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The Rosary

30 November, 1999

Garry Wills believes that the Rosary, all twenty mysteries, is a form of devotion ideally suited to the modern world, when so many are seeking a form of contemplation, spiritual renewal and calm. It contains reflective meditations and lavish illustrations by Tintoretto

189pp. Souvenir Press Ltd, 2005.


Introduction: Timely and Timeless

I. History of the Rosary
2. Elements of the Rosary

I. Annunciation
2. Visitation
3. Nativity
4. Presentation in the Temple
5. Finding in the Temple

I. Baptism of Jesus
2. Marriage at Cana
3. Sermon on the Mount
4. Transfiguration
5. Last Supper

I. Agony in the Garden
2. Scourging
3. Crowning with Thorns
4. Carrying the Cross
5. Crucifixion

I. Resurrection
2. Ascension
3. Pentecost
4. Assumption of Mary
5. Coronation of Mary

Background Reading


Garry Wills believes that the rosary is the most recognisable symbol of traditional Catholicism and that it is a form of devotion ideally suited to the modern world, when so many are seeking a form of contemplation, spiritual renewal and calm. Wills supplies a history of the rosary, both the physical object and the actual practice, relevant texts from the gospels, some suggested reflections and appropriate Tintoretto paintings, which are intended to focus the mind on the scenes of Christ’s life being enacted in the various mysteries. The book is written in a compelling and popular style.


1. History of the Rosary
According to a legend once endorsed by popes and celebrated in famous paintings, the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and presented him with the first rosary. That was in the thirteenth century. Modern research has found three things wrong with this story. First, early biographies and paintings of Dominic – along with early documents of his order – do not connect him with the rosary. The legend is not mentioned for two centuries after his death. Second, the saying of repeated Our Fathers or Hail Marys with the help of beads long predates Dominic. Third, the linking of contemplated gospel mysteries with the recitation of the prayers – which we consider essential to the rosary – long postdates Dominic.

The medieval roots of the rosary lie in the effort of laypeople to have their own extended prayer, an equivalent to the Divine Office said and sung by monks and friars. The office was a complex set of biblical and hagiographical readings, of prayers and of hymns, each part keyed to a different time of the day in the different seasons of the year. A briefer form of this, a breviary, was created for itinerant (mendicant) orders that did not have a monastery to keep the eight different hours of the full office. All Western Catholic priests were required to say the breviary until after the Second Vatican Council. For laypeople, something simpler was required. Books of prayers for certain little hours were invented, but even these were suitable only for the educated and (usually) the wealthy – a fact attested by the beautiful illustrations in the Books of Hours that are the pride of museums today. The problem of supplying a “lay office” continued. To avoid the complexity of different combinations of different kinds of prayer, the straightforward recitation of all 150 psalms was tried. When this proved too long or trying a task, the psalter was split into three parts, so fifty psalms were recited at anyone time. These numbers -150, 100, and 50 – would be important to the development of the rosary.

The recitation of the psalms was still a complex matter. For ordinary Christians it was important to have a prayer that could be said without using a book. Instead of reciting 150 psalms, why not just say the Our Father (Pater Noster) 150 times – shortening that number, if necessary, as the psalter had been shortened, to 100 or to 50 repetitions? The Our Father was the one prayer all Christians were supposed to know; it was in the Bible (Matthew 6.9-13), and instruction in it was part of the ancient baptismal discipline. Though the psalms were no longer being recited, the canonical numbers (150 or 100 or 50) gave this exercise the name the Pater Noster psalter, and it was later called the Pater Noster rosary. Saying the same prayer over and over required a counting device, which is what the beads provided. A set of such beads was itself called a Pater Noster, and artisans created them in workshops like those along Pater Noster Row in London.

The Hail Mary (Ave Maria) did not exist in its current form until the fifteenth century. But when it became popular, it too was said to the beads 150 (or 100, or 50) times. Soon the Ave Maria rosary became more popular than the Pater Noster but this exercise, like its forerunner, was just a matter of repeating one prayer over and over. The idea of articulating the parts of the rosary to consider different episodes in the life of Christ was explored in the fourteenth century. But it was not till the early fifteenth century that a rationalised scheme for such contemplation of Christ’s life became well known. The innovator was Dominic of Prussia (1382-1460), a Carthusian monk and author who was born in Poland and died at Trier.

In keeping with the psalm-based numerology of all these exercises, Dominic proposed fifty events in Christ’s life for contemplation. He claims to have had a vision in which a tree had fifty leaves, each devoted to a single gospel episode. This was perhaps suggested by the “visual New Testaments” of the middle ages – paintings that portrayed the life of Christ in a series of separate panels. (Duccio’s famous altarpiece in Siena devoted sixty-two of its seventy-five panels to the life of Christ.)

