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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat

History of the Rosary

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is on the History of the Holy Rosary. As we enter into our reflections on Our Lady of the Rosary during this Marian retreat, we first wish to see something of the history of this devotion. You might wonder, what purpose is there in doing this? Why not get right down to, well, to the Rosary? And there is plenty, as we shall see, in these fifteen cardinal mysteries of our Faith on which to meditate, not for six days or six years but six-hundred lifetimes. Why, you might ask, bother going back in history to review how the Rosary began, how it developed, and how it reached its present form? My concentration, perhaps surprisingly, will not be on-going over the what is admittedly a highly controversial subject. Who started the devotion to the Rosary? We leave that to the Wisdom of God. Of course, of course Saint Dominic had a great deal with making the Rosary, not only well-known but spread throughout the Catholic world beginning in the early thirteenth century. But our concentration will rather be on what we call the development of the doctrine about Our Lady because except for this growth or progress in Marian doctrine, devotion to the Holy Rosary would not have become what it now is, belonging to the foundations of our Catholic piety.

What Does the Church Mean by Development of Doctrine?

As we ask ourselves, what does the Church mean by development of doctrine? Development of doctrine means that while the deposit of faith, the truths revealed by God, this deposit has remained essentially unchanged since apostolic times to the present. What God had decided from all eternity to reveal about His Mother that had been revealed and was completed by the end of the first century of the Christian era. There will be no new revelations, either about the Holy Trinity, about the supernatural life, about Jesus Christ, or about Mary. No more new revelations. Consequently, objectively, what God has revealed to the world especially in the Person of Christ remains constant. No new truths will be communicated by God until the end of time. And for our purpose what God wanted to reveal about His Mother, He revealed, past tense. It’s finished. The content, the truths, the realities that God wished to reveal have been revealed. However, subjectively, in how the Church and we, within the church, grasps the meaning of these truths, how clearly the Church understands what God has revealed, with what conviction and certainty the Church professes what She believes, and, with emphasis, how effectively this once and for all deposit of faith will be put into practice for the salvation and sanctification of mankind that is constantly growing and will continue growing until the end of time.

A Remarkable Development of Marian Doctrine

Having said that, immediately we remind ourselves, that there has been, over the centuries, and into our own time, a remarkable development of Marian doctrine from apostolic times to the present. A review of this development of doctrine from apostolic times until now Our Lady was honored by those who believe in her Son. She was honored from the very beginning. One of my spiritual joys, while studying in Rome, was to go down to the catacombs, and after nineteen hundred years which some of you, you’ve seen these, shall we call them, frescos on the side of the walls of the catacombs, very clear, in one wall fresco after another, Mary is featured. Those first Christians had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tradition tells us Our Lady was on earth for some fifteen years after her Son’s Ascension. We may be sure she told the Apostles a great deal; after all she lived with Him over thirty years, and they for less than three years. After all, she was His Mother. So devotion to the Blessed Virgin began with the dawn of Christianity. Then, as time went on and the faithful people had no doubt that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was the Mother of God. That went on for some three hundred years.

