CNS photo/Bob Roller
CNS photo/Bob Roller

As a collection of prayers in a form that even pre-dates Christianity, the Rosary has progressed over many centuries. Saints and popes have promoted and extolled its value, and even claim the course of history itself was recharted when its power was invoked.

Despite its importance among devotees, however, the prayer of 20 mysteries may itself be a mystery to those who have never prayed it, or to those who have recited the prayers but never learned its historic significance.

Beads of Repetition

The use of strings of beads as a prayer aid stems from various faith traditions and cultures prior to Christianity’s inception, including Hindus, Greeks, Buddhists and others. The word “bead” derives from an Old English word that means “prayer.” A series of beads offers a framework and a pace for prayer, with the repetition allowing a background for meditation.

Early Christian prayer traditions shared similar formats to the Rosary we know today. Third-century Christian hermits and monks in Egypt – known as “Desert Fathers” – used stones and prayer ropes to keep track when praying the 150 Psalms, also known as the Psalter. Monastic life of the medieval period centered around the Psalter; at the time there was a desire to give a similar type of common prayer to the laity. However, most laity could not afford a Psalter and most could not even read.

Consequently, the practice of repeating the Our Father prayer 150 times throughout the day grew among lay people – ultimately becoming known as “the poor man’s breviary.” Eventually the use of beads was adopted to help them count the prayers; the strings of beads themselves became known as “Paternosters,” Latin for “Our Father.”

More than 1,000 years passed in the evolution of the Hail Mary prayer. Earliest renditions incorporated just the first half of the prayer, taken from Luke 1:28 – “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” which was adapted to include the name of Mary. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) popularized an early version of the Hail Mary prayer, asking for it to be prayed on the fourth Sunday of Advent; many began praying it in a repetitive manner, using a string of beads to keep track of the prayers.

In approximately 1050, the words of Elizabeth’s greeting during the Visitation were added: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42). Pope Urban IV added the name of Jesus to the end of the phrase in 1261, and St. Peter Canisius published the Hail Mary in his 1555 Catechism with the petition: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” Rounding out the prayer 11 years later, the Catechism of the Council of Trent added “now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The Hail Mary we pray today was officially approved in 1568.

Between the 12th and 15th centuries the Rosary prayers evolved into a recitation of 50 Hail Marys, linked with verses of Psalms or phrases evoking the lives of Jesus and Mary, and the form became known as the “rosarium” or “rose garden” – a common term used to indicate a collection of similar material. By the 15th century, 150 Hail Marys had been divided into sets of 10 with an Our Father recited at the beginning of each.

On May 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. Over the course of several months she continued to appear and entrust messages to them. On one occasion, July 17, she asked the children to add a short prayer to the end of each decade of the Rosary: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.” Today this is referred to as the Fatima prayer, which many Catholics still incorporate into the Rosary.

Our Lady of Victory

As Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., detailed in his reflection, St. Dominic and multiple popes shared in the origin and development of the Rosary we know today. The prayers were promoted to combat heresies and defend the Catholic faith across the globe.

Perhaps the most notable papal influence on the Rosary’s popularity came from Pope St. Pius V, when Turks of the Ottoman Empire were conquering one Christian European country after another. Constantinople had fallen in 1453 to Muslim Turks, leaving the Balkans and Hungary open to conquest, and the control of the Mediterranean in the balance.

In 1571, Pope St. Pius V organized a fleet – the Holy League of Genoa, Spain and the Papal States – under the command of Don Juan of Austria, the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. As battle preparations were made, the Holy Father entreated the faithful to pray the Rosary and implore the help of the Blessed Mother under the title of Our Lady of Victory, that God would grant victory to the Christians, despite being severely outnumbered.

Crew members on more than 200 ships prayed the Rosary in preparation for battle, along with Christians throughout Europe. Some accounts say that Pope St. Pius V was given a miraculous vision of their victory.

Under a flagship flying a blue banner depicting Christ crucified, the Christian vessels and sailors met the Ottoman Empire on Oct. 7, 1571, defeating them at the Battle of Lepanto. All but 13 of the nearly 300 Turkish ships were captured or sunk.

The following year, Pope St. Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of Victory to be celebrated annually on Oct. 7 to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary in gratitude for her protection. His successor, Pope Gregory XIII, adapted the name to the Feast of the Holy Rosary. The feast always falls one week after the similar Byzantine celebration of the Protection of the Mother of God, in memory of a 10th century military victory protecting Constantinople against invasion after a reported Marian apparition.