History of the Rosary

Dear Catholic Exchange:

Can you please give me the history of the rosary-who started it and when? By answering this, maybe I could help some of those born-again Christians who do not believe on repeating prayers.

Thanks a lot,



Dear Nelson,

Peace in Christ!

Any prayer from the heart, repetitive or otherwise, is acceptable to God. How many times should we repeat "I love you" to our Heavenly Father? The matter then is not simply repetition, but vain repetition (cf. Mt. 6:7). The Rosary is not a prayer of "vain repetition" but a meditation moved slowly forward by the familiar words of the Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer. For more on responding to the charge of vain repetition, please see our Faith Fact Not in Vain: Repetition and the Rosary.

I also heartily recommend Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Apostolic Letter on the Rosary for a presentation on the riches of the Rosary.

It just so happens that this letter begins with an historical allusion:

"The Rosary of the Virgin Mary, which gradually took form in the second millennium under the guidance of the Spirit of God, is a prayer loved by countless Saints and encouraged by the Magisterium. Simple yet profound, it still remains, at the dawn of this third millennium, a prayer of great significance, destined to bring forth a harvest of holiness…."

There are two major theories on the origin of the Rosary. The traditional theory attributes the origin to St. Dominic in the 13th century. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that "the Feast of the Holy Rosary informs us that, when the Albigensian heresy was devastating the country of Toulouse, St. Dominic earnestly besought the help of Our Lady and was instructed by her…to preach the Rosary among the people as an antidote to heresy and sin." (The following is taken mostly from the Catholic Encyclopedia. An online edition is available at www.newadvent.org).

Like other devotional practices, the Rosary itself has developed over the centuries. It essentially consists of 150 Hail Marys and 15 Our Fathers. Other prayers and recitations such as the Creed and the Salve Regina have been added as part of the whole prayer. Even today, there are many methods used in praying the Rosary. Its use in Eastern Churches (Catholic and Orthodox) varies somewhat as well. As a private devotion, there is no particular method that the Church prescribes.

The use of beads has a practical significance. When we are praying certain prayers or Psalms, etc., to focus our attention on the Lord, the use of beads helps us to stay on track so as to not be distracted by counting. When monks or peasantry would work in the fields they would use pebbles, berries or cords with knots tied into them. For the monk, this also was a tool to use in following Paul's injunction to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17).

This eventually developed into putting beads on a string to aid in prayer. In fact, the word bead itself comes from the Old Saxon word bede, which simply means "a prayer." The term "Rosary" comes from the word rosarius and means "a garland or bouquet of roses." Thus, the prayer itself is the Rosary and the collection or "garland" of beads we use to pray it is likewise called Rosary.

The second theory is that, beginning in the 12 century, the Rosary developed in imitation of the 150 biblical Psalms that priests and religious were required to pray over a certain period of time. Some monks even prayed all 150 Psalms every day. The 150 Psalms made up the "Psalter," part of the Breviary, the Church's official daily prayers. According to this theory, the Rosary developed as a substitute for the Breviary for those faithful who didn't have the money to learn to read, but nevertheless desired a regular means by which they could express their devotion to Jesus and Mary through memorized prayers. Originally, the faithful would pray a psalter of the Lord's Prayer (i.e., 150 "Our Fathers" or "Paters"). The Paters were eventually divided into three sets of 50, with strings of beads, called "paternosters" (i.e., "Our Fathers") used to keep count. Marian devotion followed a similar trend, with a psalter of "Aves" or "Hail Marys" developing. The Rosary mysteries developed on a parallel course, beginning with the Joyful and progressing to the Sorrowful and Glorious.

Eventually, the two psalters were united, a Hail Mary following each Our Father. Then, in the early 15th century, a Carthusian named Henry Kalkar is credited with bracketing the 150 Hail Marys into decades (sets of ten), separated by Our Fathers. Shortly thereafter, the Hail Mary's were separated into five decades. The Rosary at that time resembled its current form, although there has since been further development. The latest is the addition of the five Luminous mysteries.

I hope this is helpful. May God bless your efforts.

