Ad Jesum per Mariam: The Rosary is Christ-CenteredAug 6th, 2013 | By Fred Noltie | Category: Blog Posts
In the first few years after we became Catholic we made intermittent attempts at praying the Rosary on a regular basis. Invariably these efforts petered out, but I remember that on most occasions I found myself to be more spiritually motivated and enthusiastic when we finished. This struck me as surprising because I did not remember any consistent result like that from my prayer life as a Protestant. That’s not to say that my experience would be the same for anyone else, either before I became Catholic or afterwards! Rather, it was simply my experience, and it inspired me to want to pray the Rosary more faithfully.
It would be a number of years before I followed through on that inspiration, though. In the summer of 2012 I at last began to pray the Rosary nightly. Later my wife joined me. The fruits have been tremendous. In the midst of what has been a very difficult year in other respects I have grown closer to the Lord, and I am convinced that the Rosary and the Blessed Virgin’s intercessions have been the difference.
I am sure that sounds terrible in the ears of my Protestant brothers and sisters, but if there is anything about which Protestants are commonly mistaken it is the nature of Catholic veneration of Mary. The Rosary is an important part of that devotion, and it is worth taking a closer look at it so as to see that far from detracting from the Lord’s glory, the Rosary is profoundly focused upon Christ.
What the Rosary is
The Rosary is a confession of faith, a prayer to the Lord, a contemplative prayer, an homage to His glory, and an appeal for the Blessed Virgin’s intercession.
It is a confession of faith. We begin to pray the Rosary with a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. In this way we are reminded not only of what the Church professes but are encouraged ourselves to stand firm in the faith delivered to the Church. This sets the foundation for everything that follows. We do not seek the Blessed Virgin’s aid in a vacuum, as though it stands or could stand apart from the Faith of the Ages or from what the Lord Jesus has done for us. We pray as Christians and in union with the Church throughout the ages.
It is a prayer to the Lord. The Rosary is punctuated by the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer. Once again it would be false to suppose that the Rosary stands apart from our Lord; rather (and as we shall see more clearly momentarily) it is founded upon Him.
It is a contemplative prayer. There are four series of “mysteries” related to the history of salvation and in particular our Lord’s life. As we pray the Hail Mary (see below) we contemplate the following:
- The glorious mysteries. In the Glorious Mysteries we contemplate the Lord’s Resurrection, His Ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Assumption of Mary, and Mary’s coronation. The focus upon Christ is obvious in the first three, but is still present in the latter two. In her Assumption Christians find hope for glory: to be united at last with our Lord even as Mary is. In her coronation we find confidence in her intercession with the Lord.
- The joyful mysteries. In the Joyful Mysteries we contemplate the Annunciation of the Lord’s birth, the Blessed Virgin’s visitation to St. Elizabeth, our Lord’s birth and presentation in the Temple, and His being found there again by His mother and St. Joseph. Again, the Christological focus is obvious.
- The sorrowful mysteries. In the Sorrowful Mysteries we contemplate events surrounding the suffering and death of the Lord: the agony in the Garden of Gethsamane, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the Cross, and His crucifixion.
- The luminous mysteries. In the Luminous Mysteries we contemplate events of Christ’s life by which He made Himself better known: His Baptism; the miracle at the wedding of Cana; the proclamation of the Kingdom; the Transfiguration; and the Institution of the Eucharist.
Hopefully it is thus easy to see that the Rosary is a Christ-centered prayer.
Each mystery’s contemplation is punctuated by the Glory Be (Gloria Patri) and the “Fatima Prayer”: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Again, this is a Christ-centered prayer for our own salvation and for the salvation of others as well.
Of course, there is little here so far to raise the eyebrows of the average Protestant (setting aside two of the Glorious Mysteries for the moment). What troubles some Protestants most about the Rosary is its repetitiveness and the use of the Hail Mary. So let’s consider these objections briefly.
Repetitiveness: This objection is often based upon Matthew 6:7–8:
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [RSVCE]
In some translations heap up empty phrases is rendered as “use not vain repetitions,” and the repetitiveness of the Rosary is considered to fall under this condemnation. The problem with this objection is that it proves too much, because it would also bring Psalm 136 under suspicion for its repetitive use of the clause “for his steadfast love endures forever.” So it is not mere repetition that is a problem; so to complain that the Rosary is repetitive has no force in and of itself. We also take heart from Luke 11:5–8:
And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
Just as we repeatedly ask Our Father, so too we repeatedly ask our friends and family to pray for us; so too we repeatedly ask the Blessed Virgin and all the saints to pray for us.
The Hail Mary: The usual objection to the Hail Mary is that it is said to be illegitimate to seek the intercessions of those who have gone to glory before us. Again, this objection doesn’t have any force. In the first place it is no different in principle from seeking the intercessions of our friends here in this life. If it isn’t illegitimate to ask my wife to pray for me, how on earth can it be illegitimate to ask those in glory to do the same? It is already clear from Scripture that they do pray for us (Rv. 6:9–10; 8:3–4). Secondly, the continuous history of the Church shows that believers have always appealed to the angels and saints for help. See, for example, the examples found here and here. And that is all the Hail Mary amounts to: a request for intercession. It begins with Gabriel and St. Elizabeth’s greetings to her (“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) and proceeds to a petition for her intercession (“pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”). Seeking the intercessions of those who have preceded us in death has been practiced by Christians throughout the Church’s history.
This is also consistent with constant teaching of the Church:
So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods. [CCC §955]
Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…. They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus…. So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. [CCC §956]
Until the Lord shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him and death being destroyed, all things are subject to Him, some of His disciples are exiles on earth, some having died are purified, and others are in glory beholding “clearly God Himself triune and one, as He is”; but all in various ways and degrees are in communion in the same charity of God and neighbor and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God. For all who are in Christ, having His Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in Him. Therefore the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods. For by reason of the fact that those in heaven are more closely united with Christ, they establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness, lend nobility to the worship which the Church offers to God here on earth and in many ways contribute to its greater edification. (3) For after they have been received into their heavenly home and are present to the Lord, through Him and with Him and in Him they do not cease to intercede with the Father for us, showing forth the merits which they won on earth through the one Mediator between God and man, serving God in all things and filling up in their flesh those things which are lacking of the sufferings of Christ for His Body which is the Church. Thus by their brotherly interest our weakness is greatly strengthened…The Church has always believed that the apostles and Christ’s martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ, and she has always venerated them with special devotion, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. [Lumen Gentium §49, 50; boldface added]
We, however, with the aforementioned Church venerate with every devotion both all the martyrs and the glorious combats of those who are known to God rather than to men. [Decretal of Pope St. Gelasius I, c. A.D. 495]
For our Lord Jesus Christ still intercedes for us: all the Martyrs who are with Him intercede for us. [St. Augustine, Exposition of Psalm 85/86, §23]
In short, the Rosary is actually a contemplative prayer focused upon the Lord’s work for our salvation in which we ask His mother to pray for us. And I believe that it is under both these aspects that praying the Rosary has been so profoundly important in my spiritual life. In the first place it brings to mind regularly the great things that God has done for me, for us, for the world, and for our redemption. In the second place, I firmly believe that Mary’s intercession has been wonderfully important in the Lord granting grace so that I may learn to love Him more. What began as a difficulty for me has become a dear part of my Christian life which helps me to love God more.