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How the Holy Rosary Evolved from a Prayer to a Devotion

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Of the multitude of beautiful things that our prose could appropriate to the Holy Rosary of our Blessed Mother Mary, one of them is to call it ‘Our Lady’s Psalter’ because its 150 Hail Marys remind us of the 150 Psalms. As such, the Rosary is not only our meditations and lamentations but is also our songs of praise, thanksgiving, and celebrations of God’s mercy.

The origin of Our Lady’s Psalter appears to be more organically pollinated than apparitional, which is often the case with our Catholic traditions. In the 3rd or 4th centuries, the Desert Fathers could be found praying the 150 Psalms by counting pebbles from a pouch they carried with them everywhere. By the 8th century, the Pater Noster (Our Father) Cord had developed in Ireland as a way to track our praying the 150 Psalms, but for those who were illiterate and could, thereby, not read the Psalms or for those who had difficulty memorizing them, prayed the ‘Pater Noster’ (the ‘Our Father Prayer’) 150 times. Cords consisting of 150 knots would be prayed once, or they might count a shorter cord of 50 knots thrice. This development of the Pater Noster cord spread into the 14th century throughout Western Christendom, and many Catholics could be found wearing the cord off the girdle of their belt or around their neck, wrist, or arm.

This first contribution to the Most Holy Rosary, as we have it today, was followed by two significant contributions by the Carthusians and the Dominicans, and there is the contribution to the Rosary that each of us makes daily.

The Carthusian Contributions

Around 1400, a Carthusian monk and ascetical writer called Dominic of Prussia (1382 – 1461) created a system of prayers called the “Life of Jesus Rosary.” This Carthusian Rosary consisted of saying fifty, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus,” which are the Angelic Salutation given from the Archangle Gabriel to Mary and the greeting she also received from her causing Elzabeth upon haste arrive to her home in the hill country (Cf. Lk 1), and then the mediation upon one to fifty different themes from the life of Christ Jesus, such as “Jesus, conceived of the Holy Spirit during the Annunciation of the Angel, “Jesus, whom you have fed from your virginal breast, adoring in him the creator,” “Jesus, who said to the thief who was crucified on his right hand: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in heaven,” “Jesus, who has finally called you to him, oh sweet Mother of his, placing you on his right hand and crowning you with glory.” (Cf. Carthusian Rosary : University of Dayton, Ohio ( Adoph of Essen, Dominic of Prussia mentor, friend, and co-promoter of the Life of Jesus Rosary, recommended that after each theme, an Alleluia is declared, which would then be followed by one Pater Noster and Glory be. Dominic of Prussia recommended that at the conclusion of however many themes you have mediated upon, the Rosary should be concluded with the following prayer:

“Oh Immaculate, ever blessed and glorious Virgin Mary, Mother of God; oh Temple of God, the most beautiful of all temples; oh Doorway of the Kingdom of Heaven through which the whole world has been saved, do hear me mercifully, and become by sweet protectress, for me a poor and wretched sinner. Be my help in all my needs. Amen.”

It was Henry of Kalkar (1328 – 1408), a Carthusian monk and theologian, who is credited with developing the structure of the rosary as we know it today, by dividing the 150 Hail Marys into 15 groups of 10, each preceded by an Our Father and followed by a Glory Be. He also assigned a different mystery of the life of Christ or the Virgin Mary to each group to help the meditators contemplate the mysteries of faith. Henry of Kalkar’s contribution to the rosary was influential and widely adopted by other religious orders and lay people.

The Dominican & Saintly Contributions

While the legend, attributed to Saint Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort, a Marian priest of the Dominican Third Order, about Saint Dominic de Guzman’s apparition with Blessed Mother Mary, where she gave him the Rosary, cannot be documented from the meticulous depositions taken from eyewitnesses to investigate the life of Saint Dominic during his canonization process, the Order of Preachers have carried their weight in promoting the Our Lady’s Psalter. For example, Pope Saint Pius V, a Dominican friar, instituted the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1571 to commemorate the victory of the Christian fleet over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. He attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, invoked by the faithful praying the rosary. Saint Pius V also established the standard 15 Mysteries of the Rosary (Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious), to which Saint Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries in 2002 (Saint Geroge Preca, canonized in 2001, authored the ‘Mysteries of Light’ in the 1950s). Saint Pope Clement XI made the feast universal in 1716 after another victory over the Turks at the Siege of Corfu. The feast celebrates the power of prayer and the protection of Mary for the Church and the world. The exact date when the Order of Preachers began wearing the rosary attached to their cincture is not precise, but it is known that they have been promoting its use for over 800 years.

Our Lady’s Psalter indeed bears the imprint of the Order of Preachers regarding their pursuit of veritas. The motto of truth or veritas is important to the Order of Preachers because it reflects their commitment to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans, was founded by Saint Dominic in 1215 to combat the heresies (in particular, the Albigensian heresy) that threatened the faith and unity of the Church. The Dominicans have always valued the study of sacred Scripture and theology as a means to deepen their understanding of the truth and to share it with others. In this way, the rosary of the blessed mother also relates to that motto because it is a prayer that meditates on the mysteries of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The rosary helps the faithful contemplate the truth revealed by God in his Son and ask for the intercession of Mary, the mother of truth and the model of faith. The rosary also has a spiritual warfare dimension, as it invokes the protection of Mary against the evil one and his lies.

The Order of Preachers also has a beautiful and unique way of praying Our Lady’s Psalter, which gives Our Lady’s Psalter the character of belonging to the liturgy of hours. (Cf. The Rosary – Friarly).

Our Lady of Fatima’s Contribution

One optional prayer that can be included in the Dominican Rosary is the Prayer of Our Lady of Fatima, which is also an important note to add to this brief history of the organic development of Our Lady’s Psalter. The prayer of Our Lady of Fatima is a supplication taught by the Blessed Virgin Mary to the three shepherd children who witnessed her apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The prayer is meant to be recited after each decade of the rosary to ask for God’s mercy and peace for the world. The prayer of Our Lady of Fatima is:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.

Our Contribution

We pray the Rosary as often as we can!

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