The Rosary’s History

The rosary is one of the most cherished prayers of our Catholic Church. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “The rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known.



It is the book of the simple, which initiates them into mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world, and open on the substance of the next. The power of the rosary is beyond description.”

Introduced by the Creed, the Our Father, three Hail Mary’s and the Doxology (“Glory Be”) and concluded with the Salve Regina, the rosary involves the recitation of five decades consisting of the Our Father, 10 Hail Mary’s and the Doxology. During this recitation, the individual meditates on the saving mysteries of our Lord’s life and the faithful witness of our Blessed Mother. Journeying through the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries of the rosary, the individual brings to mind our Lord’s incarnation, His public ministry, His passion and death, and His resurrection from the dead. In so doing, the rosary assists us in growing in a deeper appreciation of these mysteries, in uniting our lives more closely to Our Lord and in imploring His graced assistance to live the faith. We also ask for the prayers of our Blessed Mother, the exemplar of faith, who leads all believers to her Son.

The origins of the rosary are “sketchy” at best. The use of “prayer beads” and the repeated recitation of prayers to aid in meditation stem from the earliest days of the Church and has roots even in pre-Christian times. Evidence exists from the Middle Ages that strings of beads were used to help a person count the number of Our Fathers or Hail Marys recited. Actually, these strings of beads became known as Paternosters, the Latin for “Our Father.” For example, in the 12th century, to help the uneducated better participate in the liturgy, the recitation of 150 Our Fathers served as a substitute for the 150 Psalms and became known as “the poor man’s breviary.”

The structure of the rosary gradually evolved between the 12th and 15th centuries. Eventually 50 Hail Mary’s (or more) were recited and were linked with verses of psalms or other phrases evoking “the joys of Mary,” scenes in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Dominic of Prussia, a Carthusian monk, in 1409 popularized the practice setting 50 phrases about the lives of Jesus and Mary with 50 Hail Mary’s. During this time, this prayer form became known as the rosarium (“rose garden”), actually a common term used to designate a collection of similar material, such as an anthology of stories on the same subject or theme. Eventually, “the sorrows of Mary” and “the heavenly joys” were distinguished, bringing the number of Hail Mary’s to 150. Eventually, the 150 Hail Mary’s were joined to the 150 Our Father’s, a Hail Mary following each Our Father.

In the early 15th century Henry Kalkar (d. 1408), another Carthusian, divided the 150 Hail Mary’s into groups of 10 with each group marked by an Our Father. By the 16th century, the structure of the five decade rosary was based on the three sets of mysteries — Joyful (Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation and Finding in the Temple), Sorrowful (Agony in the Garden, Scourging, Crowning with Thorns, Carrying of the Cross and Crucifixion), and Glorious (Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption and Coronation). In 2002, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II instituted the Luminous Mysteries — Baptism at the Jordan, Wedding Feast of Cana, Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Transfiguration and Institution of the Holy Eucharist. Also, after the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima in 1917, the prayer Mary taught to the children has generally been added at the end of each decade: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in greatest need of thy mercy.”

Tradition does hold that St. Dominic (d. 1221) devised the rosary as we know it. Moved by a vision of the Blessed Mother, he preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work among the Albigensians, a group of fanatical heretics. The Albigensians, named after the town of Albi in southern France where they lived, believed that everything material was evil and everything spiritual was good. For this reason, they denied the incarnation of Our Lord; for them, Jesus, true God becoming also true man and accepting our human nature, was simply unthinkable. Following this teaching, a person’s soul was thought to be imprisoned in the evil body. Therefore, they abstained from marital love as well as procreation, because it was thought evil to imprison another soul in a body. Their greatest act of religion was called the endura, an act of suicide that freed the soul from the body. They also fought against any authority that represented a kingdom of this world, thereby assassinating royal and church officials. The Church condemned these heretics, and St. Dominic tried to convert them through reasonable preaching and genuine Christian love. Unfortunately, royal authority was less compassionate (Just as an aside, a travel show televised a program on southern France, and visited the town of Albi, noting that these people were “persecuted by the Church”; the narrator failed to report that these people were suicidal heretics.). Nevertheless, St. Dominic used the rosary as a useful instrument to convert the Albigensians.



Some scholars take exception to St. Dominic’s actual role in forming the rosary since the earliest accounts of his life do not mention it, the Dominican constitutions do not link him with it, and contemporaneous paintings of St. Dominic do not include it as a symbol to identify the saint. In 1922, Dom Louis Gougaud stated, “The various elements which enter into the composition of that Catholic devotion commonly called the rosary are the product of a long and gradual development which began before St. Dominic’s time, which continued without his having any share in it, and which only attained its final shape several centuries after his death.” However, other scholars would rebut that St. Dominic not so much “invented” the rosary as he preached its use to convert sinners and those who had strayed from the faith. Moreover, at least a dozen popes have mentioned St. Dominic’s connection with the Rosary in various papal pronouncements, sanctioning his role as at least a “pious belief.” The first such mention was made by Pope Alexander VI in 1495.

