The History of the Rosary

RosaryThe prayers of the Rosary are vocal and mental. The vocal prayer centers on several repeated prayers and other prayers/declarations recited only once. The mental prayer focuses upon the meditation of the chief mysteries of the life, death, and glory of Jesus Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary, and the mystery of our redemption.

The story of the Rosary is as old as the Church. The complete rosary consists of twenty mysteries: five "Joyful Mysteries," five "Luminous Mysteries," five "Sorrowful Mysteries," and five "Glorious Mysteries." With each "Hail Mary" prayer, it is a belief that the one praying offers up a "rose" of prayer to Mary in her role as the Blessed Mother of the children of God (Revelation 12:13-17) and for her son, our Savior Jesus. This form of prayer, therefore, came to be known as a rosarium, a rose garden of prayer. There are many different ways to pray the Rosary, but most often six prayers are offered: "The Apostle's Creed," "The Lord's Prayer," the "Hail Mary," the "Glory Be," "The Prayer of Fatima," and the "Hail Holy Queen." Sometimes a seven prayer is added with "The Prayer of St. Michael the Archangel.

The Apostles' Creed (Symbolum Aposticum)

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was Crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty, from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

The Apostles' Creed is the oldest Christian profession of faith and dates to the 1st century AD. According to tradition, the Church received the prayer of the "Apostle's Creed" from the Apostles themselves, probably at the Council of Jerusalem in 49/50 AD or shortly after. Since the Apostles were by birth a product of the Old Covenant Church, it was natural for them to want a new summary statement of personal belief. They would have wanted a prayer similar to the Old Covenant Shema which begins: "Hear, O Israel: YHWH is our God; YHWH is One," or the cultic credo associated with the renewal of the covenant with the generation of the conquest of Canaan found in Joshua 24:2-13. The traditional word to describe such a summary statement of this kind is symbolum in Latin (in the Greek symblon). Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410) commentary on the Apostles' Creed is the earliest surviving such work. He wrote that early Christians referred to the Apostles' Creed as a symbolum because it is like the passwords (symbola distincta) that military commanders gave to their troops to identify themselves to each other and distinguish them from the enemy. Therefore, he wrote, the Apostles' Creed was thought of as a symbol of faith whereby Christians safely identified themselves to one another. It is for this reason that, even today in the Latin Church, the Apostles' Creed is called the Symbolum Apostolicum.

The Apostles' Creed is still considered a summary statement of the Apostles' faith, as taught to them by Jesus and as they shared with others in their experience in continuing the mission of the Messiah. It is a declaration of what we profess to believe as New Covenant Christians and is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome. St. Ambrose described the Apostles Creed as "the Creed of the Roman Church, the See of Peter, the first of the Apostles, to which he brought the common faith" (St. Ambrose, Explanatio Symboli 7).

The Lord's Prayer (Pater Noster)

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

The story of the Rosary and the prayers associated with meditating on the life of Christ through the Rosary is as old as the Church. "The Lord's Prayer," which forms a frame work for the Rosary, was composed by our Lord Himself in the seven petitions He taught His disciples when they asked for an example of how they should offer communal prayer (Matthew 6:7-13). The early Christians took seriously His command when Jesus said, "In this manner, therefore, you shall pray" (Matthew 6:9). Many early Christians, especially those who lived in monastic communities, prayed "The Lord's Prayer" with the 150 Psalms and kept track of their prayers with 150 pebbles. By the 4th century AD, there is evidence that the common people began to take up this practice. However, since most of them either could neither read nor afford a handwritten copy of the Psalms, they repeated by memory the "Our Father ..." (the Lord's Prayer) 150 times.

The Hail Mary Prayer (Ave Maria)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The addition of the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28), seems to have begun in the Church at Ephesus where St. John, the Beloved Apostle served for many years as that community's bishop. According to tradition, Mary lived for many years at Ephesus, in modern day Turkey, under the care of the Apostle St. John, in obedience to Jesus' command to both Mary and St. John as they stood at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25-27). It was natural for those praying the angelic greeting to add Mary's name, and so they prayed: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!"

