It is undeniable that we are in uncertain and unstable times. The combination of a global pandemic, a magnified view of racial injustices in our country, and political unrest produces mental, moral, and spiritual unease. To top things off, many of the readers of this blog are at crossroads in their lives at which they must make important decisions about their futures. As Catholics, we know that in times like this we must turn to prayer. One of the most powerful prayers given to us by the Church is the rosary.
At the beginning of the lock-downs, some friends and I began to pray a daily rosary over zoom (this is still happening and all are welcome; information at the end of the post!). What began as an attempt to maintain some semblance of community during the lock-downs has become a daily habit that has formed deep friendships and borne spiritual fruit. Before Covid-19, I prayed the rosary occasionally; now, I can tell something is missing if I skip a day. At a personal, experiential level, I have learned that the rosary can unify, that it helps us to grow in virtue, that it is a guide for discerning truth, and that it is a powerful prayer through the intercession of our Blessed Mother that is available to everyone. I learned these things over the past months. What I have discovered, however, is that these qualities of the rosary, called the “corona” in past times1, have been known for much longer. Various popes and saints have encouraged the faithful to pray the rosary, especially during difficult times. Pope Leo XIII, who wrote 12 encyclicals on the rosary, is an especially important guide for us. Reading his encyclicals, one finds that the challenges in the world that he highlights remain with us today. In his encyclical Superiore Anno, he even urges the faithful to pray the rosary because of a pandemic!2 So what theological insight can Pope Leo XIII give us about this prayer, and how can it inform our lives today?
The rosary as a contemplative prayer for everyone
Pope Leo writes “it is remarkable how well adapted to every kind of mind, however unskilled, is the manner in which these [mysteries of the rosary] are proposed to us…[t]hey are proposed less as truths or doctrines to be speculated upon than as present facts to be seen or perceived.”3 There are two important points here. First, anyone can pray the rosary! It is a simple chain of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, with some other prayers mixed in. Importantly, it is also contemplative. Another great Pope, St. John Paul II, wrote about the rosary as well.4 He emphasizes that the rosary can not merely be “empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7), but a real meditation. He reminds us that this prayer, which is a very Marian prayer, is ultimately centered on Jesus Christ. He says that “the contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary” [emphasis in original]. Who better to pray with, who better to ask for intercession, than Mary the Mother of God, when we contemplate the life of Christ? To return to Pope Leo’s point, this contemplation is really for everyone. It isn’t the contemplation of some abstract doctrine, but rather “present facts to be seen.” St. John Paul II again elaborates this when he says “our heart can embrace in the decades of the Rosary all the events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the Church, and all mankind.”
“Our heart can embrace in the decades of the Rosary all the events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the Church, and all mankind.”
The rosary strengthens us in virtue and calls us to action
Given what Pope Leo and St. John Paul II say about the contemplative aspects of the rosary, does that mean that they want us to just retreat from the world into our rooms, look for comfort in the rosary, and hide? We should find solace in the rosary; Pope Leo says that meditation upon the mysteries of the rosary reminds us of Christ’s saving action in the world and brings to mind His words “Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28).5 At the same time, we are not called to simply retreat from the world in prayer. Remember, Pope Leo XIII was the pope who established the tradition of “social encyclicals,” which address social issues in the world, with his encyclical Rerum Novarum. He also explicitly declares that the rosary should transform our lives: “And both of these, the spirit of prayer and the practice of Christian life, are best attained through the devotion of the Rosary of Mary”5 [emphasis mine]. As we ponder Christ’s life, we should grow in virtue! Pope Leo explains that the rosary not only benefits the individual, but society.6 It is worth reading his explanation of how each set of the original mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious) provide examples for how to address attitudes prevalent at the time (and now): “Dislike of Poverty”, “Repugnance to Suffering”, and “Forgetfulness of the Future.” Translated into our modern language, these would mean something like greed or arrogance, unwillingness to make sacrifices, and worldliness or forgetfulness of God.
