The History of the Rosary

The Rosary has been a major influence in Roman Catholic thought for over 500 years while paving the way for a greater understanding of the mystery of Christ celebrated within family prayer.

The Rosary is the tradition-distilled essence of Christian devotion in which vocal and mental prayer unite the whole person in effective and purposeful meditation on the central mysteries of Christian belief. The Rosary thus joins the human race to God through Mary whom God chose from all time for the specific purposes of mother and intercessor.

The historical development of the Rosary begins with the desert fathers and their need to find a system to ease their laborious and repetitive prayer life. It is generally agreed by scholars that a system for counting repetitive prayers began with the Hindus some nine centuries before Christ. Prayer counters such as rocks, sticks or notches in wood were employed to ensure that the proper number of prayers were recited. Over time, counters and psalms were united into a “three groups of fifty” format (Na tri coicat) so that “fifties” could be used for personal and/or penitential prayer. By the twelfth century it was common for all people to carry a “Paternoster cord” on their person for purposes of keeping straight the prayers recited on any group of fifty.

As the need for lay participation in the prayer life of the Church increased, the need for a Psalter of popular prayers (most people of the period were not sufficiently educated to pray the psalms in Latin) became urgent. Thus the Na tri coicat format was imposed first on recitations of Paternosters and later on Aves. Spurred by the association of Mary with roses and rose gardens, from both scriptural and traditional bases, the Marian Psalter of Aves became by the fourteenth century a standard form of repetitive prayer for the whole Church, laity and religious alike.

The fifteenth century provided the development period for the many facets of today’s Rosary. During this period the Dominican influence with the Rosary grew and was fostered through both fact and legend. Although many apocryphal accounts exist to explain how St. Dominic and his followers became originators of Rosary devotion, it is evident that these accounts cannot stand up to the scrutiny of historical research. Although the Dominicans were not the sole originators of the Rosary, their influence in the growth, devotion and spread of this prayer cannot be denied. It would not be inaccurate to call them the principal promoters and defenders of the Rosary through history. Certainly the fifteenth century was a period for much Dominican influence in this meditation, bringing a series of prayers and mysteries into a coherent form of prayer.

The fifteenth century saw the Rosary begin its development into the familiar prayer form we know today. The Our Father came intact from the Gospel of Matthew. The Hail Mary developed from the scriptural greetings of Gabriel and Elizabeth to Mary in Luke’s Gospel, plus a popular exhortation in use by the laity of that period. The Glory Be was used as a common doxology from the earliest of Christian times when praying the psalms. The Salve Regina, a later addition to the Rosary, states all relevant medieval themes about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its affiliation with the Rosary came about through popular practice although its precise origin within the devotion is not known. The Apostles’ Creed along with the Rosary pendant were also later developments, being added to the Rosary only in the early seventeenth century.

During this period the definition of the individual prayers, plus the development of a series of mysteries which united this loosely connected series of prayers, took place. The mysteries, the true essence of the Rosary, have their origin from Henry of Kalbar who added clausulae or “statements of faith” to each of the fifty Aves of the Marian Psalter. The development of the mysteries included the fixing of 150 statements of faith which were followed by the introduction of fifteen true mysteries, one for each Paternoster. Eventually the clausulae faded away and the fifteen mysteries remained. By the mid-sixteenth century, the mysteries we know today, Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious, were in place and used in Rosary recitation.

The most significant event in the historical derivation of the Rosary was the formation of the Rosary Confraternity in 1470 by Blessed Alanus de Rupe. The communal attitude (praying in groups) that the Confraternity put forth raised the whole consciousness of the Christian world to the Rosary. The second half of the sixteenth century saw the Confraternity’s work rewarded with the Church’s official recognition of the Rosary. On October 7, 1571, Pope St. Pius V declared that because of the assistance of the Rosary in securing victory over the Turks at Lepanto, a commemoration in honor of the Rosary would henceforth be held on that date. Two years later the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary was established by Pope Gregory XIII with that date still celebrated in our contemporary liturgical calendar.

The work of Pope Leo XIII in promotion of the Rosary is a landmark in the evolving history of this most glorious prayer of devotion to Mary. More than any other pontiff, Leo wrote extensively on the Rosary, completing twelve encyclicals and numerous other letters, apostolic exhortations and similar works. In his twenty-five year pontificate Leo touched on all aspects of the Rosary devotion. All of his teachings, however, were centered about the concept that by using the Rosary one could most efficaciously reach Mary, and through her intercession, her son Jesus Christ.

Pope Leo wanted to restore the Rosary to a prominent position within the devotional life of the Church. His work was most certainly successful, as evidenced by the great popularity of the Rosary during the first half of the twentieth century. The voices of those who have promoted the Rosary have continued to speak. Probably the most significant comment which has come forward is the emphasis on the family as the principal body around which the Rosary can be most effectively utilized. Pope Pius XII spoke of the efficacious use of the Rosary in the family setting. The Pope’s words were in keeping with the trend initiated in 1942 by Father Patrick Peyton, CSC who became internationally known as “The Rosary Priest.” Through his Family Theater Productions and international Rosary crusades, the Rosary and family prayer became common practices in the typical Roman Catholic household. Father Peyton’s expression, “The family that prays together stays together,” became a rallying cry for many of the faithful.

Popes John XXIII and Paul VI introduced new teachings on the Rosary while continuing the teachings of their predecessors. For Pope John, the Rosary was the universal prayer for all the redeemed. Additionally, he taught that the mysteries of the Rosary must have a three-fold purpose: mystical contemplation, intimate reflection and pious intention. Pope Paul also emphasized the importance of the mysteries, saying that the prayers of the Rosary were merely an empty shell without the mysteries. Both popes continued to foster the family Rosary through writings and support of Father Peyton’s Rosary crusade. The views of the pontiffs show that Rosary recitation and teaching continues to be important in our contemporary prayer devotion.

The story of the Rosary cannot end without reference to the visions at Fatima and Mary’s powerful message to pray the Rosary daily. In coming to Fatima with a message of prayer and peace, the Blessed Virgin Mary, through the visions of October 13, 1917, has herself given to the world the true value of the Rosary. The world came to know that with the Rosary it had a weapon which could bring peace to our troubled society then and remain a powerful tool in the ever present battle to maintain peace in our present-day, very difficult and complex world.