The angel's greeting identifies the Virgin Mary as "full" of the grace of God. The grace with that fills Mary is the presence of Him who is the source of all grace. God fills and dwells Mary in the same way His Presence filled the Tabernacle and dwelled above the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, Israel's most sacred shrine (Ex 24:22; 40:34). Mary is the symbol of the "daughter of Zion" the prophet Zephaniah spoke of when he wrote: "Rejoice... O Daughter of Jerusalem ... the Lord your God is in your midst" (Zeph 3:14, 17a). Her womb became the Ark of the New Covenant, the place where God dwells among His people "the "dwelling place of God ... with men (Rev 21:3). Soon the first line of St. Elizabeth's greeting to Mary, when she visited Elizabeth who was pregnant with St. John the Baptist, was added to the prayer: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus" (Luke 1:42). It was a greeting in which St. Elizabeth acknowledged Mary as "the mother of my Lord", meaning the mother of God, in the second line of the greeting (Luke 1:43).

The community at Ephesus had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. It was at Ephesus that the universal Church, at the Council of Ephesus in 431, declared that the Virgin Mary rightly deserved the title St. Elizabeth gave her: "Mother of my Lord," identifying Mary as "Mother of God." The Council of Ephesus proclaimed that Mary, as the mother of the man/God Jesus, was indeed the "Mother of God" and not just the mother of the human Jesus. After the announcement of the council's decision, the people of Ephesus took to the streets, shouting the proclamation by making a spontaneous petition to the Virgin Mother: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!" The final portion of the petition of the "Hail Mary" was not added until the terrible years of the 14th century as the plague known as "the Black Death" ravaged Europe. It was then that the common people of the Church cried out to the Blessed Mother in fear and hope, changing the petition to "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

By the 8th century AD, monks replaced the pebbles they used to count their prayers with knotted cords, and by the 11th century, the current form of the "Hail Mary" prayed 150 times and divided into three sets of fifteen decades replaced the 150 Psalms. In 1040, a noble English lady named Godiva (yes, the same Godiva who, according to legend, rode naked on a horse to shame her husband) wrote in her will that a beautiful rosary made of precious stones divided into fifteen decades with each decade divided by larger precious stones was to be left to the Abby she founded. It was her request that her rosary be worn by the statue of the Blessed Virgin that she gave the Abby. This is the earliest surviving description of the Rosary in its present form.

The repetition of the "Hail Mary" throughout the Rosary cycle of prayer is not mindless changing. The purpose of the repetition of the ten "Hail Mary" prayers as one contemplates each mystery is to help the mind focus on the meaning of the mystery. The repetition also acts as a block to worldly thoughts that may attempt to disrupt the experience. The goal is to leave behind our ties to the present and to enter into an experience of Jesus and His mother that becomes a present reality in our life's journey with Christ to eternal salvation.

The Glory Be (Gloria Patri)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

The fourth prayer, the "Glory Be," is a prayer of joy and praise. The earliest surviving examples of this doxology (prayer of praise) in Christian writings date from the 600's AD. The "Glory Be" was probably an early adaptation of the Jewish blessings addressed to God, like those found in the New Testament in Romans 16:27, Philippians 4:20, and Revelation 5:23. This prayer was added after the repetition of a decade of "Hail Mary" prayers during which one meditated on the mission of the Son of God through Mary's experiences as a participant in God's plan of salvation.

Hail Holy Queen (Salve Regina)

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us. And after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

The fifth prayer, "Hail Holy Queen," is a prayer of love to our mother Mary, composed in the 11th century probably by a poor disfigured monk named Hermannus Contractus (d. 1054). It was a plea of such heartfelt trust in the motherly love of Mary that it was soon added to the prayers of the Rosary by the common people and the clergy. The prayer acknowledges Mary as the rightful Davidic queen, the Gebira, honored as the Queen of her son's kingdom and the Advocate of His faithful subjects (1 Kings 2:13-18). Jesus is the fulfillment of God's covenant with David that his throne would endure forever (2 Samuel 7:16; Luke 1:32-33). Since a Davidic king of Israel had many wives, the Queen of his kingdom was his mother who sat on a throne to his right (1 Kings 2:19). The Church grants a partial indulgence for every recitation of this prayer.

