I recently read Pope Saint John Paul II’s apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (“On the Most Holy Rosary”), promulgated in 2002, and thought I would offer something of a summary of it here. The Rosary might be one of the most misunderstood prayers that Catholics use – and that includes a lot of Catholics! I wrote about my own struggles with the Rosary here. You can read more about what an apostolic letter is (and how it differs from an encyclical) at this link.
This is the first in a series of posts, which I plan on breaking down along the lines of the letter:
- Chapter I: Contemplating with Mary
- Chapter II: Mysteries of Christ – Mysteries of His Mother
- Chapter III: “For Me, to Live is Christ”
Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with praying the Rosary in the comments below.
Pope Saint John Paul II begins with an introduction of the Rosary and its history, reminding the reader that the prayer began in the second millennium and commenting that he believes it will play a great role in prayer during the third millennium. Though the prayer is “clearly Marian in character” it is, at its heart “a Christocentric prayer” that contains “all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety.” The Rosary allows us to contemplate Christ alongside of His mother Mary. It allows us to “contemplate the face of Christ” the way Mary did throughout her own life. Mary will be the key to understanding Christ through the Rosary.
The Popes and the Rosary
Many popes have offered the Rosary as a powerful prayer, including Pope Leo XIII, who said in his 1883 encyclical Supremi Apostolatus Officio that the Rosary is an effective spiritual weapon against evils afflicting society. John Paul II reflected, too, on his own words upon his election as pope in 1978:
The Rosary is my favourite prayer. A marvellous prayer! Marvellous in its simplicity and its depth. […] It can be said that the Rosary is, in some sense, a prayer commentary on the final chapter of the Vatican II Constitution Lumen Gentium, a chapter which discussses the wonderful presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and the Church. Against the background of the words Ave Maria the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul. They take shape in the complete series of the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries, and they put us in living communion with Jesus through – we might say – the heart of his Mother. At the same time our heart can embrace in the decades of the Rosary all the events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the Church, and all mankind. Our personal concerns and those of our neighbour, especially those who are closest to us, who are dearest to us. Thus the simple prayer of the Rosary marks the rhythm of human life.
Pope John Paul II set the first year of his pontificate to the rhythm of the Rosary. Since this letter was promulgated on the occasion of his twenty-fifth year as pope, he expressed a desire to repeat this action and to continue to dedicate his ministry to Jesus through the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Totus Tuus!)
October 2002-October 2003: The Year of the Rosary
This letter is to be considered a Marian complement to Novo Millennio Ineunte (“New Millenium Jubilee) and a reflection on the Rosary as a prayer, and it is to encourage us to “contemplate the face of Christ in unison with, and at the school of, the Most Holy Mother. To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”
The purpose of the letter, while it is to encourage prayer, is not meant to be a burdern or to compete with what particular churches around the world are doing. The Rosary is meant to compliment programs in place. It’s meant to go to “the very heart” of Christian life ano can be used to evangelize the world.
Objections to the Rosary
While we all know about Protestant objections to the Rosary, the idea that there are objections within the Catholic world might be a new idea. John Paul II deals with these objections. There are some people who believe that the Second Vatican Council stressed the centrality of the Liturgy, and this is true. However, this does not diminish the benefits of praying the Rosary because the Rosary does not compete with the Liturgy, but as Pope Paul VI said “it serves as an excellent introduction and a faithful echo of the Liturgy, enabling people to participate fully and interior Lay in it and to reap its fruits in their daily lives.”
Some people fear that the Rosary will repel our separated brethren because it is so Marian in nature. John Paul II does not ignore this, but neither does he shirk it: he points out that the Council teaches that devotion to the Mother of God is a way to be devoted to her Son. Mary is not worshipped within the prayers of the Rosary, but honored. And when you honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, you honor her Divine Son. If only Catholics gained a better understanding of the Rosary, they would be able to use it in their ecumenical pursuits effectively.
A Path of Contemplation
Most importantly, the Rosary is an “effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery” which Pope John Paul II so strongly encouraged in Novo Millennio Ineunte, where he calls it a genuine “training in holiness.” Christian life, says John Paul II, requires us to develop the “art of prayer.” Our Christian communities should even become “schools of prayer.” Prayer should be a work of art for us, drawing us into the beauty of God. It should be something that’s beautiful enough to draw others to it so that we might teach others how to pray, as well. And the Rosary is a prayer in which we contemplate Jesus, meditating within our hearts.
Prayer for Peace and for the Family
Throughout the roughly 800 years of praying the Rosary as a Church, many people have called it a prayer for peace. When John Paul II wrote this letter, the horrifying wounds of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, were still fresh in the world’s mind, and violence seemed to be everywhere. Once again, the pope calls us to pray the Rosary for peace in the world, saying that we need a commitment to prayer for this intention.
In addition, a similar need for commitment and prayer was apparent in the early days of the third millennium: the family unit was in desperate need of prayer. John Paul wrote of the great need to pray for families:
[T]he family, the primary cell of society, increasingly menaced by forces of disintegration on both the ideological and practical planes, so as to make us fear for the future of this fundamental and imdepsensable instition and, with it, for the future of society as a whole.
He called for a revival of the practice of praying the Rosary as a family to counter the “devastating effects of this crisis”. In our own time, almost 15 years later, we can see even moreso how badly the family unit needs prayers: families are in deep crisis and are pulled apart (or never properly formed at all). Now is the time to follow the advise of John Paul II and pray for the family – for children who lack families, especially – using the Rosary as our guide.
“Behold, Your Mother” (John 19:27)
The Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in many places in the 19th and 20th Centuries, each time urging Christians to pray the Rosary. John Paul II mentions in particular two apparitions that are recognized by the Church: Lourdes and Fatima. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of Fatima, which should encourage us to go to Mary within the Rosary, asking her to pray for us and with us to her Divine Son.
Following the Witnesses
John Paul II says that it would be impossible to name the many Saints who found the Rosary to be a path to genuine holiness. The Holy Father does, however, give us a few names to look to for excellent examples: St. Louis de Montfort, Padre Pio, and Blessed Bartolo Longo. While the first two saints are well-known, Bartolo Longo may not be as familiar to the reader. Longo’s path to holiness was based on a message he heard “in the depths of his heart: ‘Whoever spreads the Rosary is saved!'” He built a church dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompei, which still stands today. He practiced the “Fifteen Saturdays” devotion, and Pope Leo XIII himself encouraged Bartolo Longo’s mission of promoting the Rosary. (Longo was a Lay Dominican, so the Rosary fit into his life well!)
Next week, we’ll take a look at Chapter I: Contemplating Christ with Mary, which explores the idea that the Rosary is, indeed, a Christocentric prayer.
©2017 Christine Johnson