Our Lady’s Rosary, by Father Thomas Esser, O.P., S.T.M.

Our Lady's Rosary by Father Thomas Esser, O.P., S.T.M.The sacred songs of the Old Testament have not been suffered to die away in the Church of the New Covenant. Far from it, they to this day con stitute the chief portion of the Divine Office; so that in them the Church yet daily offers God the tribute of her praise and thanksgiving, the expression of her petitions and works of expiation. It is the very spirit of God that breathes in them, and in the light of the Christ that came, their rich contents gain a clearness double that which they had already had in the twilight of promise and prophecy. “No song composed by man,” as Cardinal Wiseman observes, “can therefore be so often repeated as these divine hymns. They remain ever fresh to the heart, as do the solemn melodies in which the Church sings them to the lips and ears. Both are therefore calculated to be used daily – yes, hourly – without losing their peculiar charm.”

And what the learned divine, representing the Church, finds beautiful and ennobling in the Psalms, he, and the humblest laborer with him, may find again in the prayers of the Rosary. It has rightly been said that the Rosary is the laic’s breviary. It is so in very truth. It can be chorally recited, as the Church recites the Psalms. But it is yet more, — for certainly the clergy should not leave this most excellent prayer to the laity alone. Let us therefore express ourselves otherwise. As the Psalter is a constant prayer of the Church to God, so is the Rosary her uninterrupted prayer to Mary; for Mary is the Queen of the Rosary. Rightly, therefore, do we call it the Marian Psalter, and rightly is the number of its angelical salutations made to correspond with that of the Psalms of the Royal Psalmist. And as the servants of the Church recite, in prayer, the entire Psalter of one hundred and fifty Psalms in the course of each week (in so far, namely, as the office is de tempore), so, likewise, should the members of the Rosary Confraternity, in the same length of time, recite at least one Marian Psalter of one hundred and fifty Aves.

In a foregoing paper, an intrinsic reason was assigned for the threefold division of the Marian Psalter into its joyful, sorrowful, and glorious parts,— namely, the clearly-defined distinction of the threefold train of thought included in the corresponding mysteries. But another ground for the division could be found in the like partition of the Psalter. Not alone that it was largely the custom, at prayer, in ancient monasteries, to recite the Psalter in three parts of fifty Psalms each, but the very nature of its contents early gave rise to the threefold division, which the expositors sought to adapt to the various conditions of the faithful, and to their standing in grace.

At all events, it will readily be found that the three parts of the Marian Psalter may fitly be brought to bear upon the state of the innocent, of the penitent, and of the perfect. For it can hardly be otherwise than that the joyful part of the Rosary, with its innocent-breathing mysteries from the childhood of our Divine Lord and from the life of His spotless Mother, very specially comes home to innocent and childlike souls, and sweetly works upon them. So, too, the mysteries of the bitter passion of our Blessed Redeemer and the dolors of His sorrowful Mother must be grateful to those who walk in the path of penance, and never more so than when sorrow for their sins strikes deeply into their hearts. On the other hand, in the glorious mysteries our hearts break forth into joy, like that of Easter-tide, and in the assured hope of our own glorification which they offer us we are already admitted into the choirs of those who, made perfect, have entered into the joy of the Lord. And through the Rosary prayers, we await the same joy from our Father who is in Heaven, from God, of whose unity of essence and trinity of persons the tri-partition of the Marian Psalter also puts us in mind.

In this parallel between the Marian Psalter and the Psalter of David, the ten “Hail Marys” which enter into each decade, find an exposition no less deep and significant. The Latin word, Psalterium, means not only the collection or the Book of Psalms, but also a stringed instrument, to whose music these sacred songs were sung. This Psaltery, which may also be called a harp, had ten strings. Hence David, in one of his sacred poems, exclaims: “To Thee, O Lord, I will sing a new canticle; on the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings I will sing praises to Thee.” (Psalm 143:9) And in another place: “Give praise to the Lord on the harp; sing to Him with the psaltery, the instrument often strings.” (Psalm 32:2) In the holy Rosary, we respond to this exhortation quite literally. For on it, the Marian Psaltery, we sing a new canticle to the Queen of Heaven, we sing to her on a harp of ten strings. And the Angelical Salutation ten times repeated in each mystery, is the more appropriate because Mary’s own canticle, the Magnificat, is made up of just ten verses, for which reason it has also been called a Psalterium dechachordnni, a psaltery of ten strings. How really beautiful is this conception, that every first chord of this ten-stringed instrument of the Rosary is struck with the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” and the last thrills joyously and dies out in the sweet tones of the “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!” The last sounds of the world’s history will be those of the “Glory be to the Father,” and they shall not die away for all eternity.

The holy Fathers also find in the ten strings of the Psaltery an allusion to the ten commandments, which, fulfilled, form the most pleasing canticle of divine praise that can be offered to almighty God. It will certainly not be without great profit to us to remember this whenever we are at our beads; for the chief fruit of our prayer should surely be a greater conformity of our thoughts, deeds, and life to the sacred law of God. And if this is actually wrought in us by the holy Rosary, as it certainly can and ought to be, then its fifteen mysteries will be to us so many steps or degrees, by which we ascend the holy Mount of God; nay, more; not only will they, like the fifteen steps of the Temple of Jerusalem, lead us up to the “Porch of the Lord,” but also in to the “Sanctuary” and into the inmost “Holy of Holies.”

To some, however, there is a smack of superstition in the circumstance that a determinate number of Aves is employed in the Rosary. But such persons may readily be silenced, if it is pointed out to them that, as there can be no measure without number, so also no real order. For how could the Rosary be recited in common, like the Psalms, if it were not known how much to pray? Besides, for the reason that many members of the Rosary Confraternity bind themselves to one and the same devotion, that devotion must needs be made up of a determinate number of prayers. But how could their devotion be one and the same, if they did not all pray equally much? If they agreed to pray a greater or less number of Aves than 150, the question would again present itself: “Why just so many?” The question we have here to deal with, proves then, at best, to be but one that betrays the unreasonableness of the questioner, and, like many prattling inquiries of children, can hardly be answered.

Nevertheless, we will briefly consider the meaning, already referred to, of the numbers that occur in the Rosary. “The purport of number,” says Saint Augustine, “is not to be disregarded; since many texts of sacred scripture show the careful reader of what worth it is to be esteemed. Nor is it said to no purpose in the service of God; “Thou hast ordered all things in measure, number, and weight.” (Wisdom 11:21) These words refer not only to the natural order, but also to the order of grace. In the Old Testament, as in the New, all the appointments and dispensations of God in regard to the salvation of man came to pass according to determinate numbers. Whence, then, any unwillingness to find these numbers occurring again in a prayer that springs forth so naturally from the spirit of Christianity as the holy Rosary?

After one hundred and fifty days, the waters of the deluge subsided, and we pray one hundred and fifty Aves in order, through the mediation of the “Help of Christians,” to avert both the temporal and the everlasting judgments of God.

In the Old Law, every fiftieth year was a jubilee. It was a year of general release from all debts, for the discharge of prisoners, and for the liberation of slaves. The Church of the New Testament, following this example, also instituted a jubilee every fiftieth year, in which, in consideration of special works of piety, plenary remission of the temporal punishment due to sin was solemnly granted to the faithful. Have we not, therefore, a right, after each fifty Aves, to hope for a rich participation in the atoning and blessed virtue of the Redemption—that sublime jubilee announced by the Ave of the angel? The tones of the “Hail Mary, full of grace,” rang in the jubilee of Christendom with their solemn music. It was the same that set us free from the bondage of Satan.

