What constitutes “praying” the Rosary? Is it the repetition of Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s, and Glory Be’s? Is it the fingering of the beads in the right sequence? Is it the praying of 5, 10, or the full 20 decades?
A few months back this kind of worry was brought to my attention. What constitutes praying the Rosary? A wife and mother of two asked me how she could be certain she “prayed the Rosary”.
She was following the right sequence of prayers. She was using the right meditations for the day. But her certainty was shaken when a friend told her that since she wasn’t praying the Litany of Loreto at the end, she hadn’t really “prayed” the Rosary. Poor thing. She was in straights! She wanted to be faithful to her promise to pray the Rosary daily. Even more, she wanted to be faithful to Mary. What was she to do?
I’ll share my answer at the end of today’s post. For now, I want to use her dilemma as a springboard for a deeper consideration.
Praying like Mary
Her concern was about formulas. The Rosary is much more than a form of prayer. The actual form generally used today did not develop until around the 13th century, when St. Dominic was inspired by Our Lady to preach the recitation of the Rosary. Nevertheless, the tradition of the Rosary dates back to the very days of Our Blessed Mother’s life. The Rosary became a prayer tradition through Mary herself.
This is the profound insight that St. John Paul II gave us when he wrote his apostolic letter on the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002). The letter was meant to be a “Marian complement” to an earlier document he wrote at the beginning of the Third Millennium: Novo Millennio Ineunte (2001).
In these two texts the Holy Father called the Church to return to the heart of her mission, i.e. proclaiming to the modern world the saving truth and grace of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Being the Marian Pope that he was, however, St. John Paul II could not preach Christ without preaching Mary.
For the Millennial Missionary, the Rosary was more than just a mechanical form of prayer; it was a “school” of contemplation. Thus, St. John Paul II teaches us what is essential to praying the Rosary: contemplating Christ. Analogous to our Catholic liturgy, the Rosary is one of the traditional Catholic prayers that follows a set form. Like the framing of a house, a form gives structure to our prayer.
Some people might argue that structured prayer is boring or limiting to one’s freedom. I beg to differ.
First of all, prayer is not meant to be entertaining but engaging. We pray to engage the heart in God’s presence; to place ourselves before Him either directly or through the intercession of Mary or the saints, to avail ourselves of His abundant mercy, wisdom, and grace. Structured prayer helps us to respect His transcendent nature, i.e. His Almighty Power, All-Powerful Love, All-Loving Wisdom…(and the list of perfections could go on). If there are protocols in place when one has a meeting with a dignitary, why would there not be something similar to benefit our meeting with God in prayer?
Secondly, rather than hindering freedom, structured prayer aids it. Fulton Sheen explains this seeming contradiction using the example of a fenced-in backyard. When the backyard has a fence, a mother can let her children freely play without worry. But when the children go out to play without a fence a mother’s worry increases. There’s nothing to ensure her that they will be safe. Structured prayer is like the fence, it gives us the freedom to pray well.
When the Rosary is reduced to just a series of repeated prayers, then yes, it can become boring and routine; but when the structure is wedded to contemplation, then the praying of the Rosary comes to life. For St. John Paul II, the essence of the Rosary is the contemplation of Christ with Mary. It “is an exquisitely contemplative prayer.” (n. 12)
Praying with Mary
What does JPII mean? He means that our primary focus in praying the Rosary is the contemplation of Christ. It’s well known that learning to pray the Rosary—learning its essential prayers, saying the right number of prayers, following the right sequence of the mysteries, and even fingering the beads in the right order—can be difficult. But fidelity to the Rosary should not limit itself to forms. We truly pray the Rosary well when we contemplate Christ with Mary.
“The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary” (n. 10), affirms the Holy Father. Her way of contemplating Christ was through gazing and remembering.
In a unique way, she had the grace to visibly look upon the face of Christ throughout His life. From gazing upon His face, she passed to remembering His person. In this way, through faith, she penetrated beyond appearances into the depths of Christ’s mystery. This is what the Holy Father teaches us to do through the Rosary. We are to attend the school of Christ with Mary.
“The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son’s side. In a way those memories were to be the “rosary” which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life.” (no. 11)
We are to learn Christ—His attitude, His virtues, His lifestyle—with, in, and through Mary by calling to mind the joyful, luminous, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries of His life and with the eyes of our hearts gaze upon what He teaches us in them.
A Few Concrete Tips
One way that might help both individuals and families pray the Rosary in this way, is to incorporate images of the mystery of Christ’s life. This is one of the practical advices that the Holy Father offers in Rosarium. “Announcing each mystery, and perhaps even using a suitable icon to portray it, is as it were to open up a scenario on which to focus our attention.” (n.29)
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, a return to a regular reading about the life of Christ, either from the Gospels themselves or other books like Venerable Fulton Sheen’s Life of Christ, will also provide food for thought when contemplating Christ’s mysteries while praying the Rosary. (cf. n.30) For more ideas on how to better contemplate Christ with Mary through the praying of the Rosary, I highly suggest you read St. John Paul II’s letter yourself.
Finally, we should remember that the faithful and fruitful living out of our consecration to Mary depends on prayer. There is no greater Marian prayer than the Rosary. Let us take advantage of today’s feast to make a commitment. Let’s not just pray the Rosary more but pray it better!
…and the answer I gave the lady needing guidance: stick to the essentials. The focus is contemplating the mysteries of Christ through Mary. This is essentially done “against the background” of the repetition of one Our Father, ten Hail Mary’s, a Glory Be, and the Fatima Prayer. If adding a Litany at the end also helps you do this great! If not, no worries.
Hail Mary and seize the day!