October and the Rosary

By tradition, the Catholic Church dedicates each month of the year to a certain devotion. In 1883, Pope Leo XIII officially dedicated the month of October to the holy rosary, one of the best known of all Catholic devotions. October includes the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7.

Some people might find it strange for a liturgist to be writing about the rosary which is generally considered to fall into the category of private devotion rather than liturgy which is communal worship.

But there are clear connections between the rosary and the liturgy, including its origins. According to tradition, St Dominic instituted the rosary, having received it from the Virgin Mary herself. This is not true because the first evidence of the rosary was not until the mid-1400s when it was promoted by a Dominican as ‘Our Lady’s Psalter’. This name gives us a clue to its origin.

In Medieval monasteries, the monks regularly prayed the 150 psalms as part of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. The lay monks and devout lay persons, who did not know Latin and who could not read, would say the Lord’s Prayer instead of each psalm – 150 of them – counting them on a ring of beads known as the crown or "corona". The use of beads or knotted ropes to count large numbers of prayers comes from the earliest days of Christianity.

Since the twelfth century, the “Hail Mary” has been a basic prayer to be learned by all and recited frequently. It is a combination of the angel Gabriel’s greeting at the Annunciation: “Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you”, and Elizabeth’s recognition of Mary’s unique motherhood when the two women meet: “Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”, with the devotional words seeking Mary’s intercession added at the end.

In the later Middle Ages, this popular prayer was substituted for the Our Father in the “poor man’s Psalter” and it became a Marian prayer, the Psalter of the Virgin Mary.

The 150 Hail Marys were divided into groups of ten, or ‘decades’, and the decades grouped into three lots of five. Each decade was assigned a meditation mystery - Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious - and separated by a Glory Be and an Our Father. Each of the five decades in a group was assigned a particular event within, or aspect of, that mystery.

In the Joyful Mysteries, for example, these are:
1. The Annunciation of the Lord
2. The Visit of the Virgin Mary to Elizabeth
3. The Birth of the Lord
4. The Presentation of the Lord
5. The Finding of Jesus in the Temple.

This pattern of 150 Hail Marys paralleling the 150 psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours was clouded when Pope John Paul II introduced an additional set of meditations – the Luminous Mysteries. They are best regarded as an alternative set so that the connection with the 150 psalms is not lost.

The rosary is loved as the ‘Psalter of the Poor’ and all Catholics should be able to join in praying it by memory from the heart.

Elizabeth Harrington