The Dominican Rosary

Maureen Dillon

Why do Catholics Pray the Rosary?

Perhaps one of the most common and beautiful devotions practiced by Catholics is the recitation of the Holy Rosary. October is recognized as the month of the rosary, and, in honor of Our Lady’s prayer, this article is going to touch on the history of the rosary and its structure. This beautiful devotion has also been a source of some contention and confusion in our Protestant brothers and sisters. For this reason, we’ll close with some comments on we’ll close with some anwers to the question of "why do Catholics pray the rosary?" and and some of the spiritual benefits it offers.

Where Did the Rosary Come From?

blog imageThe origins of the rosary in the form we pray it today are a bit mysterious. St. Dominic (d. 1221) is often credited with its institution, since the first definite historical reference to the rosary as we know it today comes from his life and preaching. Some traditions hold that St. Dominic was asked by Our Lady herself to pray the rosary in his efforts to defeat the Albigensian Heresy in France. Many scholars question St. Dominic’s role in forming the rosary, however.

Certain parts of the rosary are known to have been prayed before St. Dominic’s time. As part of their prayer and meditation, the early monks practiced the Divine Office, during which they recite all 150 Psalms throughout the course of the day. It is thought that the rosary was established as a similar meditation aide for the laity. This repetitious devotion would have given the lay community something that they could easily learn and practice in the course of their daily lives. As many of the lay community at the time could not read and had no access to a personal bible, the devotion would have to be made up of short, well known prayers (like the Our Father and Hail Mary). In fact, the first prayer to be commonly recited in this way in the private prayer lives of the laity was the Our Father. The faithful would recite between 50 and 100 Our Fathers (or Paternosters) using a set of prayer beads similar in concept to our modern day rosary beads.


The use of beads in this form of meditation is ancient as well. Many cultures throughout history (including pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures) have used a form of “prayer beads;” and many still use them. The English word “bead” is actually etymologically linked to “bede,” an Old English noun meaning “prayer.” In their original Christian context, the beads were first called Paternosters rather than rosaries to reflect the prayer that was said with them. It is thought that the shift in use of these beads to say Hail Marys (or Ave Marias) began in the 12th Century. They eventually became know as “rosaries” from the Latin term “rosary”—which means “garland of roses”—and the recognition of the rose as a symbol of Our Lady. Over time, the rosary in the form we have it today—including Our Fathers, Glory Be’s, and meditative “mysteries” for each decade—was formed. Now we have this beautiful devotion to aide us in our prayer and meditation.

The Structure of the Rosary

The rosary that is most commonly prayed today is sometimes called “the Dominican rosary” to distinguish it from other similar forms of prayer (e.g., The Franciscan Rosary of the Seven Joys). The Dominican Rosary opens with the Apostle’s Creed, one Our Father, three Hail Marys (often offered for the Pope’s intentions and for the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity), and a Glory Be. The prayer then moves on to the five decades of a single set of “Mysteries”—each decade consisting of one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and a Glory Be.

The different “Mysteries” were a matter of tradition for many many years, but were standardized into three sets of five decades—the Joyful Mysteries, Sorrowful Mysteries, and Glorious Mysteries—in the 16th century by Pope Pius V. Each decade of each set of Mysteries focuses on a moment in the life of Christ:

Joyful Mysteries:

The Annunciation
Mary’s Visit to Elizabeth
The Nativity of Our Lord
The Presentation of Our Lord
The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

Sorrowful Mysteries:

The Agony in the Garden
The Scourging at the Pillar
The Crowning with Thorns
The Carrying of the Cross
The Crucifixion

Glorious Mysteries:

The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
The Assumption
The Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven and Earth

Pope John Paul II introduced a new set of Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries or Mysteries of Light, to the rosary in 2002:

Luminous Mysteries:

The Baptism of Our Lord at the Jordan
The Wedding Feast at Cana
The Proclamation of the Kingdom
The Transfiguration
The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

This structure allows those praying the rosary to derive some truly beautiful spiritual benefits from the devotion.

Why do Catholics Pray the Rosary?

The foundations of Catholic devotion to Mary can be found in both Scripture and Tradition. The rosary is just one of the beautiful devotions to Mary that Catholics practice. Our Protestant brothers and sisters generally denounce this and other Marian devotions as idolatry, or, at the very least, a distraction from our personal and direct relationship with God. However, as Pope Pius XII once said, “The Rosary is the compendium of the entire Gospel.” That is to say, that each decade is dedicated to a single and significant moment in salvation history. The structure of the rosary, with it’s well-known, repetitious prayer should not be mistaken for the meaningless repetition denounced by Christ in the gospel of Matthew. It is instead a format that cultivates mental peace and interior space for meditation on these moments in the life of Christ that encapsulate the mystery of the Incarnation, the person of Christ, and the beautiful relationship that has been built between our God and his creation. So, although the prayers of the rosary are Marian, the devotion is very Christocentric and nourishes our interior and spiritual life in a way that non-meditative prayer does not.

Through the study of books one seeks God; by meditation one finds him.”

This quote from Padre Pio testifies to how important it is for the faithful to find opportunities to incorporate meditation into their prayer life. The rosary is a wonderful way to do this. You can start with saying a single decade every day and work toward a full rosary. Many people build such a deep devotion to the Rosary that they pray all the mysteries every day. Regardless, working the rosary, with it meditative nature, into your daily prayer will bring result in abundant graces and spiritual benefits.

Do you pray the rosary daily?