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How We Got the Beads

The rosary didn´t just fall ready-made from heaven. Take a look at how this popular Marian devotion developed through the years.
by By Sandra Miesel | Source:
Despite the discredited legend that Our Lady gave the Rosary to St. Dominic in the 13th century, it didn´t fall ready-made from heaven. Today´s Rosary - 15 decades in three sets of mysteries - was slowly shaped by many hands over many centuries. But it owes its final form to choices made by the praying public.

And, odd as it may sound, prayer beads are older than our Rosary, and our Rosary is older than the complete Hail Mary. The practice of counting prayers with beads, pebbles or other markers is not unique to Christianity. Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims also use beads.

Christian prayer-counting started among the Desert Fathers around the fourth century. They let illiterate monks substitute 150 Our Fathers for the 150 Psalms normally recited. Western monastics and laity copied this. St. Gertrude of Nevelle (d. 659) sup­posedly owned prayer beads, as did England´s famous Lady Godiva (d. 1041).

Catherine, Duchess of Cleves, had her beads of coral, pearls and gold painted in her Book of Hours (ca. 1440). But these were not our Rosary.

Initially, the Lord´s Prayer was repeated on such beads, but in the 11th century people also began praying the Angel Gabriel´s salutation to Mary. St. Elizabeth´s greeting joined it a century later. Then the name "Jesus" was added later to form the medieval Ave Maria, or Hail Mary. (Its final lines - "Holy Mary, Mother of God. . ." - weren´t completed until the 17th century.)

Reciting runs of 50 to 150 Aves became a popular medieval devotion, especially
in Flanders and Germany. By the 13th century, clerics were composing "Marian psalters" that added scriptural tags. Originally, these were the antiphons of the psalms in the monastic liturgy. Other experiments added non-biblical verses in praise of Mary, stanzas linking Mary and Jesus, or brief narratives on the life of Christ.

By the 15th century, this became known as a Rosary, from the German rosenkranz ("rose garland"), rendered in Latin as rosarium. A Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia (d. 1460), composed a Rosary with 50 meditations on the life of Christ. Dominican friar Alanus de Rupe (d. 1475) promoted an alternative with 150 mediations and Aves in three thematic sets punctu­ated by 15 Pater Nosters. He established a confraternity at Douai in Flanders to celebrate his "Psalter of the Glorious Virgin Mary."

Sprenger´s ´Psalter´

These and other systems were in use when Dominican Jacob Sprenger founded the first Rosary confraternity at Cologne in 1475. More than 100,000 people had joined the new confraternity when a guidebook for the Rosary, titled "Our Lady´s Psalter," was published in Ulm, Germany, in 1483.

Besides seven written methods, this psalter included a woodcut diagram that providentially combined elements drawn from Dominic of Prussia and Alanus de Rupe. The 150 Aves and 15 Pater Nosters were arranged in three "white" (joyous), "red" (sorrowful) and "gold" (glorious) rosaries, with simple illustrations for 15 meditations from the lives of Mary and Jesus. Fourteen of these are our present mysteries; the final one, the Last Judgment, was replaced by the Coronation of Mary within 100 years.

Although other forms would persist, this "picture Rosary" gained papal approval in 1569. (The Credo and Glorias were added in the 17th century, but the pendant beads are more recent.)

The key to this Rosary´s success was its simplicity. Medieval people were used to seeing Bible stories and saints´ lives presented in sequential episodes in art,
sermons and songs. The easily memo­rized 15-decade Rosary comfortably fit these patterns, creating a "mini-epic" of salvation history.

Calling the devotion a Rosary rather than a psalter was rich in symbolism. The rose was a Marian symbol because she was the ultimate woman, the Mystical Rose, to whom all symbols of love and beauty belonged. As Dominic of Prussia observed: "We live as though we were in Mary´s rose garden, all of us who occupy ourselves with roses."

Devotion Catches On
Some major religious orders, especially the Dominicans, adopted the Rosary as a means of re-evangelizing the public. With time, the Rosary confraternity spread widely across Europe and had a million members by the time the Reformation erupted in 1517. Protestant criticism of the Rosary only made it more attractive to Catholics, until it became a badge of the faith.

The Rosary received another boost when it was given credit for Christians´ victory over the Turks at the crucial sea battle of Lepanto in 1571. Confraternity members in Rome had prayed furiously for success in the battle, which fell on the first Sunday of October, the traditional day they hon­ored Our Lady of the Rosary. This even­tually became a universal feast day cel­ebrated on Oct. 7.

From the 18th century, Jesuit pro­motion of May as Mary´s month also pop­ularized the Rosary. Further stimulus came from the Marian apparitions at Lourdes in 1858, where Our Lady used her own beads to accompany St. Bernadette´s rosaries. Praying the Rosary for world peace is a legacy of Our Lady of Fatima´s apparitions in 1917. The Rosary´s popularity declined somewhat after the Second Vatican Council, but today there are no lack of enthusiasts for this glorious tradition.

From pope to peasant, many millions of Catholics still heed Jacob Sprenger´s advice: "Hurry, hurry . . . run after the Virgin Mary with sweet smelling gar­lands."


Decades of Evangelization

The story of blessed Bartolo Longo (1841-1926) demonstrates the Rosary´s power to evangelize under the most unlikely circumstances.

Bartolo lost his faith while studying law at the University of Naples in Italy and became deeply involved with the occult. After finding his way back to God, Bartolo became a Dominican tertiary under the name Brother Rosario to show his love for the Rosary. During a business trip to Pompeii in 1872, Blessed Bartolo was shocked by the town´s poverty, ignorance and crime. He decided to use the Rosary to rekindle the faith there. Blessed Bartolo sponsored a festival and lottery with rosaries among the prizes. He taught catechism classes, promoted the devotion and soon established a Rosary confraternity in Pompeii.

This required a picture of Our Lady of the Rosary, but there was no money to buy one. Blessed Bartolo found an ugly, damaged painting in a convent attic in Naples and brought it to Pompeii on a manure cart. After its restoration, the still-homely image began working miracles. Grateful people from all over Italy started to bedeck it with diamonds. By 1887, Blessed Bartolo had completed an imposing new church of Our Lady of Pompeii that still draws pil­grims by the thousands.

Before dying with his beads in his hand in 1926, Bartolo had also founded a highly popular Rosary magazine, a printery for religious books, an order called the Daughters of the Rosary of Pompeii to care for orphans, and schools for the abandoned children of criminals.

Reprinted with permission from Our Sunday Visitor. Sandra Miesel writes from Indiana.

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Post a Comment
Published by: Billy Bean
Date: 2011-02-27 16:41:36
Fascinating historical investigation of the Holy Rosary! Eastern Christians have a long-standing tradition of counting prayers on the knots of a special rope, commonly called a Prayer Rope. Are these two traditions related, or did they develop independently?

Published by: violeta calizar
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
for study and evangelization reference

Published by: violeta calizar
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
for study and evangelization reference

Published by: violeta calizar
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
for study and evangelization reference

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