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 third 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 II: Mysteries of Christ – Mysteries of His Mother
The Rosary, “A Compendium of the Gospel”
St. John Paul II begins this chapter by saying, “The only way to approach the contemplation of Christ’s face is by listening in the Spirit to the Father’s voice, since ‘no one knows the Son except the Father’ (Mt 11:27).” Jesus emphasizes this in the way he responds to Peter’s confession, telling him that only the Father could have revealed that to him. To truly know Jesus, then, we take part in silence and prayer, being open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The Rosary is a “traditional path of Christian prayer directed to the contemplation of Christ’s face.” But Pope Paul VI described the prayer as a Gospel prayer that is centered on the incarnation. He called it a Christological prayer because of its orientation on the life of Christ. And so we come to understand that the Rosary is more than a string of prayers. When done properly, the pope says, it is a compendium of the Gospel. Through it, we meditate on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We journey through the Gospel. Paul VI even says that the litany of Hail Marys “becomes in itself an unceasing praise of Christ, who is the ultimate object of both the Angel’s announcement and of the greeting of the Mother of John the Baptist. … The Jesus that each Hail Mary recalls is the same Jesus whom the succession of mysteries proposes to us now as the Son of God, now as the Son of the Virgin.”
Every Hail Mary is centered on Christ. Jesus is literally at the center of the prayer. This reputation of the name of Jesus throughout the Rosary should lead us to a deeper contemplation of our Lord.
A Proposed Addition to the Traditional Pattern
The Rosary traditionally was a patter of 150 Hail Marys, signifying the 150 Psalms. However, Pope John Paul II, in an effort “to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary” felt that “it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion.” John Paul goes on to contemplate that in these new mysteries that he proposes, we can more deeply contemplate that Christ is the light of the world. With these new mysteries, the Rosary can become even more of a compendium of the Gospel, allowing us to pray around significant moments in the public ministry of our Lord. “This addition…is meant to give [the Rosary] fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the Heart of Christ…”.
The Joyful Mysteries
These mysteries are marked by “the joy radiating from the event of the Incarnation.” John Paul II says that this is clear from the first mystery, where Gabriel greets the Virgin with the phrase “Rejoice, Mary!” What a moment! The pope says, “The whole of salvation history, in some sense the entire history of the world, has led up to this greeting.” Each mystery contains a moment of joy: Elizabeth’s happy greeting of her cousin, the beautiful, happy moments following the birth of our Lord, the joy of Jesus’ consecration in the Temple (though this mystery also hints at the sorrows of our Blessed Mother in Simeon’s prophecy), and, of course, the “joy mixed with drama” contained in the fifth mystery when twelve-year-old Jesus is found in the Temple after being missing for three days. “Here, he appears in his divine wisdom as he listens and raises questions, already in effect one who ‘teaches’.”
However, these mysteries are not merely stories to recollect. John Paul encourages us to go deeper than that. “To meditate upon the ‘joyful’ mysteries, then, is to enter into the ultimate causes and deepest meaning of Christian joy. it is to focus on the realism of the mystery of the Incarnation and on the obscure foreshadowing of the mystery of the saving Passion.” Mary is our guide to this joy, and she leads us deeper into the mystery of her Son – deeper into the mystery of Christian joy – as we make our way through the joyful mysteries.
The Mysteries of Light
Jesus called himself the “light of the world” in John’s Gospel, and so “the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light.” Each mystery presented here is “a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus.” At his Baptism in the Jordan, the Father’s voice declares his love for the Son, and the Spirit descends upon him. At Cana, Jesus gives his first sign by changing water to wine; this opens his disciples’ hearts to faith. As he preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, Jesus calls us all to repentance and forgiveness, offering the forgiveness of sins. This is the “inauguration of that ministry of mercy” which continues until the end of the world (and can be found anew in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, entrusted to the Church). The Transfiguration presents the glory of God shining forth from the face of Jesus, and his Father commands the apostles to “listen to him.” Again, this mystery comes tinged with a foreshadowing of the sorrowful mysteries, as it was to prepare the apostles to “experience with him the agony of the Passion so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit.” Finally, in the institution of the Eucharist, Christ offers his body and blood as food and “testifies ‘to the end’ his love for humanity”.
John Paul finishes this presentation of his new mysteries with this comment:
In these mysteries, apart from the miracle at Cana, the presence of Mary remains in the background. The Gospels make only the briefest reference to her occasional presence at one moment or other during the preaching of Jesus (cf. Mk 3:31-5; Jn 2:12), and they give no indication that she was present at the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. Yet the old she assumed at Cana in some way accompanies Christ throughout his ministry. The revelation made directly by the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan and echoes by John the Baptist is placed upon Mary’s lips at Cana, and it becomes the great maternal counsel which Mary addresses to the Church of every age: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). This counsel is a fitting introduction to the words and signs of Christ’s public ministry and it forms the Marian foundation of all the “mysteries of light”.
