How To Transform Your Time With The Rosary
Out of all the popes in the 20th century, two, in particular, had a great love and devotion to the rosary: St. John Paul II and Leo XIII. In their voluminous writings, they give us many glimpses into the depths of the rosary. Yet the enthusiasm of John Paul and Leo can sound strange to modern ears. Devotion to the rosary fell out of fashion in between the baby boomer generation and their children. That didn’t dim John Paul’s efforts to promote it, no matter if Catholics thought it too boring or unappealing. If you’re in that boat—finding the rosary boring or unappealing—or if you consider it “vain repetition,” consider this possible explanation: maybe you’re doing it wrong.
In all honesty, the boredom can afflict any type of prayer. We can be distracted, disengaged, or not in a good spiritual place to connect well with God—whether the prayer follows a form (like the Our Father) or not (simply talking to God). The rosary is more prone to those pitfalls, though, because of the repetitive nature of the prayers. So why do saints and popes insist on its power? Why does Our Lady make amazing promises to those who devote themselves to the rosary?
We have to look deeper at it, past the decades, Hail Marys, and Our Fathers. The rosary taken only as 78 prayers said in succession is like a map with no names—leading to great treasure without a place to begin. It comes alive in the contemplation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Personally, I’ve felt intimidated by the word ‘contemplation;’ it’s easy to talk about vaguely but hard to do. With some help from the writings of St. John Paul II and Leo XIII, I hope to encourage all readers to pick up their rosary and sit at the feet of Mary.
Foundation in the Gospel: St. John Paul II
It’s not just a response to an apologetics question—the rosary really is based on Jesus. In the opening paragraphs of his encyclical Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul II meets this head-on:
“The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium.”
The Gospel can be summed up in the four sets of mysteries of the rosary. The Word became flesh fulfilling all the promises and covenants of the Old Testament (Joyful Mysteries). Jesus suffered and died on the cross for fallen humanity (Sorrowful Mysteries), and opened to us not only the gates of heaven but sends the very life of God, the Holy Spirit (Glorious Mysteries). The Luminous Mysteries add the sacraments, the proclamation of the Kingdom, and the divinity of Jesus. The gospel is there every step of the way.
With the gospels as a launching point, praying the mysteries can quite literally come alive. While praying the decade of Hail Marys, try reflecting on the Scripture stories employing the methods of the spiritual masters. One of those methods comes to us from St. Ignatius of Loyola. Employ the imagination and picture being inside the scene. Here’s an example of that, using the Transfiguration (the fourth Luminous Mystery). There is also a Scriptural rosary, where a verse is read before each Hail Mary. By using the Word of God, we encounter the Word Made Flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ. And perhaps without even knowing it, any of those methods bring the soul to the door of contemplation. It can start with something as simple as your imagination! The key factor is Him Whom we seek.
John Paul II continues on the centrality of Jesus in the rosary:
“It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb. With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love.”
The first essential element to the rosary is its foundation in the gospels. John Paul captures another essential element in this quote. The rosary echoes the Magnificat, the song of praise that Mary offers to God in Luke 1:46-55. Mary’s Magnificat doesn’t include a single word of praise for herself. “All generations will call me blessed,” Our Lady says, because “He who is mighty has done great things for me.” Her entire song focuses on the actions of God: what He has done, is doing, and will continue to do. Her reaction overflows with thankfulness and praise to God. In each set of mysteries, we meditate on different aspects to the saving work of Jesus—like Mary, rejoicing in what mighty things God has done for us.
Getting in the door to the “school of Mary” requires these first two points: the foundation in the Gospel and the proper orientation of the prayer, i.e. the praise of God. If we aren’t doing that, the rosary will stay dry, boring, and repetitive. Rosary beads aren’t magic, and they’re not transactional. At its heart, the rosary is a relational prayer.
Once Our Mother has our attention, she leads us to “contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of His love,” as John Paul said. This isn’t out of character for Our Lady: her last recorded words in Scripture were those at the wedding at Cana. “Do whatever He tells you,” she told the waiters; she tells us the same thing today. She desires nothing more than to draw all of humanity to her Divine Son.
So, closeness with Mary means greater closeness with Jesus. This is grace upon grace! A small prayer takes us into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And when we draw close to Jesus, He brings us into the Holy Trinity. He promises us something extraordinary:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, it is he that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
Union with Christ gives us a deeply intimate union with God. If we stay connected to Him, Jesus promises His love and that we will bear much fruit. The love that flows between the Father and the Son… available to us? Incredible! This is the whole point of the Christian life. It is the fulfillment of all our desire. The rosary is a way to get there.
The Need for Devotion: Leo XIII
Technically, devotion to the rosary is optional; the Church doesn’t require recitation of the rosary like it requires weekly attendance at Sunday Mass. In their wisdom, the pastors of the Church recommend certain devotions to respond to specific circumstances. Leo XIII saw one remedy to the tumultuous times of his papacy: the rosary. For as much as modern readers think of John Paul II as the pope of the rosary, we would’ve given the same title to Leo XIII had we lived to see his day. He wrote a staggering twelve encyclicals and five apostolic letters on the rosary. He was the first to set aside the month of October as the month of the rosary, in 1883. In that year, he wrote Supremi Apostolis Officio to prepare the faithful for October. Leo continued the practice of a preparatory encyclical each year until his death.
Pope Leo XIII’s pontificate lasted from 1878 to 1903. A quick study shows his papacy to have run up against many opposing forces. Governments around the world turned more secular and more hostile toward the Catholic Church. Freemasonry openly threatened the Church, prompting Leo to promulgate Humanum Genus, an encyclical condemning Freemasonry. He was also the one who penned the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, after a mystical experience that foretold a hundred-year unleashing of Satan. When Leo recommended the rosary to combat the events of his papacy, he wasn’t encouraging an aloof piety. He was asking the faithful to pick up a spiritual weapon. He advocated the rosary particularly in troubling times, noting that:
“This devotion, so great and so confident, to the august Queen of Heaven, has never shone forth with such brilliancy as when the militant Church of God has seemed to be endangered by the violence of heresy spread abroad, or by an intolerable moral corruption, or by the attacks of powerful enemies.”
His 1884 encyclical Laetitiae Sancte pointed out the rosary as an antidote to the pitfalls of (then) modern life. The Joyful Mysteries centered on the "hidden" life of Christ and the holy family at Nazareth. They stood in contrast to the contemporary disdain for work, poverty, and simplicity of life. The Sorrowful Mysteries spoke against humanity’s distaste for suffering. Both Our Lord and Our Lady exhibited great fortitude and faith in the face of brutal suffering. The Glorious Mysteries set our compasses right: all too many lose sight of the final goal of heaven. The pursuit of worldly wealth, power, or pleasure dominates the minds of those focused only on this world.
Was Leo writing for those in 1884 or to us today?
The Catholic Church currently suffers under the weight of its own sins. The crisis of clerical sexual abuse and misconduct is staggering, and even that feels like an understatement. A lukewarm faith is not enough to carry us through times like these. Listen to St. John Paul II and cast your nets out into the deep waters of the gospel while praying the rosary. Follow Pope Leo XIII’s example: pick up one of our greatest spiritual weapons against sin, despair, and the evils of our time. Pray the rosary every day and let Mary bring you into an encounter with her Son.