Perhaps the most popular and well-known devotion of the Western Church is the Marian Rosary. Almost every Roman parish has its Rosary Society and it is encouraged among young people by Church Schools, Parochial Schools and by parents. For many it represents the major form of their private prayer life.
The Rosary as we have it today has its roots in the early middle ages. Legend had it that St. Dominic was teaching among the Albigenses in the very early 13th century and that the Blessed Virgin appeared to him. She described to him the Rosary and recommended it as a tool or his mission work (1). It is because of this legend that the Dominicans have had a major role in the propagation of the devotion.
It is more realistic, however, to recognize the gradual development of the devotion. All the way back in the ninth century, monks were encouraging laymen who could not read to recite a series of ''Our Fathers'' in place of the daily office and Breviary in which they were unable to participate. It became popular to use 150 ''Our Fathers'' because of the 150 psalms in the psalter (2). At about the same time, others were using additional prayers or antiphons, particularly the Angelic Salutation. All favored three groupings of 50 to correspond to the psalter (3).
Eventually, in the twelfth century, the Angelic Salutation was enlarged by the addition of Elizabeth's greeting, ''Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the Fruit of your womb." The name of Jesus appeared in the thirteenth century (4). By this time, there were two systems operating, one using the ''Our Father'' and the other using the ''Hail Mary'' as substitutes for the psalms.
At the same time, another form of prayer was developing. Monastics looked through the psalms and interpreted each in reference to Christ or Mary. At the end of each psalm, a verse would be added explaining the interpretation. Eventually the psalms themselves dropped out leaving just the explanatory phrases. These were gathered into collections called "Rosaries"(5).
Around 1365, one Henry of Kalkar grouped 150 "Hail Marys" into groups of 10, adding an ''Our Father'' before each one. This marked the beginning of the Rosary as we know it. Then in 1409, Dominic the Prussian attached the phrases in praise of Mary to the ''Hail Marys'' of Henry. What resulted was a Rosary with a distinct meditation or thought for each "Hail Mary "(6)! Just such a Rosary was popularized by the Dominican Alan of Rupe, who founded the first Rosary Confraternity.
The problem with such a Rosary, however, was that it was too long to be memorized and the 150 meditations had to be read. Eventually, therefore, it was simplified, and only one meditation remained from each ten (7). This is the system surviving today, with fifteen "Mysteries" or meditations from the lives of Christ and the Blessed Virgin attached to the 15 "Our Fathers" which divide the 150 "Hail Marys."
The Devotion as it is practiced in the U.S. and with only incidental; variations all over the world, is this: It begins with the sign of the Cross and the Creed. Following this come one "Our Father" and three "Hail Marys." This is the opening. Among some religious this is replaced by the versicles from the opening of the hours: ''O Lord open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise. Make haste O Lord to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord."
The Rosary proper consists of 15 "decades" or groups of ten divided into three groups of five. These fifteen decades correspond to the fifteen mysteries, which are also divided into three groups: the "Joyful," the "Sorrowful," and the "Glorious" mysteries. These mysteries as they exist today are:
The Joyful Mysteries:
The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth;
The Nativity of Christ;
The Presentation of Christ to the Temple;
Christ in the Temple at the age of 12.
The Sorrowful Mysteries:
Jesus' agony in the Garden;
The Scourging of Christ;
The Crowning with Thorns;
Jesus' carrying of the Cross;
The Glorious Mysteries:
The Resurrection of Christ;
The Ascension of Christ;
The Descent of the Holy Spirit;
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
Mary's glorification as Queen of Heaven.
Each of these mysteries is meditated upon while reciting one ''Our Father'' and ten ''Hail Marys" It is usual to recite only one ''chaplet'' or group of five at a time. After five or all fifteen of the decades are said, the Rosary concludes usually with this hymn to Mary:
Hail, holy queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope; to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary
V. Make me worthy to praise thee, holy Virgin (8).
R. Give me strength against thine enemies.
Then finally, the collect from the feast of the Rosary is said to end the devotion:
O God, whose only-begotten Son by his life and death and resurrection has won for us the rewards of eternal salvation, grant, we pray, that we who meditate on these mysteries of the most holy Rosary of the blessed Virgin Mary, may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise: Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who being God, lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen (9).
