Year of the Rosary, October 2002 - October 2003

The Popes and the Rosary

In this year of the Rosary 2002-2003, we should gratefully remember past efforts made to explain and promote the prayer of the Rosary.  Among the promoters of the Rosary are the recent Popes, and first among them is Leo XIII.  The following article, by Fr. Thomas Thompson, highlights the merits of this Rosary pope who has written twelve encyclicals on the Rosary.

Twelve Rosary Encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII (1883-1898)

During his years as pope (1878-1903), Leo XIII wrote many significant encyclicals. His 1891 encyclical, On the Condition of Labor, initiated the Church's modern social teachings. He also wrote on the teaching of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in schools and seminaries, on the study of the Bible, on the Holy Spirit, and on St. Joseph; at the turn of the century, he wrote two encyclicals on Christ (the Sacred Heart, the Redeemer). He addressed specific political situations in which the Church's liberties were threatened. The theme to which he returned most frequently in the final years of the last century was the rosary.

The rosary was the subject for twelve encyclicals and five apostolic letters. Beginning in 1883 and concluding in 1898, an encyclical on the rosary appeared almost every year, usually in preparation for the month of October. In the last of the rosary encyclicals (1898), he wrote, "We have never ceased to encourage the constant use of the rosary among Christians, by publishing every year since September, 1883, an encyclical letter on this subject, besides frequently issuing decrees." (Pope John XXIII's encyclical, Grata Recordatio, 1961, spoke of the "pleasant memory" of hearing those encyclicals read every October.)

The rosary encyclicals can be divided into two groups: 1883-1885 and 1891-1898. The first group established the rosary as a public devotion. The first encyclical (1883) prescribed the public recitation of the rosary and the Litany of Loreto in Catholic churches and chapels as a special observance "for the month of October of this year." Encouraged by the reception of the observance for 1883, the encyclicals for 1884 and 1885 directed that October devotions be continued. The feast of the Most Holy Rosary was given a higher liturgical standing. The invocation "Queen of the holy Rosary" was added to the Litany of Loreto. This encouragement of the public recitation of the rosary in churches conferred a new status on the rosary. "No longer," said the Ave Maria Magazine, "was the rosary a devotion best suited to the illiterate." It now was officially encouraged as public devotion.

Beginning in 1891, the encyclicals dwell on the value of the rosary and on its role within the life of the Church and of society. In these encyclicals, there is frequent reference to the perilous situation in which the Church found itself: anticlerical governments and forces opposed to religion threatened its existence. Diplomatic relations between Italy and the Holy See were nonexistent, and the pope was the "prisoner" within the Vatican walls. The Kulturkamp limited the Church in Germany and Switzerland; the governments of France and Belgium wished to obtain control of the religious schools and to expel the religious teaching congregations. Freemasonry, addressed by the pope in an encyclical, was openly hostile to the Church, and the findings of science seemed to refute long-held religious teachings.

As response to these trying times, Leo XIII followed the example of previous popes by proposing the rosary as a "weapon" which St. Dominic, eight centuries earlier, had confided to the Church. It was through the rosary that Dominic had overcome the Albigensian heresy, whose adherents lived in the southwest of France (not far removed from Lourdes). And, it was the rosary which was responsible for the victory of the Christian forces at the Battle of Lepanto against the forces of the Turks in 1571, and again at Temmeswar and Corfu in 1716. The rosary would continue to be "balm for the wounds of society" as it had been in the time of Dominic, and it would make possible the two great goals of Leo's papacy-- the renovation of Christian life and the reunion of Christendom.

Nowhere in the dozen encyclicals were there specific indications on how the rosary was to be prayed, nor was it presented as a devotion exclusively directed to the Virgin Mary. Rather, the rosary was broadly defined, just as it had been described four centuries earlier when approved in 1571 by Pius V. The essence of the rosary was "to recall the mysteries of salvation in succession, [while] the subject of meditation is mingled and interlaced with the Angelic Salutation and prayer to God the Father" (1883). Meditation on the mysteries of salvation was a short and easy method to nourish faith and to preserve it from ignorance and error (1895). The mysteries of salvation were not abstract truths but events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.

The rosary was presented both as a "school of faith" and a "school of charity." Meditation on the mysteries of salvation was to lead to conversion of heart and change of conduct. Contemplation of the mysteries was essentially a loving act of gratitude (1894), through which the heart was "filled with love . . . hope enlarged, and the desire increased for those things which Christ has prepared for such as have united themselves to Him in imitation of His example and in participation in His sufferings" (1891). Attentive consideration of the "precious memorials" of our Redeemer led to "a heart on fire with gratitude to Him" (1892). The rosary was an expression of faith in God, the future life, the forgiveness of sins, the mysteries of the August Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the Divine Maternity, and others" (1896).

