Praying the Catholic Rosary
What is the Rosary?
The "rosary" is a piece of religious jewelry which is used as a sort of aid in praying a specific group of prayers and meditations (about which I will go into more detail shortly). It consists of a crucifix at the beginning, followed by a short string of 5 five beads (a set of 3 beads in between 2 individual beads), then a center (usually a medal depicting an embossed image of a saint or some religious symbol), which connects this string with a circlet that consists of 5 sets of 10 beads each (called “decades,”) that are interspersed with 4 individual beads. The word "Rosary" is also used to characterize the group of prayers that are meditated upon while one fingers the beads of the rosary. To "say a Rosary" is a common term to describe praying the prayers represented by the rosary.
The Holy Rosary of the Catholic Church originated with the Catholic clergy’s daily meditation on the 150 Psalms of the Bible around the 12th century A.D. In those days the lay people, wishing to unite their prayers with their clergymen, but being mostly illiterate, developed the habit of praying a simple prayer in the place of the the Psalms. It became popular to recite The Our Father (a.k.a. The Lord’s Prayer), and along with it, the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary as he announced to her that she would become the mother of God's Son: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” Later, the phrase, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (the greeting from Mary’s kinswoman, Elizabeth, to her when she visited Elizabeth after the Archangel’s announcement), was added to the Archangel’s greeting. In about the 16th century, the phrase, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” was added, more than likely as a result of the common practice of asking the saints, especially the Mother of Jesus, to intercede for their temporal needs. More information on the background of the rosary can be found here.
For about 500 years there were 3 sets of 5 “Mysteries” (events in the life of Christ and His mother), which had been added to the Rosary somewhere around the 16th century: the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. In 2002 Pope John Paul II added and defined 5 new Mysteries that concerned events in the public life of Jesus during His 3 years of ministry. The Holy Father named these Mysteries the Luminous Mysteries or Mysteries of Light.
The Mysteries are actually the focal point of the Rosary. The repeated prayers (the Our Fathers, Hail Marys, etc., are good to pray in and of themselves (the prayers are mostly biblical, and repetition helps to pull one's focus away from the physical, material world around us and draws us more deeply into spiritual contemplation), but mostly the prayers serve as sort of the background for the meditation of the Mysteries, which is the actual focus of the modern Rosary.
Today’s complete Rosary is made up of twenty decades of the Hail Mary, each separated by an Our Father and a Glory Be (followed by the optional Fatima Prayer). Thus the modern Rosary is now usually broken into four sets: The Joyful Mysteries, The Luminous Mysteries, The Sorrowful Mysteries, and The Glorious Mysteries. One set of Mysteries is prayed on a rosary that has five decades. Each set is prayed on designated days of the week, though this is optional according to one’s preferences. There are variations, and in some countries the Rosary may even have different Mysteries. Below is a list of the 20 Mysteries, what they represent, and the days on which they are generally prayed by most Catholics:
The Joyful Mysteries cover the early life of Christ and are as follows (each to be prayed and meditated upon one for each of the 5 decades, with the same to be said for all of the Mysteries). This set of Mysteries is generally prayed on Mondays and Saturdays, on Sundays of Advent and Sundays after the Epiphany until Lent:
- The Annunciation (when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the mother of the Son of God, whose name would be Jesus)
- The Visitation (when Mary went to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s child, who became John the Baptist, leapt for joy in her womb)
- The Birth of Jesus (the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – God made Man)
- The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (when Jesus was presented at Temple to be circumcised on the 8th day, and during this time the Holy Family met Simeon and Anna, 2 prophets who foretold of Jesus’s role as Redeemer of Israel)
- The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (when, during Jesus’s 12th year, Joseph and Mary found Him at the Temple amidst the Elders, after realizing He was not among their homeward-bound traveling party)
The Luminous Mysteries cover important events from the life of Jesus during His 3 years of ministry, and are prayed every Thursday:
- The Baptism of Jesus (when He was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist)
- The Wedding Feast at Cana (where Mary’s first recorded “intercession” took place. She told the wedding party to “do as He tells you.” Because of her intercession Jesus took pity upon the wedding party who had run out of wine, and He performed the miracle of turning water into wine)
- The Proclamation of the Kingdom (when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God, especially as quoted in Mark 1:14-15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.”)
