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Revisiting the Rosary

30 November, 1999

This is the Year of the Rosary, and October is the Month of the Rosary. Last October, Pope John Paul II announced five new mysteries, to be added to the traditional fifteen mysteries: Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. Called the ‘Mysteries of Light’, the new mysteries focus on Jesus’ years in public ministry. Here, Richard N. Fragomeni revisits this ancient prayer in the light of the Pope’s apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary).

On October 16, 2002, John Paul II issued an apostolic letter entitled Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary). In this letter, addressed to the bishops, clergy, and faithful of the church, the pope proclaims the period from October 2002 to October 2003 the Year of the Rosary. Along with this proclamation, John Paul II offers an inspiring catechesis on the meaning of the rosary in the devotional life of Catholics. This catechesis is placed within an extended meditation on Mary and her role to lead all believers to her Son, Jesus. In fact, the Holy Father calls the rosary “Mary’s school,” in which she invites her children to learn the lessons of Christ by contemplating the fifteen joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of her Son’s life.

These threefold mysteries are certainly familiar to those who pray the rosary as part of their devotional life. The traditional mysteries are a way of keeping the memory of Christ alive and fresh in the minds and hearts of those who seek a deeper relationship with the Lord. In a real sense, the pope reminds us, the mysteries of the rosary are also a way of coming into contact with Mary and her vision of Christ. “In the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary” (RVM, 11).

In other words, the mysteries are a compendium of gospel stories. They lead us step by step into the plot of salvation, causing the one who prays to enter more deeply into the mysteries of grace. We enter not alone, however, but with Mary as our guide.

Joyful mysteries

Sorrowful mysteries

Glorious mysteries

Five new mysteries

Second, the pope hopes that these new mysteries will offer “fresh life” and “enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the Heart of Christ, ocean of joy and of light, of suffering and of glory” (RVM, 19). In fact, the aim of the entire apostolic letter seems to be to awaken among Catholics a deep appreciation for praying the rosary. The pope lauds it as a prayer for peace, a prayer for families, a prayer for children, and a prayer for a new millennium.

The entire life of Jesus is a proclamation of light in the midst of darkness. The pope, therefore, has chosen five moments in which the light of Christ burst forth, bringing a radiance to the faces of all who encountered him. “Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus” (RVM, 21). In a sense, the mysteries of light are five epiphanies upon which we medicate with Mary, who invites us to listen to her son and to follow his teachings.

1. The Baptism of the Lord

2. The Wedding Feast at Cana

3. The Preaching of the Kingdom of God; the Call to Conversion

4. The Transfiguration of the Lord

5. The Institution of the Eucharist

He did the same with the cup, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19, 20). In this testament, Jesus demonstrated that he loves those who are his own; he loves us to the end. As a living memorial of his death and resurrection, we continue to eat this bread and drink this cup until he comes again in glory. The light of Christ’s eucharistic gift continues to shine in the church, showing us the way of service for one another.

How to pray the Rosary

The letter continues by suggesting ways in which the rosary can be prayed more contemplatively. For example, Pope John Paul suggests that icons of the mysteries could be used to increase devotion by concentrating the mind and eye on rich images. A short passage of Scripture could be read following the announcement of each mystery. Silence is encouraged after the Scripture text and before the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 Aves.

The pope also recommends that a short prayer be said after the Glory Be to conclude each mystery. While John Paul II acknowledges that such devotional prayers already exist in many places, “the contemplation of the mysteries could better express their full spiritual fruitfulness if an effort were made to conclude each mystery with a prayer for the fruits specific to that particular mystery” (RVM, 35).

Finally, the pope offers a pattern for the distribution of the mysteries over the course of a week. He explains that “this weekly distribution has the effect of giving the different days of the week a certain spiritual ‘colour,’ by analogy with the way in which the Liturgy colours the different seasons of the liturgical year” (RVM, 38). Therefore, he suggests that the joyful mysteries be prayed on Monday and Saturday, the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesday and Friday, and the glorious mysteries on Wednesday and Sunday. Thursday would then be free for meditation on the mysteries of light.

The rosary is Mary’s way to Christ. It is her school, where she still forms her children as she formed her Son. The apostolic letter of John Paul II begins a new era for this prayer. May this Year of the Rosary be a time when we find in Mary’s lessons a deeper communion with Christ.

This article is reprinted from Reality, a publication of the Irish Redemptorists. 

