The Rosary Since Vatican II

Reports about the rosary's demise are premature. The same shops which a few months ago sold recordings of Gregorian chant from the monks of St. Dominic de Silos now feature cassettes of the pope reciting the rosary. Those unfamiliar with the rosary appear curious; others wonder whether there might be a relation between the rosary and the current interest in spirituality and prayer. Publishing trends frequently indicate religious interests: twice as many books and articles have appeared on the rosary in the last ten years as there were in the previous twenty.

Some form of the rosary has been part of Western Catholicism for almost seven hundred years. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) wrote thirteen encyclicals on the rosary, and twentieth-century popes have been its most ardent promoters, both in their writings and by their personal example. Perhaps no one has promoted it more than Pope John Paul II.

In the 1940s and 1950s, rosary devotions, rallies, and crusades were part of Catholic life. The rosary was a part of the message at Fatima and Lourdes, apparitions which figured prominently in those decades. Bishop Fulton Sheen explained to television audiences the meaning of his Mission Rosary, and Father Patrick Peyton tirelessly promoted the Family Rosary through rallies in every part of the world.

Then came Vatican II (1962-1965). The council recommended a warm and fervent devotion to Mary, but no reference was made to the rosary, nor to any Marian devotion, or apparition. (No specific Marian devotion was mentioned, because there were different expressions of Marian devotion in the Eastern and Western rites of the Catholic Church. The rosary, so characteristic of the West, is relatively unknown among Eastern Catholics.)

The first and most noticeable changes coming from the council in the 1960s dealt with the liturgy. In many places, Marian devotions (novena services or the rosary) were replaced by an evening Mass (a practice which actually began before the council). Many concluded that active participation in the liturgy appeared to have replaced all devotions, and that devotional practices, sometimes tinged with a self-centered individualism, had ceded to the liturgy which, because of its official character and communal nature, was a superior form of prayer.

Vatican II did not intend to suppress popular devotions; it did direct that they be reformed so that they should not appear to be something apart from the liturgy. "Pious exercises should be consistent with the liturgical season, should be derived from the liturgy, and should lead to the liturgy, which by its nature exceeds popular devotion." This directive, as was later admitted in Marialis cultus (1974), was difficult to implement.

The Rosary in Marialis cultus

In the 1969 letter marking the four-hundredth anniversary of approval of the rosary (1569), Pope Paul VI expressed the wish that the rosary, "either in the form bequeathed by Pius V or in those forms adapted to contemporary spirit with the consent of ecclesial authorities," might be a public and universal prayer. Some attempts were made to harmonize the rosary with the liturgy. These adaptations usually involved a simplification of the rosary. In a significant book on the renewal of Marian devotion, Msgr. Vergilio Noè (a noted liturgist, now a Cardinal) pointed out that, during its long history, the rosary had acquired a number of additions which made it "easily given to distractions and weariness." Hymns, readings, changing postures, a rhythmic recitation were all possible, he said. A principle of prayer, particularly applicable to the rosary, was that quality was preferable to quantity--better one or a few decades attentively prayed than a hurried recitation of the full rosary.

However, as was the case with other issues at the time, the reasons for the proposed reforms were not understood. Efforts at harmonizing the rosary with the liturgy were perceived as a tampering with, and an impoverishment of, this prayer. Resistance to further reform hardened in some quarters with the publication of the new liturgical calendar (1969). The elimination of a few popular Marian feasts and the reduction of others to optional commemorations confirmed the suspicion of some that both the council and the postconciliar liturgical reforms were profoundly anti-Marian.

In the midst of this crisis of Marian devotion (May 1971), Father Patrick Peyton C.S.C., director of the Family Rosary Crusade, and known throughout the Catholic world for his promotion of the Family Rosary, wrote an impassioned letter to Pope Paul VI. In it he asked that the Family Rosary be declared a liturgical prayer. "My heart cries out for a papal document which could take the form of an encyclical," he wrote. "May I beseech Your Holiness to enhance, enrich and raise to a higher level of efficacy the Family Rosary by proclaiming it a liturgical prayer." Father Peyton's letter persuaded Paul VI to address the Church on the subject of the rosary. His secretary of state asked the Congregation for Divine Worship to "prepare a draft of a papal document" that would encourage the "recitation of the rosary by families."

After studying the request, the Congregation suggested that the rosary be considered within the context of Marian devotion as a whole, and that Marian devotion should be related to the liturgical reforms. The Congregation requested Father Ignacio Calabuig, O.S.M. (presently rector of the Pontifical Theological Faculty Marianum in Rome), and the theological faculty of the Marianum to study the issue and propose a draft for what would be the papal letter on the rosary.

