Theology for The Laity

Understanding the Rosary

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

Adapted from To Know Him, Vol. I, 2006

Many Catholics today do not pray the Rosary because, as they say, they find it too difficult to think about two things at the same time: the Hail Marys and the Rosary mystery. As a result, many persons of good will have simply given up praying the Rosary because they misunderstand how the Rosary should be prayed. In their confusion they hope that Mary will not mind, since their prayers have been so muddled with distractions and boredom.


This objection stems from a misunderstanding of what the Rosary is and how it is to be prayed. The Rosary is a combination of vocal prayer, the Hail Marys and the Our Fathers, and of mental prayer, the meditation on the various incidents or mysteries in the life of Our Lord and His Mother. Yet there is no conflict in this combination, but rather a blending of one with the other, for while the lips pronounce the words of the Hail Mary (vocal prayer), the mind should reflect (mental prayer) on the mystery of the Rosary that has been announced. The repetition of the 10 Hail Marys is used as a measuring device to determine the length of time to meditate on the mystery at hand. So, the Rosary, properly understood, brings before us for our reflection, not the vocal prayers being recited, but the mysteries of our redemption. However, one might well reflect on the Hail Mary during the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, for the words of that prayer recall those mysteries.

As regards those who see the Rosary as being insignificant, claiming that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council in the Decree on the Liturgy (no. 13) clearly states that “popular devotions of the Christian people are warmly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church.” Moreover, the fact that Pope St. John XXIII who called the Council, and Pope St. Paul VI, who presided over its sessions and conclusion, so highly recommended the Rosary, is clear evidence of the mind of the Church in this regard. In his Apostolic Letter, Pope St. John Paul II testified, “How many graces have I received in these years from the Blessed Virgin through the Rosary. Magnificat anima mea Dominum! I wish to lift up my thanks to the Lord in the words of His most Holy Mother, under whose protection I have placed my Petrine ministry: Totus Tuus!”

Not only were these three Popes, who reigned during Vatican II or afterwards, great lovers of the Rosary, but so was their predecessor Pope Pius XII, who wrote in an encyclical on this prayer of Mary: “We well know the Rosary’s powerful efficacy to obtain the maternal aid of the Virgin.” And speaking of the vocal and mental prayers that make up the Rosary, he said: “What prayers are more adapted and more beautiful than the Lord’s Prayer and the angelic salutation, which are the flowers with which this mystical crown is formed?”

“Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, the Virgin Mary is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth.” 

– Lumen Gentium, n. 53


The Rosary is not only an important means of instruction in the truths of our faith, but an important means to bring Catholics to love and to be loved by Mary who gave this form of prayer to the Church. As Pope Pius XII points out, its very origin and the wisdom of its composition is “more divine than human.”

Yet the Rosary is not simply devotion to Mary. It is a devotion that leads one to the divine Trinity of Persons through the hearts and minds of Jesus Incarnate and Mary Immaculate. It is Mary’s instrument to bring us closer to her divine Son, and to become more involved in our lives as her children.

I am often saddened by the number of children and adults who do not know how, or do not care, to pray the Rosary; for when it is understood and prayed with devotion, it is a celebration of faith, of confidence and of love in the Most Holy Trinity.


In addition to the above-mentioned reasons why some have given up praying the Rosary, is the fact that some find its recitation monotonous. This problem, as a rule, comes from the misconception already referred to, namely, reflecting merely or mainly on the vocal prayers being recited. Such is like a body without a soul. A mere repetition of Hail Marys, fruitful as it may be as a prayer, or even as a source of meditation, is not the Rosary.

The Rosary, in the words of Pope St. Paul VI, is a “compendium of the Gospel.” It is so devised that it helps us to reflect briefly on the principal events of our redemption. If some find it difficult to meditate on these mysteries, either because of lack of instruction, or because of fatigue, or some physical or mental difficulty, the Rosary will not be without its fruit, if they do the best they can, keeping in mind that involuntary distractions do not detract from the value of prayer. In prayer, what we want to do and try to do, is more important before God than whether or not we actually succeed in doing it. Those twenty minutes (more or less) given to this prayer, doing the best we can, are very pleasing to the Mother of God, and the source of much fruit, even if they might leave us without much personal satisfaction. We don’t measure the value of prayer by the “lift” we get out of it.

As Pope Pius XII wrote, speaking of the Rosary: “the recitation of identical formulas, repeated so many times, rather than rendering the prayer sterile and boring, has on the contrary the admirable quality of infusing confidence in him who prays, and causes a sweet compulsion towards the maternal heart of Mary.”


In order for us to appreciate the Rosary, and overcome its obstacles, it will be helpful if we examine its body and soul, especially if we want to share with others its powerful help for our lives, whether we be very spiritual persons, or have a touch of the rascal within us.

After World War I, shell-shocked soldiers were introduced into a therapy that helped them deal with tensions. Doctors discovered that the art of knitting greatly relieved tensions. Somehow the fingers are the little avenues relieving anxieties for restoring natural calm. Perhaps one of the reasons why people love to smoke comes down to the pleasantness of touching the cigarette or pipe.

In a similar manner, the purpose of beads in any religion that uses them, is to boost the art of concentration. The mere fingering of the beads has an effect of calming the mind, while the frequent repetition of the Hail Marys is an attempt to further increase the attention span, helping to shut out distractions, something like the soft murmur of a river which helps to drown out competing noises.

As we have already indicated, the fingering of the beads while repeating the angelic salutation and the Lord’s Prayer is the body of the Rosary; but it is a body that needs a soul, and its soul is the reflection successively on the 20 mysteries which for many centuries have been fixed on five Joyful, five Sorrowful, five Glorious, and the five Luminous (added in 2002 by Pope St. John Paul II) events or mysteries in the life of Our Lord and His Mother.


