The Rosary as Discussed by Paul VI and John Paul II

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By Mary Boneno, The Catholic University of America

The following was a college essay written by Mary Boneno. It has been edited and approved by Paul Gillett. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

The Rosary is particularly emblematic of the Catholic Faith; hung from rearview mirrors, tossed about in horror films, and worn by secular artists who identify culturally with the devotion, the Rosary is highly recognizable, and despite an individual’s honest belief in its efficacy, there seems to be a collective understanding of its peculiar character. As the Church instructs, however, the Rosary is never to be seen as a mere talisman or a procedural set of prayers which form a sort of enchantment; rather, the Church illustrates the Blessed Mother’s prayer as a means for contemplation which truly involves the active engagement of the participant. In this essay, I will evaluate the primary elements of the Rosary as discussed in official Church documents. From this analysis, I will illustrate how such a practice is integrated with other forms of prayer, recognizing the way in which the Church promotes the Rosary as a means of spiritual refreshment, giving life to Her worship of the Lord.

One of the first elements emphasized in Church documents on the Rosary is its scriptural basis. Often called the “compendium of the Gospel,” the Rosary reflects the Word of God in its very method of contemplating the life of Christ. While it is obvious that the prayers themselves derive from Sacred Scripture, the mysteries more fully encapsulate the entirety of the Gospel message. In his 1974 Apostolic Exhortation on the veneration of the Virgin, Paul VI describes the Rosary as a prayer which “considers in harmonious succession the principal salvific events accomplished in Christ, from His virginal conception and the mysteries of His childhood to the culminating moments of the Passover” (Marialis Cultus 45). The various mysteries of the Rosary, ordered to follow the life of Christ from Bethlehem to Calvary, summarize the accounts of the holy evangelists. Though certainly a Marian prayer, the Rosary is a meditation upon the Gospel and an extension of its proclamation throughout the world, evangelizing all people and instructing them in the very life of Christ.

In promotion of the Rosary’s biblical nature, it is clear why Pope St. John Paul II, in the twenty-fifth year of his pontificate, encouraged an addition to the traditional 15 mysteries. The Luminous Mysteries follow the events of Christ’s life from His Baptism in the Jordan to the Last Supper. This, in the Pope’s view, allows the Rosary to “become more fully a ‘compendium of the Gospel,’” in order to “give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary’s place within Christian spirituality” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae 19). While he certainly holds nothing against the traditional set of mysteries which, when prayed together, beautifully imitate the 150 Psalms in the Psalter, John Paul II sees the 15 mysteries as in need of a more complete picture of the Gospel and Christ’s public ministry, as the original order makes a rather sudden jump from the finding of the Child Jesus in the temple to His agony in the garden. While the Blessed Mother is not directly involved in most of these additional mysteries, “the role she assumed at Cana in some way accompanies Christ throughout his ministry” (RVM 19). By virtue of her role as the Mother of God, Mary is implicitly involved in the entirety of the Gospel, and her “Yes” to the angel Gabriel is yet even a greater witness to her spiritual presence in each moment of the Incarnate Word’s life. The Blessed Mother is united to her Son in His ministry as He heals the sick and feeds the poor, and reflecting on the light He brings to those in darkness in these new mysteries, the Christian can find himself close to both the Woman and her Child.

Reflecting further on the scriptural basis of the Rosary, John Paul II also suggests integrating the Rosary with lectio divina. He is keen on emphasizing that the “mysteries neither replace the Gospel nor exhaust its content,” and therefore the Rosary cannot be presumed to supersede or substitute genuine reflection on the Scriptures themselves (RVM 29). While the mysteries certainly call to mind the events chronicled by the evangelists, “no other words can ever match the efficacy of the inspired word” (RVM 30). This is why the Pope deems it beneficial to connect the announcement of each mystery with a related passage, followed by a period of silence for more deeper reflection. With this practice, the biblical nature of the prayer is made ever clearer. Harmonizing the recitation of the Rosary with the proclamation of the Word of God, John Paul II more effectively promotes the Blessed Mother’s prayer as a truly Gospel prayer, one that encourages the faithful to listen attentively to the voice of God.

A second primary element of the Rosary is its Christological nature. The Church documents understand that the end of such a prayer is never directed to the Virgin without a reference to her relationship with Christ. John Paul II most acutely observes this Christological reality as he reflects upon the physical tool used to count the successive prayers: “the beads converge upon the Crucifix,” and in this concrete reminder, the faithful understand that everything “is centred upon Christ” (RVM 36). The Christian cannot avoid passing through and returning to that sign of Christ’s Passion in the course of his prayer. John Paul II furthermore illustrates the Name of Jesus as the “centre of gravity” of the Rosary (RVM 33), and he reflects on a sentiment of Paul VI, who had previously described a custom in which communities supplemented the recitation of the Hail Mary with a mention of the particular mystery following the Name of Jesus (MC 46). In this exterior manner, the Rosary shows itself to be flowing from and directed to the Second Person of the Trinity, the one and true Mediator before the Father. 

