3 Things You Didn’t Know About the Rosary
From its origin to its wording, the devotion continues to surprise
If there is anything that shouts “Catholic!” in the popular imagination, it’s being seen with a rosary in your hands. Say you’re going through an airport security check and you empty your pockets into one of those gray plastic tubs; say that along with pocket change, belt and cellphone, you send through the X-ray machine a rosary. You can bet your St. Christopher medal that anyone who notices immediately will identify you as a Catholic — some with indifference, some with approval, others with a barely concealed smirk of disapproval.
Now, say you complete the security-check process and one of those who noticed your rosary approaches and says, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help noticing back there that you have a rosary. Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions?” How well-prepared are you to reply to inquiries about the Marian devotional prayer known as the Rosary? Here are three insights into the Rosary that you may not know.
1. Its Origin Is a Legend
It is said that St. Dominic received the Rosary in an apparition from the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is a popular belief, but it never happened; it’s pure legend. St. Dominic de Guzmán lived during the 12th and 13th centuries when the Albigensian heresy was spreading across Western Europe. Albigensianism taught, among other things, that the soul is good, the body evil and suicide is virtuous.
A lesson in the Roman breviary — the official collection of prayers in Latin used for daily prayer by the clergy prior to the Second Vatican Council — is relevant. The breviary lesson for the feast of the Holy Rosary stated that St. Dominic de Guzmán prayed earnestly to the Blessed Virgin Mary for her assistance in combating Albigensianism.
|St. Padre Pio on the Rosary|
“Go to the Madonna. Love her!
Always say the Rosary. Say it well.
Say it as often as you can! Be souls
of prayer. Never tire of praying, it
is what is essential. Prayer shakes
the heart of God, it obtains necessary
Mary’s response, according to the legend, was to instruct St. Dominic to preach and promote the use of the Rosary as an antidote to heresy and sin. As the story goes, the Blessed Virgin gave Dominic the Rosary and told him that if he promoted the devotion, his religious order would flourish. According to the breviary, from then on the Rosary was “most wonderfully published abroad and developed by St. Dominic, whom different supreme pontiffs have in various past ages of their apostolic letters declared to be the instituter and author of the same devotion.”
Many popes did encourage and promote the Rosary. Indeed, they took for granted that the story about St. Dominic actually happened. Later research, however, has led the great majority of historians and theologians to conclude that St. Dominic had nothing to do with the origins of the Rosary. Still, the occasional student of the Rosary continues to insist on the historicity of the legend, even with no scientific historical data upon which to base his or her pious opinion.
In fact, all the clues historians discovered point to one source for the Rosary as we know it — namely, the preaching of a 15th-century Dominican friar named Alanus de Rupe. He was the first to declare that the devotion he called “Our Lady’s Psalter” came from St. Dominic. This is the source of the legend that St. Dominic received the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
2. ‘Full of Grace’ or ‘Favored One’?
It’s OK that the Hail Mary says “full of grace” when Luke 1:28 says “favored one.”
There seems to be a contradiction between the wording of the Hail Mary and its source in Luke 1:28. The prayer begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” However, modern translations of Luke 1:28 — including the official U.S. Catholic version, the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) — translate the angel’s words without using the word “grace” at all. Thus, in the NABRE, “Hail, favored one!” So what’s up here? After all, “full of grace” and “favored one” seem different theologically. Indeed, “full of grace” may strike the reader as attributing to Mary greater dignity than the scriptural “favored one.” Luke’s Gospel says “favored one,” so what basis do we have for the Hail Mary to say “full of grace”?
Historically, the phrase “full of grace” originated with the late 16th- to mid-18th-century Douay-Rheims Bible, a Catholic English translation based on the Latin Vulgate, which was translated from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts by St. Jerome (342–420). The Douay-Rheims Bible, in other words, is an 18th-century English translation of a fifth-century Latin translation, not a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts.
When St. Jerome translated the Greek text of Luke 1:28 into Latin, he rendered the word kecharitomene as gratia plena (“full of grace”). Then, 13 centuries later, the Douay-Rheims translators merely followed suit and gave gratia plena the literal translation “full of grace.” That’s where the Hail Mary in Latin gets gratia plena and in English “full of grace.” Those who translated the Douay-Rheims Bible could have been more careful and paid closer attention to the Greek texts. Some scholars think, in fact, that the translators were influenced more by their own Catholic theological preferences and piety than by meanings inherent in the Greek and Hebrew texts.
This is not the end of the discussion, however, for the Douay-Rheims translators’ preference for “full of grace” is not without support internal to the Greek text. As we have already seen, the Greek word in Luke 1:28 translated as either “full of grace” or “favored one” is kecharitomene. While scholarly consensus holds that Luke intends “favored one,” this is an instance where differences of opinion matter.
Supremi Apostolatus Officio
Pope Leo XIII, in his 1883 encyclical on the Rosary, described the origin of the prayer’s devotion and its strength against enemies of Christ and his Church.
“Our merciful God, as you know, raised up against these most direful enemies a most holy man, the illustrious parent and founder of the Dominican order. Great in the integrity of his doctrine, in his example of virtue, and by his apostolic labors, he proceeded undauntedly to attack the enemies of the Catholic Church, not by force of arms; but trusting wholly to that devotion which he was the first to institute under the name of the Holy Rosary, which was disseminated through the length and breadth of the earth by him and his pupils. Guided, in fact, by divine inspiration and grace, he foresaw that this devotion, like a most powerful warlike weapon, would be the means of putting the enemy to flight, and of confounding their audacity and mad impiety. Such was indeed its result. Thanks to this new method of prayer — when adopted and properly carried out as instituted by the Holy Father St. Dominic — piety, faith, and union began to return, and the projects and devices of the heretics to fall to pieces.”
— Supremi Apostolatus Officio, No. 3
Notice that the word at the heart of kechamenritoe is charis, the Greek word for “grace,” meaning God’s self-gift to us. Also, the author of the commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary — probably today’s most prestigious Catholic Bible commentary — translates kecharitomene as “Graced One.” Note also how this Greek term is translated in the current edition of The Book of the Gospels. The editors of The Book of the Gospels chose to render kecharitomene in, for example, the Gospel reading for the feast of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) — which includes Luke 1:28 — as “full of grace.” The use in The Book of the Gospels of “full of grace” instead of “favored one” lends further authority to “full of grace” as a legitimate translation of kecharitomene. Given the extensive history and tradition of translating kecharitomene as “full of grace,” therefore, we certainly are justified in continuing to pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”
3. Scripture and Tradition
Not all of the Rosary’s “mysteries” are scriptural, and this is good. One important fact about the Rosary that rightly gets emphasis from devotees these days is its scriptural and Jesus-centered character. The Fourth and Fifth Glorious Mysteries — the Assumption and Coronation of Mary — come, however, not from Scripture but from sacred Tradition. Both already were a part of the Rosary when, in 1950 and 1954 respectively, Pope Pius XII elevated these devotions, defining the Assumption as dogma and giving the Coronation of Mary its own feast day.
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The Rosary is heavily scriptural, but these two mysteries call to our attention the constant blessings that sacred Tradition makes possible in the life of Christian faith. Their presence in the Rosary also reminds us of the unbreakable union that exists between Scripture and Tradition.
MITCH FINLEY is the author of more than 30 books, including “The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers, and Those In Between” (The Word Among Us Press, $9.99).