Thus, as it stands now, the Rosary is a well-defined meditation on the lives of Christ and His Mother, with a definite progression of themes, and a liturgical beginning and ending. As such, it might best be compared to an Akathist or a Canon as used in the Byzantine east. Indeed, the Roman Church has seen this similarity, and recommends either the Akathist or the Paraclesis to the Uniate faithful in place of the Rosary (10). If we look at the structure of such eastern devotions, we will see that they too begin and end with some kind of liturgical framework and that the main body is a series of praises or supplications with a particular theme or progression of themes. As a piece of literature, the Rosary cannot compare since there is no precise form to the meditation, these being supplied by the individual. In form and function, however, the Rosary is quite the same as the Akathist or Paraclesis.
Other Rosaries exist besides the standard Marian version. One connected with the name of St. Bridgit consists of six decades of Hail Mary separated by the "Our Father" and the Creed. This one has no meditations attached and is not nearly so well-known. Similar variations exist (11). In addition, other series of prayers have been collected and arranged to be conveniently counted with a standard Marian Rosary or which use ''rosaries'' of their own. Many of these are not as well-developed as the Marian Rosary nor are they as widespread. Most operate on the same principle, however; being short ''services'' of praise or supplication to Christ, Mary or a particular saint.
Looking at the Marian Rosary from an Orthodox perspective, hardly anything can be found objectionable in the devotion itself. It is a laudable meditation on the Incarnation and lives of Christ and Mary. All but the last two of the mysteries are taken directly from Biblical texts. The last two are taken from the tradition of the Church. One need only look at the liturgical texts of the east to substantiate that these also are part of the Orthodox tradition.
Regarding the Assumption
Glorious are thy mysteries, O pure Lady, thou wast made the throne of the most High, and today thou art translated from earth to heaven...
Vespers -- Lord I Call Dormition
It was right that the eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word should see the dormition of His Mother according to the flesh, even the final mystery concerning her: that so they might be witnesses not only to the ascension of the Savior, but also to the translation of Her who gave Him birth...
... Therefore, dying thou hast risen to live eternally with thy Son.
Matins Canon, Dormition
The Lord and God of all gave thee as a portion the things that are above nature. For just as He kept thee virgin in thy childbirth, so did he preserve thy body incorrupt in the tomb, and He glorified thee by a divine translation, showing
thee honor as a son to a mother
Matins Canon, Dormition
This is not the place to go into various Roman theories regarding the Assumption of the Virgin. Certainly as a mere fact stated in the Rosary there can be no objection. We cannot deny that according to our Orthodox tradition we believe that Mary was assumed into heaven. Regarding the glorification of Mary as Queen, we need again only look at our own liturgical texts:
The Bride of God, the Queen and Virgin, the glory of the elect, the pride of virgins, is translated to her Son.
I shall open my mouth and it will be filled with the Spirit, and I shall speak
forth to the Queen and Mother.
Canon of the Akathist.
And finally, at every liturgy, during the Prothesis, a triangle is cut from the bread and placed on the Discos while the verse is read: "The Queen stood at thy right hand, clothed in a robe of gold and diverse colors." Thus, at every liturgy, which is our participation in the Kingdom of Heaven. It must reveal an eternal truth.
It can therefore be concluded that the Rosary itself contains nothing contrary to Orthodoxy either in doctrine or in spirit. It is, rather, a very pious devotion, which can serve to increase prayer and faith. Certainly, there is no objective reason to actively suppress it when it is practiced by members of our parishes.
1 Rev. A.A. Lambing, The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church,
(Benzinger Brothers, NY 1892) pp. 147-8.
2 Scriptural Rosary, (Christianica Center, Chicago, 1961) p. 10.
3 New Catholic Encyclopedia, (The Catholic University of America; McGraw
Hill, NY 1967) Vol. 12, p. 668.
5 Ibid. p. 669; Scriptural Rosary, p. 11.
6 Scriptural Rosary, p. 12.
7 Ibid. pp. 14-15
8 Rev. F.X. Lasance, My Prayer Book, (Benzinger Brothers, NY 1908) p. 222.
9 Dom Gaspar Lefebvre, OSB, Saint Andrew Daily Missal, (Biblica, Bruges, Belgium, 1960) p. 1042.
10 Enchiridion of Indulgences, (Sacred Apoltolic Penitentiary, Catholic Book Publishing Co., NY 1968) p. 68.
11 Lambing, p. 159-60.