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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