What is the rosary and how does it work?

To pray the rosary, the worshiper first makes the sign of the cross; then, while holding the crucifix at one end of the rosary, she recites the Apostles’ Creed. From then on, whenever she encounters a large bead, she prays the Lord’s Prayer. Small beads signify the Hail Mary, woven from the words of Gabriel and Elizabeth: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus,” with the latter addition: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” The space following a small bead stands for the doxology: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” That is the basic form, though many Catholics add favorite prayers.

A Christ—centered practice

What do the mysteries have to do with the Hail Marys? The pray-er thinks about the biblical scenes while saying the prayers. A rosary includes five decades, or sets of ten small beads, each preceded by a large bead and followed by a space. After saying the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each decade, the pray-er announces the mystery for meditation. Then, while repeating ten Hail Marys, she focuses her attention on one of the 20 scenes, moving on to the next mystery when she comes to the next decade. By the time she completes the circle, she will have meditated on five episodes in Jesus’ life. Catholics are encouraged to meditate on one set of mysteries each day—the joyful mysteries on Mondays and Saturdays, the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays and Fridays, the glorious mysteries on Wednesdays and Sundays, and the luminous mysteries on Thursdays.

Catholics maintain that authentic devotion to Mary is praise of her Son. The rosary helps believers focus on the life of Christ with the help of his mother and her perspective. When we pray the rosary, writes Catholic educator Alice Camille, “we seek the engagement of thought, imagination, emotion and desire in order to move from the state of simple reflection to union with Christ. Since Mary was the first person to experience that union, who can more perfectly show us the way?”

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #83 in 2004]

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