In the next several centuries, both St. Dominic (1215) and the Blessed Alan de la Roche (1460) received instruction from the Virgin Mary in the use of the Rosary. She instructed them to encourage recitation of the prayers of the Rosary with meditations on the life of Christ. She promised special spiritual gifts from a devotion to the Rosary, telling St. Dominic that the regular practice of the Rosary "will cause virtue and good works to flourish" and that the Rosary would obtain for souls "the abundant mercy of God." Among other promises, she said that "the rosary shall be a powerful armor against Hell; it will destroy vice, decrease sin and defeat heresies." In 1567, the Church formally established the Rosary as a form of public and private devotion of the Universal (Catholic) Church.

The Prayer of Fatima

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those who have most need of your mercy.

The Virgin Mary herself added the sixth prayer "The Prayer of Fatima." It is the prayer she taught three children at Fatima in the mountain region of central Portugal during six apparitions from May 13th to October 13th, 1917. At each of the visitations, she introduced herself as the "Lady of the Rosary." She told the young visionaries to believe in her Immaculate Conception, to tell the faithful to do penance, and to pray the Rosary because otherwise the world would be chastised for its si

In 2002, Pope John Paul II added five Luminous Mysteries to the meditation on the life of Christ through Mary's experience of the divine Messiah. He wrote in Rosarium Virgunis Mariae that the recitation of the Rosary with contemplation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ is genuine "training in holiness" for Christians. The addition of the Luminous Mysteries to the Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful Mysteries completes the meditation of the Christ event from His birth, to His ministry, to His self-sacrificial death, to His Resurrection, to His glorious Ascension, and finally, the welcoming of His mother into the heavenly kingdom that is a promise of our own hoped for bodily resurrection. Pope John Paul II recommended the Virgin Mary as a model of contemplation and invited the faithful to embrace Jesus' words from the Cross as words spoken to each of us as the "beloved disciple"—to "Behold your Mother!"

The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary

On October the 7th the Church celebrates the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. Pope St. Pius V established this feast following the victory of the Christian navy over a Turkish Moslem fleet. The Christian navy, composed of ships from Spain, Venice, and Genoa, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, engaged the Muslim Turkish fleet of at least 15,000 ships at the Battle of Lepanto, on October 7, 1571. Knowing that the Muslims greatly outnumbered the Christian navy, St. Pope Pius V called for all of Europe to pray the Rosary for Blessed Virgin's intersession in granting victory. The Christian commanders all prayed for the Blessed Virgin's intercession as they prepared for the battle. Commander Don Juan's battle flag was an image of Christ crucified flown from the mast of his ship, and Admiral Andrea Doria carried a copy of Mexico's image of Our Lady of Guadalupe into battle. Only forty years earlier, the Blessed Virgin appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego, promising her intercession for the people of Mexico and the defeat of the old pagan gods. Now the Christian nations of Europe pleaded for her intercession in defeating a Moslem invasion that threatened all Christendom.

The battle took place while in Rome the Confraternity of the Rosary walked in a solemn procession, and the faithful prayed to the Virgin Mary to intercede for victory over the Turkish aggressors. When the smaller Christian navy was victorious, Pope Pius V attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, calling her "Mary, succor of Christians." The decisive defeat of the Turkish navy prevented the intended Islamic invasion of Europe and the destruction of Christianity. For many years, the Church celebrated the feast with the name "Our Lady of the Victory." Later, the Church renamed the feast "Our Lady of the Rosary. " In 1716, Pope Clement XI, who canonized Pope Pius V in 1712, extended the celebration throughout the Universal Church.

Praying the Rosary as a Spiritual Exercise

Meditating on the mission of Jesus through the Rosary is a spiritual exercise. It should engage our thoughts, our imagination, our emotions, and our desire to develop a deeper personal relationship with the Savior as we are guided by the Holy Spirit in our contemplation. The Rosary permits us to share in the mysteries of the Lord's life as seen through the eyes of His Blessed Mother, the one human being who knew Him best. By contemplating the mysteries, we can submit ourselves to imitating those virtues they contain, thereby seeking to find a more intimate connection to our Savior and His mission on behalf of a fallen humanity. The beauty and spirituality of the Rosary lies in meditating on the mystery of our redemption over and over. We ponder these mysteries as precious treasures in our hearts, just as Mary did when these events were unfolding in her life (Luke 2:19).

