History of the Rosary

This history was provided by Ann Doyle who has graciously allowed us to add it to our site.

– Super condensed Originally presented to the Holy Nativity Men’s Group July 2023 by Ann M. Doyle

We are going to look at:
  • St. Dominic
  • Confraternity of the Holy Rosary
  • How did the rosary become what it is today?
  • Epic Battle of Lepanto
  • St Louis de Montfort
  • MANY champions of the Rosary—see Father Calloway’s book 2

First, the name rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, a garden of roses OR a garland of roses.

The rosary developed out of the prayer beads and knotted cords for counting prayers that Christians have used from long ago. These usually consisted of Our Fathers (Paters) and later, Hail Mary’s (Aves). This prayer ritual was devised largely for those who were illiterate (even among the monks) but wanted to pray in a way that mirrored the 150 Psalms that the monks read each day. Therefore, there are 150 Hail Mary’s recited in a “complete” rosary, that is, in saying all three original sets of Mysteries.

St. Dominic vs. Some Scholars
Some scholars point out that it was probably not St. Dominic who should get credit for receiving the rosary from the Blessed Mother’s hands and teaching it to others. Nevertheless, over the centuries, numerous popes have endorsed this tradition, so let’s travel back to the 1200s and take a look at St. Dominic.

St. Dominic

The Albigensian heresy was running rampant in the early 1200s, especially in France. The Church was determined to stamp it out, but for some reason that strange philosophy kept gaining ground. It was a twisted set of beliefs that bore little resemblance to Christianity, but many Christians nevertheless were attracted to this heresy, formed from Christianity mixed with Eastern concepts that came to Europe via trade, etc.

Here is a partial listing of what Albigensianism taught:
  • All things physical in this world, including the human body, are evil, since they were created by the “evil principle.” The “good principle” created all things spiritual.
  • Jesus did not come to Earth as a real man, but only apparently a man. He only seemed to suffer execution, and his role while here was solely instructive; He did not redeem us.
  • There is no purgatory.
  • Man, they taught, is a living contradiction. Hence, the liberation of the soul from its captivity in the body is the true end of our being. To attain this, suicide is commendable; it was customary among them in the form of the endura (starvation). The extinction of bodily life on the largest scale consistent with human existence is also a perfect aim. As generation propagates the slavery of the soul to the body, perpetual chastity should be practiced. Matrimonial intercourse is unlawful; concubinage, being of a less permanent nature, is preferable to marriage. Abandonment of his wife by the husband, or vice versa, is desirable. Generation was abhorred by the Albigenses even in the animal kingdom. Consequently, abstention from all animal food, except fish, was enjoined. Their belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, the result of their logical rejection of purgatory, furnishes another explanation for the same abstinence. To this practice they added long and rigorous fasts. 1
Enter St. Dominic, from Spain, who founded the Dominican order (aka the Order of Preachers) in the 1200s. His order became known as the dogs of God (Domini canes) for their dogged pursuit of lost souls and the heresies that led them astray.

Dominic was always devoted to the Blessed Mother. He faithfully prayed “Mary’s Psalter”: 150 Hail Mary’s, patterned after the 150 Psalms that monks recited.

Per Dominican and Church tradition, in 1208 Dominic was in France, despairing at his inability to help stop the Albigensian heresy. He withdrew to a forest to do penance, and the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She told Dominic:
  • Wonder not that until now you have obtained so little fruit by your labors; you have spent them on a barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the earth, he began by sending down on it the fertilizing rain of the Angelic Salutation [Hail Mary]. Therefore, preach my Psalter. 2

And the Blessed Mother proceeded to instruct him on how to use the rosary. She said it was to be used as a “weapon of war and a battering ram for heresy.” This rosary included the Mysteries—3 different sets of reflections, each consisting of 50 Aves, that reinforced in the praying person’s mind and heart the major events, the sacrifices and sorrows, of Mary’s and Jesus’ lives. These Mysteries also drove home the belief in Jesus’ being both the divine God and a physical man, in contrast to what the Albigensians were teaching.

Dominic set out again on his mission with new zeal, teaching the rosary to the people, and the heresy was subdued.

Dominicans continued to say and share the rosary in their travels. It spread and became part of the Dominican habit, worn hanging from their belt, on the left, as a sword ready to be drawn for battle.

St. Dominic founded the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, and it is still going, worldwide! You may join or just find out more by visiting rosary-center.org.

How did the rosary become what it is today?
  • The Hail Mary as a prayer has been stable from the early Church since the first half of it comes straight from Scripture—the Annunciation and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The Church added the words Mary and Jesus to the Hail Mary in the 1200s. In the 1300s, when the Black Death swept Europe, the second part—Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death—was added and spread. In the 1500s the Church codified the prayers of the rosary, and the additions became standard.
  • The Our Father comes straight from Scripture. This prayer contains Jesus’ instructions on how to pray to the Father.
  • The Glory Be to the Father was an ancient prayer said at the end of each Psalm as the monks read through them.
  • The Fatima Prayer was added between each decade in 1930, officially, as Mary had requested during her appearance at Fatima in 1917. It is optional.
  • Apostles Creed. The form we use dates back to the 400s.

  • NOTE: St. Louis de Montfort is credited with adding the set of prayers that introduce the main part of the rosary: Apostles Creed, 1 Our Father, 3 Hail Mary’s, and the Glory Be.

  • Hail, Holy Queen (Salve Regina) was composed in the eleventh century and added as the prayer on the rosary’s centerpiece.