The project took three years, and the letter underwent four major revisions. The letter's second draft outlined a plurality of forms of the rosary. This proposal was based on studies on the original form of the rosary and on pastoral research on effective ways of promoting the rosary. The three proposed forms of the rosary were:

a) the traditional form retaining the order of joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries;

b) a modified form beginning with a short reading, a period of reflection, the Our Father (recited only at the beginning), the recitation of the decades of Hail Marys, but including only the biblical part of the prayer (possibly including the addition of the name "Jesus"), with the invocation "Holy Mary, Mother of God ... " said only at the end of the tenth Hail Mary;

c) The public celebration of the Rosary, with readings, songs, homily, periods of silence, and a series of Hail Marys, but limited to a single decade.

Paul VI responded personally to these proposals. To avoid confusion, he said, it would be better not to speak of different forms of the rosary. Because the rosary is the prayer of "the simple, the poor, the illiterate and the blind," any attempt at changing it, especially at this time, would result in great confusion and might be "psychologically disastrous." People would say, "the pope is now changing even the rosary." The traditional form alone should be called the rosary; the proposed second and third forms, although encouraged and recommended, should be called something other than the rosary, possibly "Marian devotion" or "Marian hour."

The papal document on the rosary, begun at Fr. Peyton's request in 1971, was published as the apostolic letter Marialis cultus, dated February 2, 1974. Within this letter, which dealt with the "role of the Blessed Virgin in the liturgy," one section outlined the essential features of the rosary:

a) Contemplative - "By its nature the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord's life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord." Without the contemplative element, the rosary becomes a "mechanical repetition of formulas. . .a body without a soul."

b) Christ-centered and Marian - "The Rosary is a 'compendium of the entire Gospel' centered on the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation." It is directed toward the events of Christ's life as seen by Mary.

c) In Harmony with the Liturgy - Since the rosary is centered on the same mysteries celebrated in the liturgy, it is "excellent preparation" for and a "continuing echo" of the liturgy.

Marialis cultus refers to other forms (as proposed in the second draft of the letter) as "practices" which take their inspiration from the rosary, for example, "meditation on the mysteries with the litany-like repetition of the angel's greeting." These practices, said the pope, help promote a deeper appreciation and "restore esteem" for the rosary's spiritual riches. Such practices, together with the family rosary, were highly recommended.

In their letter on Marian devotion, Behold Your Mother (1973), the American bishops had encouraged new forms for the rosary devotion. "While retaining the established rosary pattern, new forms may be tried. New sets of mysteries are possible." Rosary vigils (consisting of Scriptural readings "with recitation of a decade or two, if not all five") together with hymns, and times for silent prayer were all listed as suggestions.

The Origins of the Rosary

To understand the efforts to renew the rosary, some acquaintance with its origins and early history is helpful. The rosary did not originate in a miraculous way, given in a form never to be changed. Throughout the early middle ages, various ways were developed for participating in some way in the Church's continual prayer of the 150 psalms in the Divine Office. At first, individuals said the Our Father 150 times; later, as the Hail Mary became more widespread, this prayer was repeated 150 times.

Our present form of the rosary developed in Carthusian monasteries in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It consisted of the Scriptural verses of the Hail Mary with 50, then 150, little "inserts" (clausulae) added after the name of Jesus. The clausulae became the "mysteries" and were divided into three sets of fifty each. Finally, the clausulae or mysteries were reduced to the present fifteen joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries.

In the middle ages, there were different forms for the second part of the Hail Mary. The present text appeared for the first time in the Roman Breviary (1568). No directive indicated that this form was to be used in the Rosary. In its original approbation (1569), the rosary was spoken of as the "contemplation of the mysteries of Christ combined with the Angel's greeting."

The granting of indulgences caused the rosary's form to remain unchanged for more than four hundred years. All indulgenced prayers were to be recited according to the prescribed form--without any deviation. Even commendable customs, such as the insertion of the clausulae, were suppressed unless an exception was granted, as was done for German-speaking areas where the clausulae were customarily added.

The Rosary Today

The call of Marialis cultus for adaptations so that the rosary's "spiritual richness" might be appreciated produced several results. One was the Fiat Rosary, developed by Cardinal Leon Suenens, with the approval of both Paul VI and John Paul II. The Fiat Rosary begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit to introduce the person praying in union with Mary into the heart of the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of Christ. In the Fiat Rosary, there are nine mysteries--three from each of the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries; at each mystery, there are three Hail Marys, followed by the Glory Be to the Father.

