The Origins of the Rosary
Fr. M. J. Frings
“The Highest himself hath founded her.”—Ps. Ixxxvi.
My dear brethren, in our consideration on the rosary let us to-day reflect upon its origin.
Its origin and age bestow on this devotion a great dignity. From the earliest times of Christianity it has been the custom of the Christians to observe in their prayers method and perseverance. Thus it was the custom of the hermits of the Orient, as far back as the fourth century, to devise a sequence of certain prayers, which they counted on pebbles. We also know that long ago in England a so-called Paternoster-cord was used for this purpose. St. Gregory, at the end of the fourth century, spoke of such a method of devotion in veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This pious bishop thought a wreath of spiritual roses would be more pleasing to the blessed Virgin than the natural roses with which the faithful adorned her altar. He selected, therefore, a number of prayers, in praise of the blessed Virgin, and united them into a wreath. And this was the origin of the rosary, woven by pious hands for the veneration of Mary, the mystical rose.
In the fifth century, St. Brigid urgently commended the devotion of the rosary, and she chose as its prayers the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Creed, and united them into a wreath of prayers. In order to count their recital she strung little beads of stone or wood and made a wreath of them.
This custom subsequently spread through all Christian lands, and through the centuries, to our own days. That this devotion was always in great favor and esteem among pious Christians may be concluded from the fact that in the grave of St. Norbert, who died in 1134, a rosary similar to ours was found.
We have proof, then, that the devotion of the rosary, such as we have it, was practiced already in the early days of Christianity. And it was practiced not only by monks and nuns, but found adherents among all the faithful.
The particular manner in which we now pray the rosary was brought into vogue by St. Dominic. This is attested by the tradition of six centuries. Twelve Popes bear witness to this fact. We will now speak of the introduction by St. Dominic, and will also refer to the great efficacy of this devotion since its inception. May our reflections contribute to the greater honor of God, and of the glorious Queen of the rosary.
The devotion of the rosary in its present form dates its origin from the thirteenth century, and St. Dominic was selected by God as the instrument of its introduction. Spain was the home of this great saint. In one of the valleys of Castile there is situated an humble little village named Calarunga, where his parents possessed a small estate. He was born there in the year 1170. While being baptized his sponsor saw, as if in a vision, a brilliant star over the forehead of the future saint, shedding its brilliant light through the church. As Dominic advanced in years he increased in wisdom, virtue and piety. In due time he devoted himself to theology, believing that in this pursuit alone he could find the wisdom of God. Not in the pleasures of this world, but in the knowledge of God, he sought his pastime. His favorite place was the church and the solitude of the sanctuary.
Two incidents from his schooldays throw a light upon his character. At the time of a famine Dominic gave all that he possessed to the poor, even all but the necessary clothes, and when he had nothing more to give, he sold even his beloved books and gave the proceeds to the poor. When berated by people for his excessive generosity, he said: “How could I dare indulge in these lifeless books, when human lives are in danger of starvation?” At another time St. Dominic met a woman who was weeping bitterly because she had no money with which she could release her brother, who had been imprisoned by the Saracens. Dominic offered to sell himself into bondage to release this brother; but since God had destined him to release sinful mankind from the bondage of sin, of error and unbelief, He did not permit Dominic to do as he offered.
At the age of twenty-five he was appointed upon the chapter of the cathedral at Osma. Here he was conspicuous among his brethren on account of his humility, holiness, and zeal for prayer. He spent nine years in Osma, during which time divine Providence prepared him for his important and great vocation. This vocation became plain to him when, in the year 1204, he went to France and saw the terrible devastation which the prevailing heresies had wrought against the Church of Christ. The sight of this disaster nearly broke his heart. The poison of heresy had spread among the faithful with great rapidity, and principally in southern France. From the city of Albi the heretics had assumed the name Albigenses.
These Albigenses discarded the doctrines of Christianity and constructed new doctrines that played havoc with morality and social order. They were violent enemies of Church and State, and preached disobedience and rebellion against spiritual and temporal authority. An enemy of the Church is invariably also an enemy of the State; history and experience prove this.
In southern France the Albigenses secured the support of Prince Raimond, of Toulouse, a wealthy and mighty, but, at the same time, a most godless and immoral prince of that time. He had several wives; associated with heretics, and even gave his children to be educated by them. This prince undertook the leadership of the heretical Albigenses, and with them, and other rabble by which France at that time was overrun, scoured the country, robbing and plundering wherever they went. This lawless band, under the direction of this godless prince, robbed churches of their treasures, murdered priests, even tore open the tabernacles and desecrated the most holy Sacrament.
