Monday, October 07, 2013

The Rosary: Shedding Light on Mysteries

VIDEO: "The Rosary" composed by Ethelbert Nevin. Recorded 23 September 1951 for The Mario Lanza Show, starring "the most famous tenor in the world" himself, with studio orchestra conducted by Ray Sinatra.

Today, the western Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, established in 1571 by Pope Pius V, to commemorate the victory over Muslim forces at the Battle of Lepanto, saving Christian Europe from the conquest of Islam. In 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed its title to "The Feast of the Holy Rosary." Originally assigned to the first Sunday in October, Pope Pius X moved it to the 7th of October. Today, if only in the traditional usage, it is referred to as “The Feast of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

While the month of May is devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is October that is specifically devoted to the Rosary.

Tradition says that Saint Dominic received the Rosary from the Blessed Mother in a vision. We cannot be sure of this. What we can be sure of, is that the structure of the Rosary was derived from the number of Psalms, which were the bulk of the Divine Office chanted or recited by monks and clerics during the Middle Ages. 150 Paternosters eventually became 150 Avemarias. The latter in turn was broken down into three groups of fifty each, with every ten Aves punctuated by a Paternoster. Eventually, a brief meditation on the scriptures was attached to each prayer. Because this was easier and more accessible to the average layman, what we know as the Rosary was also called "the poor man's psalter." Popes throughout the centuries referred to it as "The Psalter of Our Lady."

In 2002, Pope John Paul II released the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, in which he proposed for optional use, an additional five "Mysteries of Light" or "Luminous Mysteries," which focused on key events in the life of Christ, so as to lend a Christological dimension to this devotion. Given the overwhelming popularity of the late pontiff, both during his life, the cult of his veneration after his death, and his impending canonization, I can just hear it now: “Hey there, O Black Hatted One, the pope made the Rosary twenty decades long. Get over it, duuude!”

Well, duuude, there is a problem with this assertion: the Pope never said that. Here is what he DID say:

A proposed addition to the traditional pattern

19. Of the many mysteries of Christ's life, only a few are indicated by the Rosary in the form that has become generally established with the seal of the Church's approval. The selection was determined by the origin of the prayer, which was based on the number 150, the number of the Psalms in the Psalter.

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ's public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion. In the course of those mysteries we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God. Declared the beloved Son of the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan, Christ is the one who announces the coming of the Kingdom, bears witness to it in his works and proclaims its demands. It is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5).

Consequently, for the Rosary to become more fully a “compendium of the Gospel”, it is fitting to add, following reflection on the Incarnation and the hidden life of Christ (the joyful mysteries) and before focusing on the sufferings of his Passion (the sorrowful mysteries) and the triumph of his Resurrection (the glorious mysteries), a meditation on certain particularly significant moments in his public ministry (the mysteries of light). This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer's traditional format, is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary's place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the Heart of Christ, ocean of joy and of light, of suffering and of glory.

Many devout Catholics, including those otherwise well versed in matters of faith, would overlook the careful wording in the document itself. We have highlighted them in red, so as to clarify anything they (apparently) missed. Note the last highlighted passage in particular ...

This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer's traditional format ...

What is an "essential aspect of the prayer's traditional format," you may ask? It would be its relationship to the Psalter from which its format is derived. If the pope wanted to make the Luminous Mysteries the norm, thus altering the "traditional format," he would have said so explicitly. He did not.

But walk into any Catholic bookstore, pick up any book, leaflet, holy card, or other instruction on the Rosary, and you will see that the new mysteries are given equal footing with the others, as opposed to being listed as an option, or listed separately. This is not so, and John Paul II did not intend it so. And yet, in the world of religious goods and supply, anything associated with John Paul II is a cash cow. Whatever the pious intentions of those who favor these additional contemplations (and it would never be the mission of this venue to call them into question), at the end of the day, it's all about the money.

