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 second in a series of posts, which I am 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 experiences praying the Rosary in the comments below.
Chapter I: Contemplating Christ with Mary
A Face Radiant as the Sun
Contemplating Christ, says St. Paul, can transform us to His own likeness. St. John Paul II compares this to Peter, James, and John beholding Christ at the Transfiguration and being entranced by HIs visage; this scene with the Apostles, the pope tells us, “can be seen as an icon of Christian contemplation.” [emphasis original] We can imitate the Apostles, the pope tells us. “In contemplating Christ’s face we become open to receiving the mystery of Trinidadian life, experiencing ever anew the love of the Father and delighting in the joy of the Holy Spirit.”
Mary, Model of Contemplation
Mary is an “incomparable model” when it comes to contemplating Christ, and John Paul II tells us that, “[i]n a unique way the face of the Son belongs to Mary.” As the Mother of the Lord, Mary gave Jesus his human resemblance, which the pope tells us points towards their spiritual closeness, as well. Looking to Mary in order to become closer to her Divine Son only makes sense. “No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary.” Any mother knows exactly what St. John Paul II means by this: her heart was already open to Him at the Annunciation, and she began to imagine what He would look like as He grew within her womb. When He was born, she could finally gaze at His precious face. When my first daughter was born, I would spend a lot of time just looking at her tiny face with love big enough that I thought my heart would burst. And as my own daughter has grown, I still gaze at her, often in wonder at the beautiful woman she is becoming.
Mary, too, gazed at her own Son in contemplation throughout His entire life. “Mary’s gaze would never leave Him,” John Paul tells us. Throughout the Mysteries of the Rosary, we can imagine the various forms that gaze would take: questioning when she and Joseph found Him at the Temple, penetrating as she requested His help In Cana, sorrow during His passion and death, joy at the Resurrection.
And all of this leads us to realize that the Rosary is comprised of the Blessed Virgin’s memories of her Son. Luke’s Gospel tells us “She kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Her memories of her Son were constantly with her. The pope tells us, “In a way those memories were to be the ‘rosary’ which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life.”
When we, as Christians, pray the Rosary and contemplate the Mysteries, we join Mary in her contemplation of Jesus. Reciting the Rosary joins our own thoughts to the memories and “contemplative gaze” of Christ’s own Blessed Mother.
The Rosary, a Contemplative Prayer
And the Rosary is, indeed, a contemplative prayer. In Marsalis Cultus, Pope Paul VI said:
Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ. … By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord. In this way , the unfathomable riches of these mysteries are disclosed.
This was the key that had been missing from my own attempts to pray the Rosary when I was growing up. I knew nothing of the mysteries, and when I was at a public recitation it seemed to be a race to finish in order to get to the pancake breakfast that awaited us inside the Knights of Columbus hall. Mary leads the way in contemplating the life and death of Jesus, and that way is open to us if we only take her hand.
Remembering Christ with Mary
John Paul II tells us that above all, Mary’s contemplating is “a remembering.” But remember the way we use it today is different than the way it’s used in a biblical sense. John Paul tells us:
We need to understand this word in the biblical sense of remembrance (zakar) as a making present of the works brought about by God in the history of salvation. The Bible is an account of saving events culminating in Christ himself. These events not only belong to “yesterday”; they are also part of the “today” of salvation. This making present comes about above all in the Liturgy: what God accomplished centuries ago did not only affect the direct witnesss of those events; it continues to affect people in every age with its gift of grace. To some extent this is also true of every other devout approach to those events: to “remember” them in a spirit of faith and love is to be open to the grace which Christ won for us by the mysteries of his life, death, and resurrection.
In other words, doing something in remembrance means that we become mystically present at the moment of the original event. This mystical remembrance happens at the Passover Seder. It happens at the Holy Mass. And, in a smaller way, it can happen as we place ourselves within the mysteries of the Rosary while we contemplate and pray.