The third chapter of The Rosary of the Virgin Mary outlines the essential method the pope recommends for praying the rosary. He begins by acknowledging that the rosary is based on the method of repetition. The pope likens this method to the dynamics of love. Those who are in love never tire of repeating the words “I love you” over and over. In this sense, the rosary moves us into an intimate place wherein the mysteries of Christ can be contemplated with Mary.On the night before he died, Jesus celebrated the paschal feast in the company of his disciples. This final mystery of light takes us to the upper room in Jerusalem. We remember how Jesus took a basin of water and washed the feet of his friends, asking them to “love one another as I have loved you.” In the same spirit of service, he took bread, handed it to his companions, and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”Our Holy Father calls this mystery “the mystery of light par excellence.” The Transfiguration of the Lord, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor, is an epiphany of glory. While in prayer with Peter, James, and John, Jesus was taken into the company of Moses and Elijah. The heavens opened, and the glory of God shone in the face and garments of Christ as the Father said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mk 9:7) The experience served as a moment of preparation for Christ’s passion and death, offering the apostles a moment of light that would help sustain their hope after Jesus died in darkness. The Transfiguration of the Lord is a declaration that we, too, can share in Christ’s glory by having our lives transfigured by the Holy Spirit.For three years Jesus revealed his glory in his ministry of preaching and healing. He preached with words and with mighty deeds. He healed the sick, forgave sinners, associated with tax collectors and prostitutes. He inaugurated a ministry of mercy by calling sinners to conversion. The miracle was that sinners responded. Throughout his work, Jesus showed what God was really like: a humble servant, self-emptying and willing to lay down his life for the sake of others. This same kind of compassionate ministry is committed to us, the church, so that all may hear the preaching of Christ and know that all are welcome in the kingdom of God. We pray for all sinners, now and at the hour of death. We pray that all will come to the conversion to which Christ invites us.The second mystery of light takes us to a wedding feast. Wedding celebrations are signs of hope, love, and the faithfulness of persons in a covenant. It was at Cana, the recent apostolic letter reminds us, that Jesus performed his first sign: changing water into wine. Thanks to the intervention of his Mother, the first believer, the hearts of the disciples were opened and people began to believe in him. He brings to pass the ancient hopes of a covenant, which will be a rich marriage communion between God and the people. It will come to pass on a holy mountain, where all will feast on rich wines and choice foods. On that mountain there will be no more weeping or mourning. The best has been saved for last.The first mystery of light is the Baptism of the Lord. It is here that we recall how Christ, the innocent one who became “sin” for our sake, descended into the waters of the Jordan. It was at this time that the Spirit descended upon him while the Father declared him the beloved Son, pleasing in the sight of God and all people of good will.While these 15 mysteries have served the devotional prayer of the church for nearly a thousand years, John Paul II introduced five new ones in his anniversary letter on the rosary. The pope cites two reasons for introducing these mysteries, which he calls the mysteries of light. First, he believes that the traditional mysteries, while laudable and rich in significance, leave out important moments of Jesus’ life. These moments, if contemplated in the manner of praying the rosary, would offer the Christian community the opportunity to meditate more fully on the manifestation of Christ in his public ministry. Thus, John Paul II feels that the mysteries of light will enhance the depth of prayer and appreciation for the wonders of God in the life of Jesus.Beginning with the Resurrection, the third set of mysteries is a glorious incantation of the power of God over sin and death. The rosary unfolds the exuberant glory of the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Finally, at the close of these mysteries, we turn again to Mary and celebrate her death in the hope of her Son, proclaiming her glorious Assumption and her coronation as Regina, queen of the heavens.The sorrowful mysteries continue the meditation by recalling the passion and death of the Lord. The heart of the gospel is the proclamation of these mysteries. They bring to a powerful focus the magnitude of pain that demonstrates God’s self-emptying love for us all for all creation. From the agony in the garden to the scourging and crowning with thorns, the rosary, prayed in reverent contemplation, leads us to Calvary with Mary and the beloved disciple so that we may gaze with them upon the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.The joyful mysteries begin with the Annunciation of the Lord, the great moment when Mary is invited by the divine messenger to be the Mother of the Saviour. This joy continues to sparkle in Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and reaches a unique brilliance in the birth of Jesus. The fourth joyful mystery leads us to contemplate the fulfilment of the Law in the presentation of the first-born male child in the Temple. The finding of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple marks the fifth mystery of joy, which is mixed with anxiety and drama.

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