Thankfully, at least one supplier never lost their senses. At the online store for St John Cantius Parish in Chicago, they offer a three audio CD set on the Traditional Rosary. For only $15.00, you can listen to a meditation on each mystery as the decade begins, and pray the Aves while listening to sacred music that is well suited for such contemplation. It's the perfect companion for praying the Psalter of Our Lady, whether at home, or on the road. (Almost as good as listening to Mario Lanza, but not quite.)

To conclude, the Luminous Mysteries are simply not part of the Rosary. Does this make them a bad thing (as some of you are already concluding is being said here)? Of course not. No contemplation of the life of Christ, in the context of a popular devotion, could ever be construed that way. Could the Holy Father make a twenty-decade rosary in continuity with its venerable tradition? No more than he could add fifty new prayers to the Book of Psalms ... don't you think?

Or don't you?

FOOTNOTE: To our regular viewers (and you both know who you are), as well as those who came over from Big Pulpit and Creative Minority Reader, for more about the Rosary, visit this site every Monday this month. We've got more where this came from, including a look at this writer's ever-expanding rosary collection, and the traditional scripture verses long associated with each of the fifteen (you read it right the first time) mysteries. No, this isn't Patheos; why does it have to be? Stay tuned, and stay in touch.


Elizabeth said...

Woo Hoo! Thank you for that. We pray the daily Rosary in the chapel where I work and occasionally I used to be called on to lead it. I find it so frustrating that most Rosary-praying Catholics look at me as if I just arrived from another planet when I pray the Joyful Mysteries on Thursdays! Shock! Dismay! Heretic!

I've been approached afterwards, outside of the chapel, and informed that I was wrong to lead with the Joyful...don't you know it's Thursday? When I kindly explained that I continue to pray the Rosary with the traditional mysteries and that the previous Pope offered those "Luminous" as a SUGGESTION, not an actual change, mostly I've been met with real anger. Seriously. They simply don't believe that. Anyway, I just continue on and pray the Joyful on Thursdays.

One other place that you can get beautiful CDs and DVDs of the traditional Rosary (in English or Latin) is They don't include any meditations ~ just the Rosary. And in the case of the DVD, stunningly beautiful images to meditate on for each Ave. Highly recommended. I was frankly disappointed in the Cantius one. Perhaps for people with children. I gave mine away.

Thanks for a good post!

David L Alexander said...


Most people don't read things for themselves very closely if there's someone there to (allegedly) tell them what it says. As to the CD/DVDs, your comments will be duly noted for ... next year's edition of this piece.

Brian Sullivan said...

True, Pope John Paul II did not formally add the Luminous Mysteries. I find them to be helpful. Given that the Rosary, as you point out, has changed over the years, perhaps this is part of that process? Of course what hasn't changes is the basis of the 150 Psalms in relation to the Rosary. I think there's a difference in that revelation is closed; more Psalms cannot be added to Holy Writ but tradition can grow.

Good point about the Luminous Mysteries being included in books as a mandatory part of the rosary rather that a option. That said, I usually look for them to be included in any book of prayers.

In public recitation of the rosary, people should follow the custom of those gathered for prayer whether or not they recite the Luminous Mysteries on Thursdays.

David L Alexander said...

"Given that the Rosary, as you point out, has changed over the years, perhaps this is part of that process?"

A tradition, by definition, is subject to evolution, but based on that which is integral to its nature, or which is otherwise previously there. The singular common thread in the history of the Rosary is the 150 prayers. That was there in the beginning, and right up to the present. Treating the additional mysteries as normative belies that, and so again, by definition, cannot be "part of that process," but is an imposition. That does not make it suspect, or otherwise a bad thing, but it does not make it the norm either.

Robert said...

"......anything associated with John Paul II is a cash cow" " the end of the day, it's all about the money". Quite probably the most disgusting things I've read in a very long time.

David L Alexander said...


It certainly is, and it has nothing to do with the late pontiff himself, never mind the case for his historic virtue. You try moonlighting for a Marian magazine for eight months and see if you don't get a bulls-eye view of the lunatic fringe of Catholic devotionalism.

I stand by what I wrote.

"ZOLLh' gll fHG CIG^GL UgwGz gLG fgkGU"