- The Feast of the Transfiguration (when Jesus stood transfigured in a great light, a foretaste of His glorification, with Moses and Elijah appearing alongside and conversing with Him)
- The First Holy Eucharist (the “Last Supper,” which, along with the Crucifixion and Resurrection, was the highlight of Christ’s entire ministry. It was then that He instituted the Priesthood and gave Himself to us in His own Flesh and Blood, a sacramental ritual to be perpetuated until the end of time – according to Catholic belief)
The Sorrowful Mysteries cover the Passion and Death of Jesus, and are prayed on Tuesdays and Fridays, and on Sundays during Lent:
- The Agony in the Garden (when Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, along with Peter, James and John)
- The Scourging at the Pillar (when the Roman soldiers had Jesus scourged, which fulfilled the words of Isaiah the Prophet: “by His stripes we were healed.” [Isaiah 53:4-5])
- The Crowning of Thorns (when the Soldiers jeered at Him and mockingly “crowned” Him as King)
- The Way of the Cross (the Passion and suffering of Jesus as He carried His cross from Jerusalem to Golgotha where He would be crucified)
- The Crucifixion (Jesus’s death on the cross, His great redeeming Sacrifice for all humankind)
The Glorious Mysteries cover the Resurrection and afterwards, and are prayed on Wednesdays and on Sundays from Easter until Advent:
- The Resurrection (Jesus’s rising victoriously from the dead, which destroyed the power of Death)
- The Ascension (when Jesus was taken up, body and soul, to Heaven where He would take up His abode and prepare a place for His followers, after first setting free the righteous souls who had died and were in a “state of waiting” until the gates of Heaven were opened)
- The Descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles (otherwise known as “Pentecost,” when those in the Upper Room were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to go out and evangelize the Good News to the world)
- The Assumption of the Blessed Mother (to Catholics, this is a meditation upon Mary. Catholics believe that when her time on earth was complete, she was raised body and soul to Heaven, where she is now reunited with Her Son, Jesus – a model of hope for all who believe and follow His way)
- The Coronation of the Blessed Mother (to Catholics, this, too, is a meditation which involves Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as Catholics believe her to be the “Queen Mother” of Jesus and, by adoption, all the living. She is the antithesis of Eve, who was the first “mother of all the living,” but who fell short. Mary, as the “New Eve” became the mother of all who live in Christ).
Diagram of a Rosary
How to pray the Rosary
I will now proceed to explain how to actually pray the Rosary. Keep in mind that, while there is a generally accepted way to pray it, there are variations and the meditations themselves are personal ones (unless prayed as a group, and then the Rosary is often prayed with specific intentions as the group unites in purpose). That being said, I am explaining the way I pray the Rosary, simply because it's easier to explain something that one is familiar with.
To begin praying the Rosary, while holding the crucifix, one should start off with the Sign of the Cross. Often non-Catholics find this to be a "meaningless gesture." But to a Catholic, even though it is often done almost unthinkingly, it instantly brings to mind the spiritual life. For one brief moment, though it may not always be with conscious thought, it is a reminder to us of our Baptism, that we were "born again" into the Family of God "in the name of the Father (with our first 3 fingers - which signifies the Holy Trinity, the 3 Persons of God - we touch our forehead), and of the Son (we touch our chests, signifying our heart), and of the Holy (touch left shoulder) Spirit (touch right shoulder... touching the shoulders forms the gesture into the shape of the Cross, which reminds us of Jesus's saving death and subsequent resurrection). Amen."
After the Sign of the Cross, with which Catholics begin and conclude all of their prayers (a sign in itself of God as the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and End of all things), we begin the prayers of the rosary (I have provided a list below). On the crucifix we pray the Apostles' Creed. After the Creed, the pray-er moves on to finger (with the index finger and thumb) the very first bead, upon which is prayed the Our Father. While praying this prayer, I generally pray intentions for the Pope, the bishops and priests, and concerns of the Church. Next we move onto the 3 Hail Mary beads, upon which I usually ask for an increase in the 3 Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. After this I generally pause and offer up my personal petitions for family, friends, personal concerns and so on. The last bead on the string before the center is, as are all of the individual beads of the rosary, another Our Father. This one starts off the First Mystery, which is meditated upon while praying first an Our Father, then passing over the center onto the first decade (10 beads) of Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and optionally a Fatima Prayer. Then we move on around the circlet to the Second Mystery (each Mystery contains the same prayers: the Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, a Glory Be, and an optional Fatima Prayer), and so on until all of that set of Mysteries is prayed. Once we reach the center, the Rosary is concluded (unless you want to continue on to another set of Mysteries, which is certainly acceptable). Concluding prayers vary from person to person. I usually pray a Hail Holy Queen, then a Memorare, then concluding with a Prayer to St. Michael. Below I have included both a list of the most generally used Mysteries, and a fairly exhaustive list of the most commonly used rosary prayers.
Madonna and the Child Jesus
Prayers of the Rosary
The Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified; died and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
The Our Father:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name; Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. Amen.
The Hail Mary:
Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
The Glory Be
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
The Fatima Prayer
O, my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of Hell and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.
The Hail Holy Queen
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 towards us; after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins my mother. To thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
O God, whose only begotten Son,
By His life, death and resurrection has purchased for us
The rewards of eternal life, grant, we beseech Thee, that
Meditating upon these mysteries in the most Holy Rosary of
The Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and
Obtain what they promise: through the same Christ, our Lord.
Prayer to St. Michael
St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us this day in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou O, prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into Hell Satan and all evil spirits who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.