Over-Educated Theologians Began to Question Mary's Divine Maternity

Then, after the liberation of the Church from the tyranny of the Roman Empire, a new problem entered the Church. Her enemies now, were not from the outside but from the inside. And no sooner did heresies arise, questioning and denying the Divinity of Jesus Christ, than over-educated theologians began to question Mary’s Divine Maternity. One date we should all memorize 431, four-thirty-one, the year that the Council of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, condemned the Patriarch Archbishop of Constantinople as a heretic for denying and insisting that his people no longer invoke Mary as Theotokos, as Mother of God. You know what happened? The people of Constantinople rose up in rebellion. Good to hear! Guess who they appealed to? Rome! And that’s long before the age of communications. Your Holiness, they begged the Pope, do something! He did. Nestorius was condemned and deposed. Ah, once Nestorianism arose and the Church defined Mary’s Motherhood of God, you see what Nestorius did, clever man that he was? He divided Christ into two persons; a divine person who of course, of course have the first person of the Holy Trinity as his Father, and a human person, so claimed Nestorius. Mary was the mother only of the human person, and you see how logical it is to also deny Mary’s virginity. Makes sense. And consequently, about the same time arose the major heresies denying Mary’s virginity. One outstanding Catholic scholar and writer after another (two especially), Saints Ambrose and Jerome battled, and that’s the only verb to use, those who denied Mary’s virginity. Some of the language that St. Jerome used against a man by the name of Helvidius is almost not communicable in public. Sometimes I’ve wondered, how did Jerome ever get to be honored as a saint? The names he called Helvidius have to be softened in English translation, for denying Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. All this I think we need to hear, lest we get the strange idea, rampant nowadays, that devotions like the Rosary, well, you know, pious women wanted to identify Mary with their devotion to Christ; so it’s not surprising if, pardon the gender again, if women finger their beads. But don’t tell me, say the scholar and I repeat; I don’t have to read their books; I know them, how well I know them, and how embarrassingly well they know me.

Heretics Serve a Very Important Purpose in the Church

Devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary in its doctrinal foundations is as old as the Church. In the early Church, therefore, when writers began to question Mary’s perpetual virginity: before Christ’s conception, in conceiving Jesus, in her birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and in her whole life until her Assumption into Heaven, all this. Heretics serve a very important purpose in the Church. They become catalysts to sharpen, clarify, and deepen our understanding of the Faith, and specifically, on the level on which the heretics deny it. As a result of the doctrine of Mary’s virginity being widely denied, the Church now, more clearly, understands (and how this mystery of our Faith better be understood), that with God’s grace, not only can chastity, as fidelity in marriage and the avoidance of contraception, be practiced in married life; but single people remain chaste and (wonder of wonders!) and there are some, normal, sane, sober, individuals who will, actually, undertake to live a life of consecrated chastity. We Catholics had better be clear that God can do the humanly impossible! As Mary was told, remember? What is impossible to man is possible to God and she is the standing model of living a humanly impossible life, because of the grace she received and we, by invoking her help can obtain from her Son through her.

Mary was Removed from the Life of the Faithful

In the sixteen century, at the time what I always call the Protestant Revolution and the Catholic Reformation, the role of Mary in the life and worship of the faithful increased immensely. It had to; do you know why? Because Mary was removed and that’s the verb; Mary was removed from the life of the faithful. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin literally disappeared from Protestantism in the sixteenth century. One dramatic thing happened. For fifteen hundred years, the faithful had been reciting the Hail Mary: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Amen. Ah! But something had to be done because it was so widely questioned and denied. What did the Church add? Talk about progress in Marian devotion or progress in devotion to the Holy Rosary! The Church added, let’s say it together; Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

You go back, as I have over the years with my students in Christology, you go back and you see what kind of Christ came into existence in the sixteenth century, outside of Catholic Christianity. It was not the Christ that we Catholics believe in. What happened? Devotion to Mary, for all practical purposes, was removed. And if there is anything, as one who has taught at six Protestant Divinity schools, have taught (I counted them) nine graduate courses in Protestant Theology; listen, all in Catholic seminaries and universities. If there is one thing I know, and I share with you; what the Anglo-Saxon, mainly Protestant cultured world most needs is the recovery of its faith in, and devotion to Mary. I hope you believe me.

Six Prerogatives - Six Doctrines

Many tragic things happened in the sixteenth century. I know none in the practical order that was more tragic than the disappearance of the Mother of Jesus, indeed, but the Mother of God from the life and worship and prayer of millions in the Western world to Mary. We might ask why? Why was the Hail Mary and notice, this is not a mere addition of words: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. We’re going through the history of the Holy Rosary and what we wish to bring out is the profound meaning hidden behind every syllable of the Rosary. We Catholics, talk about progress, we Catholics, thanks to this addition which was placed by the Church following the first part of what had for centuries, what had been called the Ave Maria and in the sixteenth century, became the Sancta Maria, Holy Mary. What happened? The Church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, now want to keep alive the following six prerogatives of Our Lady. And to be sure these truths would not be forgotten till the end of time, they are enshrined fifty three times in every Rosary when we recite five decades. The Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae Amen, contains six doctrines that, as we begin this retreat on the Rosary, we’d better keep asking Our Lady to obtain from her Son a deeper and clearer understanding of what we’re saying so we’re not merely, pardon the verb, mouthing the words, but thinking as believers.

Sancta Maria: Mary Had a Free Will

First, that Mary is the holiest of human persons, and that sanctity is indeed the fruit of divine grace but not only, not only! Mary had a free will! Sure, she was flooded with grace, but that flood might have swept over her, and she would not have become what she was, Sancta Maria, unless she had co-operated with that grace. And if there is one bedrock principle on which those who revolted against the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, if there is one thing they denied, it is our capacity with our free wills to co-operate with God’s grace and listen; and thus, and thus, and thus become holy. How we need, (beginning with the speaker), how we need to know what we’re praying when we’re saying, Sancta Maria.

Mater Dei: Mother of God

Second Marian Mystery. Mary is Mother of God, Mater Dei. You read the works of Martin Luther; a good deal of what Luther wrote has never even, listen, has never even been printed, and some of it, as printed, has never been translated, from either the original German or Latin; the obscenities, the blasphemies! The terrible movie the Last Temptation, remember? In which Christ for two long hours was portrayed as a man of passion who was aroused sexually by women, including Mary Magdalen; that blasphemous movie would never had been either written in script or filmed at some five million dollars, except that millions of Americans, even many who call themselves Christians do not believe, they just don’t believe that Jesus is not a human person, He’s a Divine Person. Of course, He has a human nature, but that human nature is absolutely and utterly without sin; and we must add, without concupiscence. When, then, we invoke Mary as the Mother of God, we mean that the Child she gave birth to on Christmas morning was a Divine Person. We’re dealing with mystery. But it’s one thing to believe in a mystery; it’s something else to question the mystery or deny it because you cannot comprehend its meaning.

Ora Pro Nobis: Mary is Our Principal Intercessor with Her Son

Third Marian Mystery, added by the Church in the sixteenth century; Mary is our principal intercessor with her Son. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis, pray for us; and we know to whom we’re asking her to pray. We do our praying, that’s called invocation; Mary does her praying, that is called intercession. Over the years of my priesthood, some of my greatest joys were giving rosaries to Protestants and teaching them the Hail Mary. The receptionist in Manhattan on Park Avenue where I lived for ten years teaching at the university; she did me a favor so I said I’d say the rosary for you. Rosary, what’s that? So, I pulled my rosary out. Is it only for Catholics? Oh no! Protestants can say it too. Can I have one? So I gave her the rosary that I had. In five minutes I did not really explain how to say the Rosary. It cost our Jesuit Treasurer in Manhattan four ninety-five; I had to buy a cassette. She had a recorder that recited the Rosary and she learned it by memorizing the Hail Mary. To pray to the Blessed Virgin so, and she might intercede for her Son. And needless to say, she is the most powerful intercessor. Why? Because what we’ve just called her remember: Mother of God. What a loving son won’t do for a loving mother. I’ve watched it. They can get anything, the possible and the impossible, including, let’s remind ourselves, of all miracles to work, Christ had in mind – the healing of paralytics, the restoration of sight to the blind, even raising the dead back to life – His Mother. He might have said to Himself, oh no! They ran out of wine. All right, all right. And by the way, He never did it again. All of this is hidden behind our invoking, “Our Lady, pray for us”.

Peccatoribus: Sinners Invoke the Sinless Mother of God

Fourth Truth of our faith added by the Church in the sixteenth century. Pray for us sinners. We sinners are invoking the sinless Mother of God. What do we need? Everything. Because having sinned, what do we deserve from God? Listen! Nothing. What a sinner does is loses his rights to obtain from God what a person needs.

