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 Saint 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. They are:
1) The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan
2) The Wedding at Cana
3) Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
4) The Transfiguration
5) The Institution of the Eucharist
Nearly every mainstream published material on the subject treats the "Luminous Mysteries" as though they are a regular part of the devotion, every bit as much as the other three sets of mysteries. Given the overwhelming popularity of the late pontiff, during his life, the cult of his veneration after his death, and his canonization in short order, 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 the Great" (for whom a high school was named with this title, even before his canonization!) is a cash cow. Whatever the pious intentions of those who favor these additional contemplations, it is for certain others, not only about piety, but promotion, whether of oneself, one's goods, or one's cause.
When praying the Rosary from day to day, one does so as one would pray the Psalms in the Divine Office. Traditionally, the entire psalter was covered by praying the complete official prayer of the Church over the course of one week. And so it is with the traditional form of that which was long known as "the poor man's Psalter." The Joyful Mysteries are prayed on Monday, followed by the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday, then the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday. For the next three days of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, the cycle would be repeated. Finally, Sunday being the Lord's Day, one prayed the set of Mysteries appropriate to the season of the Church year; the Joyful Mysteries from the beginning of Advent until the final Sunday of before Lent, the Sorrowful Mysteries from Lent through Holy Week, and the Glorious Mysteries from Easter until the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The "revised" method places the Luminous Mysteries on a Thursday, followed by the Sorrowful Mysteries on a Friday, the Joyful Mysteries on a Saturday, and the Glorious Mysteries always on Sunday. The order of prayer is haphazard for at least half the week.
As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
One may beg the question: WHY DOES IT MATTER?
If one prays the Rosary privately, it does not. When one prays as a group and there is a difference of opinion, the side that invariably wins is the one that says that "the Pope changed it," when in fact he did not. Teresa of Avila once said: “Trifles make for holiness, and holiness is no trifle.” More than any other time in the last several hundred years of Her history, Whether they know it or not, the children of Mother Church rare desperate for clarity; clarity in worship, clarity in teaching, clarity in practice. The secular and even the religious press, enabled by the level playing field that is the internet, has compounded the confusion, by making headlines of every irresponsible utterance of a high churchman with an opinion of every various and sundry topic under the sun. We don't know what to believe, so we are tempted to believe anything. It is at such times that tradition provides the faithful Catholic with a place of refuge, a haven through which to ride out the storm.
To know the Evil One, is to know that he thrives in the spirit of confusion. One of his many names may be translated thus. Is one more novelty in our devotional life (which is to speak less of its existence, than the significance it is afforded but does not have) really worth the collateral effects?
To be sure, there have been variations of the Rosary for centuries. These include any number of chaplets, abbreviated versions of prayer beads, such as the Chaplet of Saint Michael, or the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Mother. These are good and profitable meditations in their own right, but these are not part of the Rosary. These have been recognized as precisely that; variations, not attempts to reinvent that which does not need reinventing. Forty-three encyclicals in the history of Mother Church, written by nine different popes (twelve alone by Leo XIII), mention or otherwise extol the power of "The Psalter of Our Lady." Its basic scheme has been defined among them, in no uncertain terms.
Does a mere suggestion by one pope override the clear declarations of eight of his predecessors, especially when the one never intended to overrule the eight? Is there anything of our Catholic identity that cannot be tinkered with by the tinkerers? Have they nothing better to do with themselves?
Thankfully, not all have 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. You can listen to a meditation on each mystery as the decade begins, and pray the Aves while listening to sacred music appropriate for such contemplation. Others may prefer the viewing of the great masterpieces of sacred art on the video screen while contemplating the mysteries. For them, Pro Multis Media offers The Traditional Rosary on DVD. Their shop also has related products of the Rosary on CD and DVD, both for recitation in Latin, as well as the Scriptural Rosary.
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To conclude, the Luminous Mysteries are simply not part of the Rosary, but a separate set of meditations that they have inspired. 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. That being the case, 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?
(H/T to Tina Hertz Evans of Ashburn, Virginia, whose research into the history of the Rosary contributed to this account.)