Learning Christ from Mary
“Christ is the supreme Teacher, the revealer and the one revealed,” John Paul begins. But we shouldn’t be content to just learn from Him. We must also learn Him, come to know Him better and imitate Him.
Among all of creation, no one knows Christ as well as His own mother, Mary. She was present for his first signs, even urging the servants at the wedding in Cana to “do what He tells you.” John Paul says that we can imagine that this was a consistent message she carried, even to the Apostles – even after the Ascention. When we contemplate the life of Christ through the lens of the Rosary, we are “learning from her how to ‘read’ Christ.”
From the Blessed Virgin Mary, we can learn how to be faithful to God, how to gain access to the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit. As St. John Paul II says:
As we contemplate each myster of her Son’s life, she invites us to do as she did at the Annunciation: to ask humbly the questions which open us to the light, in order to end with the obedience of faith: “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Being Conformed to Christ with Mary
Christians’ goal in life, the purpose of their spirituality, is to become conformed to Christ. Through the graces of Baptism, we become a part of the mystical Body of Christ. But we must always work towards greater unity with Christ, which will give us greater unity as His people.
The meditations of the Rosary help us to enter into the life of Christ with Mary as our guide. We can share the feelings of Jesus as we contemplate His life, death, and resurrection. Blessed Bartolo Longo wrote about this, saying:
Just as two friends, frequently in each other’s company, tend to develop similar habits, so too, by holding familiar converse with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, by meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and by living the same life in Holy Communion, we can become, to the extent of our loveliness, similar to them and can learn from these supreme models a life of humility, poverty, hiddenness, patience, and perfection.
The Blessed Virgin Mary her entire life in union with God’s will. She is both “the Mother of Christ and a member of the Church”, and is “the perfect icon of the motherhood of the Church” [emphasis original]. The Rosary mystically brings us to the side of Mary as she watches her Son’s life progress. Her life was spent conforming to God’s plan for her (and for her Son), and imitating Mary teaches us to do the same. St. Louis de Montfort said that the devotions by which we conform our souls to the Lord are devotions His Blessed Mother, and that “the more a soul is consecrated to her the more it will be consecrated to Jesus Christ.”
Praying to Christ with Mary
Going to Mary in prayer isn’t praying to her as we would pray to God. We go to her asking her to pray for us to her Son. We ask her, as a mother, to intercede for us (just as we might ask a particularly devout friend or a pastor to pray for us). “If Jesus, the one Mediator, is the Way of our prayer, then Mary, his purest and most transparent reflection, shows us the Way,” the pope tells us. The scriptural example of the wedding at Cana clearly shows the power of Mary’s intercession. Here, she brings the needs of others to her Son and asks for Him to assist them.
When we ask Mary to pray for us, we rely on her maternal intercession. We look to her Son’s love for His mother with hope and ask her to present our request to He who can grant it. As John Paul says, “When in the Rosary we plead with Mary, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:35), she intercedes for us before the Father who filled her with grace and before the Son born of her womb, praying with us and for us.”
Proclaiming Christ with Mary
The Rosary is a “path of proclamation and increasing knowledge” of Christ. Again and again, we meet Christ at “different levels of the Christian experience.” We see Him at his birth, in His childhood, at His most vulnerable, in His agony and death, and at His triumphant resurrection. The Rosary leads us through the life of Christ, and recitation of it “combines all the elements needed for an effective meditation.
Not only that, but because the Rosary is centered on the life of Jesus, it also offers what John Paul II calls “a significant catechetical opportunity” that pastors ought to take advantage of. Through the Rosary, we learn about the life of Christ. Through the Rosary, we can contemplate the impact His life has on us today, learn lessons from His Blessed Mother and Himself, and meditate on how to better imitate our Lord by conforming our lives to God’s will for us.
John Paul II closes Chapter I with this statement:
The Rosary retains all its power and continues to be a valuable pastoral resource for every good evangelizer.
How do you see Mary as a guide to the life of her Son? Do you feel like you can lean on Mary and depend on her to show you His true face?
©2017 Christine Johnson