Nineteen of the twenty mysteries are taken directly from the New Testament, while one (the Assumption) comes from Tradition. The 5th glorious mystery, the Queenship of Mary, many think has its basis in the book of Revelation (Ch. 12). The woman of the Apocalypse, according to most scholars, seems to refer to the universal Church. However, as it is customarily thought in the Church today, whatever perfections are attributed to the whole Church, reside in their perfection in Mary and are attributed to her, the one individual member of the Church (other than Christ) without stain.

These mysteries of the Rosary are like high points of the New Testament that contain explicitly or implicitly all the fundamentals of our faith. For that reason, the more we are familiar with the content of these mysteries, the more profound will be our use of the Rosary. Our meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary might bring us to reflect on a wide variety of themes, such as: God the Father, His will, His love, His wisdom, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, the Incarnation of His divine Son, our Redemption through his death on the Cross, and the major events in the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and so on.


All of us can reflect on the various virtues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that we contemplate in the Gospel story, and strive to apply these lessons to our own lives. Pope Pius XII stated how efficacious this can be. “From the frequent meditation on the mysteries,” he said, “the soul draws and imperceptibly absorbs the virtues they contain, … and becomes strongly and easily impelled to follow the path which Christ Himself and His Mother have followed.” For this reason, he declares, “the Holy Rosary will … form the most efficacious school of Christian life.”

Pope St. John XXIII spoke in similar terms: “In reciting the Rosary, the thing that matters is devoutly meditating on each of the mysteries as we move our lips. Therefore, we are sure that our children and all of their brethren throughout the world will turn it into a school for learning true perfection, as with a deep spirit of recollection, they contemplate the teachings that shine forth from the life of Christ and of Mary most holy.”

“Come, let us wonder at the Virgin most pure, wondrous in herself, unique in creation. She gave birth, yet knew no man; her pure soul with wonder was filled, daily her mind gave praise in joy at the twofold wonder: her virginity preserved, her child most dear. Blessed is He who shone forth from her!”

– St. Ephraim the Syrian


It was yet another Pope, Leo XIII, the “Rosary Pope” of the 19th Century, who wrote nine encyclicals on devotion to Mary through the Rosary, who expressed the theology of this prayer so simply. He spoke of the Joyful Mysteries as an antidote for the boredom and tedium of ordinary life; the Sorrowful Mysteries as an antidote for those who feel suffering has no meaning; and the Glorious Mysteries as an antidote for those who forget their real homeland.


One can pray the Rosary privately, or in common with others. When praying it privately one can determine his own pace, spending up to a half hour on one decade, or if one’s time is limited he can skip along at about four minutes a decade, which is equally legitimate, as long as one lovingly considers the mystery under some aspect.

If one is praying alone and time permits, it can be helpful to pause a bit after declaring the mystery under consideration. Let us take, for example, the mystery of the Annunciation. As you announce this mystery, you can pause as long as you wish, putting yourself and your problems into the meaning of the mystery. Since there are many different types of prayer, from petition to thanksgiving, from praise to sorrow, or from submission to simple love, we can begin to look at the Annunciation from any of these angles.

We can, for instance, pray for the gift of faith and confidence, as Mary consented to a most difficult assignment from Heaven with faith and confidence in God. Or we can thank Mary for having consented to be the Mother of God on our behalf, welcoming the Savior of the world. We can also praise the work of the Holy Spirit for creating in the womb of Mary the human body and soul of the Word. We might simply express to God the Father, or to the Son, or to Mary, our sorrow for those who refuse the gift of human life and have aborted it; or for those who refuse the gift of divine life, or have doubted it.

Then again, we might be rebelling against some necessary decision either for ourselves, our family, or our work – that will entail personal pain or difficulty. We reflect on this in the light of Mary’s trusting and total surrender. Or we may be fascinated with the Angel Gabriel, and we think of the many times we have either listened to or rejected the suggestions of our guardian angel. Or we might just be wrapped up in loving wonder of the Trinity, that the Divine Persons would plan such a mystery of love, the Word becoming flesh through the love of the Holy Spirit. For some, these considerations might hold their attention for a considerable time, and while they finger the beads their whole personality could experience a deep and trusting surrender to the divine Trinity.

From all this, we can see there is no limit to the extent of the depth and breadth to which one’s Rosary meditation can lead. Its freedom within the consideration of the mysteries gives a structure to our meditation, and yet will let the inspiration of the Holy Spirit lead one towards those meanings which are more helpful for stirring up love and devotion to the Holy Trinity. In each mystery we are considering lovingly a different aspect of the merciful love of God. Thus, through it all, while fingering the beads, we are trying to imitate Mary’s spirit of reflection, of which St. Luke says: “His Mother meanwhile kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51)


So, what we are doing in the Rosary is recalling the chief mysteries of our faith, in a manner taught us by a loving Mother, Mary the Mother of Jesus and of us all. And the love of this Mother does not stop with her, for her role is to lead us to her Son. Mary’s last words recorded in Scripture – at the marriage feast of Cana – summarize well her whole concern in our regard: “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5) She leads us to her Son, not only by her words, but especially by her example, for more perfectly than all others she mirrors his virtues.

May the Rosary see an increase in the contemplative life of each one who takes up his beads seeking union with the Divine Trinity through the perspective of Jesus and Mary. When we reflect on these mysteries, we ask that Mary help us to “imitate what they contain, and obtain what they promise.” She not only reflected on those mysteries in the past, and had an intimate part in them, but she prays along with us now, and helps us to understand them, and to live them.

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