Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

History of the Rosary (Part 1)

The Rosary from The Early Church until the time of St. Dominic
I had originally intended this to be one article, but the sheer volume of it necessitated my splitting it up.

Just a Fad?
Scott Hahn, in his book, Hail, Holy Queen, remarks that "No area of Christian life is so susceptible to fads and fashions as the techniques of prayer." (p. 169) He's certainly got a point. Enter any Christian bookstore, and the shelves are lined with books advocating this style or that technique--some new and some old. Consider, for one obvious example, the "Prayer of Jabez" from a few years back. It seems a funny thing that this faddishness should be the case wih prayer. Yes, there are definitely "techniques" in prayer; ways of doing it or helping us remember to, or focus better, and whatnot. But it almost smacks of trying to manipulate God--the notion that, "Well, if I do it this way, then I'll definitely get God's attention!"

In light of this, you might remark that my recent seeming obsession with the Rosary here at Barque of Peter is indicative of my own succumbing to a fad or trend. But I assure you that this is not the case. In my attempt to demonstrate that the Rosary is more than a faddish technique, I want to write about its origins and a bit about its status as a form of prayer within Catholic devotion.

The "Rosary" of the Early Church
In his devotional little book, The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort writes,

Since the Holy Rosary is composed, principally and in substance, of the Prayer of Christ and the Angelic Salutation, that is, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, it was without doubt the first prayer and the first devotion of the faithful and has been in use all through the centuries, from the time of the apostles and disciples down to the present.
But it was only in the year 1214, however, that Holy Mother Church received the Rosary in its present form and according to the method we use today.
That is to say, that since the Our Father was taught to us straight from the lips of Christ, and the Hail Mary is a compilation of the Angel Gabriel's words and of St. Elizabeth's words to Mary, that these two prayers were known and said by devout Christians right from the beginning of the Church's history--though, as St. Louis admits, not exactly organised in the manner which we are used to.

Early Christian Marian Devotion
Some might object to that statement, saying that all this devotion to Mary is a construct of the Middle Ages, and that no Christian in ancient times would have accorded her such honour. But this goes counter to the historical record. We see artistic depictions of Mary in the Catacombs of Rome. We know that key sites of her life were places of pilgrimage (such as her home in Ephesus, and her tomb there as well--an empty tomb, for the record). In Egypt, in about the year 300 (which early date precludes us from claiming that Marian devotion entered into the Church through pagan influence after the time of Constantine), we have record of an ancient Christian prayer to Mary that conveys more or less the same meaning as more modern prayers such as the Hail, Holy Queen or the Memorare: the Sub Tuum Praesidium:
We fly to your patronage, O holy Theotokos;
Despise not our petition in our necessities,
But deliver us always from all dangers,
O ever-glorious and Blessed Virgin.
The term used for Mary in this prayer, "Theotokos", is Greek for "Mother of God" (Literally, God-bearer, or one who carries God in her womb). From earliest days, Christians recognised that Christ was, in fact, God made flesh--made flesh through Mary's participation, through her carrying Him in her womb. Thus, she rightly is called the Mother of God. But in the early fifth century, some controversy broke out over the use of this term--not because Christians felt that it gave too much honour to Mary, but because certain heretics felt that it gave too much honour to Jesus. They believed that Mary only gave birth to Jesus' human nature, and that, at some point after His birth, God infused Him with His divine nature--basically, they believed that Jesus wasn't truly Human and truly God. As such, the heretics taught that "Theotokos" was an incorrect way of describing Mary, and that "Christotokos" should be substituted.

Because of this teaching, and the often outraged reaction to it (particularly in Ephesus, where Mary lived out her final days), Pope Celestine I convened the Council of Ephesus to decide on the matter. The Pope strongly defended the title of Mother of God, and was backed up by the eminent theologian, Cyril of Alexandria, who wisely pointed out that a mother doesn't give birth to a "nature", but to a whole person. Since Mary gave birth to Christ, who is a Divine Person, she is rightly called "the Mother of God." Keep in mind that this doesn't mean that Mary somehow originated God, but that in her womb she bore the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.

When this decision was pronounced in AD 431, the people of Ephesus rioted for joy, parading through the streets by torchlight, carrying all 200 bishops aloft on their shoulders, and chanting "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners!" which gives us the conclusion to the Hail Mary prayer.