Many who experienced difficulties with some forms of the rosary found encouragement in the words of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. In a passage which was originally omitted from her autobiography, she lamented that the communal recitation of the rosary troubled her greatly. "What difficulties I have had throughout my life with saying the rosary. I am ashamed to say that the recitation of the rosary was at times more painful than an instrument of torture." Because of her love for the Blessed Mother, she was disconsolate that this form of devotion should cause her such difficulties; but she trusted that the Queen of Heaven, her mother, understood the situation. A similar admission was made by another contemplative, Fr. Vincent Dwyer, who calls the rosary "one of the great vehicles that helped people enter the quiet space within the Master" yet admits, "I myself find it impossible to say the rosary, but it is always with me in my pocket."

The rosary contains elements common to many religions of the world--meditative reflection, the repetition of significant prayer verses, beads as tangible symbol of union and prayer. Mediaeval Western Catholicism proposed it as a way of continual prayer centered on the mysteries of Christ. Throughout its history, it has been a prayer readily adapted to diverse circumstances, needs and groups; it was prayed privately, in family, in groups; at wakes, rallies, and Holy Hours. It sustained those suffering trials and persecution. Pope John Paul II opened the Marian Year (1987-88) with the televised recitation of the rosary linked to the world's principal Marian shrines.

How widespread is the rosary today? The rosary thrives among those who pray it in response to Our Lady's request in her apparitions. But the recovery of the contemplative, Christocentric, and liturgical dimensions still seems to have made little progress. Nor would it appear that other forms have been developed to introduce younger people to the rosary and help them appreciate the rosary's "spiritual richness."

Interest in the centering prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and the prayer of Taizé indicates that many today seek a quiet contemplative type of prayer. It would be unfortunate if the rosary is passed over because it is perceived as discursive prayer concerned with words and images. It is, as Paul VI insisted, an eminently contemplative prayer. The pope's words echo Romano Guardini who described the rosary as "a prayer of lingering--to pray it, we must put aside those things that press upon us, and become purposeless and quiet."

The rosary stands as an invitation, a pathway, an aid. For those wondering whether and how the rosary might be a vital form of prayer in their own life and how others might be introduced to this prayer, two directives offer guidance. The first is from Pope Paul VI who said that the rosary should never be presented in a monolithic way, that is, "too one-sided or exclusive." He concluded that it was an excellent prayer and its intrinsic value should draw people to its "calm recitation." A second directive is from Do Whatever He Tells You, the fine document from the Servite General Chapter on Marian prayer: "Expressions of devotion to Mary should have the same style as the Blessed Virgin: a style marked by listening, silence and reflection. Silence is not inactivity ... but the sacred environment conducive to adoration and praise of God."

Recent Books

Traditionally, books on the rosary presented prayerful considerations on the fifteen mysteries; sometimes these considerations were directed to special groups--religious, students, the afflicted and the suffering. The works of Rosemary Haughton, Basil Pennington, David Burton Bryan, and Charles Dollen, and many others continue in this tradition. A recent work by Sister Joanna Hastings, O.P., offers a contemplative's meditations on the mysteries, with snatches of poetry from Annie Dillard and Jessica Powers, with illustrations of crocuses, daffodils, the scarlet anemone, and other flowers.

Many authors have taken the 1973 suggestion of the American bishops and proposed new mysteries for the rosary. Bishop O'Rourke suggests five mysteries dealing with Christ's public life: Baptism, Cana, Sermon on the Mount, Prodigal Son, and the Transfiguration. Father Robert E. Stein proposes a Scriptural rosary intended for Eucharistic devotion: the Wedding Feast of Cana, the Feeding of the Multitudes, the Great Teaching, the Passover of Our Lord, the Emmaus Eucharist. For working people with families, Stanley J. Konieczny develops the five "Ordinary Mysteries" 1) Making a Living; 2) Raising a Family; 3) Being a Good Citizen; 4) Practicing Religion; and 5) Balancing Responsibilities. Finally, Lois Donahue suggests five mysteries for a "Woman's Rosary": Mary the Woman, Mary the Wife, Mary the Mother, Mary the Neighbor, Mary the Friend.

