Rosary devotions and spirituality

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Devotion to the rosary is one of the most notable features of popular Catholic spirituality.[1] Pope John Paul II placed rosary devotions at the very center of Christian spirituality and called them "among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation."[2][3]

From a historical perspective, the growth of rosary devotions built on the desire to focus on a central theme with the help of a universal prayer formula, building on the biblical exhortations for constant prayer, e.g. as in Luke [18:1-7] and Luke [21:36].[4]

Following the establishment of the first rosary confraternities in the fifteenth century, the devotion to the rosary spread rapidly throughout Europe. From the sixteenth century onwards, rosary recitations often involved "picture texts" that assisted meditation. Such imagery continues to be used to assist in rosary meditations.

Saints and popes have emphasized the meditative and contemplative elements of the rosary and provided specific teachings for how the rosary should be prayed, for instance the need for "focus, respect, reverence and purity of intention" during rosary recitations and contemplations.


There are differing views on the origin of the rosary, with some traditions attributing it to Saint Dominic while others suggest a more gradual and organic development.[5][6] However, it is clear that by the middle of the 15th century the Dominican priest Blessed Alanus de Rupe, had spent significant effort to spread the devotion in France and the Netherlands, founding his first brotherhood for praying his Psalter in Douai in 1470.[7] [8] James Sprenger formed the first confraternity of the rosary in Cologne in 1475.[9][10] Rosary confraternities in Venice and Florence were formed in 1480 and 1481.[11]

Psalter of Alanus, 1492

The practice of meditation during the praying of repeated Hail Marys started in the 15th century in Germany by the Carthusian monk Dominic of Prussia who died in 1461, just as the Dominicans Alanus de Rupe and James Sprenger had started to promote the rosary. This meditative practice was spread across Europe by traveling Carthusian monks, and was adopted by the Dominicans at large. A rosary hanging from the belt often forms part of the Carthusian habit even today.[12]

By the 16th century the practice of meditation during the rosary had spread across Europe. For instance, Bartolomeo Scalvo's Meditationi del Rosario della Gloriosa Maria Virgine (i.e. Meditations on the Rosary of the Glorious Virgin Mary) printed in 1569 for the rosary confraternity of Milan provided an individual meditation to accompany each bead or prayer.[13]

Alanus de Rupe encouraged the rosary to be prayed in front of an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. This style of meditation later resulted in meditation using narrative images, the first of which was eventually printed by Dinkmut in Ulm, Germany. The use of "image directed rosary meditation" soon gained popularity and at the end of the 16th century the most widely used rosary meditation in Germany was not a written one, but a picture text.[14]

During the 16th century, the use of images as a form of religious instruction and indoctrination via silent preaching (muta predicatio) was promoted by Gabriele Paleotti in his "Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images".[15] As the use of devotional images came to be seen as the "literature of the layman", Paleotti's goal of the transformation of Christian life through the use of sacred images fostered and promoted Marian devotions including the Rosary.[16][15]

By the 17th century, the 15 wood cut images of the picture rosary had become very popular and rosary books began to use them across Europe. In contrast to written rosary meditations, the picture texts changed little and the same set of images appeared in woodcuts, engravings, and devotional panels for over a hundred and fifty years.[14]

Meditation and contemplation[edit]

See also Christian meditation and Aspects of Christian meditation
A woman places a strand of rosary beads on a devotional image mounted on the wall beside her bed. [17] The Walters Art Museum.

The word meditation comes from the Latin word meditari which means to concentrate.[18] In 1577, in her best known book Interior Castle (Mansions 6, Chapter 7), Saint Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, defined the general approach to Christian meditation as follows:[19]

By meditation I mean prolonged reasoning with the understanding, in this way. We begin by thinking of the favor which God bestowed upon us by giving us His only Son; and we do not stop there but proceed to consider the mysteries of His whole glorious life.

This perspective can be viewed as the basis of most scriptural rosary meditations.[20] Scriptural meditations on the rosary build on the Christian tradition of Lectio Divina, (literary divine reading) as a way of using the Gospel to start a conversation between the soul and Christ. Saint Padre Pio, who was devoted to the rosary, said: "Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds him."[21]

A Carmelite nun in her cell, meditating on the Bible.