The rosary, the pope believed, also would influence society as a whole. The 1893 encyclical spoke of the social consequences, or the effects on society, which meditation on the mysteries of the rosary could produce. The three sets of mysteries were an antidote or a remedy for the errors afflicting society. The joyful mysteries, centered on the "hidden" life of Christ and the holy family at Nazareth, stood in contrast to the contemporary disdain for poverty and simplicity of life. The sorrowful mysteries, depicting Christ's acceptance of the cross, stood opposed to the attitude of fleeing from any hardship and suffering. Finally, the glorious mysteries, which include the resurrection, ascension, the descent of the Spirit, and assumption of the Virgin Mary, were a reminder that this life was a prelude to a future life with God.

Even when prayed privately, the rosary had a social and ecclesial dimension. Similar to the Divine Office, the Psalter of Our Lady was part of the Church's "public, constant, and universal prayer" (1897). The encyclicals frequently encouraged the sodalities or confraternities whose purpose was to promote the rosary through meetings, religious services, and processions. The last encyclical (1898) was followed by an apostolic letter with a charter for the sodalities and confraternities of the Rosary. (A recent outgrowth from confraternities are the "rosary teams" in which groups of lay people establish centers of prayer, hospitality, and evangelization). The 1897 encyclical encouraged the development of the Living Rosary, a movement started earlier in the century by Pauline Jaricot (the founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith).  Jaricot's Living Rosary were groups of fifteen individuals, each pledged to say one decade of the rosary a day. "The prayers and praises, rising incessantly from the lips and hearts of so great a multitude, will be most efficacious" (1897).

In all the encyclicals, the rosary is not so much presented as a devotion directed to Mary. Instead, it is Christ, in all the facets of his life, hidden, public, final suffering and resurrection,  who "stands forth" in this prayer (1896). The rosary is principally an instrument "to expand the kingdom of Christ." It is a prayer which has been " wonderfully developed at the close of the century, for the purpose of stimulating the lagging piety of the faithful" (1897).

The rosary encyclicals show a great confidence in Mary's power and her intercession for the Church (1892). As "guardian of the faith," the Virgin Mary is able to "ward off the errors of the times" (1895). Mary is a powerful intercessor before God, a "worthy and acceptable Mediatrix to the Mediator" (1896). The encyclicals of Leo XIII are the first papal documents to speak of Mary's universal motherhood; she is the mother of all peoples, "our mother" and the one who could bring about the unity of the Church (1895). Through the intercession of Mary, the zeal of the Christian people would be renewed and a deeper unity produced.

None of Leo XIII's biographers have investigated the origins of his great confidence in the power of the rosary; nor have the few commentaries on the rosary encyclicals sought for the source of his inspiration. Although never referred to in the encyclicals, the great evenement of Lourdes, to use the pope's term, appears to have had a major influence on the rosary encyclicals. The land of St. Dominic was also the land of Lourdes.

Our Lady's identification of herself at Lourdes (1858) as the Immaculate Conception confirmed the dogma which Leo's predecessor, Pius IX, had proclaimed in 1854, and initiated a close bond between Rome and Lourdes. The rosary, along with penance, was central to the message of Lourdes. The Lady of Lourdes was pictured with a rosary. Following the example of Mary in the first apparition, Bernadette prepared for each of the following seventeen apparitions by praying the rosary. Lourdes was termed the "town of the rosary," and, in the nineteenth century, the rosary procession was the identifying devotion of Lourdes.

Leo's interest and concern in Lourdes is recorded in the Annales de Notre Dame de Lourdes ( in the Marian Library's Clugnet Collection). At the beginning of his pontificate (1878), Leo XIII urged the Bishop of Tarbes to build a larger church to accommodate pilgrims who were already coming in great numbers, to ensure that a critical history of the apparitions be written and a record of the healings be kept. 1883, the silver anniversary of the apparitions at Lourdes, was observed as a jubilee year both at Lourdes and at Rome. In the silver anniversary year, work began on the Basilica of the Rosary, which would replace the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. (Based on the number of extra trains in service that year between Paris and Lourdes, the Annales estimated five hundred thousand traveled to Lourdes by train that year).

