A Brief History of the Rosary: Ever Ancient, Ever New

What is the rosary? And where did the rosary come from?

The rosary is an incredibly rich practice of prayer that developed slowly, evolving over the centuries. The first recorded use of the word “rosary” did not appear until 1597. But the roots of the rosary are found far earlier.

While it has been largely abandoned by Catholics in the West, the rosary is one of the most powerful prayers you may ever pray.

The History of the Rosary: Early Origins

The rosary has roots in several early Christian prayer traditions. They share similar formats to the rosary with repetitive structures and prayers.

  • Third-century Christian hermits and monks in Egypt (known as Desert Fathers) used stones and later prayer ropes to keep track when praying the 150 Psalms.
  • Various forms of “the Jesus Prayer” (such as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”) became popular. The short prayer was said over and over again in a type of mantra while counting beads.
  • The Our Father was also prayed 150 times, using a string of beads with five decades referred to as a Paternoster (Latin for “Our Father”)

The Hail Mary Prayer

The Hail Mary prayer came together slowly. It took more than a thousand years. The earliest version simply added Mary’s name to the message delivered by the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” (Luke 1:28).

Around 1050 AD, the words Elizabeth used to greet Mary during the Visitation were added: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42). In 1261, Pope Urban IV added the name of Jesus to the end of Elizabeth’s words.

St. Peter Canisius published the Hail Mary in his 1555 Catechism with almost the entire final petition: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.”

Eleven years later, the Catechism of the Council of Trent (a work that Canisius was instrumental in creating) included, for the first time, the entire final petition, concluding with the words “now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

The version of the Hail Mary we pray today was given official approval in 1568.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Meaning of Rosary Beads

Catholics were not the first to pray with beads. And while the exact origin of prayer beads is unknown, men and women of many faiths and cultures (Hindus, Greeks, Buddhists, and more) have (and do) use beads to pray. In fact, the word bead in English is actually derived from an Old English word bede that means prayer.

The use of prayer beads almost universally is to allow the person to keep track of the number of prayers that have been said, while at the same time focusing on the deeper meaning of the prayers themselves.

While praying with beads certainly wasn’t an original idea, it’s a powerful reminder that everything before the coming of Jesus was preparing for that moment and that God yearns to transform everything into something holy, even something as ordinary as a small rope with some beads on it.

Rediscover The Rosary

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How Many Beads Are on a Set of Rosary Beads?

Today, Roman Catholics use a rosary made up of 59 beads. The 6 large beads are used for praying the Our Father prayer, and the 53 smaller beads are used for praying the Hail Mary prayer. Other prayers of the rosary include the Apostles’ Creed, the Glory Be, and the Hail, Holy Queen.

There are 5 decades, or groups of 10 small beads, that make up the main portion of the rosary.

The Story of St. Dominic

It is widely believed that in 1214 St. Dominic had a vision of Mary. She is said to have presented him with the rosary, both the beads and the prayers to be prayed.

Dominic had a tremendous devotion to Mary and the rosary, which he promoted wherever he traveled to preach. He encouraged Catholics to gather in small groups to pray together what was an early form of the rosary together. These were quite possibly the first expressions of the prayer groups and small group communities that are still having a powerful impact today.

The Story of St. Louis de Montfort

St. Louis de Montfort was ordained a priest in 1700. He was known not only as a preacher, but especially for his devotion to Mary and his practice praying the rosary. Through this devotion he wrote often on the idea of being consecrated to Jesus through Mary, recognizing that a powerful way to connect with God is through His mother. His writings make up some of the earliest works on Mariology, or the study of the theology of Mary.

The Growth of the Rosary

The earliest form of the rosary developed when Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) popularized an earlier version of the Hail Mary prayer by asking it to be prayed on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Many individuals began praying the Hail Mary in a repetitive fashion using a string of beads to keep track of the prayers.

After the full development of the Hail Mary prayer, the term “rosary” was finally given in 1597. For 320 years, from 1597 until 1917, the form of both the Hail Mary and the rosary remained the same.

During those 320 years, there was much written and spoken about the rosary. Most notably, Pope Paul VI said when we pray the rosary we can experience the key moments of the Gospel. It is a simple, beautiful, and focused meditation, especially when focusing on the mysteries of the rosary.

The Fatima Prayer

On May 13, 1917, Mary appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. She told them to come back to that exact place on the 13th day of each month for the next six months. Mary promised she would appear to them each time and entrust a message to them.

Mary told the children to pray for world peace by reciting the rosary every day. On July 13, 1917, Mary asked the children to add a short prayer to the end of each decade of the rosary:

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.

Today this is referred to as the Fatima prayer, and many Catholics incorporate it into the rosary as Mary requested.

The Mysteries of the Rosary

The mysteries of the rosary were introduced by Dominic of Prussia sometime between 1410 and 1439. This gave each decade of the rosary a unique quality. Each mystery leads us to ponder very specific events in the lives of Jesus and Mary and the lessons they hold for our own lives today.

There were originally three sets of mysteries: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries.

On October 16, 2002, almost 600 years after the original Mysteries of the rosary were established, Pope John Paul II proposed adding a new set of mysteries called the Luminous Mysteries (the Mysteries of Light).

The rosary is ever new because the situations and mysteries we are pondering have an unlimited number of dimensions to consider.

The Rosary and You

The rosary is an incredibly rewarding spiritual practice for the men and women of any age, and all ages. It is like an ancient treasure map that has led countless men and women from all walks of life to the treasures of peace, joy, clarity, and contentment. But don’t take our word for it. Try it for yourself.

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