Is there not a more iconic identifier of a Roman Catholic than a Rosary? You can often identify a
Catholic by the rosary hanging from their rear view mirror. Every good Catholic has one, or two, or 20 hanging around the house, in their pockets, or on their necks. They are everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Yet, for all the rosary’s popularity as a form of prayer it is almost completely ignored in official documents of the Church. Of all the traditions that are essential to the life of the Church the Rosary is actually down at the bottom.
That’s right you can be a Saint, live a vibrant and holy Christian life, and never once pray the Rosary. Yet, in spite of all of this, it has such a presence among Catholics.
The Rosary predominantly developed out of the Jewish/Christian tradition of praying the Psalms. This is why there are 150 Hail Mary’s in the 15 decades of the Rosary. There are 150 Psalms and 150 Hail Mary’s. Books were expensive and not very portable, and not many people were literate. Religious and priests were required to pray the Psalms as their spiritual discipline, which they continue to do to this day. But these text were inaccessible to the lay faithful. Not only that, but it was difficult to accommodate this practice while traveling. Into this void stepped in several variants of the Rosary until we have the common form we have today.
This is the short version of the origin of the Rosary. It didn’t fall out of the sky from the hands of Mary, it isn’t a super powerful form of prayer, you still love Our Lady if you don’t pray the Rosary, and it is definitely not a good luck charm. It is just one act of piety among a whole host of beautiful traditions.
During most of my Seminary years I prayed the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours (the daily praying of the Psalms required of priests and religious); but after learning of the origins of the Rosary I realized that they were basically the same thing. One was just the shorthand version of the other. So, I dropped the Rosary. Not out of malice or indifference, but more out of an ideal that I was exchanging the copy for the original.
So, my prayer life has become very liturgically centered. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, meditate on the Mass readings for the day, and celebrate daily Mass. It has a simplicity and consistency about it which continually orientates my spiritual life.
So, with all of this in mind, I went to pray with the Dominican Sisters near by and we began to pray the Rosary, which I hadn’t done for a while. It was the Sorrowful Mysteries, and we went through the various points of meditation: The Scourging at the Pillar, The Carrying of the Cross, Jesus Dies on the Cross. As I’m reflecting on this I realized something that was missing in Liturgical Prayer; intentional contemplation on the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord.
Anybody who has reflected on the readings for Mass will realize that the only time of the year that we read the text concerning the passion and resurrection of Our Lord is during Holy Week. The only time we read about the birth of our Lord is at Christmas. All these key moments in the life of Christ that are highlighted by the Rosary are absent from the Sunday readings and only given small mention in the Liturgy of the Hours. During the Mass itself these things are only consistently mentioned during the Eucharistic prayer.
The readings for Mass are predominately about the teachings of Christ. It’s like we only take the mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption out for adoration once or twice a year before putting them back behind the veil. In fact, if you really examine the words and actions of the Mass you realize it essentially lacks a crucifix. It just basically says, “As we celebrate the memorial of the Blessed Passion and Resurrection from the Dead.” We don’t say, “We remember your birth in a stable, your terrible scourging, your ignominious death, your five sacred wounds, and your pierced heart.” Its emphasis is on the Last Supper, a point of Christ’s life glossed over in the Rosary tradition.
The same is true about the Stations of the Cross, an Act of Piety that annoys me. It annoys me because I’ve never understood walking around in a church as following the way of the Cross. I’d be ok if it was a 5 mile hike up a hill, but putting around in a Church is just bothersome (and therefore, paradoxically my own passion walk). But here, once again, the passion narrative is contemplated in a way that is infrequent in the liturgy.
Here also the mystery of Mary and her relationship with Jesus is only brought out every once in a while and given passing mention in the liturgy. Compare this with the Rosary where her invocation is constant and central.
From all of this we can see how two common spiritualities have sprung up that often move past each other. In pre Vatican II days the liturgy was rather inaccessible (especially before Daily Missals became a reality in the early 1900’s). The Rosary was the common prayer, the accessible prayer, even for many priests (because the Liturgy of the Hours was all in Latin). It was a very corporial spirituality, very incarnational. The birth, passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord was emphasized but the parables, teachings, and miracles de-emphasized. Sacraments and commandments where emphasized at that time as well, but the reading of scripture was less emphasized. From this evolution such things as the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Crucifixes were emphasized, often for dramatic effect. The spirituality of our Grandparents is forged by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord.
After Vatican II, liturgy, and to a certain degree scripture, became more accessible. They were like new cars that everyone wanted to drive. The Psalms and parables were emphasized. People were putting the beatitudes everywhere. Catholic Bible studies became common place, Christ’s call to action was emphasized, the Holy Spirit and principles of discernment were discussed with greater frequency. Crosses and resurrection crosses were placed everywhere and the crucifix was down played (because the Liturgy has no crucifix).
Curiously, this new emphasis esteemed St. Francis of Assisi greatly. “Make me a channel of your Peace” was one of their songs. They loved his authentic living of the Gospel beatitudes, his care for the poor, and love for nature. While all of this was true, St. Francis was, paradoxically, also a major source of our Grandparents incarnational spirituality. He was the one that gave us the Christmas manger scene and was one of the most well known stigmatic. He was very real when it came to the Passion of Christ.
Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” found its source in the rosary spirituality; and it’s presentation revealed the disconnect that existed between these two paths.
After praying this rosary with the Dominicans I began to see that the Rosary (and the Stations of the Cross) filled a hole in the liturgically based spirituality that no one was really aware of. That the two forms needed each other. Perhaps I need to take up that Rosary more often.