The rosary helps us to meditate on the life of Jesus and the stories of the Gospels. Photo: VITA Images

How much do we really know about this universal prayer? FATHER GERARD LOUIS SHARES MORE

Apart from the Mass, the rosary is perhaps the most well-known Catholic prayer. We pray the rosary while waiting for Mass to begin, when we are travelling, when we pray together as a family or neighbourhood group and when we gather at a funeral wake.

I think every Catholic owns a rosary, maybe several. I have been using the same one since I was 12.

The rosary is so much a part of Catholic culture that we almost take it for granted. So how much do we know about the origins and history of the rosary?

For a devotion that is so much a part of our Catholic heritage, the rosary has not been around for all that long. It was only in the 16th century that the rosary took its present form. Before that, even the Hail Mary consisted only of the first part that is taken from Scripture.

The origins and popularity of the rosary can be credited to three Dominicans. First, Saint Dominic received an apparition in 1214. He had dedicated his life to the conversion of heretics but his preaching yielded no results. He began to lose hope.

Our Lady appeared to him, gave him a rosary and promised him that this prayer would convert the heretics. Later, another Dominican, Blessed Alain de la Roche, promoted the rosary in its modern form, with decades of Hail Marys, preceded by an Our Father and ending with a Glory Be and three mysteries of five decades each.

Blessed Alain’s preaching was hugely successful and the rosary became the most popular form of prayer in the Church. Finally, a third Dominican, Pope Pius V, gave recognition to the form of the rosary by way of a Papal Bull in 1569.

The repetition of a prayer, like a mantra, is an ancient technique of meditation. An aid to focus the mind. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Desert Fathers and hermits used the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

They would pray this prayer continuously to keep their mind focused on God. Later, the monks who lived in monasteries would pray the 150 psalms during the week, but those who could not read would replace the psalms with 150 Our Fathers. They kept count of these prayers using a cord with knots or a string of beads.

These traditions of using repetitive prayer for the purpose of meditation and the use of beads in prayer all contributed to the rosary as we know it today.

The rosary helps us to meditate on the life of Jesus and the stories of the Gospels. As we effortlessly pray another Hail Mary, as another bead slips through our fingers, our minds imagine Mary saying “Yes” to the angel Gabriel, how Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane before His death and what it was like when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles at Pentecost.

As our minds ponder these events over and over again, these stories become more than just stories we read in the Bible. We begin to understand how God has acted in the past and continues to act in our life.

In a magnificent exhortation written in 1974 called Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI said that the rosary retains an unaltered value. It has stood the test of time and has brought countless people to a deeper faith. We can only thank God for this gift and be encouraged to use it as a form of prayer in our own lives.

Fr Gerard is a Redemptorist and teaches Mariology at the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary.