The Rosary - The Greatest Marian Prayer

Updated: May 30, 2020

“The Rosary is my favorite prayer, a marvelous prayer. Marvelous in its simplicity and depth. It can be said that the Rosary is, in a certain way, a prayer-commentary on the last chapter of the constitution, Lumen Gentium, of Vatican II, a chapter which deals with the wonderful presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of Christ and the Church. Against the background of the words, Ave Maria (Hail Mary), there passes before the eyes of the soul the main episodes of the life of Jesus Christ, and they put us in living communication with Jesus through, we could say, His mother’s heart. At the same time, our heart can enclose in these decades of the Rosary all the facets that make up the life of the individual, the family, the nation, the Church and all mankind, particularly of those who are dear to us. Thus the simple prayer of the Rosary beats the rhythm of human life.” (1)

Thus spoke the great Marian pontiff, Pope John Paul II, about his favorite prayer, the Rosary. He described the tremendous value of the Rosary for the Christian life in this address delivered within the first weeks of his pontificate. (2) The Rosary does in fact “put us in living communication with Jesus… through his mother’s heart” and “beats the rhythm of human life.”

As Pope Leo XIII said in one of his eleven encyclicals written exclusively on the Rosary: “Among the various methods and forms of prayer which are devoutly and profitably used in the Catholic Church, that which is called the Rosary is for many reasons to be especially recommended. (3) The pre-eminence of the Rosary (after liturgical prayer) is also confirmed by Pope Pius XII: “the Rosary, as all know, has pride of place.” (4)

The Rosary, the greatest Marian prayer, has been championed by the Church as the most highly recommended prayer form, second only to the liturgical prayer of the Church which centers around the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In his 2002 Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, John Paul II makes clear that while the Church’s Liturgy retains a primacy of place, the Rosary is in no way contrary to the Mass, but actually serves to “sustain it”:

There are some who think that the centrality of the Liturgy, rightly stressed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, necessarily entails giving lesser importance to the Rosary. Yet, as Pope Paul VI made clear, not only does this prayer not conflict with the Liturgy, it sustains it, since it serves as an excellent introduction and a faithful echo of the Liturgy, enabling people to participate fully and interiorly in it and to reap its fruits in their daily lives. (5)

What Is the Rosary?

The Rosary is a beautiful combination of vocal prayer and meditation that centers upon the greatest Gospel mysteries in the life of Jesus Christ and secondarily in the life of the Lord’s Mother. It is an “incarnational” prayer, a prayer consisting of both vocal and mental prayer that serves to incorporate both body and soul into spiritual communion with Our Lord and Our Mother.

The basic structure of the complete Rosary consists in the praying of twenty sets of ten Hail Marys, referred to as decades, with an Our Father prayed at the beginning of each decade and a “Glory Be” at the end of each decade. During the praying of each decade of ten Hail Marys, one of the central Gospel mysteries of Jesus Christ is meditated upon. This prayerful pondering of the life of Jesus imitates the spiritual practice of Mary herself who, Scripture tells us, interiorly made her own the sacred events in the life of her Son: “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). What possibly passed unnoticed by others, did not escape the attention of the Mother of Jesus in regards to salvation history. Mary continually pondered the salvific events and mysteries of her Son in her Immaculate Heart.

Technically, the term “Rosary” refers now to the full twenty decades (with the recent inclusion of the “Luminous” mysteries by John Paul II), (6) with a Gospel mystery associated with each decade. The twenty mysteries are categorized into four sets of five mysteries, known as the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. In these four sets of mysteries, we prayerfully meditate upon the great general mysteries of our salvation as accomplished by Our Lord Jesus Christ: the Incarnation, the Public Ministry of Jesus, the Redemption, and Eternal Life.

Commonly in the English language, the term “Rosary” refers to a fourth of the full Rosary, consisting of five decades or one set of mysteries, whereas expressions such as the “complete Rosary” or “full Rosary” signify the entire twenty decades. This is not always the case in other cultures and languages. For example, in French the term “rosaire” usually designates the complete Rosary and a different word, “chapelet,” is used to signify one-fourth of the Rosary.

