If there is a heart in the audience that ever sent roses to a friend in token of affection or ever received them as a sign of remembrance, he will not be alien to this story of prayer!
Some deep instinct in humanity makes it link roses with joy. Pagan people crowned their statues with roses, as symbols of the offering of their own hearts. The faithful of the early Church substituted prayers for roses. In the days of the early martyrs—I say “early” because the Church has more martyrs today that it had in the first four centuries—as the young virgins marched over the sands of the Coliseum into the jaws of death, they clothed themselves in festive robes and wore on their heads a crown of roses, bedecked fittingly to meet the King of Kings in whose name they would die. The faithful at night would gather up their crowns of roses and say their prayers on them, one prayer for each rose. Far away in the desert of Egypt, the anchorites and hermits were counting their prayers too, but in the form of little grains or pebbles strung together into a crown—a practice which Mohammed took for his Moslems. From this custom of offering spiritual bouquets arose a series of prayers known as the Rosary, for Rosary means “a crown of roses.”
From its first days the Church asked its faithful to recite the one hundred and fifty Psalms of David. This custom still prevails among the priests, for we are obligated to recite some of these Psalms every day in what is called the Breviary. But it was not easy for anyone to memorize the one hundred and fifty Psalms. Then too, before the invention of printing, it was difficult to procure a book. That was why certain important books like the Bible had to be chained like telephone books—otherwise people would run off with them. Incidentally, this gave rise to the stupid lie that the Church would not allow anyone to read the Bible because it was chained. The fact is, it was chained so people could read it. The telephone book is chained too, but it is more consulted than any book in modern civilization.
The people who could not learn the one hundred and fifty Psalms wanted to do something to make up for it. So they substituted one hundred and fifty “Hail Mary’s.” They broke up these one hundred and fifty into fifteen decades, or series often. Each decade was to be said while meditating on the different aspects of the Life of Our Lord. To keep each decade separate, each one began with the “Our Father” and ended with the Doxology of Praise to the Trinity.
St. Dominic who died in 1221 received from the Blessed Mother the command to preach and to popularize this devotion for the good of souls, conquest over evil and the prosperity of Holy Mother Church, and thus gave us the Rosary in its present classical form.
It is objected that there is much repetition in the Rosary because the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary are said so often; therefore it is monotonous. That reminds me of a woman who came to see me one evening after instructions. She said: “I would never become a Catholic. You say the same words in the Rosary over and over again, and anyone who repeats the same words is never sincere. I would never believe such a person and neither would God.” I asked her who the man was who was with her. She said it was her fiancé. I asked “Does he love you?” “Certainly he does.” “But how do you know?” “He told me.” “What did he say?” “He said: ‘I love you'” “When did he tell you last?” “About an hour ago.” “Did he tell you before?” “Yes, last night.” “What did he say?” “I love you.” “But never before?” “He tells me every night.” I said: “Do not believe him. He is repeating. He is not sincere.” The beautiful truth is there is no repetition in “I love you.” Because there is a new moment of time, another point in space, the words do not mean the same as before. Love is never monotonous in the uniformity of its expression. The mind is infinitely variable in its language, but the heart is not.
The heart of man in the face of the woman he loves is too poor to translate the infinity of his affection into different words. So the heart takes but one expression “I love you” and saying it over and over again, it never repeats. It is the only real news in the universe. That is what we do when we say the Rosary. We are saying to the Holy Trinity, to the Incarnate Savior, to the Blessed Mother, “I love you,” “I love you,” “I love you.”
The beauty of the Rosary is that it is not just a vocal prayer. It is also a mental prayer. You have sometimes heard a dramatic presentation in which, while the human voice was speaking, there was a background of beautiful music giving force and dignity to the words.
The Rosary is like that. While the prayer is being said, the heart is not hearing music but meditating on the Life of Christ, but applied to our own life and our own needs. As the wire holds the beads together, so meditation holds the prayers together. We often speak to people while our minds are thinking about something else. But in the Rosary we do not only say prayers; we think. Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Golgotha, Calvary, Mount Olivet and Heaven—all these move before our mind’s eye as our lips pray. The Rosary invited our fingers, our lips and our heart in one vast symphony of prayer, and for that reason is the greatest prayer ever composed by man. May I briefly single out how it can help the worried, the sick and the world?
The Worried. Worry is a want of harmony between the mind and the body. Worried people invariably keep their minds too busy and their hands too idle. But in mental distress, the thousand and one thoughts find no order within and no escape without. Concentration is impossible when the mind is troubled; thoughts run helter-skelter; a thousand and one images flood across the mind; distracted and wayward, the spiritual seems along way off.
