Catholicism Explained - The Rosary

Catholicism Explained is a day late this time around, but that's better than totally absent, right? :)

Today, we're talking about the Holy Rosary. Our previous discussions have included:

The Holy Rosary is one of the most popular devotions among Catholics - and little wonder. This practice, recommended and loved by countless saints and holy men and women of God, is a perpetual way of keeping the life and virtues of Christ in mind.

The Basics

What is the rosary? It's a prayer made up of meditations on the life of Jesus and Mary. Although it's a fairly long prayer, it's simple and easy to learn. If you can pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, then you can pray the rosary.

Praying the Rosary is easy. Let's show you how.:

The Rosary isn't just a bunch of formal prayers, however. The real heart of the rosary lies in meditation on episodes from the Gospels. Each set of ten Hail Marys (these sets are called "decades") is dedicated to a different episode, or "mystery," which we think about while reciting the prayers.

There are four sets of mysteries, which Catholics pray on different days of the week:

The Joyful Mysteries
(usually prayed on Mondays and Saturdays)
1. The Annunciation
2. The Visitation of Elizabeth
3. The Nativity of Jesus
4. The Presentation in the Temple
5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

The Luminous Mysteries
1. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River
2. The Wedding Feast at Cana
3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
4. The Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor
5. The Institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper

The Sorrowful Mysteries
(Tuesdays and Fridays)
1. The Agony in the Garden
2. The Scourging at the Pillar
3. The Crowing with Thorns
4. The Carrying of the Cross
5. The Crucifixion

The Glorious Mysteries
(Sundays and Wednesdays)
1. The Resurrection
2. The Ascension of Jesus
3. The Descent of the Holy Spirit 
4. The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
5. The Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven and Earth

The Rosary has been called, I believe, a "Gospel on a string" - and that's precisely what it is: a way of going through Jesus' life in a quick, easy, and yet profound way. It's a daily twenty-five minute-long Bible study.
This is a wonderful way to think of the rosary. The 20 different mysteries that…:


So, how did we get this prayer?

Well, the Our Father, of course, comes straight from the Bible - it's the prayer Jesus taught us to say. The Hail Mary also has Biblical roots - it begins with the greeting of Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you," and continues with the salutation of Elizabeth at the Visitation, "Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." It ends with the plea that Mary pray for us: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the our of our death." (Catholics believe that the faithful in Heaven can pray for us just as those on earth can pray for us - more on that in a minute.)

There's a complete article on the history of the rosary here. I've copied and pasted a few paragraphs in italics below, since the authors on the EWTN website know much more than I do. :)

The origins of the rosary are "sketchy" at best. The use of "prayer beads" and the repeated recitation of prayers to aid in meditation stem from the earliest days of the Church and has roots in pre-Christian times. Evidence exists from the Middle Ages that strings of beads were used to count Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Actually, these strings of beads became known as "Paternosters," the Latin for "Our Father."

The structure of the rosary gradually evolved between the 12th and 15th centuries. Eventually 50 Hail Marys were recited and linked with verses of psalms or other phrases evoking the lives of Jesus and Mary. During this time, this prayer form became known as the rosarium ("rose garden"), actually a common term to designate a collection of similar material, such as an anthology of stories on the same subject or theme. During the 16th century, the structure of the five-decade rosary based on the three sets of mysteries prevailed.

Tradition does hold that St. Dominic (d. 1221) devised the rosary as we know it. Moved by a vision of our Blessed Mother, he preached the use of the rosary in his missionary work among the Albigensians, who had denied the mystery of Christ. 


Objections and Answers

Now that we've discussed the definition and history of the rosary, how about a little defensive argumentation? I'll pose three possible objections and answer them as best I can. (If you think of an objection not covered here, please leave it in the comments!)

1. Isn't the rosary giving Mary too much honor?

I can totally see how it might seem like that. The rosary is a very Marian prayer. But remember that Mary always leads to Jesus. We can't honor her without glorifying Him. Her greatness lies in her absolute submission to God, and she has no glory but His reflected in her.

And Jesus is the central focus of the rosary. The mysteries revolve around Him - His coming to earth, His life and ministry, His death and resurrection, His honoring His mother at the end of her life. The rosary is having a chat with the Mother about her Son - Mary, like all mothers, loves to talk about her baby. 

