A Brief History of the Rosary

The use of beads in Christian prayer is substantiated in Eastern Christianity from the golden age of the Fathers of the Church (e.g. in Paul the Hermit), and later on passed to Europe, especially popularized by the Irish and English. Already in the thirteenth century there are artistic (monumental) and documental testimonies concerning the use of cords with knots similar to our modern rosaries.

In the Middle Ages the practice of repeatedly reciting prayers such as the Our Father or Hail Mary became generalized[fn]We may note that the Hail Mary is a prayer whose text gradually grew over the centuries until it achieved its present definitive form in the XIII century, only becoming universally used in that form in the XV and XVI centuries.[/fn]. It was a custom (historically verified already in the XIII century) both among laity and religious to recite 50, 100, or even 150 Hail Mary’s and/or Our Father’s. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), for example, refers to the practice of praying 150 Hail Mary’s in Quodlibet 3:29 under the name of “Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

The Dominican Humbert of Romans (died 1277), writing to the friars of his Order, speaks of private prayer in the morning and evening in which one meditates and considers “with ardor God’s benefits, that is, the incarnation, birth, passion and other things in general… and afterward say the Our Father and the Hail Mary… and one could add as well the Salve Regina.”[fn]Source: OP Breviary in Spanish, historical resume for the feast of the Rosary, Oct. 7th.[/fn]

It was the Carthusian Dominic Hilarion of Prussia (died 1461) who added different “mysteries”, which were 50 phrases which one recited succesively at the end of each Hail Mary and it is he who coined the name of “rosary” (mystical rose) to this prayer. Venerable Alain de la Roche (1428-1475), a Dominican professor in France, encouraged the “Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary” with an innovation 150 phrases to be inserted in the Hail Mary’s after the name of Jesus: 50 concerning the life of Christ, 50 concerning his passion, and 50 on the resurrection and the last things. He seems to be the source of the (legendary) tradition that St. Dominic of Guzman received the rosary from the Blessed Virgin in a vision. Although not historical, it is a beautiful metaphor to describe what has become a permanent aspect of the Dominican charism (both spirituality and apostolate). Another Dominican, contemporary with Alain de la Roche, the German professor Jacob Sprenger (1436-1495), arranged the ‘mysteries’ in three groups: joyful, sorrowful and glorious.

The rosary is one of the forms of prayer most recommended by the Popes. In 1478-79, Pope Sixtus IV personally recommended and endowed with indulgences the praying of the rosary, and approved the “Marian Psalter” for the Univcrsal Church. Two other popes at the end of the XV century confirmed and amplified its prerogatives. The Dominican pope St. Pius V, in his bull Consueverunt (Dec 17, 1569) fixed its form as having the 15 traditional mysteries; two years later (1571) he attributed the victory of Christian naval forces over more powerful invading Moslem forces to Mary’s intercession through the rosary, and instituted the feast “ Our Lady of Victories” (later changed to “Our Lady of the Rosary”) on Oct. 7th in order to commemorate it. There is hardly a single pope from the XVI century until now who has not praised the rosary in his writings and decrees. Pope Leo XIII, the “pope of the rosary”, wrote no less than 22 documents (among which, 10 encyclicals) recommending the rosary as remedy against the modern evils. Pope Pius XII called the rosary “the compendium of the Gospel”; Pope John XXIII, “the Gospel of the poor”; and Paul VI “Synthesis of the Gospel”, recommending it extensively in his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (nn. 42-55). Pope John Paul II considered it his favorite prayer, and recommended it countless times in his worldwide travels and numerous writings. In his 2002 encyclical “Rosary of the Virgin Mary” he introduced 5 new “mysteries of light” which represent the public life of Jesus.

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