Externals of the Catholic Church – The Rosary

Repetition in prayer is a very ancient custom. It would seem to be natural for man to recite his prayers over and over, especially when he is inspired by a spirit of earnest devotion. Whether he is returning thanks for favors received or offering petitions to God, he finds that the repeating of his prayers satisfies his religious instincts. This usually leads to a resolution to say a certain number of prayers daily; and then the utility of having some counting device suggests itself at once. Hence comes the string of beads which we call a Rosary.

The use of some means of counting prayers is not restricted to Catholics. The Brahmin of India or Thibet has his long rosary which he uses to measure his eternal repetitions of the praises of Buddha. The Mohammedan votary has his chaplet of ninety-nine beads, to count his fervent invocations to Allah.

Who Gave Us the Rosary?

The devotion takes its name from the Latin “rosarium,” a garden of roses, or a wreath of the same beautiful and symbolic flowers; or, according to some, more directly from the title “Mystical Rose,” given to Mary in her Litany. It was established by Saint Dominic, the famous founder of the Order of Preachers; and he testifies in his writings that he acted under the direction of the Blessed Mother of God. However, there are traces of somewhat similar methods of praying before his time, although they did not include any part of the Hail Mary, at least until about the twelfth century, when the first part of that beautiful prayer came into use. It seems strange to us Catholics who recite it so frequently, to learn that for more than eleven centuries our forefathers in the faith knew nothing of the Hail Mary, and that the latter part of that prayer was not added until some centuries later. Therefore, when the Rosary was invented, it was composed of the Our Father and the first part of the Hail Mary only, repeated probably much as we use them at the present day.

How Beads Came Into Use

As said above, devices for counting prayers were not new, even in Saint Dominic’s time. Many of the faithful in earlier ages could not read, and books were scarce and dear; and so they were accustomed to say repeatedly the few prayers they knew, especially the Our Father. We are told that the great Apostle of Ireland recited it a hundred times at intervals of a few hours during each day and night and he probably used some device to count these numerous prayers. The early hermits said it many times daily, and kept an account by passing small pebbles from one hand to the other. It soon occurred to some one that it would be well to fasten these pebbles together – and so came the beads. The soldiers of the Middle Ages, illiterate but often pious men, wore a heavy belt studded with rivets, and this formed a convenient means of counting prayers.

Saint Dominic’s Work

Saint Dominic gave us the Rosary, although not precisely as we have it now; and his illustrious Order has always been full of zeal in the spreading of this devotion. He was a Spaniard, and about the year 1205 entered on the mission of preaching for the conversion of the Albigenses, a heretical sect which had arisen in southern France and northern Italy. Holy and eloquent as he was, he had little success, until he was instructed by the Blessed Virgin herself to cease his argumentative discourses, to teach the people to pray, and especially to propagate the devotion of the Rosary. Then a wave of faith and piety swept over these heretical provinces; and, before Dominic’s death, hardly a vestige of the sect remained.

The devotion spread with great rapidity throughout the world, and has always been highly esteemed by the faithful in every walk of life. Many of the saints have had a wonderful love for this beautiful prayer. Saint Alphonsus Liguori was most devoted to it. Saint Francis de Sales recited it for an hour each day. All the spiritual writers have sounded its praises, and many indulgences have been granted to it by successive Pontiffs. Saint Dominic called it “the rampart of the Church of God,” “the Book of Life.” In various papal briefs it has been described as “the salvation of Christians,” “the dispeller of heresies,” “the scourge of Satan” and “the promoter of God’s glory.”

The Rules about Beads

The Rosary is counted on beads, which are arranged in “decades,” each consisting of an Our Father and ten Hail Marys – indicated by a large bead and ten smaller ones. These beads may be of any suitable substance not easily broken. Formerly glass beads were forbidden, but they may now be used and indulgenced if they are solid; hollow ones are not allowed, being too fragile. They must be provided with a crucifix or with a medal stamped with a cross, and they must have the proper number of beads, divided into decades. It is recommended that they should not be too elaborate in design, or too expensive in quality; devotion, and not vanity, should be the reason for using them.