Yet perhaps more profoundly, the Rosary is a Christological prayer as it leads the Christian to the Person of Jesus through the guidance of Mary. As John Paul II eloquently writes, “the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love” (RVM 1). Mary is the perfect disciple who carries out the will of God in exemplary obedience, and thus is the ideal teacher of Christ’s commands. But the Rosary also illustrates that becoming a disciple of Jesus is not simply about knowing His teachings. Often labeled as the prayer of Mary’s memory, the Rosary allows us to experience Christ as she did, to hear and discern the inflections of His voice, to study the uniqueness of His face, to touch and hold onto the strength of His hands. This prayer “mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth” and “enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us” (RVM 15). This sentiment of John Paul II is beautifully reminiscent of a work by St. Bonaventure: meditating on the events of Jesus’ infancy, the Seraphic Doctor sees that “a soul dedicated to God could spiritually conceive the holy Word of God and only-begotten Son of the Father” by traveling with Mary in the Gospels (The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus 139). In reflection upon the actions of Mary, the Christian can likewise bring the Son into his own soul by a fervent desire to imitate her. In the same manner, the Rosary makes present those events described in the Gospels, calling the faithful to journey with Mary as she grows in her understanding of Christ, as she is continually filled spiritually with His own presence even as He parts from His home in Nazareth. The Rosary moves with Mary and unites the Christian to her sanctified memory, giving him her most pure eyes to see and ponder the goodness of God in each and every moment of His life in the Flesh.

One of the final elements of the Rosary discussed in Church documents is its method of contemplation. While many view the Rosary as a lengthy and very wordy prayer, the Church is always quick to promote the necessity of silent reflection and meditation so that the faithful may enter more deeply into the announced mysteries. As Paul VI writes, “without this [contemplation], the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation is in danger of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas” (MC 47). It is not enough to merely repeat the words of the Rosary, if the intent in doing so is motivated by a belief that the words themselves will magically produce graces. Those fruits of prayer must be reaped, an action only performed in imitation of the Blessed Mother as she pondered everything in her heart. The mysteries, therefore, ought not to be divorced from the act of praying the Rosary, for they give guidance to an individual’s meditation and structure one’s prayer so as to be conducive to contemplation. Drawing connections between the Jesus Prayer of the East and the Rosary of the West, John Paul II undeniably understands how the Rosary provides the necessary arrangement to direct one toward meditation, while emphasizing that the practice is importantly a “means to an end and cannot become an end in itself” (RVM 28). The mysteries are not merely to be announced, but ought to be entered into; the Rosary is a bridge for the Christian to walk along with Mary, stepping into the life of Christ. As a means for contemplation, the Rosary is never completely exhaustive, in that it never ceases to effect graces on the faithful if this proper end of penetrating the Mystery of the Word is in view. 

The contemplative element of the Rosary is vital for a proper understanding of its position within the official worship of the Church. Rather than it being in opposition to the liturgy, the Church documents see the Rosary as supplementing the Mass and Divine Office, as it is “an exercise of piety that draws its motivating force from the liturgy and leads naturally back to it” (MC 48). The fruits of liturgical celebration ceaselessly flow out into the entirety of the Christian life, and the Rosary is a concrete example of the continuing prayer of the Church. John Paul II sees the contemplative aim of the Rosary as a “remembering,” an act of re-presenting the events of salvation history which “comes about above all in the Liturgy” (RVM 13). The Rosary acts as a school which instructs the faithful in the mysteries of Christ, so that, in the Mass, those mysteries which are celebrated are called to mind and understood more readily. The Rosary is the means of contemplation which complements the “activity of Christ and the Church” in the liturgy (RVM 13); it is the meditative prayer of devotion in service to the dynamic work of worship. This liturgical integration, though certainly not referring to a literal insertion of the Rosary in the rubrics of the Mass, further expands the horizons of the Rosary, as it involves no longer a simple private act of piety, but unites the greater Church at large and ensures a profound oneness of heart and mind. As John Paul II understands it, the Rosary rightfully extends the liturgy and integrates the activity of the Church with a sustaining and unceasing prayer of God’s praise.

The Rosary which finds its origins in the Order of Preachers has been promoted officially by the Church for generations, and its method has certainly been lauded as an exceptional means for contemplating Christ in the context of the Gospel. Yet it is important to keep in mind that this method is not for its own sake, nor is it even exclusive to the Dominican practice of prayer — both the Servite Rosary reflecting on Mary’s Seven Sorrows and the Franciscan Crown reflecting on her Seven Joys certainly utilize similar formulas which seek to cultivate a deeper relationship with Christ through His Mother. But the Rosary as traditionally recited still retains its own remarkable character and is undoubtedly a unifying prayer of the Roman Church. With a proper understanding of its integration in scriptural meditation and its standing amidst liturgical celebration, the Church sees the Rosary as an extraordinary devotion of significant value for establishing peace and effecting charity in the home, in the parish, in the diocese, and in the entire world at large, promoting a greater adoration of the Triune God through the fruitful intercession of His handmaid.

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