Instructions for praying the Rosary:

  1. Begin by making the Sign of the Cross.
  2. Pray the Apostles' Creed on the Rosary's crucifix.
  3. Pray the Lord's Prayer on the first bead.
  4. Pray 3 Hail Mary Prayers on the next 3 beads.
  5. Pray 1 Glory Be Prayer on the cord after the last bead.
  6. Choose a set of Mysteries (Joyful, Glorious, etc.) and announce the first mystery; then say the Lord's Prayer on the last bead before the medal.
  7. Contemplate the first mystery as you say 10 "Hail Mary" prayers, one on each bead of the decade. At the end of each decade of "Hail Mary" prayers, pray the "Glory Be" followed by "Prayer of Fatima." Then begin again by announcing the second mystery in the set and by saying the "Lord's Prayer" on the next large bead that separates the decade of beads. Next, contemplate the mystery with another decade of "Hail Mary" prayers.
I. Praying the Rosary with the Bible and the Catechism:
The 5 Joyful Mysteries
Mystery Scripture Catechism reference
1. The Annunciation Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-28, 30-36;
Is 7:14; Ez 34:23-24; Zec 9:9-10;
Zeph 3:14, 17
CCC 430
2. The Visitation Lk 1:39-45; Mt 12:31;
Ps 138:1-2
CCC 717
3. The Nativity Lk 2:8-21;
Mic 5:1/2-3/4
CCC 563
4. The Presentation Lk 2:22-38; Ex 13:2; 13:11;
Lev 5:7; 12:2-4, 8; Mt 2:1-23
CCC 529
5. Finding Jesus in the Temple Lk 2:43-50 CCC 534
II. Praying the Rosary with the Bible and the Catechism:
The 5 Luminous Mysteries
Mystery Scripture Catechism reference
1. Jesus' Baptism by St. John Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22;
Jn 1:29-34;
Is 11:2; 42:1; Ps 2:7
CCC 536
2. The Miracle at Cana Jn 2:1-11 CCC 1335
3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom Mt 5:3; 10:6-7; Mk 1:14-15; Lk 4:14-21 CCC 545
4. The Transfiguration Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36;
2 Pt 1:16-18
CCC 556
5. The Last Supper (Institution of the Eucharist) Mt 26:26-29; Mk 14:22-25; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-28 CCC 1337
III. Praying the Rosary with the Bible and the Catechism:
The 5 Sorrowful Mysteries
Mystery Scripture Catechism reference
1. The Agony in the Garden Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42; Lk 22:40-46;
Jn 18:1-11
CCC 612
2. The Scourging Mt 27:11-26; Mk 15:2-15; Lk 23:2-25;
Jn 18:28-19:1, 4-16
CCC 572
3. Jesus is Crowned with Thorns Mt 27:27-30; Mk 15:16-20;
Jn 19:2-6, 15-16
CCC 602
4. Carrying the Cross to Golgotha Mt 27:31-34; Mk 15:21-22;
Lk 23:26-32, 38; Jn 19:17
CCC 853
5. The Crucifixion Mt 27:35-54; Mk 15:23-32;
Lk 23:33-34; Jn 19:18-27;
Ps 22
CCC 623
IV. Praying the Rosary with the Bible and the Catechism:
The 5 Glorious Mysteries
Mystery Scripture Catechism reference
1. The Resurrection Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-7; Lk 24:1-8;
Jn 20:1-10, 19-23; 1 Cor 15:54-57
Ps 16:10;
CCC 657
2. The Ascension Acts 1:6-11; Heb 1:3-4 CCC 668
3. Descent of the Holy Spirit Acts 2:1-4; Jn 3:4-8;
Ez 36:25-28
CCC 731
4. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Lk 1:46-55;
Zeph 3:14, 17
CCC 966
5. The Coronation of Mary, the Davidic Queen Rev 12:1, 5;
1 Kng 2:13-18
CCC 966

As a general rule, but depending on the liturgical season, the Joyful Mysteries are prayed on Monday and Saturday; the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday; the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday and Friday; and the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday and Sunday.

Other suggested Catechism references: 967-972, 2673-2679, 2705-2719

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © September 1999; revised 2017