The Evolution of the Rosary
As Christianity continued to spread, reaching out into the barbaric lands of the north, monastic orders carried culture and learning along with the faith. A major part of the monks' daily spiritual exercises was to recite all 150 Psalms. To aid them in keeping track, they often would employ knotted strings, to keep track of their prayers. The newly converted Christian people of the European nations where the monasteries were established admired the monks' devotion and desired to imitate it--but since most of them still could not read, let alone memorise, all 150 Psalms, the monks told them that they could substitute 150 other prayers in their place. The most common prayers chosen were the Our Father or the Hail Mary. In fact, there was a street in Ireland where strings of 150 beads were manufactured for this very purpose, of assisting the peasants in their devotions--and it was named "Paternoster Row" after their recitation of 150 Our Fathers (Pater Noster in Latin). The development of the Rosary was well on its way. But, as St. Louis de Montfort points out,
it was only in the year 1214, however, that Holy Mother Church received the Rosary in its present form and according to the method we use today. It was given to the Church by Saint Dominic who had received it from the Blessed Virgin as a powerful means of converting the Albigensians and other sinners.
The Albigensians were a heretical group who taught the existence of two equal and opposite powers in the universe--one Good and the other Evil. Both of these powers had a hand in creating mankind, and so mankind was a walking contradiction--a Good soul trapped within an Evil body. For the Albigensians, the most triumphant way to liberate the soul from the body was through suicide--usually by self-starvation, which they referred to as the endura. This heretical cult gained much popularity in the 11th and 12th centuries in the south of France, and its rigid morality attracted many people who were disillusioned with Catholicism because of the corruption of the clergy rampant at that time.

St. Dominic Receives the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin
When Saint Dominic visited France, he saw on the one hand this terrible heresy gaining ground everywhere, and on the other, he saw the immorality in the Church as the reason behind it. He tried to preach repentance, both to the sinful Catholics and to the heretical Albigenses, but was getting nowhere. Frustrated by his failed attempts, he made a three day retreat in the wilderness, praying for help in fighting this huge problem, and doing nothing but weep and perform sharp penances for the Church. It was on this retreat that the Blessed Virgin appeared to St. Dominic, accompanied by three angels, and she said to him, "Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants you to use to reform the world?" Dominic replied, "Oh, my Lady, you know far better than I do because next to your Son Jesus Christ you have always been the chief instrument of our salvation." Mary replied to him, "I want you to know that, in this kind of warfare, the battering ram has always been the Angelic Psalter which is the foundation stone of the New Testament. Therefore if you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter."

From that time on, St. Dominic preached the Rosary--how to pray it devoutly, how to meditate on its mysteries, and in so doing, how to give greater honour to Jesus and to Mary. Many miracles were worked by Saint Dominic in confirmation of his testimony to the power of the Rosary, one of which I will recount at length, quoting again from St. Louis de Montfort's book:

When Saint Dominic was preaching the Rosary near Carcassone an Albigensian was brought to him who was possessed by the devil. Saint Dominic exorcised him in the presence of a great crowd of people; it appears that over 12 thousand had come to hear him preach. The devils who were in possession of this wretched man were forced to answer St. Dominic's questions in spite of themselves. They said that:
1. There were fifteen thousand of them in the body of this poor man, because he had attacked the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary;
2. They went on to testify that by preaching the Rosary he put fear and horror into the very depths of hell and that he was the man they hated most throughout the whole world, because of the souls which he snatched from them through devotion to the Holy Rosary;
3. Then they revealed several other things.
Saint Dominic put his rosary around the Albigensian's neck and asked the devils to tell him who, of all the saints in heaven, was the one they feared the most, and who should therefore be the most loved and revered by men. At this they let out such unearthly screams that most of the people fell to the ground, faint from fear. Then, using all their cunning, so as not to answer, the devils wept and wailed in such a pitiful way that many of the people wept also, out of purely natural pity. The devils spoke through the mouth of the Albigensian, pleading in a heartrending voice:

"Dominic, Dominic, have mercy on us--we promise you that we will never hurt you. You have always had compassion for sinners and those in distress; have pity on us, for we are in grievous straits. We are suffering so very much already, so why do you delight in heightening our pains? Can't you be satisfied with our suffering without adding to it? Have pity on us! Have pity on us!"

Saint Dominic was not one whit moved by the pathos of these wretched spirits and told them that he would not let them alone until they had answered his question. Then they said they would whisper the answer in such a way that only Saint Dominic would be able to hear. The latter firmly insisted upon their answering clearly and out loud. Then the devils kept quiet and refused to say another word, completely disregarding Saint Dominic's orders--so he knelt down and prayed thus to Our Lady: "Oh, all powerful and wonderful Virgin Mary, I implore you by the power of the Most Holy Rosary, order these enemies of the human race to answer me."

