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Two Understandings of the Rosary

Our Lady of the Rosary (feastday 7 October):

Few devotions have ever taken so deep a hold among the faithful of the church as the Rosary.  The quiet, restful, “mantra-like” repetition of the angel’s greeting to Mary, and the accompanying meditations on events in the lives of Mary and Jesus have been called the “breviary of lowly and simple people”.

The Rosary has been the foundation stone of, and well-spring for great holiness in countless believers of every generation.

It was customary in the Middle Ages, as formerly among the Romans, for the nobility to wear crowns of flowers as “chaplets”, or wreaths. These crowns were offered to persons of distinction as signs of honour and reverence. Popular piety has ever held that Our Lady has a right to such garlands. So the church asks us to offer Mary a fourfold chaplet, or four “crowns of roses”, to which is given the name “Rosary”. The four “crowns of roses” are the four sets of Mysteries: the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Transcendent Mysteries.

The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was established to commemorate the Christian victory over the Turks in the battle of Lepanto on 7 October in 1571.

The Catholic Catechism notes: “medieval piety in the western church developed the prayer of the Rosary as a popular substitute for the Liturgy of the Hours [the Divine Office]” for lay people.  The Rosary is sometimes called the “Dominican” rosary, because the Dominicans are the great popularisers of this form of prayer.

The Rosary

The traditional prayer of many Catholics is the Rosary.  It is a prayer that has evolved over many centuries.

The origin of the Rosary can be traced back to the one hundred and fifty psalms, which were traditionally divided into three groups of fifty.  Those who could read sang the psalms: those who could not read recited one hundred and fifty prayers they had learnt, usually the Our Father and the Hail Mary.

The Marian aspect of the devotion developed around the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with the growth of the popularity of the Hail Mary, especially in England. Historically, St Dominic had great devotion to the Mother of God, and he instilled that devotion into the men and women who followed his way of life in the Dominican Order. The Dominicans are credited with popularising the rosary tradition.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the one hundred and fifty Hail Marys were divided into fifteen decades of ten, and each decade was preceded by an Our Father. It was not until late in the fifteenth century that another Dominican, Alan de la Roche, composed themes for meditation while reciting the decades. The theme for the first fifty Hail Marys centered on the Incarnation, the second set dwelt on the Passion of Jesus, and the third on the Glorification of Jesus and Mary. In recent times, pope John Paul II instituted a fourth set, the “Mysteries of Light”.

The prayer component of the Rosary also had a gradual evolution, so that today we have four sets of mysteries, comprising five decades each, and each decade consisting of the Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and the “Glory be to the Father . . .” invocation.

Popular piety holds that Mary appeared to St Bernadette (1858) and to the children at Fatima (1917) holding a set of rosary beads in her hand.

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