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The Rosary: when words fail us

30 November, 1999

This article on the Rosary is taken from John Follan’s book, “The Light of his Face: Spirituality for Catholic teachers”. It brings out how, despite the agro the recitation of the Rosary causes in families, it can be found to have a significant place.


When Words Fail Us

There is one song that any mouth can say,
A song that lingers when all singing dies.
Joyce Kilmer, The Rosary

By now I am well prepared for the blank expression on the faces of my students when I begin to talk about the Rosary. For most young(ish) people, if the Rosary had ever been a feature of their prayer repertoire by the time they hit their teens it has undergone something of an eclipse. This happens for a variety of reasons. Many people are (rightly) turned off by the unthinking, unfeeling monotone in which most public recitations of the Rosary are conducted. It is sometimes hard to see how hearts and minds could be raised by a prayer which seldom seems to lift its landing-gear. There is a reason, however, that the Church continues to hold this particular form of prayer in such high esteem. It has taken me a while to appreciate this. If I had to put my finger on the moment when I began to understand the Rosary it would be during the last hours of a saintly little woman in Paisley.

I used to visit this woman each month to bring her Holy Communion and over the years I got to know her quite well. I enjoyed her sprightly banter with the eldest daughter who shared her house and provided constant care for her mother. A fall during the night led to the diagnosis of an untreatable tumour and the mother was moved to the local hospice, where she spent the little time remaining to her. I was aware that she had three other children (I had seen their photographs on the mantle-piece) but I only got to meet them the day before she died. Although she was no longer able to receive the Eucharist, I took the chance to pop in and see her as I was passing. I knew she was very poorly and, as I was going to be away from the parish for a couple of days, I was concerned that I might not get to see her again. As soon as I walked into her room I sensed that all was not well. This was the first time that all four children had been together in the same room for a good number of years and it was a difficult reunion. There appeared to be a division of opinion as to what arrangements were to be made for the inevitable moment of the mother’s death. My opening gambit – that their Mum was not dead yet and could hear them bickering – at least gave them the opportunity to direct their pent-up feelings at me instead of each other. By now I am used to this kind of reaction: as a freshly ordained priest it was sometimes hard not to take this personally but now I am a little wiser. Thankfully it was their mother who came to my rescue: just as they were about to really turn on me she managed to work her right hand out from underneath the bedcover. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, it was as if this merest of movements had become amplified, as though she were shouting for everyone to be quiet. I noticed that she was holding her Rosary and, albeit almost imperceptibly, she was. telling the beads between finger and thumb. What possessed me then I do not know but I suggested that we join with her in saying the Rosary. I experienced a little panic as I realised that I did not have any beads but managed to make a weak little joke about having ten fingers so it would be alright. You could have heard a pin drop (for all the wrong reasons). Still, undeterred, I began the recitation of the glorious mysteries.

To my relief (and I would have to say surprise) one by one the family fell in line. The mother continued to tell her
beads, wordlessly but effectively leading us in the rhythms of this prayer. As we reached the end she attempted to bless herself but could no longer raise her hand. I recalled her telling me of the times she would bless them with Holy Water before they headed out the door and suggested that this would be a good time for them to return the favour. All but one of them did (the daughter who lived with her found it too upsetting) and the matriarch settled back into a contented sleep which more or less continued until her death the next day.

I thanked the family for sharing that time with their mother. Somewhat sheepishly, the other three children confessed that the last time they had ‘said the Rosary’ was at their father’s funeral some thirty-five years previously. In that time their relationship with the Church had more or less fallen apart and they had followed paths which led away from the faith of their childhood. ‘It just goes to show you,’ said her son, ‘that it never leaves you. It’s in there somewhere.’ He was absolutely right and that is, I think, the strength of the Rosary. Some may argue that the constant repetition of the words forms a barrier to truly getting inside the prayer. I would suggest that it is precisely this mantra-like quality which allows people to be carried along by it. The issue for that emotionally exhausted family was that they did not really know how to be together and what to say to each other. In the absence of positive words and feelings, negative sentiments often come more easily to hand. What the Rosary achieved in that fraught moment was little short of miraculous: it took the heat out of that situation and gave them words they could say together. And not just any words. They were able to say words expressive of faith, hope and love. In that moment they were able to reconnect with something that had deeper roots in their memories and lives than the gaps which had opened up between them as a family. It was, in other words, an occasion of grace. More importantly, the moment of grace was prolonged beyond the woman’s death and real healing came to that family.

They were happy to talk about what they felt happening to them in that room and they are happy for me to talk about it as well. Their experience perfectly demonstrates the truth in that line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem: the Rosary is indeed ‘one song that any mouth can say’.

The Rosary is a prayer which can be as sophisticated or as simple as you like. When it is built into a programme of Lectio Divina, its identity as a deeply scriptural prayer becomes apparent. Pope John Paul II’s addition of five new Mysteries of Light gives the Rosary an even stronger scriptural and theological basis. Even more pertinent to Catholic Teacher Formation, the late Pope was keen to emphasise what the Rosary had to offer children and young people.

To pray the Rosary for children, and even more with children, training them from their earliest years to experience this daily ‘pause for prayer’ with the family, is admittedly not the solution to every problem, but it is a spiritual aid which should not be underestimated. It could be objected that the Rosary seems hardly suited to the taste of children and young people of today. However, perhaps the objection is directed to an impoverished method of praying it. Furthermore, without prejudice to the Rosary’s basic structure, there is nothing to stop children and young people from praying it either within the family or in groups – with appropriate symbolic and practical aids to understanding and appreciation. Why not try it? With God’s help, a pastoral approach to youth which is positive, impassioned and creative – as shown by the World Youth Days! – is capable of achieving quite remarkable results. If the Rosary is well presented, I am sure that young people will once more surprise adults by the way they make this prayer their own and recite it with the enthusiasm typical of their age group.

The Holy Father encouraged us to be creative in presenting the Rosary to children. This is particularly true in considering the visual aids which children and young people often require to get a hold on the mystery. The Alive-O series, which is the agreed Catechetical programme for primary school children in Ireland and Scotland, offers thoughtful suggestions for engaging a class in discovering the Rosary in new ways. A class of younger children might be enthusiastic about making pictures which relate to each of the mysteries, while an older class might benefit from searching for contemporary images which illustrate the events brought to life by the Rosary. Clearly the goal for everyone, however, is that we are able to visualise the mysteries in our own minds. This ancient prayer should fuel the sacred imagination of God’s people. In the ‘toolkit’, which forms the second part of this book, I have had the temerity to offer what I call The Teacher’s Rosary. Hopefully it will forge a chain of new ideas in your imagination and enable you to find something fresh growing in this neglected garden.

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