The recitation of prayers and psalms in succession gradually became a series of 150 Hail Marys and the Rosary became an official prayer approved by the Catholic Church by Pope Sixtus IV in the 15th century. Greeting Mary so many times was compared to offering her a wreath of roses, hence, the “Rosary”.
Promoted by the Dominicans in the 15th century, the prayers of the Rosary took the form of a meditation on the life of Christ. In the 16th century, the Dominican theologian, Antonio Ghislieri, who became Pope St. Pius V, structured the Rosary around 15 “mysteries”.
The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7 was formerly known as Our Lady of Victory and Feast of the Holy Rosary. Instituted by Pius V in 1571, the day celebrated the decisive victory of the combined fleet of the Holy League over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto.
The Luminous Mysteries were added to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries by John Paul II in 2002. From 1571 until today, the Popes have continued to encourage the recitation of the Rosary. In September 1893, in the Encyclical, Laetitiae sanctae, Leo XIII stated that he was convinced that “the Rosary, if devoutly used, is bound to benefit not only the individual but society at large”.
In 1937, two years before the beginning of the Second World War, Pius XI, in his Encyclical, Ingravescentibus Malis, observed that if the people of the 20th century, “with its derisive pride, refuse the Rosary, there is an innumerable multitude of holy men of every age and every condition who have always held it dear”. He addressed the faithful, asking them to recite the Rosary at home so that “the enemies of the Divine Name (...) may be finally bent and led to penance and return to the straight path, trusting to the care and protection of Mary”.
Pius XI added: “The Holy Rosary, besides, not only serves admirably to overcome the enemies of God and Religion, but is also a stimulus and spur to the practice of evangelical virtues which it injects and cultivates in our souls”.
On May 4, 1963, while the Church was engaged in the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII welcomed the first Italian Living Rosary pilgrimage, during which “Good Pope John” met many sick children. “You are dear to us, like the apple of our eyes,” the Supreme Pontiff said to them. “You are dear to us above all because, with the natural liveliness of your years, you are little children who pray,” he told them. He praised their “commitment to recite at least one decade of the Holy Rosary every day”, adding that a day without prayer is like “a sky without sun, a garden without flowers”.
Already in 1961, an attachment to the Apostolic Letter, Il Religioso Convegno, noted that in his daily Rosary Pope John prayed for babies born in the past 24 hours, as he recited the third decade of the Joyful mysteries. He offered the “ten Hail Marys” in order to “recommend to Jesus all children born (...) from all human lineages, who, (...) by night, by day, have come into the world on the whole surface of the earth”.
In the 1959 Encyclical, Grata Recordatio, John XXIII encouraged daily recitation of the Rosary, asserting that the Rosary is an excellent means of meditative prayer. “We never fail to recite it each day in its entirety”. He invited the faithful to pray the Rosary for the upcoming Ecumenical Council (Vatican II) and for “the renewed vigour of all the Christian virtues” expected of the Church.
In the wake of the Council, Pope St. Paul VI dedicated an Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus, to Marian veneration in which he intended to “encourage the restoration, in a dynamic and more informed manner, of the recitation of the Rosary”. He also emphasized “the importance of a further essential element in the Rosary, in addition to the value of the elements of praise and petition, namely the element of contemplation. Without this the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation is in danger of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas.”
St. John Paul II, who himself was deeply devoted to the Virgin Mary (Totus Tuus was his episcopal maxim), encouraged the recitation of the Rosary many times during the 27 years of his pontificate. In 2002, he published an Apostolic Letter dedicated specifically to the Rosary, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In it, he described the Rosary as a prayer which “in the sobriety of its elements” concentrates “all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety”, and through which “the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer”. He explained that in his youth he always gave an important place to this prayer, which was his favourite. It was in this Letter that he proclaimed the year of the Rosary from October 2002 to October 2003, inviting the faithful to “contemplate with Mary the face of Christ”.
At the dawn of the third millennium, the Polish Pope stressed “the urgent need to counter a certain crisis of the Rosary, which in the present historical and theological context can risk being wrongly devalued, and therefore no longer taught to the younger generation”. Concerned by the dire situation of the family “increasingly menaced by forces of disintegration on both the ideological and practical planes”, he proposed the Rosary as “an effective aid to countering the devastating effects of this crisis typical of our age”.
Benedict XVI, too, wished to revitalize the recitation of the Rosary: “The Holy Rosary is not a pious practice banished to the past, like prayers of other times thought of with nostalgia”, he said at the end of his prayer at the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major on 3 May 2008. “Instead, the Rosary is experiencing a new springtime”, he said. “Without a doubt, this is one of the most eloquent signs of love that the young generation nourish for Jesus and his Mother, Mary. In the current world, so dispersive, this prayer helps to put Christ at the centre”.
Three years earlier, in a message to young Catholics in the Netherlands, he wrote that “The recitation of the Rosary can help you learn the art of prayer with Mary’s simplicity and depth”. During an audience in May 2006, Benedict XVI invited the faithful “to intensify the pious practice of the Holy Rosary”. He said to young spouses: “I wish you may make use of the recitation of the Rosary in your family as a moment of spiritual growth under the maternal gaze of the Virgin Mary”. Speaking to the sick, he urged them “to turn with trust to Our Lady through this pious exercise, entrusting to her all of your needs”.
In October 2018, Pope Francis asked all the faithful to pray the Rosary every day, so that the Virgin Mary may help the Church in a period marked by “the revelation of sexual abuse, power and conscience on the part of clerics, consecrated persons and lay people, causing internal divisions”.
Francis has renewed this invitation on the eve of the Marian month in 2020, in order to contemplate together “the face of Christ with the heart of Mary”. Praying the Rosary “will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial”, wrote the Holy Father as he assured everyone, and especially “those suffering most greatly”, of his prayers.
Adapted from an article written by John Charles Putzolu in Vatican News, April 25, 2020.