Franciscan Spirit Blog

The Rosary: History and Mystery

The fact that the rosary is an object can help to celebrate the incarnational side of our religion and remind us all of where we started, and who we are.

Although it is popularly attributed to the founder of the Dominican Order, the 13th-century St. Domingo (Dominic) de Guzman, the rosary, in fact, comes from much older traditions. Several different threads came together to give us the rosary we use today. One of the first threads was the Church’s wish to encourage people to pray the Our Father. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was clear in AD 248 about the need to use the Our Father in personal as well as communal prayer. The early Church was already fighting numerous heretical factions, and there was some concern that people would make up their own prayers that might or might not conform to the Church’s teachings.

In fourth-century Egypt, Paul the Hermit imposed on himself the recitation of 300 prayers every day, which he counted by collecting and tossing away 300 pebbles. Celtic monks in the seventh century prayed the Book of Psalms (150 psalms), keeping count of each psalm by tying knots in the cords used as belts for their habits. (Throughout the Middle Ages—and still continuing in some communities today—members of religious orders wore large rosaries attached to their belts as a continuation of this practice.)

At the same time, in the 12th century, the side the Our Father. It was another easily memorized prayer that came to be associated with popular piety. In the area of personal devotion, these prayers leveled the playing field: everyone could participate.

By the 13th century, the term rosary started describing a string of beads that was then beginning to be used to recite 150 Hail Marys. As rosaries gained in popularity, so too did their manufacture, resulting in Paternoster Row in London, once the site of a thriving guild that made more and more elaborate beads—monks were even cautioned against the use of excessively beautiful or expensive beads.

In fact, in France, royal inventories for the year 1380 listed enameled gold rosaries encrusted with jewels, amber, and coral. The following century saw mass production of less expensive rosaries, and rosaries made of wood, bone, and lead, once again linking the practice back to popular piety.


Changes through the Centuries

Nothing in life is static. Much of what many Catholics think is “the way it’s always been done” is, in fact, relatively recent in practice. In the 13th century, for example, the Hail Mary sounded very different from what we say today. The word Jesus didn’t appear as part of the prayer until the 14th century; and the last line, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” wasn’t added until after a famous sermon preached by St. Bernardine of Siena in 1487 captured pious peoples’ imaginations and got transferred to their daily devotions.

The Glory Be was not part of the rosary in its earliest stages; and the pendant (composed of the cross and the five extra beads) was also a later addition. The most recent change was in 2002, when Pope John Paul II commemorated the 25th anniversary of his pontificate by adding the mysteries of light, or luminous mysteries, to the saying of the rosary.

In his apostolic letter, the pontiff spoke specifically of using the rosary as a path to contemplation. In that sense, we can see the rosary as a unique pairing of both prayer and contemplation, connecting us back to the roots of our tradition and to the practices of the earliest Christians—our ancestors in the faith.


Praying the Rosary Today

One could argue that there is less need for the rosary now than in the past. During the Middle Ages and beyond, people were required to attend a liturgy celebrated in a language that they did not understand, often in places where they were unable to even see what was happening.

They could, however, continue their private devotions through praying the rosary and feel as though they had been spiritually uplifted by the experience. But the Second Vatican Council brought the liturgy into the languages of the world, and these days, everyone can understand what the priest is saying.

So why the rosary now? Part of the answer has to do with its very intimacy. The rhythm of the prayers, coupled with the fact that many Catholics have been reciting them since early childhood, makes the rosary a familiar touchstone in a world that often feels very unfamiliar and chaotic indeed.

Moreover, one of the truths of the Catholic Church is that it is an incarnational Church, concerned with articles of daily life: with bread, wine, homes, and relationships. The fact that the rosary is an object, part of the material world, can help to celebrate the incarnational side of our religion—and remind us all of where we started, and who we are.


Meditating on the Mysteries

The joyful mysteries are generally prayed on Mondays and Saturdays. They include:

  1. The annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk 1:38)
  2. Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (Lk 1:45)
  3. The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem (Lk 2:7)
  4. The presentation of Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:22)
  5. The finding of the child Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:49)

The luminous mysteries are generally prayed on Thursdays. They include:

  1. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan (Mt 3:17)
  2. Jesus performs a miracle at a wedding in Cana (Jn 2:5)
  3. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God and calls us to conversion (Mk 1:15)
  4. The transfiguration of Jesus (Lk 9:35)
  5. Jesus gives the Eucharist (Jn 6:54)

The sorrowful mysteries are generally prayed on Tuesdays and Fridays. They include:

  1. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:44)
  2. Jesus is scourged at the pillar (Jn 19:1)
  3. Jesus is crowned with thorns (Mk 15:17)
  4. Jesus carries the cross to Calvary (Jn 19:17)
  5. Jesus dies for our sins (Jn 19:26-27)

The glorious mysteries are generally prayed on Wednesdays and Sundays. They include:

  1. Jesus rises from the dead (Jn 20:19)
  2. Jesus ascends into heaven (Mk 16:19)
  3. The Holy Spirit descends on the apostles (Acts 2:4)
  4. Mary is assumed into heaven (Lk 1:48-49)
  5. Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth (2 Tm 2:12)

Interested in the rosary? Keep reading!

Why Pray the Rosary?

The Origins of the Rosary

The Sorrowful Mystery of Racism

Blessed Mothers: A Reflection on the Rosary



1 thought on “The Rosary: History and Mystery”

  1. Like some other people I find it difficult to be saying one thing while thinking about another i.e reciting the prayers of the beads while think about the mystery. Repetitious prayers have never appealed to me remembering Our Blessed Lord’s words to keep our prayers short. For some years now I have taken to reciting the Divine Office in Latin and sometimes in English. It is easily accessible online and set out very simply with no need to navigate around like you would in a book breviary. There are no end of devotional practices and the Divine Office is said to be the the most excellent after the assisting at Holy Mass. Some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches in communion with Rome have never adopted the Rosary as part of their devotions.

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