How to Say Them

The manner of reciting the Rosary varies somewhat in different countries. Among us it is customary to begin with the Apostles’ Creed, an Our Father, three Hail Marys and a Glory be to the Father, followed by the five decades in order, with their mysteries (either mentioned or mentally considered) and with the “Hail, Holy Queen” at the end. But some of these prayers are not essential to the Rosary, nor necessary for the gaining of the indulgences. The Rosary, strictly speaking, consists of fifteen decades, of which five only need be said on any one day. Each decade is composed of one Our Father and ten Hail Marys, and should be recited orally while the corresponding mystery is meditated on, in order to gain the indulgences. Therefore the Creed, the preliminary Our Father and Hail Marys, all the repetitions of the “Glory be to the Father,” and the “Hail, Holy Queen” are not necessary parts of the Rosary.

The Mysteries

The Incarnation of our Blessed Lord is the central point in the world’s history. The Son of God became man that He might redeem us; and the meditations connected with the Rosary are made on the principal events in that work of redemption, in order that honor may be paid to Him as our Saviour, and to His Blessed Mother as the most important auxiliary in affecting our salvation.

The meditations on the fifteen decades are divided into three classes. The joyful mysteries comprise the events from the Annunciation to the Finding ‘in the Temple. The sorrowful mysteries recall the sufferings and death of our Saviour. The glorious mysteries extend from His Resurrection to the Coronation of Mary in Heaven.

The mysteries should be taken in turn, according to the days of the week – the joyful on Monday and Thursday; the sorrowful on Tuesday and Friday; the glorious on Wednesday and Saturday. On Sundays the mysteries assigned will depend upon the season of the year. During Advent and after Christmas the joyful should be meditated upon; during Lent, the sorrowful; during the rest of the year, the glorious.

“I cannot say the Rosary devoutly. It is so long that I become distracted.” This is a common complaint, and arises from the fact that many try to recite it without meditation on the mysteries. The mere repetition of the prayers is likely to become monotonous – and it does not gain the special indulgences which are attached to the beads. For these the meditation is strictly required.

The Indulgences of the Rosary

The spiritual benefits of the Rosary are very numerous, and are different in some respects from those granted to other devotions. They are attached directly to the beads themselves, and are gained only by those for whose use the beads were blessed. The forms of blessing by which they are imparted are of three kinds – the Dominican, the Brigittine and the Apostolic, of which the last is the one most generally given. All the priests in this country have faculties for bestowing the Apostolic indulgences, which are as follows:

Every time that the Rosary is recited on one’s own blessed beads (provided that it be done at least once a week) an indulgence of one hundred days is gained. A person who is in the habit of reciting the beads once a week or oftener may, by a good Confession and worthy Communion and by praying for the intention of the Holy Father, gain a plenary indulgence on any of the principal feasts of our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin and of the Apostles; also on Trinity Sunday, Pentecost and All Saints’ Day. Complying with the same conditions on any other day, he may gain a partial indulgence, varying from one hundred days to seven years, according to the feast celebrated on that day. All these indulgences are applicable to the souls in Purgatory.

Assuredly it is profitable to say the Rosary. Well may we resolve to be faithful to this devotion. Well may we do our part in that chorus of praise – sending up daily that beautiful homage which consists not only in the repetition of prayers, but in salutary meditation on great events in the lives of Jesus our Saviour and of Mary, His Mother and ours.


Many other forms of beads for the counting of prayers have come into use through the devotion of the faithful, and have been approved by the Church. Space will not permit going into details concerning them. Among the better known are the Brigittine beads, consisting of seven Our Fathers in honor of the sorrows and joys of the Blessed Virgin, and sixty-three Hail Marys to commemorate the years of her life; a similar rosary in use among the Franciscans, with seventy-two Hail Marys, based on another tradition of Mary’s age; the Crown of our Saviour, with thirty-three Our Fathers in honor of the years of our Lord’s life; and five Hail Marys in honor of His sacred Wounds; the beads of the Five Wounds, established by the Paosionist Fathers, approved in 1823 and 1851, consisting of five divisions, each having five Glories in honor of Christ’s Wounds, and one Hail Mary in commemoration of the Sorrowful Mother; the beads of the Immaculate Conception and the Crosier beads.