United in the Faith,

Eric Stoutz
Director of Catholic Responses
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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  • Our Lord Jesus Christ clearly taught HIS DISCIPLES NOT to repeat the same things over and over again when praying just like “the heathens do,” imagining that they will get a hearing for their use of many words. As a former Catholic I was asked by the priest to “show penance” by reciting so many hail Marys, Our Fathers etc. There are many prayers by Jesus in the Bible and on each occasion, the prayer came from the heart according to the occasion and not just vain repititious prayers that anyone could say while thinking about other things. God is our Father, and just like a child does not use the same reptitious words each time when talking to his/her father true Christians talk to God much like Jesus who is our exemplar and MEDIATOR did. Finding out that the Catholic church based its teachings on the traditions of men (Matthew 15:9) rather than in God’s Word was liberating to me just like Jesus taught (John 8:32).

  • Any scriptural backup or just the teaching of man?

  • Editor

    Is there any scriptural backup to the belief that every Christian belief must be scriptural?

  • Mzammay

    Dear Editor
    I simply cannot believe that you would even ask such a question. Should we not base what we do and say on the scriptures?

  • catholicexchange

    (by the way, “Editor” and “CatholicExchange” are the same, just so you don’t get confused)

    I don’t want to be belligerent, but you haven’t answered the question (“is there any scriptural backup to the belief that every Christian belief must be scriptural?”). It’s actually a kind of rhetorical question, since nowhere in the Bible does it say that everything we believe must be explicitly in the Bible. 

    Jesus himself never wrote anything down, and the Bible was not officially assembled for hundreds of years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime. We base what we do and say on the living Christ–he is certainly present to us in the Bible, but also in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church, which the Bible is a part of. In other words, Jesus established a Church, not only a Bible. That Church has passed on and gave blessing to the recitation of the Rosary, a very powerful tool of prayer! It can be kind of difficult getting used to praying with it at first, but the pay-off is profound. I recommend it!

  • acw

    I am sad to see that the Editor / Catholic Exchange responded to Eugene’s question … with a question. It was a complete turn-off for me and you give Catholics a bad example of how a Catholic conducts themselves, especially in a public forum. May the good Lord grant you discernment next time before you reply.

  • catholicexchange

    Actually, responding to a question with a question was a tactic commonly used by Jesus Christ himself–it’s a good, useful tactic that can often make us comprehend things better than a straightforward response. Is there a reason you consider it an example of “bad conduct”?

  • Laud

    I’m a believer and I know the Rosary is recited in honour of Virgin Mary and also to meditate on the biblical mysteries of Jesus. But I always wondered why Catholics recite ‘Hail Mary’ during a meditation that is supposedly solely on God. I know Mary isn’t God but only before God. That is why I want to know why 10 ‘Hail Mary’ are chosen to be recited instead of 10 ‘Our Father’ for each decade? I believe that is why Protestants find it hard to comprehend why Catholics ask Mary to pray with/for them when meditating on mysteries of Christ – instead of asking Jesus himself to help them meditate.

  • Hyod

    Dear Catholicexchange, i would appreciate your kind assistance and reflections on the history of the Liberation Rosary. My family is assisting our daughter for a project at High School.

  • heart of fire

    i always struggled with the Virgin Mary. I have often questioned many things but never really took the time to research the answers well. i would read the Bible and sort of determine things myself. i have had many experiences both earthly and spiritually. as i have grown, i have sought answers to questions about Catholicism. to my surprise, it is the one that makes the most sense when truly learning the background on all the things and traditions that most people criticise…on things that stand out and mark the Catholic Church apart from all the denominations of Christianity. for those who are easily upset by Catholic practice, i invite you to truly research and become educated on the things that seem to trip you up… i have found that the mysteries are things i take and believe through faith, but also because what i learn and read in the Bible bridge me to the acceptance. i have fallen in love with the many things i originally rejected of the Catholic faith. i have personally experienced profound insight and closeness to the Father through the Holy Rosary. things that are of God do not contradict God’s word…nor His Spirit.

  • Human

    Thank you catholic exchange you have helped me learn more about the rosarys history. And it will help me in my middle school project.
    God bless. 🙂

  • Mike

    Acts 17:11. Like the Bereans, we should search the scriptures daily to confirm that what a particular church or individual teaches is true. A great deal of Catholic teaching fails this test.