The Joyful Mysteries, which center upon the event of the Incarnation of Jesus, consist of: the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary (Lk l:26ff), the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39ff), the Birth of Jesus (Lk 2:7, Mt 1:25), the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:22ff), and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:42ff).

The new Luminous Mysteries, which center on the key events of Christ’s public ministry: his Baptism in the Jordan (Mt 3:13), his first public miracle at the Wedding in Cana (Jn 2:1), the Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Mt 4:17), the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor (Lk 9:28), and the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Lk 22:19).

The Sorrowful Mysteries, which focus on the Redemption of Jesus by his Passion and Death, consist of: the Agony of Jesus in the Garden (Mt 26:36), the Scourging of Jesus at the Pillar (Jn 19:1), the Crowning of Jesus with Thorns (Mt 27:29), Jesus’ Carrying of the Cross (Jn 19:17), and the Crucifixion of Jesus (Jn 19:18).

The Glorious Mysteries, which center upon the mystery of Eternal Life through the redemptive victory of Jesus, consist of: the Resurrection of Jesus (Lk 24:6), the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven (Mk 16:19), the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:2ff), the Assumption of Mary into Heaven (cf. Ps 131:8; Gen 3:15; Lk 1:28) and the Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven (cf. Rev 12:1).

We see then that the Rosary constitutes a form of prayer-creed of the central mysteries of salvation history. As one theologian explains:

The Rosary is a Credo (creed): not an abstract one, but one concretized in the life of Jesus who came down to us from the Father and Who ascended to bring us back with Himself to the Father. It is the whole of Christian dogma in all its splendor and elevation, brought to us that we may fill our minds with it, that we may relish it and nourish our souls with it. (7)

The Rosary, then, comprises a beautiful blend of vocal and meditative prayer that leads the person into the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious events of the life of Jesus our Redeemer.

Brief History of the Rosary

Traditionally, and in several papal documents, the origin of the Rosary has been traced back to the person of St. Dominic Guzman (d.1221), founder of the Dominican Order. St. Dominic had been sent to southern France to preach against the Albigensian heresy which was spiritually ravaging the region. The Albigensian heresy (being a later development of Manichaeism), denied the infinite goodness of the one God and held that all matter was evil. Albigensianism attacked both Christian morality and Christian doctrine as well. This heretical sect followed Manichean dualism in seeking to solve the problem of evil. They believed in the co-existence of two ultimate principles, a good God who created spirit and light, and a bad deity who created matter and darkness. They therefore condemned marriage and procreation as demonic. (8) Since matter was mistakenly conceived as evil (and a deity unto itself), the Albigensians held that God the Son could not truly have taken on a material human nature to redeem humanity.

It was, therefore, as a spiritual instrument to battle the moral and dogmatic errors of Albigensianism (as well as an instrument against future errors and difficulties) that St. Dominic received, under the inspiration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a unique combination of preaching and prayer that would constitute the basis of the prayer form later known as the Rosary. One account of how St. Dominic received from the Blessed Virgin the root form of the Rosary was explained by the renowned Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange:

Our Blessed Lady made known to St. Dominic a kind of preaching till then unknown, which she said would be one of the most powerful weapons against future errors and in future difficulties. Under her inspiration, St. Dominic went into the villages of the (Albigensians), gathered the people, and preached to them the mysteries of salvation—the Incarnation, the Redemption, Eternal Life. As Mary had taught him to do, he distinguished the different kinds of mysteries, and after each short instruction, he had ten Hail Marys recited—somewhat as might happen even today at a Holy Hour. And what the word of the preacher was unable to do, the sweet prayer of the Hail Mary did for hearts. As Mary promised, it proved to be a most fruitful form of preaching. (9)

Although there are several diverse theories as to precisely what St. Dominic contributed to the origins of the Rosary, the basic concept of uniting the praying of Hail Marys with preaching and meditation on the Gospel mysteries of Jesus Christ can most likely be attributed to the founder of the Dominican Order through the specific inspiration of the Blessed Virgin, a supernatural Marian origin to which, once again, several papal documents refer. (10)

Although the Rosary devotion is rightfully associated with St. Dominic, solid contemporary scholarship maintains that the foundational components of the Rosary date back to the Apostolic Church. The celebration of a fundamental cycle of Marian mysteries was already evident in the early first century Church in Palestine, and especially in Jerusalem. (11) The cycles, evidently prefiguring what were to become known as the Sorrowful, Joyful and Glorious mysteries, were associated with three great liturgies: that of the sacred triduum of Holy Week or Paschal Triduum, that of Epiphany or Christmas, and that of the Ascension-Pentecost.