The rosary gained greater popularity in the 1500s, especially through the efforts of Pope St. Pius V. At this time, the Muslim Turks were ravaging Eastern Europe. Recall that in 1453, Constantinople had fallen to the Muslims, leaving the Balkans and Hungary open to conquest. In 1521, they had conquered Belgrade, Hungary, and by 1526, they were at the gates of Vienna, Austria. With Muslims raiding even the coast of Italy, the control of the Mediterranean was now at stake.

In February 1570, the Turkish Ambassador delivered an ultimatum to the Republic of Venice: surrender the island of Cyprus peacefully or face war. Venice refused, and after 11 months of war, Cyprus fell to Muslim control in 1571. The surrender terms provided for the safety of the defeated Christian army. However, once the Muslim commander took control of the city, he ordered that the Christian commander, Marcantonio Bragadin, be skinned alive. His body was then quartered, and his skin was stuffed with straw, dressed in his uniform, and dragged throughout the city. The Christians now knew well what kind of enemy they were facing.

In 1571, Pope St. Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria, the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. The forces of Spain, Venice, Rome, Savoy, Genoa, Lucca, Tuscany, Manova, Parma, Urbino, and Ferrara, and the Sovereign Order of Malta formed an alliance against Turkey. (Interestingly, “Catholic” France refused and was financing the Muslim Turks so as to weaken their long time enemy, Germany-Austria.) While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked all of the faithful to say the rosary and to implore our Blessed Mother’s prayers under the title “Our Lady of Victory,” begging Our Lord to grant victory to the Christians.

Although the Muslim fleet outnumbered that of the Christians in both vessels and sailors, the forces were ready to meet in battle. The Christian flagship flew a blue banner depicting Christ crucified, while the Muslim flags had excerpts from the Koran calling for jihad and death to the “infidels.” On Sunday, Oct., 1571, at 11 a.m., the Battle of Lepanto began, and at the end of five hours, the Muslims were defeated. That afternoon, while Pope St. Pius V was in a meeting, he suddenly stood up, went over to the window, stared outside in the direction of the battle many, many miles away, and said, “Let us no longer occupy ourselves with business, but let us go to thank the Lord. The Christian fleet has obtained victory.”

The following year, Pope St. Pius V in thanksgiving established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on Oct. 7 where the faithful would not only remember this victory, but also continue to give thanks to the Lord for all of His benefits and remember the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother. His Holiness also officially bestowed the title, Auxilium Christianorum or “Help of Christians,” upon the Blessed Mother. The Venetian Senate also had painted on a panel in their meeting chamber, Non virtus, non arma, non duces, sed Maria Rosari, victores nos fecit, i.e. “It was not courage, not arms, not leaders, but Mary of the Rosary that made us victors.”

Mindful of the action of Pope Pius V, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II, in an Angelus address given in October 1983, stated, “The rosary also takes on fresh perspectives and is charged with stronger and vaster intentions than in the past. It is not a question now of asking for great victories, as at Lepanto and Vienna, rather it is a question of asking Mary to provide us with valorous fighters against the spirit of error and evil, with the arms of the Gospel, that is, the Cross and God’s Word. The rosary prayer is man’s prayer for man. It is the prayer of human solidarity, the collegial prayer of the redeemed, reflecting the spirit and intent of the first of the redeemed, Mary, Mother and Image of the Church. It is a prayer for all the people of the world and of history, living and dead, called to be the Body of Christ with us and to become heirs together with Him of the glory of the Father.”

In recent times, the rosary has been upheld and promoted as an effective means for spiritual nourishment. Many saints have encouraged the recitation of the rosary, including St. Peter Canisius, St. Philip Neri and St. Louis de Montfort. Pope Leo XIII, often called “the Pope of the Rosary,” strived to maintain the tradition of this prayer, which he asserted was a strong spiritual weapon against evil (Supremi Apostolatus Officio, 1884). Pope Pius XI in 1938 granted a plenary indulgence to anyone who recites the rosary in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Both Blessed Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI also were great promoters of the rosary. The Enchiridion of Indulgences (1969), approved by Pope Paul VI, grants a plenary indulgence ” … if the rosary is recited in a church or public oratory, or in a family group, a religious Community or pious association … “(no. 48).

Most recently, to mark the beginning of his 25th year as Holy Father, Pope John Paul II issued his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae whereby he instituted the Luminous Mysteries and again exhorted the faithful to use the rosary “to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.” While dismissing any notion that the rosary distracts from the liturgy or was a hindrance to ecumenism, the Holy Father asserted, “But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine ‘training in holiness’: ‘What is needed is a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer’” (no. 5).

Therefore, the rosary is part of the spiritual history of the Church, to be cherished. It enables the faithful to participate in the living history of salvation, uniting us more closely with our Savior and His Blessed Mother, and with the whole Church. The rosary needs to be part of the history of each individual and each family, for through this prayer the bonds of love are strengthened.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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