-43.
image: Roland45 / Wikimedia Commons