A messenger of Pope Innocent III was murdered by one of these knaves, who then found the protection of this depraved prince. Under these conditions the Pope finally saw the necessity of preaching a crusade against these heretics, who surpassed even the Saracens in the outrages committed. A terrible war then ensued, in which these enemies of Church and State were subdued, but not converted. For this there was necessary an extraordinary spiritual effort, and divine Providence had already prepared the instrument. St. Dominic was the tool in the hand of God to introduce and apply an efficacious remedy, and this remedy was the rosary.
Dominic had for many years taught the doctrines of the Catholic Church to the heretics, and had converted a number of them, but not enough to satisfy his holy zeal. He often turned with humility to God and besought Him with tears, and deeds of penance, that He might let him know how to accomplish better results. Since childhood he had been a faithful servant of Mary, and had often said that the devotion to her was a powerful means of converting heretics and sinners.
Finally his prayers were heard in a miraculous way. One day, while on his way from Toulouse, Dominic threw himself down on his knees and resolved not to cease praying until his prayers were heard. Then, so the legend tells us, the glorious Queen of heaven appeared to him, spoke words of encouragement, and taught him how to pray the rosary, assuring him that this would be the right weapon to conquer error and sin.
With joy Dominic arose and returned to Toulouse, and began to spread the use of the rosary, as Mary had taught him and in the way we now recite it. He preached this devotion, explained it, and taught the people how to pray it. It proved indeed a most efficacious means for the conversion of apostates, heretics, and sinners. Since the lack of knowledge in matters of faith had been the real cause why heresy so quickly spread, the principal truths of faith and morals were now communicated to the people through the rosary, and the principles of a Christian life were taught them in this most sublime prayer of the Church. This was bound to bring results, and we will give now some thought to these results.
According to the historians of those ages the effects of the rosary sermons of St. Dominic were truly wonderful. In all cities where he preached, the people gathered in great numbers to hear his heaven-inspired words and to pray the rosary with St. Dominic. Sinners were converted, the faithful were strengthened and fortified, and many thousands of those who had been led into heresy opened their hearts again to the true faith and returned to the holy Church. The inspired words of St. Dominic met with such splendid results that, even if the tradition did not tell us so, the miraculous effects of this devotion would prove its heavenly inspiration, and Pius IX, Leo XIII, as many Popes before them, have publicly avowed their belief that St. Dominic received the rosary from our blessed Mother.
The promise which Dominic received was fulfilled. Where all other means had failed, the humble prayer of the rosary accomplished the victory over heresy. Thus divine wisdom and infinite power make use of humble things to effect great achievements. Of this the great work of the redemption gives us an example. God made the Cross the instrument of the redemption. The despised Cross, once a shame and disgrace, was raised on the height of Calvary and became the instrument of the redemption for all the world, the fountain of grace, a blessing for time and eternity, the symbol of victory and glory.
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, writes: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not in loftiness of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of Christ. For I judge not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in the showing of the spirit and power. That your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God; for the foolishness of God is wiser than men; but the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. That no flesh should glory in his sight” (I Cor. i and ii). And so did God choose the rosary, this humble prayer, to work such great things, that human effort had not been able to accomplish. What an incentive to put all our trust in God, rather than in our own strength!
The devotion of the rosary soon spread from southern France to all other Catholic lands, and all peoples welcomed it with joy and prayed it with great zeal. Rosary societies were formed and approved of by the Popes, and were richly endowed with many indulgences. Ever since there has been no other prayer practiced so diligently as the rosary. And often there have been recorded miraculous effects of this devotion, no less miraculous than the conversion of the heretics in the south of France.
The devotion as now practiced is therefore in use over seven hundred years. The wonderful origin, its great age and the remarkable miracles that were wrought by its use at all times, bestow a great dignity on this devotion.
When we consider the conditions that prevailed at the time of the origin of the rosary, and for the betterment of which divine Providence provided this devotion, we can not fail to realize a similarity of conditions in our own times. Materialism and unbelief, connected with widespread immorality, are now prevalent as they were then. They are causing great injury to Church, State, and homes, and will become more destructive if not checked by the right weapon.
Pope Pius IX, as also Pope Leo XIII, have declared the rosary to be that weapon, and have exhorted Christianity to resort to the zealous use of it. If all Christians would follow the advice of these supreme Pontiffs, we should soon see the Catholic faith and good morals come into their own again, and ample blessing would, through this devotion, be bestowed upon private and public life. All the insistent endeavors of world-wise scholars and reformers will be of no avail if God’s blessing does not rest upon their work. Only then, when the true faith and a life of faith are made the standard of public and private merit and ethics, will the temporal, no less than the eternal, welfare of nations and of individuals be assured.
Let us, through the rosary, call to Mary for her powerful intercession in the battle of the Church against the enemies of faith and morals, and with her intercession we shall be sure of victory. Amen.
New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1912.
Nihil Obstat: Remigius Lafort, Censor.
Imprimatur: John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.