Where did the rosary originate and why is it that we pray the Rosary the way we do? Have we always prayed the Rosary the way we do today? You might be surprised!
The traditional story of the rosary was that Mary herself appeared to Saint Dominic in the twelfth century. At that time, tradition says she gave him the rosary and promised Dominic that if he spread devotion to the rosary, his religious order would flourish. It is quite true that Dominic was quite devoted to the Blessed Mother, but no one knows for sure if Our Lady herself gave Dominic the rosary. If she did, it is quite certain that she did not give him a rosary that looks like the one we have today.
Originally the rosary had 150 beads, the same number of psalms in the Bible. In the twelfth century, religious orders recited together the 150 Psalms as a way to mark the hours of the day and the days of the week. Those people who didn’t know how to read wanted to share in this practice, so praying on a string of 150 beads or knots began as a parallel to praying the psalms. It was a way that the illiterate could remember the Lord and his mother throughout the day. The “Divine Office”; the official prayer of the church; is the recitation of the psalms over a four week period, and is still prayed today.
This first rosary was prayed as we do today, a person would pass their fingers over each bead and say a prayer, usually the “Our Father”. The “Hail Mary” as we know it wasn’t even around at that time.
The Hail Mary owes its origin to the rosary. When people said the rosary in the twelfth century, Gabrielle’s greeting “Hail Mary, full or grace, the Lord is with thee” was often said along with the Our Father. Later, Elizabeth’s greeting ”blessed are you among women” was added. It was not until the sixteenth century that the words “Holy Mary., Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” were added.
Various people have added other things to the rosary over the centuries. In the fifteenth century, a Carthusian monk divided the rosary into fifteen brackets (or decades) and a Dominican assigned mysteries to each of the decades. These mysteries were events in the life of Jesus as written in the gospels. By meditating on these events even the illiterate could know the stories in the Bible. These decades were the same as ours except for the last two Glorious mysteries. In those two, the Coronation and the Assumption together made up the fourteenth decade and the fifteenth decade was the Last Judgment.
On October 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II, declared that the following year would be the “Year of the Rosary”. For the first time in centuries a change was made in the rosary. The Pope added and defined 5 new mysteries that concerned events in the public life of Jesus. These new mysteries were called the “Luminous Mysteries” or “Mysteries of Light”
Today’s complete rosary is now made up of twenty decades of the Hail Mary, separated by an Our Father and a Glory Be and sometimes the Fatima prayer. Evidence again that the rosary is a living prayer that grows with the church. We usually break the rosary into four sets. The four sets are The Joyful Mysteries, The Sorrowful Mysteries, The Glorious Mysteries, and the Luminous Mysteries. One set is prayed on a rosary that has five decades. Each set is prayed on designated days of the week. There are variations however, and in some countries the rosary may even have different mysteries.
Despite all the additions and changes, the important core of the rosary has always remained the same. It is a way for God’s people to make holy the day, and to remember the life of Jesus and his mother. May these humble origins always be with us each time we pray the rosary.