The Sorrowful Mysteries
The sorrowful mysteries of Christ are prominent in the Gospels. Christians have, from the earliest times, recalled and meditated on the Passion of Jesus, especially during Lent. John Paul tells us that this is because “here is found the culmination of the revelation of God’s love and the source of our salvation.” [emphasis original] When we pray the Rosary, we contemplate key moments of Christ’s Passion, beginning with Gethsemane. During his agony in the garden, “Jesus encounters all the temptations and confronts all the sins of humanity, in order to say to the Father: “Not mewl but yours be done” (Lk 22:42 and parallels). This “Yes” of Christ reverses the “No” of our first parents in the Garden of Eden.” [emphasis mine]
The “abject suffering” of Jesus during his Passion “reveals not only the love of God but also the meaning of man himself.”
Pilate presents Jesus to the crowds saying, “Ecce homo!” (“Behold, the man!”) John Paul II tells us that “the meaning, origin, and fulfillment of man is to be found in Christ.” Jesus Christ, God-made-man, humbled himself because he loves us. He humbled himself even to the point of a horrible, humiliating, and excruciating death on a cross. When we pray the sorrowful mysteries, we stand with the Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross and “enter with her into the depths of God’s love for man”.
The Glorious Mysteries
Contemplating the face of Christ cannot stop at his Crucifixion – Jesus is the risen Christ! The Rosary has always reflected this reality, bringing us through the pain of the Passion to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension. “Contemplating the Risen One, Christians rediscover the reasons for their own faith” and share in the joy of the apostles and Mary Magdalene and the disciples on the road to Emmaus. But Christians also share in the joy of the Blessed Mother who is reunited with her Risen Son and eventually shares in his glorious kingdom after her own Assumption and Coronation as Queen of the Angels and Saints. Mary is, in these mysteries, a foreshadowing for the Church. We, too, are destined to join Christ in heaven.
And at the center of these mysteries, we contemplate Pentecost. At Pentecost, we are presented with the Church gathered together with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church is “enlivened by the powerful outpouring of the Spirit” and is made ready for the task of evangelizing the world. Each mystery is perfect for leading us to a deeper contemplation of our new life in Christ, “a life of which the scene of Pentecost itself is the great ‘icon’.” These mysteries offer us the great hope of our destiny and our goal as Christians: to be raised to heaven with our Lord and Savior. This knowledge should give us the courage to bear witness to the Gospel in a world that sorely needs it.
From “mysteries” to the “Mystery”: Mary’s Way
While the Rosary is not a complete retelling of the Gospel, it does cover what is essential. The mysteries “awaken in the soul a thirst for a knowledge of Christ”. Every mystery in the Rosary, each mystery presented in the gospels, are all centered around the one great Mystery: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Rosary is a guide for us to enter into this mystery more perfectly, just as the Letter to the Ephesians calls us to do: “May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power…to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:17-19).
St. John Paul II tells us:
The Rosary is at the service of this ideal; it offers the “secret” which leads easily to a profound and inward knowledge of Christ. We might call it Mary’s way. It is the way of the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, a woman of faith, of silence, of attentive listening.
Contemplating these mysteries of Christ by going through his Mother (even when she is not directly involved) makes sense. Again, no one on earth knew Jesus the way His Mother did. And we take the words of the Angel Gabriel and Saint Elizabeth as our own as we pray the Hail Mary. Through Mary, we see the “blessed fruit of her womb.”
Mystery of Christ, Mystery of Man
In 1978, the pope describe the Rosary as his favorite prayer, saying that “the simple prayer of the Rosary marks the rhythm of human life.”
The Mysteries of Christ are meant to lead us closer to what man was meant to be from the beginning. Jesus “recapitulated, revealed, and redeemed” the path of mankind, and through the Rosary, we can “come face to face with the image of the true man.” Each mystery teaches us a lesson about the life of human beings. The birth of Christ shows us the sanctity of life. The Holy Family gives us insight into the beauty and truth of the family. The public ministry of Jesus gives us a path to the Kingdom of God. The Passion shows us the meaning of salvific suffering. The Glorious Christ after the Resurrection (and His Mother’s glorious Assumption to Heaven) give us a clear goal for our own lives: to meet our Lord in Heaven.
“Each mystery of the Rosary, carefully meditated, sheds light on the mystery of man.”
And yet, at the same time, we can bring our own problems and sufferings, as well as our own deepest desires to the Lord and Redeemer. As Psalm 55 says, “Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you.” John Paul tells us that praying the Rosary is a way to “hand our burdens to the merciful hearts of Christ and his Mother.” This idea that we should cast our burdens on the Lord is repeated by Saint Peter in his first letter: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” John Paul encourages us to delve into the Rosary and cast our cares upon Christ as we contemplate his life.
What are your experiences in praying the Rosary? Has using it as a method of contemplating Jesus’ life led you to greater spiritual insight into your own life? What lessons have you learned?
©2017 Christine Johnson