The rosary, a lasting symbol of faith

Published on 11 Oct 2017

A Reflection for the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary

Acts 1:12-14; Magnificat; Luke1:26-38

Some seventy-five years ago, my paternal grandfather was working in Coventry during the Second World War. The story, as handed down to me, was of how, on the night of the worst bombing raid that destroyed much of the city and the cathedral, he was out on fire watch duties. When he returned home in the early hours of the morning, it was to find the house he was living in completely destroyed. The only thing left standing amidst the rubble was his bed, with his rosary hanging on the corner of it.

When the local church I attended for many years was renovated some 130 years after it was built, the builders found over 500 rosaries dropped down between the cracks in the floor boards.

What I hear in these stories is what the rosary represented for countless Catholics. If there is a distinguishing symbol for many Catholics then the rosary is surely one of them. Even if people no longer pray it in the traditional way, they will admit to having one tucked away somewhere. For my Grandfather (who I never really knew), I imagine it represented a faith in God and better times beyond the immediate horrors of a country at war. Whether it managed to poke its head above the rubble or lie hidden under floorboards, the rosary was a symbol of a belief that could endure all manner of events and centuries.

As a form of prayer its early origins go back to the Desert Mothers and Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. The recitation of the Our Father was a frequent prayer, often counted by moving pebbles from one pile to another. Over time a circular thread of string and beads came to be used to facilitate the counting.

The monks of the Celtic church used, as their common form of prayer, the 150 psalms, dividing them into three groups of 50. By the year 1,000 A.D. many people living near monasteries, but unable to read the psalms, had developed their own method of reciting 150 prayers. The beads became known as 'Pater Noster' beads and the Marian aspect of the devotion developed in the 11th century with the rise in popularity of the prayer 'Hail Mary'. At this stage it consisted only of the words as used in Luke's Gospel.

In the 13th century St. Dominic did much to promote it as a form of prayer, and it actually acquired its name 'rosary' from the Latin meaning rose garden (rosarium). The image was used to mean a bouquet of flowers for Our Lady.

In the 16th century the Dominican pope Pius V standardised it into fifteen decades, each prayed with one Our Father, ten Hail Marys and a Glory Be. The focus in each decade being on one of fifteen events in the life of Christ. The most recent development in its history is in the twentieth century with the addition, by Pope John Paul II, of five more mysteries from the life of Christ, called the Luminous Mysteries.*

What might this prayer have to say to us today, from the variety of traditions represented here in the chapel? One point that might be drawn is that anything that lasts over a long period of time can never be fixed or static. Of its nature it has to be adaptable to speak to each generation in a new way. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged a variety of ways of praying, and in the Jesuit Constitutions he encouraged the use of the Rosary and said this:

'They should be instructed how to think or meditate about the mysteries which [the rosary] contains, that they may take part in this exercise with greater attention and devotion. Moreover, if those who know how to read should find more progress in it [the Rosary] than the recitation of the Hours [Divine Office]  they could be changed for what will be more helpful.'

The rosary is a simple way of meditating on the life of Christ. With it we are invited to consider the life, Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus through his mother's eyes. That phrase, 'through His mother's eyes' says much, because Mary always points the way to her Son. Whether, as in the first reading from Acts, she is with the early church in prayer or as in the Gospel listening to Gabriel's message, she points beyond herself to the work of God. 'The almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name' she says. May we too marvel at the patient work of God in us, and around us, and give thanks.

Anne Morris DHS

*History drawn from the booklet 'Understanding the Rosary' published by the Catholic Truth Society.

by John Flader.

Related resources