On the fiftieth day after our Lord, by His resurrection, had finally triumphed over the powers of darkness, the Holy Ghost, a new Spirit, came down upon the Apostles and the Blessed Mother of Jesus. We wish fully to share in the Spirit of God’s Sonship; so also do we desire to be set free from the rest of the servitude of Satan, from personal sins and guilt; therefore fifty times do we address Mary, who crushed our enemy’s head. By means of conjoined mysteries, these fifty Aves are rounded into five decades, and with them we hope to vanquish our too power ful adversary, as David, going forth with a sling and five stones from a brook, met and prevailed over the Philistine. (I Kings 17:40, etc.) Furthermore, these five mysteries, devoutly meditated, provide us with spiritual nourishment and strength, like to the five loaves with which our Lord fed the multitude. (John 6:7, etc.) It is not without significance, therefore, that we limit the meditations of an ordinary Rosary to five chief mysteries. We are wont, too, to reduce the many wounds that covered the dying Saviour, to five, which we consider as so many special to kens or instances of His love. And if we allot the usual Rosary five parts of ten “Hail Marys” each, it is sufficiently explained by this, that the number ten, complete in itself, is the most perfect of numbers. There is no new one above it. To go beyond it, we must needs return to the symbol of unity. Hence it is, too, that the simplest method of numbers is the so-called decimal system. Therefore did God demand a tithe, or a tenth part of all possessions as an offering to Himself, and its payment was the condition that insured the rightful ownership of the remainder.

In its numbers, then, the Rosary has a foundation and a superstructure, which, planned in strict accordance with the laws of architecture, give it the form of a grand minster, like the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages.’ As at the entrance of these noble structures, sculptured representations of the Fall, or of the Redemption, or of the Mother of God, or of a chosen group of saints, attract our attention and put us in mind of the whole work of the Redemption, and thereby of the meaning of the house of God, so do we first enter the temple of the Rosary through the beautiful and richly ornamented portal of the Credo (I believe in God, etc.), and through a vestibule, in which a view of the three Theological virtues fills us with devotion, and prepares us for an edifying impression of the interior structure. The five decades give us the effect of nave and fourfold aisle, with their lofty arches rising grandly above the springing of their graceful pillars, and raising up heart and soul to their highest summits. “Sursum Corda!” Approaching towards the altar, the two aisles on either side of the nave are merged into one, there forming but a triple interior;* and chapels are grouped about the choir, like an encircling wreath, and their pictured altars, than which no master-hand has produced more splendid, interiorly touch us with their richly-wrought charms.

Such are the mysteries which our meditative spirit considers as they unfold themselves to view, ever the same yet ever new. And the sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows, mellowed and grateful to the eye. More of heavenly brightness it cannot yet endure.


To the exposition of what the Rosary is in itself, there yet remains to be added, for the sake of completeness, a more detailed examination of its outer form, or what may be called its mechanism. We have here to do with the mode and method in which we outwardly tell off the prayers of the Rosary. Two things, then, must be taken into account, the frequent repetition of the Hail Mary, and the computation on the beads. Since the attacks of unbelief and unreason have all along been directed against just these points, we cannot but stand upon the defensive in our treatment of them. And as our vindication of the Rosary has chiefly a practical end in view, we may almost entirely pass over the objections brought forward on the part of heretics.

1. From its origin, the Marian Psalter has been the target against which infidels and heretics and scoffers, and all, indeed, that have broken with the Church, have aimed their poisonous missiles. For what is the recitation of the Rosary but a thorough Credo of right faith, and the beads we carry about with us, but an open profession of our Catholicism?

Protestantism, rising up against the honor paid by Catholics to the Mother of God, naturally had to take a foremost position in the ranks against this most beautiful of Marian devotions, the Holy Rosary. “At the Reformation,” thus speaks a Protestant, “this devotion (of the Rosary) wholly strange to antiquity, was most vigorously denounced, as may be seen in Luther’s writings, in the Augsburg Confession, and in the Schmalkaldic Articles.” To adduce but one of the wonted sententious passages of the “dear man of God,” Martin Luther: “All, indeed,” he says, “curse her (Mary’s) fruit, who curse and persecute Christ’s word, the Gospel and the Faith, as now do the Jews and Papists. It follows then that no one now so almost curses this mother and her fruit as those who bless her with many rosaries, and who always have the Hail Mary in their mouth; for it is they who most curse the word and faith of Christ.”