In sum, the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen (archbishop), described the rosary well:
  • The rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known; it is the book of the simple, which initiates them into mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world and open on the substance of the next. 2

What about the Mysteries of the Rosary?

As mentioned earlier, Mother Mary herself handed the 3 sets of Mysteries—Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious—to St. Dominic. This makes sense since she intended the rosary to be a teaching tool for Dominic to reinforce key events in Christ’s life, and his divinity.

There are other theories about the Mysteries’ origins, however (e.g., Dominic of Prussia in the 1400s) that I have not investigated. Others say that St. Seraphim of Sarov, in the Eastern Church, received the rosary in the 800s from the Virgin Mary. That rosary is structured also as 15 decades of Aves, separated by Paters, and the 15 Mysteries are remarkably similar to those we know. However, that rosary never became an official tradition of the Eastern Church.

While the early psalters (strings of prayer beads) contained 150
beads, most rosaries today are made of only 50 Hail Mary’s in the main body. They are arranged into five sets of 10 beads each, with each set or decade separated by an Our Father bead. In addition, there is a short string of introductory prayers that hang from the rosary’s centerpiece (see Note above).

The Mysteries given to St. Dominic by the Blessed Mother guide us in our reflections while saying the rosary each day. There are three original sets of Mysteries: Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious. Each set contains five distinct events in Mary’s and Jesus’ lives, and each set is assigned to a different day of the week for recitation.

Pope John Paul II’s addition: In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II proposed adding the Luminous Mysteries to the rosary to “highlight the Christological character of the rosary.” That is, the Pope felt that there was not enough Jesus in it. This set of Mysteries is optional. 3

Rosary Miracles--Battle of Lepanto May Be the Most Famous

The rosary has its own feast day on the calendar, October 7. To see why, we go back to the 1500s:

October 1571. The Muslims were pushing hard to invade Western Europe. One of their leaders proclaimed that he would not rest until he had stabled his horses in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Muslims (Turks, Ottomans) had been sweeping the Eastern Church regions, capturing city after city, even Constantinople. They had ratcheted up their raids on European cities all along the Mediterranean coast, looting, kidnapping men, women, and children for their use, and brutally killing the elderly. Muslim ships were massing in the ports of Istanbul, and Pope Pious V was very worried. He formed the Holy League and appealed to all Europe to contribute to an armed force that could meet the Muslims in battle upon the sea. From Spain, Italy, Germany, and other countries came material help. Spain contributed vast sums of money as well as ships, as did Venice. Here were ships of all description—new and powerful vessels loaded with cannon, sailors, commanders, weapons, and the Christian cross. They sailed east across the Mediterranean toward the great confrontation. The Pope urged all Christians to pray the rosary for victory over the Muslims. The Christian fleet, led by Don Juan of Austria, met its opponent off the coast of Greece. Six hundred ships moved towards each other, the Turks’ vessels far outnumbering the Christians’, but less capable. The battle began. It lasted four hours and produced the most casualties of any one battle in history, with 40,000 dead and thousands wounded.

It is said that on that day the solemn Pope was meeting with some officials in the Vatican. At one point he stood up and walked to the window. When he turned around his face was alight. He announced that the Holy League had been victorious. More than a week later, the messenger arrived with the news.

The victory was so spectacular and the result—the saving of Christian Europe from the Muslims—that the Pope declared, in gratitude to the Blessed Mother, that October 7 was from then on the Feast of Mary, Queen of Victory. This was later changed to the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, for all the rosaries prayed for Europe’s deliverance. Pius V also declared an indulgence for all those who joined the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. 4

Note: The Confraternity is the same organization mentioned earlier in the section on St. Dominic. It is still going and is easy to join, and carries many benefits. Visit rosary-center.org.

St. Louis de Montfort

St. Louis was born in France in 1673. As a priest, he was appointed an evangelistic missionary by the Pope, who recognized the effective preaching that the saint carried out far and wide. He was a tremendous champion of the rosary, preaching devotion to Our Lady wherever he went. St. Louis, on top of all his travel and preaching, wrote prolifically. His two most famous works are the booklets True Devotion to Mary and The Secret of the Rosary (both available on line from TAN books).

True Devotion was discovered first, buried in a field for about 150 years. (However it happened, that interment probably saved the precious book from being destroyed in the bonfires of religious writings during the French Revolution of the late 1700s.)

The Secret was found later. Both books were hugely popular and fired renewed devotion to the rosary. St. Louis enrolled 100,000 people in the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary in his short lifetime of 43 years.

Waxed and Waned

Promotion of the rosary has waxed and waned over the centuries. One period of roughly 100 years was dubbed the Age of the Rosary, from 1830 to 1954. Many Marian apparitions were recorded, and the Church added two new Marian dogmas When the Vatican affirmed in 1862 the miraculous appearances of Our Lady at Lourdes (France) that took place four years earlier, a wave of Marian devotion swept the world. Her image from Lourdes, with a rosary hanging from her right arm, has become familiar to Catholics everywhere.

Later, in 1917, Our Lady famously appeared to three children in a series of visits at Fatima in Portugal. She told the children to pray the rosary every day for an end to the war (WWI) and for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.

Interest in the rosary subsided after Vatican II in the 1960s. As St. Louis de Montfort said:
  • As long as priests followed Saint Dominic’s example and preached devotion to the holy rosary, piety and fervor thrived throughout the Christian world and in those religious orders which were devoted to the rosary. But since people have neglected this gift from heaven, all kinds of sin and disorder have spread far and wide.
Happily, devotion to the rosary is once again growing.

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