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Fr. Joe Answers:
The rosary is not the most important Catholic prayer–that “honor” belongs to the Eucharist–but it has been a popular and widespread devotion among Catholics from the Middle Ages until the present day.
Jesus would not have prayed the Rosary, which is actually a collection of prayers. Only one of these, the Our Father or “Lord’s Prayer,” is attributed to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The first section of the “Hail Mary,” the most frequently recited prayer in the Rosary, is adapted from two passages in the gospel of Luke: the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:28) and the words of Elizabeth to Mary (Luke 1:42). The Apostle’s Creed is a profession of faith which originated in Rome and was used in the early church to instruct adults preparing for baptism. The other prayer in the Rosary is the Doxology or “Glory be…” a common way of concluding a Jewish prayer which was retained by the Christian community.
The Rosary began as a devotion of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. A tradition dating from the 15th century has ascribed the origin of the Rosary to an appearance of the Blessed Mother to St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominicans. The Dominicans, through their world-wide preaching, encouraged whoever listened to them to make the Rosary a regular part of their own prayer. Saint Pius V, the bishop of Rome in the 16th century, actively promoted the Rosary as a devotion for the whole church.
The prayers of the Rosary are organized around a series of meditations on scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary, as found in the gospels or in the tradition of the church. In the days before the printing press, when Bibles and other books were rare, hand-written and kept for safe-keeping in monasteries, the “mysteries” of the rosary were an effective way of learning and remembering the most important gospel stories.
Some observers have found the repetition of prayers in the Rosary hard to understand. Repetition in prayer may have two meanings: first, it emphasizes the importance of the words (i.e., “Holy, holy, holy” or “Alleluia, alleluia”). Second, repetition helps to quiet down the mind from its usual preoccupations and enables the prayer to focus more attentively on the mysteries at hand.
The change recently introduced by John Paul II was the addition of five “mysteries of light” based on scripture passages about the teaching and actions of the adult Jesus. The Pope’s action reflects the increased interest in recent years on the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God. While the events of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection easily capture our imagination and memory, these original mysteries cannot be fully appreciated without an awareness of what Jesus taught and how he lived out his teaching in a life of service to others.