No sooner had he made this prayer than a glowing flame leapt out of the ears, nostrils and mouth of the Albigensian. Everyone shook with fear, but the fire did not hurt anyone. Then the devils cried:

"Dominic, we beseech you, by the passion of Jesus Christ and by the merits of His Holy Mother and of all the saints, let us leave the body of this man without speaking further--for the angels will answer your question whenever you wish. After all, are we not liars? So why should you want to believe us? Please don't torture us any more; have pity on us."

"Woe unto you wretched spirits, who do not deserve to be heard," Saint Dominic said, and kneeling down he prayed to Our Lady:

"Oh most worth Mother of Wisdom, I am praying for the people assembled here who have already learned how to say the Angelic Salutation properly. Please, I beg of you, force your enemies to proclaim the whole truth and nothing but the truth about this, here and now, before the multitude."

Saint Dominic had hardly finished this prayer when he saw the Blessed Virgin near at hand, surrounded by a multitude of angels. She struck the possessed man with a golden rod that she held and said: "Answer my servant Dominic at once." (Remember, the people neither saw nor heard Our Lady, but only Saint Dominic.) Then the devils started screaming:

"Oh you who are our enemy, our downfall and our destruction, why have you come from heaven just to torture us so grievously? O Advocate of sinners, you who snatch them from the very jaws of hell, you who are the very sure path to heaven, must we, in spite of ourselves, tell the whole truth and confess before everyone who it is who is the cause of our shame and our ruin? Oh woe unto us, princes of darkness:

"Then listen well, you Christians: the Mother of Jesus Christ is all-powerful and she can save her servants from falling into hell. She is the Sun which destroys the darkness of our wiles and subtlety. It is she who uncovers our hidden plots, breaks our snares and makes our temptations useless and ineffectual.

"We have to say, however reluctantly, that not a single soul who has really persevered in her service has ever been damned with us; one single sigh that she offers to the Blessed Trinity is worth far more than all the prayers, desires and aspirations of all the saints.

"We fear her more than all the other saints in heaven together and we have no success with her faithful servants. Many Christians who call upon her when they are at the hour of death and who really ought to be damned according to our ordinary standards are saved by her intercession.

"Oh if only that Mary (it is thus in their fury that they called her) had not pitted her strength against ours and had not upset our plans, we should have conquered the Church and should have destroyed it long before this: and we would have seen to it that all the Orders in the Church fell into error and disorder.

"Now that we are forced to speak we must also tell you this: nobody who perseveres in saying the Rosary will be damned, because she obtains for her servants the grace of true contrition for their sins and by means of this they obtain God's forgiveness and mercy."

Then Saint Dominic had them all say the Rosary very slowly and with great devotion, and a wonderful thing happened: at each Hail Mary that he and the people said together a large group of devils issued forth from the wretched man's body under the guise of red-hot coals.

When the devils had all been expelled and the heretic was at last entirely free of them, Our Lady (who was still invisible) gave her blessing to the assembled company, and they were filled with joy because of this.

A large number of heretics were converted because of this miracle and joined the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary. (The Secret of the Rosary, pp.76-79.)
Unfortunately, the fervent devotion to the Rosary inspired by St. Dominic's preaching only lasted for a century, and then died out to the point of being nearly forgotten. St. Louis de Montfort cites this neglect of devotion to Christ and Our Lady as the reason for the disasters that befell Europe in that time: namely, the Black Plague in 1349 and the rapid succession of heresy and schism in the Church.


Grignon, St. Louis-Marie, de Montfort. The Secret of the Rosary. (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 1991.) [Beyond what was directly cited, this work provided the information for much of the general history of the Rosary's development, as well as the bulk of information regarding St. Dominic.]

Hahn, Dr. Scott. Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God. (New York: Doubleday, 2001). [Beyond what was directly cited, this work was a source of much information on the development of the Rosary and early Christian Mariology--particularly about the Council of Ephesus.]

Johnson, Dr. Kevin Orlin, Ph.D. Why Do Catholics Do That?: A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994) [This was also a great source for the history and development of the Rosary.]

Why Yes, I Do Believe Something, Actually ( [My source for the text of the Sub Tuum Praesidium.]

(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Mary, Mother of God.
Catholic Devotions: The Rosary.
The Church: Christian History)

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