The Rosary is simple, very simple. But it has the deep and wise simplicity for which we hunger, and in which we will find peace. The Rosary is something that we do, without thought, like breathing. Breathing is very important to us. We breathe all the time. Saying the Rosary, like breathing, is so simple. It may seem a little strange that a prayer as simple as the Rosary should be particularly associated with Dominicans. Dominicans are not often thought of as very simple people. We have a reputation for writing long and complex books on theology. And yet, we fought to keep the Rosary ours. The General Chapter of 1574 urged the brethren to preach the Rosary. It is “nostra sacra haereditas”, “our sacred inheritance”. There is a long tradition of pictures of Our Lady giving the Rosary to St Dominic.
The mysteries of the Rosary have been compared with the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas. They tell, in their own way, of how everything comes from God and everything returns to God. For each mystery of the Rosary is part of a single mystery, the mystery of our redemption in Christ. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”. (Eph I:9)
In the Rosary we do not try to have thoughts about God. Instead we rejoice in the words of the angel addressed to each of us, “The Lord be with you”. We endlessly repeat these same words, with the endless vital exuberance of the children of God, who take pleasure in the good news.
St Thomas Aquinas said that we cannot understand God because God is utterly simple – simple beyond all our conceptions. There is the true simplicity, the simplicity of heart, the simplicity of the clear eye. And that we can only arrive at slowly, with God’s grace, as we draw near to God’s blinding simplicity.
St Thomas Aquinas, after he had written his great Summa Theologiae, commented, “who can say that all that I had written is as straw”. The Rosary is very simple. But perhaps it is an invitation to find that deep simplicity of true wisdom.
Angels are professional preachers. It is their whole being to proclaim the good news. The words of Gabriel are the perfect sermon. It is even short! He proclaims the essence of all preaching, “The Lord is with you”. Here we see the heart of our vocation, to say to each other: “Hail Rick, Hail Dale, Hail Jim, the Lord is with you”. That is why Humbert of Romans, one of the earliest Masters of the Order, said that Dominicans are called to live like angels. Though I have to say that most Dominicans are not especially angelic! Myself included!!
According to pious tradition, the concept of the rosary was given to Saint Dominic in an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the year 1214 in the church of Prouille. This Marian apparition received the title of Our Lady of the Rosary. Though it is claimed that Mary’s giving the rosary to St. Dominic is a legend, the development of this prayer form owes much to the Order of Preachers.
In 1569, the Dominican Pope Pius V officially established the devotion to the rosary in the Catholic Church.
From the 16th to the early 20th century, the structure of the rosary remained essentially unchanged. There were 15 mysteries, one for each of the 15 decades. There were no other changes until 2002 when John Paul II instituted five optional new Luminous Mysteries.
Heaven has on many occasions rewarded the faith of those who recite the Rosary in times of special danger. Legend has attributed the recitation of the Rosary by St. Dominic with the defeat of the Albigensian heretics at the battle of Muret in 1213.
The rosary has been featured in the writings of Roman Catholic figures from saints to popes and continues to be mentioned in reported Marian apparitions, with a number of promises attributed to the power of the rosary.
According to Alan de la Roche, the Virgin Mary is reputed to have made 15 specific promises to Christians who pray the rosary. The Fifteen rosary promises range from protection from misfortune to meriting a high degree of glory in heaven.
John T. McNicholas says that during the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland when Mass was either infrequent or impossible, the Rosary became a substitute in the home. In the 18th century, the French priest Louis de Montfort elaborated on the importance of the rosary and its power in his book Secret of the Rosary. He emphasized the power of the rosary and provided specific instructions on how it should be prayed.
One of the forces that drove the spread of the rosary during the 19th century among Roman Catholics was the influence of the “Rosary Pope”, a title given to Leo XIII (1878–1903) because he issued a record twelve encyclicals and five Apostolic Letters on the rosary, instituted the Catholic custom of daily rosary prayer during the month of October and, in 1883, added the invocation Queen of The Most Holy Rosary to the Litany of Loreto.
Leo XIII explained the importance of the rosary as the one road to God from the faithful to the mother and from her to Christ and through Christ to the Father, and that the rosary was a vital means to participate in the life of Mary and to find the way to Christ.
We often think of prayer as the effort that we make to talk to God. Prayer can look like the struggle to reach up to a distant God. Does he even hear us? But this simple prayer reminds us that this is not so. We do not break the silence. When we speak we are responding to a word spoken to us. We are taken into a conversation that has already begun without us. The angel proclaims God’s word. And this creates a space in which we can speak in turn: “Holy Mary, Mother of God…”.