And yet the Rosary itself is the most telling refutation of the reasons that Protestants oppose to Catholic worship of Mary. For the honor we pay to the Mother of God is not otherwise, is not less nor yet greater than that which was paid to her by the Archangel Gabriel at the injunction of the Most Blessed Trinity. Let, then, those who reproach us with praying to Mary first cast their reproach, if they have the heart to do it, on God’s messenger, whose words we have but learned to repeat.

That we do not expect to be saved by Mary as by an efficient cause is most apparent in the Rosary itself. For in it we only call upon Mary to be the mediatrix between us and her Divine Son, while, in its mysteries, Christ’s work of the Redemption is made the special, exclusive subject of our meditations. It was Jesus who bore the heavy Cross for us. It was Jesus who was crucified for us; but as He was the blessed Fruit of her womb, we turn to her with the words, “Mother of God, pray for us.” Nor even that before we have addressed the Lord’s Prayer to our Father who is in Heaven, and to His Son, who is one essence with Him. But that we address Mary ten times, and God but once, in each decade of this prayer, is surely sufficiently explained when we say that the Rosary is, above all, a devotion in her honor. Moreover, even when we show her special honor, we do not separate her from her Divine Son, nor even think of her as separated from Him. In the Rosary mysteries we consider Mary’s life only in so far as it begins with, bears upon, and is coincident with, the life of our Blessed Redeemer Himself. Therefore it is, too, that we preface our greetings to her with the Our Father. “Yet people sometimes thoughtlessly speak as if devotion to the Mother was a little trifle allowably cut off from devotion to the Son; that it was something surrendered by Jesus to Mary; that Jesus was one thing and Mary was another, and that devotion to the two was to be divided between them, proportionately to their respective dignities, say a pound to Him and an ounce to her. If such persons really saw what they mean, which they do not, they would perceive that they were talking impiety.” The famous convert, Frederick Von Hurter, makes mention of a sermon by the renowned pulpit orator, Father Ventura, which he heard before his conversion, the last night of the May devotions in 1844, in the Theatine Church at Rome. “At the close,” thus does he describe his impression, “he (the preacher) touched upon the Rosary, and clearly showed that it is impossible to practice this devotion without at the same time being forcibly reminded of the highest mysteries that are associated with the person of the Redeemer. Consequently the reproach is vain, that by making so much of the Mother, the Son is quite forgotten.”

Beautifully says the Protestant poet, Lavater:

“When the Ave Marys ring,
Is it not to Thee they sing?” – i.e., to Jesus

We will therefore pass over a further detailed consideration of the objections advanced by heretical opponents of the Rosary, in order to turn to those directed against our devotion from another standpoint: from that, namely, of the movement known under the name of illuminism.

2. There was a time, not long past, that boasted this movement. Its supporters, looking with disfavor upon what they chose to call the antiquated lumber of Catholic worship, that was no longer in touch with the times, undertook to do away with it, and seriously set about to bring the Church, and above all, the forms of her cult, into harmony with modern requirements. In proposals to compile a new Catholic catechism, not even the Hail Mary, the chief component part of the Rosary, was spared. “The Hail Mary,” it was unblushingly said, “being a private prayer, and not having any connection with our religion, as the Lord’s Prayer, must silently be dropped in all Christian catechetical instructions.”

By these reformatory efforts, the Rosary, of course, could not hope to remain unaffected. In the so-called ” contributions to the betterment of the exterior worship of the Catholic Church,” it was openly stated: “We wish to see the Rosary totally proscribed. Devotion cannot possibly hold out so long. The telling of the beads is a merely mechanical process, at which the heart certainly remains quite empty.”