To keep track of the episode being meditated on, Dominic adjusted each Hail Mary to include the episode. Thus: “And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, whose birth was announced by the angel,” or “. . . the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem.” These insertions are still made in some places, a practice commended by Paul VI (46) and John Paul II (33). A critic of Dominic of Prussia the Dominican priest Alanus de Rupe (1428-1475) thought he had shortchanged the gospel by not giving the full psalter number of 150 episodes. But the practical difficulty of dealing even with fifty events led to a shortening and categorizing of episodes; by the sixteenth century they had been sorted into three sets of five episodes, each set of episodes thematically linked as glad, sad, or glorious. The number fifty was retained, since the beads of the five decades in each set numbered fifty.

It was Alanus de Rupe who, perhaps in opposition to Dominic of Prussia, popularised the story that the founder of his own order was also the initiator of the rosary prayer. His fellow Dominicans picked up this notion with enthusiasm and made it the reigning view for centuries. Alanus formed a Confraternity of the Psalter of the Glorious Virgin Mary at Douai around 1470. It soon had many chapters and imitators, making the rosary immensely popular on a broad front of the Western church. (The Eastern church has its own form of the prayer beads, usually 100, known as the kombologion.) It should be remembered that all this activity took place before the Reformation, so that the rosary is part of the history of Protestants as well as Catholics. Anglicans remind us that devotion to Saint Mary is not confined to Catholics, since Mary says in Luke’s gospel, “I shall be called blessed down the generations” (Luke 1-48).

Unfortunately, the rosary did become a partisan symbol of Catholicism. Some religious orders wore a huge set of the beads hanging from the belts of their habits – beads not so much for actual use in prayer but as a kind of defiant emblem. Anti-Catholics sometimes mocked the devotion to mere beads. In 1906, when the British author Hilaire Belloc ran for Parliament in the Liberal Party, he spoke defiantly on the stump:

Gentlemen, I am a Roman Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking a rosary out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being made your representative.

Belloc’s biographer Robert Speaight observes: “After a shocked silence there was a thunder-clap of applause.”

One reason why use of the rosary became confined to Catholics was a curse that was given in the form of a blessing. From the fifteenth century on, indulgences – papal dispensations from time in purgatory – were attached to its recitation. The sale of indulgences was one reason for Luther’s break with the church, and the rosary was tarred with the brush of this corrupt practice. The very idea of indulgences was tainted from the outset. The claim that the pope could give partial or total reprieves from time spent in purgatory is absurd on the face of it. Who knows what time would mean in purgatory – does it follow the Gregorian calendar? The offer of such a reprieve was improvised by those preaching the First Crusade (1095), when Rome had not authorised the idea and had no theological argument on which to base it. Yet the grant was so desired and clamored after – and eventually so lucrative – that lame excuses were confected for it.

Indulgences have been dying a decent death in modern times, in the quiet way the church has of forgetting embarrassments. Paul VI does not mention indulgences in his list of reasons for praying the rosary, and John Paul II says nothing of indulgences for the rosary itself, though he offers one for an appended prayer for his intentions (37). But the indulgences had their sad effect for a long time. Racing through the requisite number of prayers just to get the indulgence worked against the whole concept of contemplative calm. Besides, it was thought that the indulgence inhered in the beads themselves. If you had no beads at hand, it made no sense to say the prayers, since you got no indulgence. To add superstition to superstition, it was thought that the indulgence depended on using beads blessed by a priest. If they could be blessed by the pope himself, they would be especially potent. That is why, at papal audiences hundreds of people held up rosaries when he blessed the crowd – some holding fistsful of many rosaries, for their family an friends. John Paul admits (28) that this can reduce tile rosary to the status of a magic amulet.

My own contemporaries grew up in a culture that led to such indulgence hunting. This trend was at its worst on All Souls Day, the day after All Saints Day (All Hallows, following on Hallows Eve, Halloween). On All Souls Day, a special indulgence could be won by visiting a church – so there was a rush to duck into many churches, to tally up the indulgences. In the same way, the rosary was rattled off, as fast and as frequently as possible, to get indulgences given to its recitation. This explains why many Catholics who remember preconciliar days have sour memories of the rosary. John Paul II says (4) that such bad memories have led to “a crisis of the rosary.” He, like Paul VI, has tried to remove the offensive connections with past error. Both stress the quiet and calm mood in which we rosary should be said. John Paul says (28) that the prayers though “usually” said to the beads, can be said without them. Both popes stress freedom in the use of the prayers, recommending improvisations like the addition of clauses or other prayers, and rejecting all fetishisms regarding the physical beads themselves.

John Paul has, in this spirit, opened a welcome new chapter in the history of the rosary by adding a new set of five mysteries to the traditional fifteen. He calls these the luminous mysteries, or mysteries of light, since they show Christ revealing the meaning of his ministry – the five are Christ’s Baptism, the Marriage at Cana, the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, and the Last Supper. Adding these mysteries breaks with the psalter numerology of the devotion’s past history. The use of three sets of mysteries entailed the saying of 150 Hail Marys in the decades of the whole – or 100 or 50 if one said two sets or just one. That is one reason the restricted number of mysteries was adopted in the first place. The pope has broken those confines now, since the twenty mysteries are not reducible to the old schema of 150-100-50.