Also, the Hail Mary itself gives Jesus all the glory. Notice that there is a qualifier in its praise of Mary - "blessed art thou among women." There is no qualifier for Jesus; He's just "blessed." The implication is that while Mary is the greatest woman, Jesus is the greatest ever

From Mary:

2. Isn't it bad to pray to saints?

This is kinda a topic for a separate CE post, but I'll address it briefly. A common concern is that Catholics praying to saints is some form of forbidden communion with the dead. That's not what it is. For one thing, the saints aren't dead - they're alive in Christ, even more alive than we are. And when we speak to them, we're speaking to them through God. Because we're all part of the Body of Christ, whether or not our bodies are alive, we're all connected and we can talk to each other. We're one big family whom death cannot separate.

Why ask the saints for prayers when you can go straight to God? Because their prayers are so powerful! And it never hurts to have someone praying with you and for you. Imagine you were to meet a person known all around the world for their sanctity, a revered preacher or a sainted missionary. Wouldn't you askt hem for their prayers and take comfort in the thought that such a holy intercessor was pleading your case before God? Of course you would! That's just what's going on with the saints.

Devotions | Awestruck:

3. Isn't the rosary vain repetitive prayer?

When my family first began to pray the rosary together in the evenings, my younger brother, then about five, used to get understandably bored. Trying to cut prayer time short, he would protest at every new Hail Mary in an exasperated groan, "But we already said that one!"

So is the rosary repetitive? Yes, I guess you could say that. At least, it's repetitive from a physical standpoint. We are saying the same words over and over again. On a deeper level, though, we needn't be repetitive at all - we should be meditating on the mysteries, and taht means going deeper and deeper into thoughts of Christ - not repetitive at all, but ever wonderful and new.

Jesus did not forbid repetitive prayer - only vain repetitive prayer. Remember that He Himself prayed three times with the same words during His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Is the rosary vain? Only if the person praying it makes it so. Any prayer can be vain if the person praying does so with the wrong attitude.

catholic holy rosary, St Padre Pio:

So! What do you think? Have you any thoughts on the rosary? Questions? Concerns? Objections? Arguments? And if you have any ideas for improving this feature, or any suggestions for the next Catholicism Explained post, let me know!


  1. Oh, goodness! You have truly outdone yourself in this instance, Lucy! I am very impressed. Perhaps, for another CE sooner or later, you could briefly review some of the great heresies? (Chesterton went over a few very basely in Heretics, and Belloc went over the four main ones very thoroughly in The Great Heresies. You could probably also not go wrong in researching them from Koppleston in his History Of Philosophy).

    1. Why, thank you, Isi! Oh, addressing heresies is a good idea. (I've never read any Belloc or Koppleston, but Heretics is certainly a wonderful book! You know, I really need to do a post on G. K. Chesterton one of these days...)

  2. Very helpful! I never knew what the beads represented, or the order in which they were said. Thanks!

    You know, I’ve heard that some non-Catholics use the rosary. I don’t suppose they include the ‘hail Mary’s’, etc, but I’d have to ask about that.

    That issue about praying to saints is a good topic to explore, but it really needs its own post. So I’ll leave it aside for now.

    But the repetitive prayer issue is a good thing to delve into. I think the heart of the matter is, well, the heart! If there’s no true heart for God behind church attendance, praying, reading the bible, etc, then these actions become dead routine. So I’m more interested in the ‘why’ of the repetition than the ‘what’. Another thing is growth. Repetition is a way for memorization, and I’m fine with that. All I ask is that we don’t leave things at that. There must be a season of maturity, when memorization becomes action.

    1. I have heard of a "Lutheran rosary" via Pinterest; I'm sorta curious what it's like. And I know/know of one or more family friends who are devoted to the rosary even though they aren't Catholic. So non-Catholics praying the rosary is definitely a thing. :)

      Yup, I agree on repetitive prayer. There's always the danger of routine becoming mechanical, and that goes for anything, whether it be praying the rosary or going to church. If we have the right attitude, though, repetition can be as deep and fruitful a form of prayer as anything. With the rosary especially, there's so much to meditate on between the mysteries and the words of the prayer that it shouldn't be a problem.


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