These three cycles reflected Our Lady as 1) Mother of Mercy (in Greek Eleusa), or what the Latins termed the Mater Dolorosa, or Mother of Sorrows; 2) Guide to Christ (in Greek Hodighitria) or in Latin Mater Dei, Mother of God; and 3) Advocate (in Greek Paraclitos) or in Latin Mater Orans, the Mother Praying. These celebrations were localized in three “luminous” grottoes (where the lucinaria or vigils were celebrated): that of Golgotha, of Bethlehem and of Mt. Olivet, over which Constantine erected the three great Basilicas of Jerusalem. These three cycles in the celebration of the mystery of Mary left an impression on all Marian devotion, liturgical and para-liturgical, throughout the Church since that time. (12) They also set the foundation for what St. Dominic then received as a supernatural inspiration by Our Lady which constitutes the heart of the Rosary.

A further element of the development of the Rosary is the Marian Psalter. In the Marian Psalter one hundred and fifty Hail Marys were recited by the laity to model the one hundred and fifty psalms prayed by monks in the Psalter, or “Divine Office.” The use of beads was incorporated for the counting of the prayers in an effort to incorporate the laity (the vast majority of whom were illiterate), into praying the liturgical prayer of the clergy and religious. This Our Father and Hail Mary-based prayer form became known as “Our Lady’s Psalter,” or the “Marian Psalter.”

After this initial inspiration of the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin to St. Dominic, the structure of the Rosary went through a period of gradual development from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, where the specific Rosary mysteries used by the faithful appear to have gone through a process of historical development. At given times in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, up to one hundred and fifty mysteries were meditated upon during the reciting of one hundred and fifty Hail Marys (in some cases having one specific mystery for each Hail Mary). Gradually, the number of mysteries was reduced from as many as one hundred and fifty down to fifteen. The first clear historical example of what is basically the Rosary form used today is found in the mid-fifteenth century writings of Alan of Rupe, O.P., also known as Alan de la Roche, (d.1475). (13) Alan of Rupe was a great Dominican propagator of the Rosary devotion and a significant historical force in restoring the practice of the Rosary to the faithful. (14)

In the 1569 Apostolic Constitution, Consueverunt Romani Pontifices, Pope St. Pius V, a Dominican pope, officially approved what is the basic Rosary prayer form of today. By the time of the 1569 official papal approval, the second part of the Hail Mary, an ecclesial prayer added during this same general historical period from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, was also present.

Two years later, before the historic Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Muslim Turkish naval fleet threatened the Western Christian empire and Western civilization, Pope St. Pius V called upon the Christian world to pray the Rosary to aid the smaller Christian naval fleet against the massive Muslim fleet. The miraculous victory of the Christian fleet was directly attributed by St. Pius V to “Our Lady of Victory” and the powerful effects of praying the Rosary.

The only substantial change to the Rosary’s fundamental structure since the sixteenth century occurred in 2002, when Pope John Paul II introduced the new set of Luminous Mysteries to the existing Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries, (15) which positively adds the key event of Our Lord’s public ministry to the Rosary’s Gospel Meditations. The addition of the Luminous Mysteries fills in the historical gap in the life of Jesus from his childhood finding in the Temple (last Joyful Mystery) to the initiation of his Passion with the Agony in the Garden (first Sorrowful Mystery). As Pope John Paul explains:

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary 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. In the course of those mysteries we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5).

