Busted: Garry Wills

The controversial Catholic author talks about his new book on one of the Church's oldest prayers

As a cultural historian and author, Garry Wills has spent more than three decades researching and writing on historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan (his Lincoln at Gettsyburg won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for nonfiction) but it is as a writer on religion that Wills has been making his mark of late. With books like Papal Sin (2000), St. Augustine’s Memory (2002) and Why I Am A Catholic (2002) Wills has been both an outspoken advocate for and critic of the Catholic church.

His latest book, The Rosary, is both a history of one of Catholicism’s oldest practices as well as a prayer guide. Wills debunks myths surrounding the origins of the rosary and brings to light many of its improper uses as well. The Rosary also contains wonderful reflections on the prayers said on each of the beads and on each of the “mysteries” in the life of Jesus and his mother Mary that Catholics traditionally contemplate while praying the rosary.

BustedHalo: You’ve written about your own Catholicism in the past, what prompted you to pick the rosary as opposed to any other devotion, or sacrament, or movement within the church, etc?

Garry Wills: The rosary is a perfect blend of the passive-contemplative way of taking “time out” from life’s bustle and the active meditation on episodes in the life of Jesus, of which we are a part as members of his mystical body. It involves the basic prayers of our faith. In the ancient church, Christians were urged to say the Creed daily, as a way of renewing one’s baptismal vows. The Our Father is, of course, the only prayer recommended by the Lord himself in the Gospels. The Didache (from 100 C.E.) told people they should say the Our Father three times a day, in honor of the Trinity. In the rosary, we double that, saying it six times. The Hail Mary is put together from two Gospel sources, the Angel’s salute to Mary (Luke 1.28) and Elizabeth’s blessing of her (Luke 1.41). Our private devotion is woven into the whole prayer life of the community.

BH: You state in the book that the rosary is “suited to our modern world,” a kind of “time-out from the hurry of mundane affairs or an escape from purely selfish concerns. Since our site is aimed at young adults, are you seeing more young people in their 20’s and 30’s praying the rosary these days? Other demographics?

“The rosary was used almost as a magic amulet in past days of superstition, detracting from its deep Scriptural meanings, which Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have reminded us.”

GW: I have not seen many young people saying the rosary, but I hope this book will encourage them to do so. I must say that most people I have shown it to so far have said they will begin or renew the practice.

BH: Why do you think the rosary sort of “fell out of favor” with Catholics? What caused it to fade away and when do you think that started?

GW: The rosary was used almost as a magic amulet in past days of superstition, detracting from its deep Scriptural meanings, which Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have reminded us in their eloquent documents on the rosary.

BH: A criticism from some fundamentalist Protestants and others who are detractors of Marian devotions is that Catholics have more than a fascination or an admiration with Mary-that they elevate her to a type of Goddess, or as some even within the church state a co-redemptrix. You combat this thinking well in the book. Could you share a bit of how you see Mary’s role?

GW: The rosary, far from being “Mariolatrous,” is entirely Jesus-centered. Eighteen of the twenty episodes for meditation are about his acts. Only two commemorate Mary. We pray with her to him as we ponder the meaning of his acts. The Hail Mary itself, as I pointed out, is based on Scripture passages, as Protestants rightly desire.

BH: I learned a lot about the history of the rosary from your book. You talk a bit about the rosary being used to gain indulgences. That people would miss the point and run through the rosary quickly in order to gain as many indulgences as possible. At the recent synod, one of the outcome statements that I read was that The Synod encouraged a renewed catechesis on indulgences-especially with regard to the practice of Eucharistic Adoration. Is this cause for alarm?

GW: The church has suffered greatly from indulgences, from their hasty invention to spur on the Crusades, through their use to motivate people in killing Albigensians, to their role in helping to precipitate the Reformation.

BH: Rosary beads are also often used by pop culture icons (Lindsay Lohan used them in a recent video that showed her praying and Madonna also used them in the 80’s and 90’s). Do you think they are they trying to convey some kind of piety or adherence to their religious tradition, are they mocking the practice, or is it just an identifiable Catholic symbol that they use to get attention? Why do you think they pick the rosary for this purpose? Is this a good thing for the rosary or do you think it makes Catholics look silly and superstitious?

GW: Pop-cosmetic uses of crucifixes, rosaries, stars of David, etc. are trivializing and an insult to believers.

BH: One of the main features of this book is the beautiful and vibrant paintings by Tintoretto’s that you have renderings of in the book. Why did you pick Tintoretto’s work to be featured as opposed to another artist? Did any other artist even come close to matching his work?

GW: I believe Tintoretto is able to give imagery to theological truths in a way that I have not found in other painters. For instance: Most painters show Jesus sitting passive at the Last Supper, with others reacting to his words. Tintoretto shows him stretching out both arms with the Bread of Life, in a pose that equates the action with his death on the Cross. Chesterton joins the two actions in words:

Oh truly we be broken hears,

For that cause, it is said,

We light our candles to the Lord

Who broke himself for bread.

BH: When you talk about the sorrowful mysteries you explain some of the non-biblical or legendary aspects associated with the Stations of the cross (e.g. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus). Why do you think some of these “legends” took hold in Catholic tradition and how important do you think they are today in people’s faith journey?

GW: The legends grew up in the tracing of the putative path of Jesus on the way to Calvary. They are a form of folk religion which some find satisfying; but they do not deserve the deep respect of anything that is in scripture.