Even a journal that was called the “Church-Newspaper,” scoffed at and rejected the Rosary, and testified its great pleasure when the Elector of Treves, in his “excellent pastoral letter of the 1st Wintermonth, 1783,” inveighed against “rosaries, blessings, amulets, and other Church trumpery.”

It will be further light upon these attacks against the Rosary to add that the Davidic Psalter came off no less menaced. For it was the design of those illuminates to clear the breviary of its “legends and all superstitious matter,” and, as they expressed themselves, “to introduce, instead of the sorry old medley, a new breviary in the vernacular.”

3. To what extent this movement gained the sympathy of even well-meaning persons, or rather quite carried them away, the following examples, out of hundreds, will suffice to show. Herenaeus Haid, in other respects-a worthy man, wrote a treatise on a proposed “Metamorphosis” of the Rosary according to the spirit of the Catholic Church, or on the Rosary devotion: 1st, as it has hitherto been practiced; 2nd, but how it can and ought to be practiced according to the spirit of the Catholic Church.

Like all books of its kind at that time, not yet bent on simply rooting out the Rosary, Haid’s work opens with an apology for treating of a prayer “which every enlightened man denounces with the utmost zeal, in which priests, on clear principle, most reluctantly take a leading part with the faithful, which they see to be wholly fruitless, and which they despise as an exceedingly mechanical form of devotion.” He goes on with the avowal to his readers: “You would justly reprehend me as a promoter of false devotion, as an instrument of the ruinous mechanism, if I wished to stand up for the Rosary as hitherto practiced, and to further it in its usual form.” But he relieves their apprehensions by adding: “I further, at least I seek to further, a new birth, a metamorphosis {i.e., a transformation) of the Rosary.” Now what about the name? I would have the name Rosary and Rosary prayer become extinct, and be dropped, inasmuch as the designation, compared with the object in its old and new form, is wholly without meaning. I would give up the name for a trifle, I would abandon it spontaneously; only for the sake of the people, however, I yet seek to retain it.”

But to come to a more serious part of the treatise: “In the ordinary practice of the Rosary,” says Haid, “Christians manifestly sin against our Lord’s ordinance, so full of meaning. (Matthew 6:7) ‘When you are praying, speak not much as the heathens, for they think that in their much-speaking they may be heard.'” In a note on the etymological derivation of the original of the word much-speaking, the writer endeavors to strengthen the cogency of the expression.

“The Rosary as practised hitherto” is, therefore, according to Haid, nothing but “pure battology, idle babbling, antiquated mechanism worthy of being thrown aside.”

The Breviary lessons on the origin of the Rosary – they were only some decennaries anterior to Haid himself – he thought should be “stripped of such ways of thinking as were current in Saint Dominic’s time, and of that diction in which the legends of those days were wont to be written.” The residue he would retain is, in substance, that “the saint, in order to stay the progress of heresy, encouraged the faithful devoutly to meditate on the mysteries of our redemption. These should be brought before the minds of the people by means of terse, pithy expressions, proof that he desired only, as it were, slight, suggestive hints to be given. For example, ‘whom thou didst conceive by the Holy Ghost,’ etc., etc.” ‘The people could easily grasp and retain certain leading points of Faith, hence the brevity of these expressions, which should fix the mind on the life, passion, and death of our Redeemer, and on their concomitant circumstances. Meditation should be substituted for whatever is over and above this. Be hold, here, then, under the uncouth outer deformity, the lovely hidden spirit; under the rubbish, the pearl.”

Thus speaks the critic, Haid. To him, the Lord’s prayer and the angelical salutation are but “rubbish” and “uncouth deformity.” But let us see in what his reform of the Rosary consists, the transformation that is to take the pearl out of its surrounding rubbish and uncleanliness.

