History of the Rosary

By Tracy Gregory

The Holy Rosary has been a powerful instrument of prayer for more than 1,000 years.

       As defined by the Roman Breviary, the Rosary “is a certain form of prayer wherein we say fifteen decades or tens of Hail Marys with an Our Father between each ten, while at each of these fifteen decades we recall successively in pious meditation one of the mysteries of our Redemption." The Rosary can be traced back to Irish monks who, back in the ninth century, incorporated the Bible’s 150 Psalms as a part of their worship ritual. This form of religious chanting quickly became popular with the masses, many of whom were uneducated and needed a way to track their recited prayers. Small stones that were placed one by one into leather sacks were initially used. However, this soon proved to be rather cumbersome, and was quickly replaced with a rope of 50 knots that would be used three times to represent the 150 Psalms.  This subsequently evolved into a much more effective and easily transportable stringing of beads to count prayers.

      With the increased popularity of the Virgin Mary, the’ Hail Mary’ was incorporated into recitation of prayers originally referred to as the “Angelic Salutation”.  In the twelfth century,  Europe was under constant siege from foreign invaders. Heretics took advantage of the vulnerable masses and threatened the morality and faith of the Catholic Church. Vice became increasingly prevalent, and priests were widely dispatched to offer spiritual solace.  One such priest was Dominic Guzman (1170-1221), who served as the spiritual emissary for King Alfonso VIII of Castile. While preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mary reportedly visited Dominic in a dream. Inspired by the vision of the Blessed Mother, he applied the recitation of the Rosary to convert the Albigensians, a heretic sect in southern France. While historians continue to debate St. Dominic’s role in forming the modern-day Rosary, its powerful effects in the restoration of faith cannot be denied.

      By the late sixteenth century, Eastern Europe was under assault by Turkish Moslems of the Ottoman Empire. A fleet was established under the spiritual leadership of Pope Pius V, despite being heavily outnumbered, the Christian ship, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, sailed confidently into combat. Proudly displaying a blue-bannered flag that portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the vessel entered what historians later depicted as a classic showdown between Eastern and Western religions. The significance of the Moslem defeat at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571 cannot be underestimated. It united the fragmented peoples of Europe and preserved Christianity throughout the region.  The following year, Pope Pius V introduced the Feast of the Holy Rosary to the Catholic Church calendar to celebrate the role the Rosary played in the victory.

      St. Louis de Montfort is credited with transforming the Holy Rosary into a series of narratives or meditations that contemplated the mysteries of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The first series, the Joyful Mysteries, was comprised of five narratives, and as the name implies concentrates on the happiness associated with the birth of the Son of God; the five Sorrowful Mysteries recount the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus Christ; and finally, the five Glorious Mysteries revel in Christ’s resurrection and Blessed Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. In 2002, Pope John Paul II added the five Luminous Mysteries to the Rosary in October 2002. These focus on The Baptism of Jesus Christ, The Wedding at Cana, The Proclamation of The Kingdom, The Transfiguration, and The Eucharist.

     Although the Rosary is recited differently to reflect the changing times and new narratives have been added, its spiritual powers remain as strong today as they were in the ninth century. The Rosary symbolizes the healing capacity of prayer in daily life, the gospels of Jesus Christ, and perhaps most importantly, recognizes the importance of the Virgin Mary as an enduring source of strength, comfort, and maternal love that continues to unify and strengthen the Catholic family in the twenty-first century.



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