Hail Mary

Shortly after his election as our Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II said, “The rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.” Many Catholics, including myself, share those sentiments. During this month of October Catholics the world over are invited to renew and strengthen their devotional life by praying the rosary. It was wonderful that we could begin the month this year here in western Oregon with the Rosary Bowl Northwest at the Oregon State Fairground in Salem.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote, “Call on Mary with devotion, and she will not leave your needs unattended, since she is merciful, indeed, the Mother of Mercy.” That has certainly been true in the lives of so many of us, including myself. I remember the early morning hours of my father’s death. I was in college at the time and had been called home to be with my dad in his final hours. When my family received the call from the hospital that my father had died in the early morning hours, we immediately wanted to pray. It was still too early to go to church for Mass so we all knelt down in the living room and prayed the rosary. We turned to Mary in that hour of need and she accompanied us in those days of our grieving, a gift for which I will always be grateful.

Blessed John Paul II had even more to say about the devotional prayer called the rosary. He wrote, “Against the background of the words Ave Maria the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul…at the same time our hearts can embrace in the decades those events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the church, and all mankind: our personal concerns and those of our neighbor, especially those who are closest to us, who are dearest to us. Thus the simple prayer of the rosary marks the rhythm of human life.”

With the rosary we actually pray the Hail Mary 53 times, three times at the start, ten times when we meditate on each one of the mysteries. The first part of the prayer is taken right from the Bible, the first chapter of St. Luke’s gospel. The second part, “now and at the hour of our death,” was added in the sixteenth century. That second part is especially significant. There are really only two important moments in life: the present and our final moment. The Hail Mary invokes the help of our Mother in heaven during both of those moments. We are consoled by the realization that she is indeed with us and concerned about us as a loving mother.

When I was a youngster I learned to pray three mysteries of the rosary: the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries. During the Year of the Rosary at the beginning of this new millennium Pope John Paul II introduced the luminous mysteries, meditations focusing on the public ministry of Jesus. At his suggestion most Catholics now pray the joyful mysteries on Mondays and Saturdays, the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays, the glorious mysteries on Wednesdays and Sundays and the luminous mysteries on Thursdays.

The joyful mysteries commemorate the early events of the life of Jesus. We remember the day the angel Gabriel came to tell Mary she was to be the mother of the child, her visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of the child Jesus in Bethlehem, his presentation in the temple and finally the happy moment when his parents found their son in the temple after thinking he was lost.

The sorrowful mysteries focus on the passion and death of Jesus. We recall his agony in the garden, his scourging at the pillar, his crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross and then his crucifixion. Our sadness in pondering these mysteries is tempered by the realization that Calvary was not the end. In fact, it was the occasion of new beginnings when the blood and water fell from his side and a new life of grace in the church was made available to all who believe in him and accept him as Lord and Savior.

The new luminous mysteries provide us with an opportunity to ponder important moments in the Lord’s public ministry. In so many ways it is amazing that in his 33 years here on earth only three of them were spent out in public. That is not how humans would have planned the use of God’s good time among us. We remember his Baptism in the Jordan when the Father’s voice from heaven reminded bystanders that this was His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased, then Christ’s first miracle at Cana, the proclamation of the kingdom of God and the call to conversion, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elias, and then the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper with His apostles on the night before he died.

The glorious mysteries in so many ways are the happiest for us. In praying the Hail Mary throughout these mysteries we remember that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead, His Ascension into heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, Mary’s Assumption into heaven and finally her crowning as Queen of heaven and earth. What makes those mysteries so glorious is the realization that without these events Christ’s mission would have ended 2,000 years ago and we would still be caught in the quagmire of sin and despair.

In the first millennium of Christianity the devotional prayer we call the rosary was unknown to Christian people. It originated back in the 12th century, especially among Cistercian and Carthusian monks. Many of their lay brothers did not participate in the Liturgy of the Hours and had in the rosary their own form of prayer. The Dominicans had been especially prominent among those who would promote praying the rosary regularly. In fact, not surprisingly, Holy Rosary Parish in Portland is served by the Dominican friars.

Rosaries are favorite gifts among most Catholics. I know I received a rosary at the time of my first Holy Communion but a rosary I have treasured throughout my life is the one I received from my sponsor at Confirmation. It was a beautiful silver rosary and I used it often throughout my life. When I moved to Portland I could find it no longer and thought I had lost it. But recently I rediscovered it and I was indeed so greatly pleased. I enjoy giving rosaries blessed by the Pope to the parents of priests and the wives of deacons whom it is my privilege to ordain.

When Our Lady appeared to the three children at Fatima back in 1917, she reportedly told them, “There is no problem, I tell you, no matter how difficult it is, that we cannot resolve by the prayer of the Holy Rosary.” With those encouraging words in mind, I encourage all of you to pray the rosary often, especially in this month of October.

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