Consequently, for the Rosary to become more fully a “compendium of the Gospel,” it is fitting to add, following reflection on the Incarnation and the hidden life of Christ (the joyful mysteries) and before focusing on the sufferings of his Passion (the sorrowful mysteries) and the triumph of his Resurrection (the glorious mysteries), a meditation on certain particularly significant moments in his public ministry (the mysteries of light). (16)

What is essential to the structure of the Rosary, as discussed by Pius V in granting the indulgence for the praying of the Rosary, (17) is the praying of the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys with vocal prayer (at least the word formation by the lips) while meditating on the Gospel mysteries. Over time and in diverse cultures, several prayers have been added to the Rosary by the faithful. In several countries (including France, parts of Germany and the United States), the Rosary begins with the Sign of the Cross, the Apostles’ Creed, an Our Father, three Hail Marys (oftentimes prayed for an increase in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity), and a Glory Be. This is not always the universal practice, however. In several Spanish-speaking countries, the Rosary ends with these same prayers.

The praying of the Glory Be to the Holy Trinity at the end of each decade may have been an effort to imitate the praying of the psalms of the Divine Office, which end with this same prayer of Trinitarian praise.

At the end of each decade various additional prayers have also been recited by the faithful. Presently, the most universal prayer added to the end of each decade is the one requested by the Virgin Mary during her 1917 apparitions at Fatima, Portugal.

During her third apparition of July 13, 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared under the title of “Our Lady of the Rosary” and asked that the following basic prayer be said at the end of each decade: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who are most in need of thy mercy.” Many of the faithful from around the world permanently incorporated this prayer request from Our Lady of Fatima at the end of each Rosary decade.

The Salve Regina or “Hail, Holy Queen,” a majestic prayer to Mary as our Advocate, Queen, and Mother of Mercy, has been attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) or to one his contemporaries. The Hail Holy Queen is normally prayed at the end of five decades of the Rosary.

We see then that the Rosary is the fruit of a peaceful combination of both heavenly inspiration and historical human development as prayed and practiced by the living Church.

Essential Qualities of the Rosary

The Rosary Is Scriptural

The Rosary is by nature a scriptural prayer. Pope Paul VI refers to the Rosary as “the compendium of the entire Gospel.” (18)

The twenty mysteries of the Rosary comprise the best possible summary of the Gospel events of the Lord. They start at the beginning of the New Testament salvation history with the Annunciation (Lk 1:26) and recall each central Gospel mystery of Our Lords’ infancy, public ministry, passion, and redemptive victory, ending with its glorious effects for the Mother of Christ, that of her Coronation in Heaven (Rev 12:1). The mysteries of the Rosary provide a sublime but succinct summary of the greatest Gospel mysteries contained in the New Testament.

Beyond the scriptural nature of the Rosary mysteries, the specific prayers of the Rosary are also essentially scriptural. The Our Father is the celestial prayer revealed by Jesus Christ in answer to the request of the disciples to “teach us how to pray” (Lk 11:1ff; Mt 6:7ff). The Our Father is the perfect prayer of praise and petition revealed by God the Son made man.

The Hail Mary, for centuries called the “Angelic Salutation,” is also fundamentally a scriptural prayer. The first part of the Hail Mary is a joining together of two scriptural greetings to the Blessed Virgin: one to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28); and the second by her cousin Elizabeth, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). With the additions of the names of Jesus and Mary, these two scriptural greetings to Mary comprised the essence of the Hail Mary for at least the first twelve centuries.

During the Middle Ages, (19) the Church added the second part of the Hail Mary, the ecclesial prayer to the Mother of God beseeching her intercession for “us sinners,” “now,” and “at the hour of our death.” The second portion of the Hail Mary reflects the humble prayer of sinners for the heavenly aid of the Mother of God in a manner resembling the ancient Sub Tuum prayer. Both Marian prayers reflect Mary’s Divine Motherhood and her extraordinary intercessory power, which are also scripturally based (cf. Gen 3:15; Lk 1:28; Jn 2:1; Jn 19:26).

By means of both its Gospel mysteries and its scripturally based prayers, the Rosary is properly understood as an authentic “compendium of the Gospel.” John Paul II confirms the scriptural centrality of the Rosary i