The rosary as a path to truth
Pope Leo spends much time focusing on the moral confusion of his day. I think we can relate: confusion about the dignity of life, confusion about how we treat our brothers and sisters of different races and countries, confusion about human sexuality, and confusion about what truth is in general. In his first rosary encyclical, Pope Leo recalls that the rosary originated with St. Dominic during the time when a heresy called Albigensianism was being spread through the Church.7 He recalls that the rosary was effective in correcting the heresy and in bringing people to truth; the rosary can be an evangelical tool! He even goes so far as to call the rosary “a most powerful warlike weapon”. Of course, he is speaking of spiritual warfare here, but we should not underestimate the power of this prayer!
The rosary as a prayer of unity
It is clear that Pope Leo sees the rosary as a prayer for truth and growth in virtue, but that is not all. Today, oftentimes the pursuit of truth involves deep conflict, and a lack of charity can create divisions and even more problems. In Quod Auctoritate, Pope Leo calls out various evils in the world (“the most violent passions...the madness of opinion which knows no restraint”), but he “deem[s] especially necessary the avoidance of...domestic dissensions among some of ourselves.”8 We certainly face disunity today in our Church and world, and Pope Leo reminds us that the rosary is a remedy for this. Mary, Mother of the Church, is “the foremost promoter of peace and unity.” Pope Leo especially calls us to pray for Christian unity, for unity among the many different Christian denominations and for those who have left the Church. Furthermore, the rosary is a communal prayer. We should pray for unity in unity. Pope Leo writes in “we all know that prayer derives its chief efficacy from two principal circumstances: perseverance, and the union of many for one end.”9
Turning to the Rosary
Pope Leo XIII’s encyclicals are a rich source of wisdom for understanding the rosary and how we can use it to grow in and live out our Catholic Faith. They are worth reading to gain a better understanding of the graces offered to us through this prayer. I have seen the effects mentioned above in my own life. In praying it, I have had the opportunity to contemplate the mysteries of the life of Christ more deeply. I have reflected on and discerned situations in my own life to find the truth. It has been a great source of unity through which I have formed meaningful friendships. Finally, it has called me to action: I particularly remember that a friend I was praying with encouraged me and others to go help out with clean-up in Minneapolis this past summer.
As we continue through what has been a distressing year, let’s turn to the rosary. In the midst of the struggles of our daily lives, we can pray with Mary to reflect on the beauty of our Faith and to gain the strength to live it: “This uninterrupted sequence of wonderful events the Rosary frequently and perseveringly recalls to the minds of the faithful and presents almost as though they were unfolding before our eyes: and this, flooding the souls of those who devoutly recite it with a sweetness of piety that never grows weary, impresses and stirs them as though they were listening to the very voice of the Blessed Mother explaining the mysteries and conversing with them at length about their salvation.”5
Information for virtual rosary:
Daily at 8:30 PM
Zoom Password: 6Dipwx
Links to Pope Leo XIII’s rosary encyclicals can be found here: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/r/rosary-encyclicals-by-pope-leo-xiii.php
This post was contributed by Will Phillips.
“Rosary: History of the Term” https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/r/rosary-history-of-the-term.php
Leo XIII. “Superiore Anno.” The Holy See, 30 Aug. 1884, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_30081884_superiore-anno.html
Leo XIII. “Iucunda Semper Expectatione.” The Holy See, 8 Sept. 1894, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_08091894_iucunda-semper-expectatione.html
John Paul II. “Rosarium Virginis Mariae.” The Holy See, 16 Oct. 2002, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20021016_rosarium-virginis-mariae.html
Leo XIII. “Magnae Dei Matris.” The Holy See, 8 Sept. 1892, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_08091892_magnae-dei-matris.html
Leo XIII. “Laetitiae Sanctae.” The Holy See, 8 Sept. 1893, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_08091893_laetitiae-sanctae.html
Leo XIII. “Supremi Apostolatus Officio.” The Holy See, 1 Sept. 1883, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_01091883_supremi-apostolatus-officio.html
Leo XIII. “Quod Auctoritate.” The Holy See, 22 Dec. 1885, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_22121885_quod-auctoritate.html
Leo XIII. “Fidentem Piumque Animum.” The Holy See, 20 Sept. 1896, http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_20091896_fidentem-piumque-animum.html