Christian meditation is differentiated from contemplation which involves a higher level of focus and detachment from the surroundings and environment.[22] The word contemplation (coming from the Latin root templum i.e. to cut or divide), means to separate oneself from the environment. Saint John of the Cross called contemplation "silent love" and viewed it as an intimate union with God.[23] Contemplation with the rosary is the next step beyond scriptural meditation. This does not mean that the Gospel is ignored during contemplation, but that the focus moves toward the love of God.[24]

In his 2002 encyclical Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II placed the rosary at the very center of Christian spirituality.[25] Emphasizing that the final goal of Christian life is to be transformed, or "transfigured", into Christ he stated that the rosary helps believers come closer to Christ by contemplating Christ. He stated that the rosary unites us with Mary's own prayer, who, in the presence of God, prays with us and for us. [26] He characterized the contemplative aspects of the rosary as follow: "To recite the rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ."[27] And quoting Pope Paul VI he reiterated the importance of contemplation, and stated that without contemplation, the rosary is "a body without soul". [28]

The rosary may be prayed anywhere, but as in many other devotions its recitation often involves some sacred space or sanct object, such as an image or statue of the Virgin Mary.[29] Anyone can begin to pray the rosary, but repeated recitations over a period of time result in the acquisition of skills for meditation and contemplation.[30] Specific methods for praying the rosary, meditation, and fighting distractions were taught by Saint Louis de Montfort (see Secret of the Rosary and Methods of praying the rosary).

Teachings of the saints[edit]

The Virgin Mary and Saints on the Feast of the Rosary, by Albrecht Dürer, 1506.

In the sixteenth century, Saint Peter Canisius, a Doctor of the Church, who is credited with adding to the Hail Mary the sentence "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners", was an ardent advocate of the rosary and its confraternities.[31][32] He developed and stressed the importance of the meditative aspects of the rosary and was one of the first among the early Jesuits to teach that the principle virtue of each mystery of the rosary should be applied to daily life.[33]

Saint Louis de Montfort, one of the early proponents of the field of Mariology, was a strong believer in the power of the rosary. He joined the Third Order of the Dominicans in 1710, soon after being ordained a priest, in order to preach the rosary.[34] His books Secret of the Rosary and True Devotion to Mary influenced the Mariological views of several popes. In Secret of the Rosary he taught how "focus, respect, reverence and purity of intention" are essential in praying the rosary. He stated that it is not the length of a prayer that matters, but the fervor, purity and respect with which it is said, e.g. a single properly said Hail Mary is worth many that are badly said. In the Secret of the Rosary, he also taught how to fight distractions to achieve the proper mindset for meditating with the rosary.[35]

Later in the eighteenth century, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, also emphasized the need for reverence and devotion when praying the rosary. In The Glories of Mary he wrote that the Virgin Mary would be more pleased with five decades of the rosary said slowly with devotion than with fifteen said in a hurry and with little devotion. He recommended that the rosary should be said kneeling before an image of the Virgin Mary and before each decade to make an act of love to Jesus and Mary and ask them for a particular grace.[36]

Saint Padre Pio, who died with a rosary in his hand, reportedly said 35 rosaries a day. He was a firm believer in meditation in conjunction with the rosary and said:[37]

Love the Madonna and pray the rosary, for her rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today... The person who meditates and turns his mind to God, who is the mirror of his soul, seeks to know his faults, tries to correct them, moderates his impulses, and puts his conscience in order.

Papal views[edit]

In 1569 Pope Pius V, a Dominican himself, officially established the devotion to the rosary in the Catholic Church with the papal bull Consueverunt Romani Pontifices and in 1571 he called for all of Europe to pray the rosary for victory at the Battle of Lepanto.[38] [39] [40][41]

Pope Leo XIII (often called the Rosary Pope) was concerned about attempts to destroy the faith.[42] In his analysis (based on the writings of Louis de Montfort who was beatified by Leo XIII) the re-Christianisation was not possible without Mary. So Leo XIII promulgated Marian devotions via ten encyclicals on the rosary and instituted the Catholic custom of daily rosary prayer during the month of October. In 1883 he also created the Feast of Queen of the Holy Rosary.[43] In Laetitiae Sanctae Leo XIII wrote that he was "convinced that the rosary, if devoutly used, is of benefit not only to the individual but society at large".[44]

Pope Pius XII, often called the "most Marian pope", emphasized the benefits of rosary meditations in his encyclical Ingruentium Malorum and wrote:[45]

A rosary crucifix.

