What’s more Catholic than the rosary? One of the most iconically papist images also happens to be one nowhere found in the Scriptures, a fact which our separated brethren seldom fail to point out. How can we justify this old yet often unclear practice? What does the rosary have to do with the Bible?
First of all, the rosary itself should be explained. Simply put, it is a set of prayers said using a cord with beads, the beads numbering the prayers. The main prayers used are the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. These prayers are used to meditate on different events, or “mysteries,” from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These mysteries are divided into three or four groups of five each, and are marked by ten Hail Marys, or a decade.
I shall now attempt to systematically unpack the Catholic beliefs that support the prayer of the rosary, and build a Scriptural defense of this method of prayer. Along with biblical references, it should include insight from Popes, Councils, Saints, and Catholic figureheads from history.
THE PROPER PLACE OF MARY AND THE SAINTS
Many find the very idea of praying to anyone but God problematic. The crucial part of this issue is the definition of prayer. While many assume prayer implies worship, this does not have to be the case. There is a certain kind of worshipful prayer that is reserved for God alone, but, when understood correctly, prayer can be given to any saint or angel. Prayer, as Christians have always understood it until relatively recent times, simply means speaking with one’s soul. As one uses the body to communicate with others who have bodies, one must use the soul to communicate with those who are pure spirit. There is no element of worship here, in fact it may differ very little from communicating with our fellow men. Why, for instance, would our God give us a guardian angel that he would forbid us from communicating with?
Intercessory prayer, asking someone to pray to God for them, is the most common form of prayer to saints and angels. Some may say that this is wrong on the grounds that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” But don’t we then defy this verse every time we ask a friend or family member to pray for us? Being a part of the Body of Christ, which all Christians, whether on Earth or beyond, are included in, we have the privilege to not only ask for prayers from our earthly friends, but from those in Heaven and Purgatory as well. In doing this, we do not seek a way around Christ, but rather an enriched prayer through Christ. “There is no reason why certain others should not be called in a certain way mediators between God and man, that is to say, in so far as they co-operate by predisposing and ministering in the union of man with God.” If you value the prayer of a holy person you know, how much more should you value the prayer of one who can see the face of God!
One might ask why we should believe that saints can hear our prayers at all. Yet in the Scriptures we find:
“the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders … with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints … and another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.”
So we see that the saints are laying prayers before God, and the prayers indeed seem to be those of others. After telling of the heroes of the Old Testament, Paul tells us “we are surrounded by … a cloud of witnesses,” implying that those who are departed in Christ are still aware and active in the events on Earth. Also, because those in Heaven are undoubtedly in the presence of more grace than we on Earth could conceive to receive, God would most likely let us take full advantage of our heavenly brethren through their intercession. After all this, it is reasonable to assume that those in Heaven do, in fact, hear our prayers, and act on them.
It is true we hold Mary in a higher place than all other saints, in fact, as the highest creature in existence. But is this unjust, given that we hold her as Mother of God, conceived without sin? The Marian Dogmas are not the topic of this paper, so I will assume them to be accepted. Suffice to say that it makes much sense that our savior would want to create a perfect vessel for his entry into salvation history, and she deserves the praise and veneration that we as Catholics give her. “This very special devotion...differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.”
THE NATURE OF PRAYER TO MARY
Mary is not only the mother of Jesus Christ, but the spiritual mother of the whole Church. When Christ tells Mary “Woman, behold, your son!” and John, “Behold, your mother!” He gives Mary not just as a mother to John, but to all of us. So we can see that:
“We are indebted to Christ for sharing in some way with us the right, which is peculiarly His own, of calling God our Father and possessing Him as such, we are in like manner indebted to Him for His loving generosity in sharing with us the right to call Mary our Mother and to cherish her as such.”
As her spiritual children, we can request spiritual aid of her as a child requests physical aid of a mother. We are not nurtured at her breast as Christ was, but we are allowed to be nurtured by her grace through the same Christ’s mercy.
Christ Himself, being a loving Son of his human mother, is ever present to her desires, making her intercession extremely powerful. Many surely have been saved through the intercession of Mary who otherwise would have failed to reach that goal.
“All men, moreover, are filled with the hope and confidence that petitions which might be received with less favour from the lips of unworthy men, God will accept when they are recommended by the most Holy Mother, and will grant with all favours.”
We can thus conclude that Mary should not only be a model of perfect holiness for us, but a figure of maternal compassion, who we can know personally through prayer and petition. She, of course, desires the union of all people to her Son, and will with no doubt fly to the aid of any who ask her for it. With both the imitation of her, and her personal intercession, we have an unstoppable force for the salvation of souls.
“God has established for us a most suitable example of every virtue [Mary] … If we, with her powerful help, should dedicate ourselves wholly and entirely to [imitating her], we can portray at least an outline of such great virtue and sanctity, and reproducing that perfect conformity of our lives to all God's designs which she possessed in so marvelous a degree, we shall follow her into heaven.”