It was in 1883 that the first of the rosary encyclicals was issued calling for special observance "for this year" of October as the month of the rosary. The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on February 11 was not established until 1892, so October, with its feast of the Holy Rosary, was an appropriate time to recall the events at Lourdes. The lofty and impersonal style of Pope Leo's encyclicals usually did not include  all the reasons motivating an announcement. For example, in 1885, an encyclical announced an extraordinary jubilee year. However, the reason for the jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of the pope's ordination, is not mentioned in the encyclical.

At Lourdes, the new basilica, with its fifteen altars and murals depicting the mysteries of the rosary, was dedicated in 1901. Leo XIII sent an apostolic letter in the opening year of the century noting the significance of the consecration of the Basilica of the Rosary. The content of the letter was a summary of previous encyclicals on the rosary. The Rosary Basilica at Lourdes, with its fifteen altar murals depicting the mysteries of the rosary, was a summary of the Gospel, summa evangelicae doctrinae. The rosary itself was like a great basilica in which all the truths of the faith are presented.

In 1901, the Annales announced that the bonds between the Vatican and Lourdes would be even more apparent. As the Vatican was already present at Lourdes through a sculpture of Leo XIII, so now Lourdes would go the Vatican. Through the efforts of the Bishop of Tarbes and other French bishops, a replica of the grotto of the Massabielle would be constructed in the Vatican gardens. (This Lourdes grotto still stands in the Vatican gardens.)

The legacy of Pope Leo's encyclicals was that the rosary was established as a central devotion in western Catholicism.. Before Vatican II's encouragement of "active participation" in the liturgy, the rosary served as a vehicle for entering into and focusing on the mysteries of salvation as depicted in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Vatican II influenced the rosary and all other devotions. All devotions were to be renewed in the spirit of the liturgy, to be "extensions of the liturgical life of the Church" (CCC 1674). The rosary complements and extends the liturgy.

The church's public liturgical worship presents a panoramic view of the whole history of salvation. The rosary, and rosary-like prayer, focus on the events of Christ's life, the incarnation, redemption, and the promise of eternal life, and on the Virgin Mary's participation in the mystery of Christ. A person praying must be the agent who actively enters into the mysteries, and not simply one before whom the celebration unfolds. The rosary is an accessible reminder of the constant prayer of the Church, the incessant prayer of God's people throughout the ages. The Psalter of Mary, as the rosary is sometimes called, is a remembrance of the Church's deepest nature as a community of continual prayer (1896).

Leo XIII's Encyclicals on Rosary:

1) Supremi apostolatus. Sept. 1, 1883. The rosary and Litany of Loreto recited in churches "for the month of October of this year."
2) Superiore anno. August 30, 1884. The reception of the previous year's October devotions warranted their continuation.
3) Quod auctoritate. Dec. 22, 1885. Exhortation to a greater spirit of penance and devotion to the rosary during the upcoming extraordinary jubilee year (the pope's fiftieth anniversary of ordination).
4) Vi E Ben Noto. Sept. 20, 1887. on the Rosary and Public Life.
5) Octobri mense. Sept. 22, 1891. The power of prayer and the efficacy of the rosary.
6) Magnae Dei Matris. Sept. 8, 1892.  The relation of the rosary to faith and morality.
7) Laetitiae sanctae. Sept. 8, 1893.  The social benefits of the rosary.
8) Iucunda semper. Sept. 8, 1984. The rosary as witness to Mary's intercession.
9) Adiutricem populi. Sept. 5, 1895. Mary's universal motherhood; the rosary as the way to unity.
10) Fidentem piumque. Sept. 20, 1896. The rosary's influence on Christian faith and life.
11) Augustissimae Virginis. Sept. 12, 1897. Mary's association with Christ; the rosary confraternities, and "living rosary."
12) Diuturni temporis. Sept. 5, 1898. A summary of the pope's teaching on the rosary; notice of the constitution on the rosary sodalities.

Please note: You will find several of these documents on the Internet. Where we know of their existence, we have added them to our links. You will find them at:

Marian Documents

Leo XIII's Letters on the Rosary

Salutaris Ille. Dec. 24, 1883. The invocation "Queen of the Holy Rosary" added to the Litany of Loreto.
Saepenumero. Oct. 26, 1886. Directives for Rome's October observances.
Vos probe nostis. Sept. 20, 1887. Directives for Italy's October observances.
Ubi Primum. Oct. 2, 1898. The constitution on the rosary confraternities and sodalities.
Parta humano generi. Sept. 8, 1901. The consecration of the Lourdes Basilica of the Rosary.

 

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