Speaking of the “Rosary in its common form and as hitherto practiced,” Haid himself expressly admits that the “Mysteries of the Redemption as contained in it, may be adapted to the various seasons of the ecclesiastical year.” But this is not enough for him, and of oral prayer, there is a great deal too much. His first care, therefore, is to reduce the number of Hail Marys in each mystery to five, and in regard to the mysteries themselves, he is of the opinion that ” although some of them excellently set forth the chief elements and the real mysteries, still not all were equally well chosen. They could be increased or diminished in number, and several could undergo change. I see this very clearly. However, we must set about our work softly, and make changes unobserved, until gradually the new form shall stand faultless in all its beauty and superior utility.” In order to put meditation in a way to get full justice, Haid would preface each mystery with a short exposition of its contents, or point out its bearing on or application to the occurring feast, or he would even introduce it with a strophe of some hymn, or conclude the whole with a prayer, ” wherein the faithful shall pray that God may grant them constantly to look upon what is high and holy in the mystery, perfectly to understand the same, and to accomplish that to which its spirit directs and impels them. To facilitate the practical working of this plan, Haid composed six formularies which “any clergyman can develop with meditations of his own, and form and change according to his own views and judgment.”

Long before Haid’s time, however, there was no lack of similar formulas to facilitate and promote the Rosary meditations.

But by reason of the complete departure of his contemporaries from the old traditions, perhaps nine of them were known to him, or at any rate, taken into account. For they were written less in conformity with what he would call “reason,” but more in accordance with “faith.”

In what, then, briefly, does Haid’s reform consist? Haid took up arms against a mere phantom, against an abuse that was a mere creation of his fancy, and then reduced the number of Hail Marys in each mystery by one-half!

But is it really true that in the Rosary there is an insufficiency or a total want of meditation? and, if so, is a merely oral, but nevertheless devout prayer, not a good prayer?

In a former article it was clearly shown that meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary constitutes one of its essential parts, and is just as necessary to it as its oral prayers. If Pope Benedict XIII, by way of favor in the case of simple and unlettered persons unable to meditate and not given to reflection, saw fit not to insist on such meditation as a condition of gaining the Rosary indulgences, he nevertheless added the remark: “It is our wish, however, that even such persons should, by all means, be gradually instructed (by the directors of the confraternity) to meditate on the holy mysteries of our redemption according to the spirit and object of the Rosary.”

It was just this spirit and object of the Rosary that Haid did not rightly understand, and hence he sought, most unskillfully indeed, to metamorphose or transform it, to alter it from what it so excellently was and had been from the very time of its origin. Only such a mistaken notion of the nature of the Rosary can account for the utterance of another worthy priest of that time, Rev. Mr. Gehrig, in a sermon on this devotion: “It is even a fault in one to have recourse to the Rosary when he is able to employ some other devotion.” And as late as the year 1830, William Smets, widely and not unfavorably known as a poet, spoke, in an address in vindication of the Rosary devotion, of “various superstitions and abuses” that prevailed in it, notwithstanding its excellence in other respects.

4. If such, then, were the views of the best intentioned men of that unhappy period, what must have been those of the great number of really evil-affected “illuminates”? We fear we should wound Catholic sensibility by here adducing their utterances on the question. Let one man, however, tell us what he really thought about the Rosary.

A clerical privy-counsellor and chief school inspector says briefly and plainly that “the Rosary was an invention of the centuries in which the people could not read, in which they were only capable of mechanically counting off a certain number of Aves on a string of beads; add to this the degrading and unintelligible manner and method of alternate recitation, and the Rosary is too often but a meaningless bawl of the self-same words, whereby the soul is far from being lifted up in devotion, and in the whole, nothing but a bad impression can be left upon a rationally devout mind.”

This is the same judgment that enlightened ignorance and elegant poverty of thought form of the Rosary even to this day. Men rail at what they do not understand; for understanding is his alone who has faith.

– text and image from the article “Our Lady’s Rosary” by Father Thomas Esser, O.P., S.T.M. from the The Rosary Magazine, September and October 1895