Question: Where did the Rosary come from?
Answer: The Rosary is perhaps the most common prayer of the Catholic faithful throughout the entire world, and the daily Rosary and family Rosary are recommended as among the most salutary prayers for growth in holiness. If you pray the Rosary, you’ve probably noticed how difficult it is to form a habit of praying the Rosary every day, and to truly meditate on the prayers when you do pray it. As a friend of mine from seminary, now Fr. Travis Burnett, said, “The Rosary is so difficult to pray because it’s so powerful. The devil doesn’t want us praying it.”
The Rosary was originally connected with the Psalter, the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. The ancient Jewish practice of praying the psalms was retained by the early Christians, and was eventually taken up by the monastic communities, especially the Benedictines. They would pray all 150 psalms in a daily or weekly cycle. This practice spread and is now mandatory for all priests and religious. The Laity, however, often couldn’t participate as they usually didn’t have a copy of the Bible (which were copied by hand and extremely expensive) and may not have been able to read anyway. So, even early in Church history people starting reciting 150 Hail Mary’s or Our Father’s every day, which was known as the Angelic Psalter, like the Davidic Psalter in the Bible.
During the Middle Ages, between the 12th and 15th centuries, this practice developed into the modern Rosary. There were several different forms of praying it and many different collections of mysteries. It was probably during this time that it gained the name “The Rosary.” Roses were connected with the Blessed Mother, and the main prayer of the Rosary became the Hail Mary, which were said to be as roses given to the Blessed Mother as each one was prayed. The Rosary was preached and promoted during this time as a way to learn and promote the faith, to ward of heresy, and to grow in the spiritual life. St. Dominic, famously, is said to have had a vision of the Blessed Mother while he was preaching against the Albegensian and Cathar heresies in southern France and Spain. It was latter preached also by Blessed Alan de la Roche in the 15th century for the conversion of sinners. In the 16th century it began gaining popularity in Eastern Europe after the Muslims conquered Constantinople in 1453 and began their invasions of Hungary and the Balkans.
In 1570, the Ottoman Turks invaded the island of Cyprus to take it from the Republic of Venice, who were the main power holding them in check in the Mediterranean Sea. They appealed to the Holy Father, Pope St. Pius V, for help, and he organized an alliance of Catholic states, including Spain, Portugal, Venice, Genoa, and the Knights of Malta. By the end of September the fleet was ready to set out, so the Holy Father asked all of the faithful to pray Rosaries and implore the intercession of the Blessed Mother for victory. On October 7, 1570, the the Catholic fleet of around 250 ships met the Muslim fleet of around 350 ships near Lepanto, Greece. The Catholic fleets flagship the Real, under the command of Don Juan and flying a blue banner of Christ crucified, met the Ottoman flagship the Sultana, under the command of Ali Pasha. It came down to hand to hand combat, and in the fighting Ali Pasha was killed and the Ottoman flagship captured, causing a breakdown of morale and discipline in much of the fleet. The fighting was fierce, but by the end of the day the allied victory was complete. The Catholic fleet had lost only 12 galleys and had 8,000 dead, but they had sunk 50 Ottoman galleys, captured 117 galleys, and freed 15,000 slaves. Pope St. Pius V received news of the victory on October 22 and celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Peter’s Basilica. The victory was attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Mother and a feast to Our Lady of Victory was added to the calendar on October 7, the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, which is still celebrated every year as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
To bring the history of the Rosary up to date, Pope St. John Paul II added a set of mysteries, the Luminous mysteries, to the Rosary in 2002 in the Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. The mysteries take us through the life of Christ, from His birth in the Joyful Mysteries, to His Passion and death in the Sorrowful Mysteries, to His Resurrection in the Glorious Mysteries. The Luminous Mysteries complet the life of Christ by inviting us to meditate on His public ministry. In the letter, Pope St. John Paul II describes the purpose of the Rosary, saying, “With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1).”
Fr. Bryan became pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes on July 3, 2017. Read his bio here.