The Rosary is the best therapy for these distraught, unhappy, fearful and frustrated souls precisely because it involves the simultaneous use of three powers; the physical, the vocal and the spiritual—in that order. The fingers touching the beads are reminded that these little counters are to be used for prayer. This is the physical suggestion of prayer. The lips moving in unison with the fingers is the vocal suggestion of prayer. The Church is a wise psychologist, insisting that the lips move while saying the Rosary, because She knows that the external rhythm of the body can create a rhythm of the soul. If the fingers and lips keep at it, the spiritual will soon follow and the prayer will eventually end in the heart.
The beads help the mind to concentrate. They are almost like the self-starter of a motor; after a few spurts, the soul soon gets going. The very rhythm and sweet monotony induce a physical peace and quiet and creates affective fixation on God. The physical and the mental work together if we give them a chance. Stronger minds can work from the mind outwards, but worried minds have to work from the outside inwards. With the spiritually trained, the soul leads the body; with most people, the body has to lead the soul. Little by little, the worried, as they say the Rosary, see that all their worries stemmed from their egotism. No normal mind yet has ever been overcome by worries or fears who was faithful to the Rosary. You will be surprised how you can climb out of your worries, bead by bead, up to the very throne of the Heart of Love Itself.
The Rosary is also a particularly good prayer for the sick. When fever mounts and the body aches, the mind cannot read; it hardly wants to be spoken to, but there is so much in its heart it yearns to tell. When a person is healthy, his eyes for the most part are looking to the earth; when he is flat on his back, his eyes look up to heaven. Perhaps it is truer to say that heaven looks down. In such moments when fever, agony and pain make it hard to pray, the suggestion of prayer that comes from holding the rosary is tremendous, or better still, caressing the Crucifix at the end of it. Because prayers are known by heart, the heart can now pour them out; the words becoming a focus or spearhead of a meditation, thus fulfilling the Scriptural injunction to “pray always.” The favorite mysteries then are generally the sorrowful ones, for by meditating on the suffering of Our Lord on the Cross, the sick are inspired to unite their pains with Him, that sharing in His Cross they might also share in His Resurrection.
The world is in universal distress. First, men have failed—never were there so many little men in high places; secondly, political institutions have collapsed—for none of them recognize a source of law outside themselves. But there is still God. Peace will come, only when the hearts of the world have changed. To do this we must pray and not for ourselves, but for the world. The world means everyone: Russians, our enemies and our next-door neighbors.
It all comes down to this: the world will change when we change. But we cannot change without prayer, and the power of the Rosary as a prayer is beyond description. Here I am reciting concrete instances of its spiritual effects which I know. Young people in danger of death through accident had miraculous recoveries; a mother, despaired of in childbirth was saved with her child; alcoholics became temperate; dissolute lives became spiritualized; fallen aways returned to the faith; the childless were blessed with a family; soldiers preserved during battle; mental anxieties overcome and pagans converted. I know of a Jew who in the First World War was in a shell hole on the Western Front with four Austrian soldiers. Shells had been bursting on all sides. Suddenly, one bomb killed his four companions. He took a Rosary from the hands of one of them and began saying it. He knew it by heart for he had heard them say it so often. At the end of the first decade, he felt an inner warning to leave that shell hole. He crawled through mud and muck and threw himself into another hole. At that moment a shell hit the first hole where he had been hiding. At the end of each of the other four decades, four more warnings, four times he changed his shell hole, four more explosions in the shell hole he left, and his life was saved. He promised to give his life to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. After the war more sufferings; his family was burned by Hitler, but his promise lingered. Last year I baptized him and he is now preparing to study for the priesthood.
Learn to sanctify all the idle moments of life. It can be done thanks to the Rosary. As you walk the streets, pray with the Rosary hidden in your hand or your pocket; when driving an automobile those little knobs under most steering wheels can serve as counters for decades.
While waiting to be served at a lunch room, or waiting for a train, or in a store; or while playing dummy at bridge; or when conversation or a lecture lags—or even a broadcast. All these moments can be sanctified and made to serve your inner peace. If you wish to convert anyone to the fullness of the knowledge of Our Lord and His Mystical Body, teach him the Rosary. One of two things will happen. Either he will stop saying the Rosary, or he will get the gift of faith.
The above edited address by the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen was delivered on February 11, 1951 to a national radio audience. His cause for canonization is presently underway.