And truly, from the frequent meditation on the Mysteries, the soul little by little and imperceptibly draws and absorbs the virtues they contain, and is wondrously enkindled with a longing for things immortal, and becomes strongly and easily impelled to follow the path which Christ Himself and His Mother have followed.

The popes of the 19th and 20th centuries, up to Paul IV had stressed the Mariological aspects of the rosary, however, in 1974 in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI emphasized the Christocentric nature of the rosary and stated: "The rosary is therefore a prayer with a clearly Christological orientation."[46]

Pope John Paul II built on the Christocentric theme of Pope Paul VI, and further relied on the spirituality of Saint Louis de Montfort.[47] He stated that:[48]

The rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium.

He further emphasized the contemplative nature of the rosary and stated that: "The rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation."[49]


Fatima children with rosaries.

References to the rosary have been part of a number of reported Marian Apparitions spanning two centuries. The reported messages from these apparitions have influenced the spread of rosary devotions worldwide.[50][51]

Saint Bernadette Soubirous stated that in the first apparition of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858, the Virgin Mary had a rosary with her and that Bernadette prayed the rosary in her presence. In the subsequent apparitions Bernadette stated that she often continued to pray the rosary in the Virgin Mary's presence.[52] The Rosary Basilica was built at that site in Lourdes in 1899.

The rosary was prominently featured in the apparitions of Our Lady of Fátima reported by three Portuguese children in 1917. The reported Fatima messages place a strong emphasis on the Rosary and in them the Virgin Mary is identified as The Lady of the Rosary. According to Lucia Santos (one of the three children) in one of the apparitions the Virgin Mary has a rosary in one hand and a Brown scapular in the other hand. Reports of the Fatima apparitions helped spread rosary devotions and a Fatima prayer is now often added to the end of rosary recitations.[53][54][55] The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Fatima was built at that site in 1953 and has fifteen altars, each dedicated to a mystery of the rosary.[56]

In January 1933 an eleven year old peasant girl called Mariette Beco reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Banneux, Belgium which became known as the Virgin of the Poor. Mariette reported seeing the Virgin Mary with a rosary in hand. Mariette reported that the apparition repeated three days later after she went outside her house and prayed the rosary.[57] The reports of this apparition, also known as Our Lady of Banneux were approved by the Holy See in 1949.[58][59][60][61]

In the reported messages of Our Lady of Akita, Sister Agnes Sasagawa stated that in 1973 she was told by the Virgin Mary: "Pray very much the prayers of the Rosary. I alone am able still to save you from the calamities which approach." In 1988 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) gave definitive judgment on Our Lady of Akita messages as reliable and worthy of belief.[62][63]

In the early 1980s, Our Mother of the Word appeared to children in Kibeho, Rwanda. During the apparitions, Mary asked that the world pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows to avoid war. In 1994, there was a genocide that took place in Rwanda which was foretold during the apparitions. These apparitions have been given approval by the Catholic Church in 2001.[64]

Gallery of art and architecture[edit]

For a larger gallery of church images, please see: Rosary church gallery.


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  20. ^ This Is Your Mother: The Scriptural Roots of the Rosary by Ronald Walls, 2003 ISBN 0-85244-403-6 page 4
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  46. ^ Marialis Cultus #46
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  56. ^ Portugal by Abigail Hole, Charlotte Beech 2005 ISBN 1-74059-682-X page 277
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  58. ^ Ann Ball, 2003 Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices ISBN 0-87973-910-X page 641
  59. ^ van Houtryve, La Vierge des Pauvres, Banneux, 1947
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  62. ^ EWTN on Akita apparitions
  63. ^ Beads and prayers: the rosary in history and devotion by John D. Miller 2002 ISBN 0-86012-320-0 page 159
  64. ^ To avoid a horrible war

Further reading[edit]

  • The Rosary Hour: The Private Prayers of Pope John Paul II by Pope John Paul II, 2002 ISBN 0-7434-4440-X
  • Jesus living in Mary: handbook of the spirituality of St. Louis Mary de Montfort by Stefano De Fiores, 1995 ISBN 0-910984-58-1