We begin each year with the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. (It was not a holy day of obligation this year since it fell on a Saturday.) As Catholics, we hold Mary in very high regard and we are all called to a particular devotion to her. One of the most important devotions to Mary is the Rosary. It provides a way for us to walk through the life and miracles of Jesus’ life, honoring Mary for her devotion to God and her faithful motherhood of Christ.
I’m sure most of us have heard the falsehood that Catholics worship Mary, which we do not. The book, Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons, addresses this and many other topics regarding Mary. The differences of how we offer devotion to God and to Mary and the saints lie in the definitions of the three Latin words that the Church uses to properly describe our devotion. Let’s look at the Latin vocabulary: Latria is the form of worship that is reserved only for God. It is “the veritable worship or adoration which is due to God alone and to the holy humanity of Christ by virtue of the hypostatic union” (Mariology pg. 677). The type of devotion we give to the saints is called dulia and is defined as “the simple veneration due to the saints, inasmuch as they are the faithful friends of God” (Mariology pg. 678). The third type of devotion is called hyperdulia and is reserved for Mary: “The special veneration which is due to the Virgin Mary, by virtue of her uniqueness as Mother of the incarnate Word and as cooperator absolutely without parallel in the work of the redemption” (Mariology pg. 677-678). So, you can see, we hold Mary in very high esteem, higher than any other saint, but never as highly as what is due to God alone.
Now, with the distinction in language having been made, we can take a closer look at the Rosary and see how it leads us into proper latria and hyperdulia which complement one another. First let’s understand what the Rosary is not. It is not superstitious, nor is it the mindless babbling of rote prayer. Rather, praying the Rosary is one of the greatest spiritual weapons we have as it draws us deep into the mysteries of the Gospels and the life of Jesus.
The Catholic practice of praying the Rosary goes back centuries. You may have heard that the Rosary was given to us by St. Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221). While St. Dominic did play a role in its development, the history of the Rosary’s existence is a little more complex and evolutionary in nature. Fr. Etienne Richer wrote a rather lengthy essay on Marian devotion, which includes a discussion of the Rosary. In it, he details the evolution of its development, but I will give you the short version here.
Marian devotions began very early in the Church and the earliest example we have is called the Sub Tuum Praesidium. It is a prayer carved in rock dating back to the 3rd Century which translates to:
We fly to Thy protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from all dangers,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin
We can therefore see, that even from the very beginning, it was common for Christians to call upon Mary’s intercession for their needs. As Christianity grew across nations and cultures, and different religious orders popped up, so did private and public Marian devotions according to the differing customs and traditions. These different devotions were shared and morphed together over centuries, which we now recognize as our modern-day Rosary. In his essay, Fr. Richer says, “[In] reality the slow genesis of the Rosary takes its source upstream from the epoch of St. Dominic. A devotion does not ordinarily emerge all at once, but on the contrary, becomes elaborated slowly, transforms, and perfects itself little by little.” (Mariology pg. 700) We have even seen some of that evolution in our own time when Pope John Paul II added the Luminous mysteries to the Rosary in 2002.
Now let’s get back to the heart of the Rosary, which is, in fact, a scriptural walk through the life of Jesus. You probably have seen a Rosary and know that it is comprised of five groups of ten beads each, called decades, separated by larger beads. There is also a string of beads coming from the enclosed circle of decades with a crucifix at the end of it. This physical tool is the means by which we keep track of and meditate upon the life of Jesus. For each of the five decades, you announce a particular mystery from the life of Christ and meditate on it while reciting an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. The purpose of the repetitive rote prayer is so that you don’t have to focus on the words of the prayers, but rather on the current mystery at hand. The repetitive rote prayer is actually a tool for effective meditation. Each set of mysteries is reflected on different prescribed days as follows:
Mondays and Saturdays – The Joyful Mysteries
The Annunciation of the Lord to Mary (Lk 1:26-38)
The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-53)
The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Lk2:6-19)
The Presentation of Our Lord (Lk 2:32-39)
The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:42-52)
Tuesdays and Fridays – The Sorrowful Mysteries
The Agony of Jesus in the Garden (Mt 26:36-41, Mk 14:35 Lk 22:42-44)
The Scourging at the Pillar (Mk 15:1-2, Jn 18:37, Lk 23:4,16, Jn 19:1)
Jesus is Crowned with Thorns (Mk 15: 16-17, Jn 4-5)
Jesus Carries the Cross (Mt 27:31-34, Lk 23: 27-32)
The Crucifixion of Our Lord (Mt 27:35-46, Mk 15:22-37, Lk 23:32-46, Jn 19:26-40)
Wednesdays and Sundays – The Glorious Mysteries
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Mt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8, Lk 24:1-12, Jn 20:1-18)
The Ascension of Jesus to Heaven (Mk 16:19-20, Lk 24:50-53, Acts 1:9)
The Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-6)
The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Lk 1: 48-49, 52)
The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth (Rev. 12:1)
Thursdays – The Luminous Mysteries
The Baptism in the Jordan (Mt 3:1-17)
The Wedding Feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-11)
The Proclamation of the Kingdom (Mk 1:14-15, Jn 3:5, Mt 5:3, Mt 5:10, Mt 5:20, Mt 13:45-46, Mt 18:3, Mk 10:24, Lk 4:43, Jn 18:36)
The Transfiguration (Mt 17:2-7)
The Institution of the Eucharist (Jn 6:35-56, Lk 22:19, Mt 26:27, Mk 14:24, (1Cor 11:25-26)
Pope John Paul II was well known to be an avid pray-er of the Rosary, so much so that he prayed all four sets every single day. When he instituted the Luminous mysteries, he wrote a beautiful apostolic letter titled, Rosarium Virginis Mariae – On the Most Holy Rosary. In his introduction he says, “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” (Rosarium #1). Regarding the art of meditation while repeating Hail Marys, St. John Paul II says, “Against the background of the words Ave Maria, the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul” (Rosarium #2). Therefore, when we are praying our Rosary intentionally and in the spirit with which it is meant to be prayed, it is actually a deep and powerful prayer since the Lord and His entire life, death, and resurrection remain our soul’s focus. We can also see how, when this is done properly, the Lord receives the latria that is due to Him and Mary receives her hyperdulia, which is always subordinate to latria.
The Rosary has been repeatedly announced by the Church and great saints as the most powerful prayer we have. Padre Pio was known to say, “Bring me my weapon!” in times of need. However, very, very few Catholics actually pray the Rosary every single day anymore. Can you imagine the change we could effect in the world if we all did this daily meditation? It would be truly incredible to witness. So, here comes the challenge. Can you pray a daily Rosary? If that is too daunting for now, can you pray a decade every day, or a full Rosary a few days in the week? If you already pray the Rosary daily, can you pray two or more and strive for Pope John Paul II’s example? If you are having trouble, there are many aids available to help. You can find Rosary meditations online or in book form. You can find an audio version you like and you can listen to it while you’re driving your car, or put your headphones in while you do your household chores. The challenge to you specifically, is to identify where you are on the spectrum of the devotion – novice to advanced – and find incremental steps to increase your practice of saying this most powerful prayer.
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Read more about the four Marian dogmas and one doctrine:
****An in-depth examination of Mary’s role as Advocate under her spiritual motherhood