Why this innovation in a deeply traditional practice? The previous list of gospel events omitted the whole of the public ministry of Jesus. The glad set covered Christ’s childhood. The sad set covered his passion and death. The glorious set covered Christ’s resurrection and the subsequent life of the church. This not only gave a drastically truncated version of Christ’s life but – for those who said the rosary in connection with the liturgical seasons – led to an imbalance in the use of the beads. The glad mysteries were said only in the time from the beginning of Advent to the beginning of Lent. The sad mysteries were used only in Lent. That left most of the year to repetition of the glorious mysteries. Now there is a new set of meditations for the post-pentecostal time.

Of course, one does not have to say the rosary in accord with the liturgical seasons. John Paul suggests (8) another practice, the keying of different mysteries to different days of the week. But I could never remember what day called for what mysteries, even when there were only fifteen of them. Having twenty makes that even more complicated. Besides, when the recitation is attuned to the whole church’s concern with the different moods of the liturgical year, this makes it transcend individual whim. One breathes, as it were, with the whole body of believers.

Yet one does not have to follow any pattern. Indeed, one does not have to say the rosary. But if one does, it should be a personal exercise as well as a communal discipline. If a mystery evokes a special response, one can dwell on it at length and spend less time on the others – or omit them altogether. At Christmastime, I repeat just the third mystery, Christ’s Birth, on all five decades of the beads. The rosary is not an assignment, just a help to contemplation and to prayer. The point of having a full course of mysteries to contemplate is simply to provide a framework within which to structure one’s reflection. The uses to which one puts that framework can and should differ from person to person.

Well, if that is the case, why use the beads at all? One does not have to. The ability to pray should not be limited by the accident of having the beads whenever one wants to pray the rosary. Counting the prayers is not a difficult matter for people who have ten fingers. William F. Buckley Jr. records a common occurrence for Catholics of his (and my) generation in his published diary Overdrive:

Having twice checked the alarm clock, because I am due at the airport at 9am, I read something about somebody and, turning off the light, remember to count on my fingers the five decades of the rosary, a lifelong habit acquired in childhood and remembered about half the time. That half of my life, I like to think, I behave less offensively to my Maker than the other half.

Nonetheless, the fingers’ transit along the beads, if one strips them of fetishistic connections, can help put one in a prayerful mood – the use of worry beads and other prayer aids indicates that. There is a kind of tactile memory evoked in their use, helping recall other times of prayer. The British author Eamon Duffy, in his book Faith of Our Fathers, says that the click of rosary beads brings back childhood memories of his grandmother praying through sleepless nights, with her “muttered preamble – This one is for Tom, for Molly, for Lily – as she launched on yet another decade.” (Praying for different members of the family on different decades can be a useful practice.)

There is a natural symbolism in their threaded continuity. I am reminded of the fresco Good Government in Siena, in which the citizens hold on to a rope that goes up to the figure of Justice, a sign of linked activity and mutual support. Even better, perhaps, is Michelangelo’s great figure of the angel in his Last Judgment, who reaches down and pulls up two risen souls using the rosary as a rope to bring them safely home. The beads can, indeed, hold us together.

Background Reading
For those who want to know more about the historical, biblical, or theological bases of the practice of the rosary, I recommend these starting points.

Anne “Winston-Allen, Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (Pennsylvania University Press, 1997).

J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, third edition (David McKay,1972).
Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale UniversityPress, 2003).

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,” in New Testament Essays (Doubleday/Image, 1968), 275-320.
Joachim Jeremias, The Lord’s Prayer, translated by John Reumann (Fortress Press, 1964).
Ernst Lohmeyer, “Our Father”: An Introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, translated by John Bowden (Harper & Row, 1965).

Nicholas Ayo, The Hail Mary: A Verbal Icon of Mary (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)’

E. J. Gratsch, “Doxology, Liturgical,” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, third edition (Thomson Gale, 2003).

Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke (Doubleday, 1977).
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (Doubleday,1979).

Bruce Chilton, “Transfiguration,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman et al. (Doubleday, 1992), 6:640-42.
Raymond F Collins, “Beatitudes,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman et al. (Doubleday, 1992), 1 :629-3 I.
Oscar Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, translated by]. K. S. Reid (SCM Press, 1964)’
Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, translated by Norman Perrin (Fortress Press, 1977).
Saint Augustine, Sermon 191 (Cana); Sermon 227 (Last Supper).

B. Brown, “Stations of the Cross,” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, third edition (Thomson Gale, 2003).
Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (Doubleday, 1994)’

Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002).

Garry Wills, Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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