Many recent books deal with the basic elements of the rosary and point out dispositions necessary for this prayer. Robert Llewelyn, deeply influenced by Julian of Norwich, sees the rosary as a way of keeping prayer on course, of directing focus; "the principle of the rosary," he says, "is more important than any particular use which we might make of it." Basil Pennington sees the method of praying as found in the rosary as something basic to all religious people. In what has become a spiritual classic (recently reprinted), Romano Guardini speaks of the rosary's contemplative and liturgical nature as "a sojourn" which offers a "quiet, holy world that envelops the person who is praying ... The rosary is not a road, but a place, it has no goal but a depth. To linger in it has great compensations."

In his dissertation on the origin of the rosary, Rainer Scherschel demonstrates that the Hail Mary, in its earliest forms, was a prayer centered on and directed to Christ; it was similar to the Jesus Prayer of Eastern spirituality--a short, rhythmically repeated prayer centered on the divine name. Heinz Schurman offers many ways for highlighting the rosary's Christ-centered focus.

An informative book on the rosary's development and spirituality comes from the French Dominican, Albert Enard. The rosary is the psalter of Mary, not because it is a substitute for the psalms; rather it represents the basic sentiments and the spirit of continual prayer present in the psalms. The renewal of the rosary depends on the recovery of its contemplative and Christocentric orientation. Father Enard insists that, while the second part of the Hail Mary, the prayer for Mary's intercession, is beautiful and commendable, the name of Jesus remains the prayer's central focus.

A Rosary Bibliography

Bryan, David Burton. A Western Way of Meditation: The Rosary Revisited. Loyola University Press, 1991.

Burnside, Eleanor Therese. The Bible Rosary: The Life of Jesus. Thirty-Five Mysteries. 1981.

Dollen, Charles. My Rosary, Its Power and Mystery: A Book of Readings. Alba House, 1988.

Donahue, Lois. A Woman's Rosary. Liguori Press, 1994.

Donze, Mary Terese. I Can Pray the Rosary! Liguori Press, 1991.

Farrar, Austin. Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer. Cowley Publications, 1989.

Gavlas, Kathleen. The Beautiful Gate Rosary. Our Sunday Visitor, 1992.

Gribble, Richard. The History and Devotion of the Rosary. Our Sunday Visitor, 1992.

Guardini, Romano. The Rosary of Our Lady. Sophia Institute Press, 1994 (reprinted).

Hastings, Joanna. The Rosary: Prayer for All Seasons. The Liturgical Press, 1993. Hutchinson, Gloria. Praying the Rosary: New Reflections on the Mysteries. St. Anthony Messenger, 1991.

Konieczny, Stanley J. For Those Who Work: Stations of the Cross--The Ordinary Mysteries of the Rosary. Acta Publications, 1991.

Llewelyn, Robert. A Doorway to Silence: The Contemplative Use of the Rosary. Paulist Press, 1986.

Maestri, William F. My Rosary Journal: The Great Mysteries. Alba House, 1993.

Marcucci, Domenico. Through the Rosary with Fra Angelico. Alba House, 1989.

O'Connor, Francine M. The ABC's of the Rosary ... for Children. Liguori Press, 1984.

O'Rourke, Bishop Edward W. Jesus the Divine Teacher: Five New Decades of the Rosary. Liguori Press, 1994.

Pennington, M. Basil. The Fifteen Mysteries in Image and Word. Our Sunday Visitor, 1993.

Pennington, M. Basil. Praying by Hand: Rediscovering the Rosary as a Way of Prayer. Harper, 1991.

Rosage, David E. Praying the Scriptural Rosary. Redeemer Books, 1989.

Stein, Robert E. The Bread of Life: a Scriptural Rosary for Eucharistic Devotion. Liguori Press, 1994.

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Basadona, Giorgio. La Preghiera del Rosario. Ancora, 1986.

Champenois, Guy. Le Rosaire, Chemin de Sainteté. Tequi, 1987.

Enard, Albert. Le Rosaire: Prier avec Marie. Du Cerf, 1987.

Eyquem, Joseph. Le Rosaire et l'Encyclique 'La Mère du Redempteur.' Lethielleux, 1988.

Lafrance, Jean. Le Chapelet: vers la Prière Incessante. Mediaspaul, 1987.

Scherschel, Rainer. Der Rosenkranz--das Jesusgebet des Westens. Herder, 1979.

Schurman, Heinz. Rosenkranz und Jesusgebet: Anleitung zum inneren Beten. Herder, 1986.


From The Marian Library Newsletter (Spring 1995)
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