This week’s “Ask a Priest” question is about a difficulty some people have with certain forms of Catholic prayer and devotion:
I’m dating someone who comes from a Methodist background and now practices at a non-denominational church. He and his family do not understand repetitive prayer like praying the Rosary. Why as Catholics do we pray the Rosary and why is that repetition of prayer not considered babbling or meaningless?
To respond to this question, some historical context is helpful. The Rosary in its current form took centuries to develop. It began simply as a means for laypeople to imitate the practice of monks and nuns, whose prayer life was based on the 150 biblical Psalms. Since most people could not afford copies of the Psalter (and many were illiterate), they would instead pray 150 Our Fathers or Hail Marys, using beads to keep count. Over time, the practice of meditating on the life of Jesus came to be connected with the saying of the prayers, which were divided into groups of 10, or “decades.”
Eventually, 3 sets of 5 “mysteries” – the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious – came to be seen as standard, allowing those saying the Rosary to meditate on the most significant events of the Redemption. Beginning with the Annunciation to Mary by the Angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38), one can “walk with Mary” through the events of Jesus’ life, culminating with her own participation in His victory over death in her Assumption and Coronation.
In 2002, St. John Paul II issued an Apostolic Letter on the Rosary (Rosarium Virginis Mariae), in which he proposed adding an additional 5 “Luminous” mysteries, covering the period between Jesus’ childhood and His Passion: His Baptism, the Wedding at Cana, His preaching of the Kingdom, the Transfiguration, and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. While the historical link with the 150 Psalms was severed, it allowed for a richer meditation on the life and work of Christ.
In this document, John Paul also offered a helpful suggestion for maintaining one’s focus while saying the Rosary: After the word “Jesus” in each Hail Mary, add a phrase related to the mystery being meditated upon. For example, for the 1st Joyful Mystery, the Annunciation, one could say, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, the Word made flesh. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Since the Incarnation took place at the Annunciation, when Mary gave her fiat (“let it be”) to God’s plan, that is the point at which the Word of God took on the flesh of our humanity and began to dwell among us (cf. John 1:14). Another example: the 2nd Sorrowful Mystery is the Scourging at the Pillar, so the words “wounded for our offenses” could be added after the word “Jesus” in each Hail Mary (cf. Isaiah 53:5). Other phrases could be chosen – use whatever works best for you.
The Rosary is ultimately Christ-centered and Scriptural. There are various forms of “Scriptural Rosaries” – a passage from the Bible illustrating the mystery can be read before each one, while other versions attach a particular verse to each bead. The “Hail Mary” itself has its origins in the Scriptures, beginning with Gabriel’s salutation at the Annunciation, followed by Elizabeth’s exclamation to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” at the Visitation (Luke 1:42). The word “Jesus” was added later, making the Holy Name the center of the prayer.
Each decade begins with the Lord’s Prayer, again echoing the monastic practice, and concludes with the “Glory Be”, grounding the entire meditation in the Blessed Trinity. Following this, the “Fatima Prayer” may be added, dating to the apparitions of the Blessed Mother in Portugal in 1917: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”
There is, of course, repetition in the Rosary. But Jesus’ statement about repetition in prayer (Matthew 6:7 – “do not babble like the pagans” or “do not heap up empty phrases”) is meant to warn us against thinking that we can force God to do what we want “because of our many words.” Our prayer should be founded on trust in the One who knows what we need before we ask Him (Matthew 6:8), not on a perceived need to manipulate God to accede to our desires. The repetition of the Rosary, on the other hand, allows us to meditate deeply on the life of Jesus, who perfectly fulfilled His Father’s will in all things. May this prayer allow us to imitate Him more perfectly.
Prayer Shawl Ministry in the News: The September issue of the Southside Newsline has a front-page story on Holy Family’s own Prayer Shawl Ministry. Congratulations to the members of this beautiful ministry of care and compassion for the recognition of their work!
Priests’ Retreat: The priests of the diocese will be on retreat from the afternoon of Monday, October 2nd, through the morning of Friday, October 6th. On Monday, we will have our regular morning Masses at 7:00 am and 9:00 am. The rest of the week there will be no daily Masses. We will, however, have a Communion Service each day at 9:00 am from Tuesday through Friday. We will resume our regular Mass schedule with our First Saturday Mass on October 7th.
What does the Church say about superstition?
The First Commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to His people. It proscribes superstition and irreligion. Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion…. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions they demand, is to fall into superstition. (Paragraphs 2110-11)