THE PRAYERS OF THE ROSARY
As for the rosary itself, it is a perfect application of these Marian truths. It is both a supplication and a meditation. It uses all parts of one’s being:
“Now the rosary...has a beautiful combination…First of all, it is vocal; we say some prayers with our lips. Secondly it’s mental, because as we say, for example, the Hail Mary, we are not so much concentrating on the Hail Mary; we are thinking about the mystery...Then in addition to the mental (the prayer, the thought), and the vocal (the prayer itself), there is the physical, the movement of the fingers over the beads.”
It is important to note that because “we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestations of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Catholic Church does not teach the rosary as a doctrine, but as a purely private revelation. Some “so-called ‘private’ revelations … have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.” We do, though, hold that “the origin of this form of prayer is divine rather than human,” coming directly from the mind of God through the heart of Mary.
While the utterly biblical Lord’s Prayer features prominently, the Hail Mary is the technical crux of the rosary. Half of this prayer comes from the Scriptures: “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you!” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” The second half is simply a fine example of intercessory prayer.
Some may protest at the idea of repeating the same prayer to Mary ten times, while the Lord’s Prayer is only said once at each decade. To them I say: If our veneration of Mary is idolatry, then one word of praise is just as much a sin as a thousand. But if it is not idolatry, “why do you strike me?”
Some may call the rosary vain repetition: “in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” To them I say: stop praying vainly, and start praying the rosary, meaning every word you say. For if one word meant sincerely is good, think how tremendous a thousand will be.
The voice is indeed a crucial part of this prayer, for “when ... faith is exercised by vocally repeating the Our Father and Hail Mary of the Rosary prayers, … it is evident how close we are brought to Mary … [who] stands revealed at once as God's Mother and our Mother.” Truly there is a great power in our words, and “by [these] vocal prayers with which [the rosary] is intermingled, we are enabled to express and profess our faith in God.”
We are thus faced with a prayer system which is theologically sound and mechanically beautiful, which should not fail to bring many souls closer to Christ.
THE MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY
But the most biblical aspect of the rosary has yet to be discussed: the mysteries themselves. These events, taken directly from the Gospels, place us directly into the shoes of Mary and Christ, as they make salvation history. “We are once more brought face to face with the marvel of our salvation; we watch the mysteries of our Redemption as though they were unfolding before our eyes.”
We also see how important Mary’s relationship with Christ is here; when something happens, she is there, when a new chapter unfolds, she is witness to it. Jesus, in His life and death, can not escape the loving and sorrowful gaze of His mother. We can thus “bring to mind the divine and everlasting bond which links her with the joys and sorrows, the humiliations and triumphs of Christ in directing and helping mankind to eternal life.”
Meditating on these mysteries no doubt causes the reception of innumerable graces, for they tell the very story of God’s love. The Scriptures tell us “blessed is the man [whose] … delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night,” and “this book of the law … you shall meditate on it day and night.” Paul commands us to “think about these things” which are good and true and beautiful. Furthermore, we are taught:
“Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in ... the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him.”
By meditating on the holy mysteries, we open ourselves to the love that bonds Mary and Christ, and it is no wonder that “she who was so intimately associated with the mystery of human salvation is just as closely associated with the distribution of the graces which for all time will flow from the Redemption.”
And so we come to the mysteries: “the chief mysteries of our religion follow one another, as they are brought before our mind for contemplation: first of all the mysteries in which the Word was made flesh,” at the moment of the Incarnation, at the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, “and Mary ... performed her maternal duties for Him with a holy joy,” during her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, the birth of Christ, His Presentation, and His childhood. “There come then the sorrows, the agony,” in a garden, at a pillar, under a crown of thorns, and under a cross, “and [the] death of the suffering Christ … then follow the mysteries full of His glory; His triumph over death, the Ascension into heaven, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the resplendent brightness of Mary received among the stars, and finally the everlasting glory of all the saints in heaven united with the glory of the Mother and her Son.”
Additionally, one can use the Luminous mysteries, given to us in this century: Christ’s Baptism, His acts at Cana, His Proclamation of the Kingdom, His Transfiguration, and His Last Supper.
Accused of idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, stupidity, unchristianity, Catholics still are praying the rosary. The only reasonable explanation is that, like myself, they continue to be enriched by grace through it, and through the Scriptures which it proudly upholds. To those who will not understand Mary’s importance, let them think of their own mother’s influence on them. May her tender wisdom assist all Christians in growing closer to Christ.
1. The Holy Bible. Revised Standard Version. Second Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Print.
2. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiæ. Web.
3. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. ST PAULS PUBLICATIONS. Print.
4. Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter. Magnae Dei Matris. 8 September 1892. Web.
5. Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter. Octobri Mense. 22 September 1891. Web.
6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl4Fr9HjK7Y. The Rosary (Bishop Fulton J. Sheen) audio, June 17, 2011.
7. Vatican Council II. Dei verbum. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. 18 November 1965. Web.
8. Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter. Diuturni Temporis. 5 September 1898. Web.
9. Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter. Adiutricem. 5 September 1895. Web.
10. Leo XIII. Encyclical Letter. Fidentem Piumque Animum. 20 September 1896. Web
This paper was written for my Spring 2014 Word of God: Scripture & Tradition college class. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.