Nunc: Constant Help We Need From Christ Through Mary to Ourselves

Fifth Mystery, we are begging Our Lady to pray for us. The word, now, in Latin (nunc) is most significant. What is the Church telling us? That, now, should be a continuous presence. Before this retreat is over, we will talk about being indeed in the presence of God; we will also talk about living in the presence of His Mother. And that is why, in Divine Providence, we are so constantly in need; so we might constantly ask for help. The now that I recited a moment ago is past. There is a new now right now. The constant help that we need, and keep these prepositions in line; from Christ, through Mary, to ourselves. Centuries of the Church’s Wisdom has chiseled out those prepositions. We now, and the moment we’ve said it we’ve got to repeat, now again. Anyone who is scandalized at our repetition of Hail Mary’s, my friend, I can see you do not understand human nature. We need constant help and not in just a given rosary fifty times, but that’s how the Rosary began; was called Our Lady’s Psalter, the P-s-a-l-t-e-r, the hundred and fifty Hail Mary’s to correspond to the hundred and fifty psalms. This is, or should be, the Divine Office for every believing Catholic to recite everyday. We are constantly besieged by the evil spirit, by the world in which we live, and even more constantly by our own fallen, better, falling human nature. We are always caving in; we’re always falling over. We always need someone to brace us up and our Faith tells us, the one whose bracing we constantly need is that of His Mother.

Et In Hora Mortis Nostrae: And at the Hour of Our Death

Finally and crucially, when the Church, in the sixteenth century, added the Sancta Maria to the Ave Maria, the concluding prayer, ora pro nobis peccatorribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae Amen; and at the hour of our death. My first sermon, (I’m embarrassed whenever I even think about it) was in the novitiate. We could speak on any subject. The audience was my fellow novices, seventy-five of them; ‘because they had their sermons to prepare, I was giving mine. I spoke on this passage from the Old Testament, “Remember thy last end and thou shalt never sin.” Of all the sublime subjects I might have talked about; that was fifty-two years ago. How we need to daily, and many times daily, remind ourselves of our last end, which really is the first beginning, because at that moment and we leave time and enter eternity; what we most need is the greatest grace that God can give us. Listen, the greatest grace that God can give us is that we might die in the friendship of God. And for that we must pray; and for that, our most powerful intercessor is Our Lady.

The Modern World has Lost its Sense of Sin

We’re on the history of the Holy Rosary, consummating on the doctrine locked up in what we say when we recite the Rosary. We are now up to modern times when sin became so prevalent that the very meaning of sin was lost. Do you know my proof for the fact that the modern world, in such large measure, has lost its sense of sin? Do you know what my proof of that is? The rise of the science of psychiatry. Father, what are you talking about? Here’s what I’m talking about; Freud, the founder of modern psychiatry. In volume after volume (I haven’t gone through his twenty-one volumes), but I’ve read enough of Freud to say this: In all his years of clinical practice, he has never met a single person who is not tormented by the sense of guilt. But Freud did not believe in God; Freud was an atheist. What’s this guilt? What happened? Millions of people, especially in the western world, having a weakened, or even lost their, faith in God. As a logical consequence, lost their understanding of what is sin. What is sin? Memorize this. Sin is a deliberate offense against God. But when the sinner sins by offending God, things happen to that person’s thinking, to that person’s emotions, to that person’s control. In other words, what we now call psychosis, we believers know, is somehow, somehow, the result of sin; either the person himself, or herself, or of others who have sinned against the one who is in emotional distress.

In the five years as chaplain at the state asylum in Michigan, (I’ve told this to many audiences), ninety plus per cent of the people institutionalized were there because of the sins of others; the cruelty, the rejection, the failure to love. We were made to be loved as we were made to breathe. So what did the Church do? Talk about development of doctrine. Pope Pius IX defined Mary’s Immaculate Conception; many reasons, one reason, as the Holy Father said, in now for over a hundred years the Church has been teaching that Our Lady is, not only, the model but the inspiration and our hope, in this valley of tears, of overcoming sin with the grace that she received from the first moment of her existence. We are swimming in sin; we are breathing sin. Every page of the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times, what is it but one dreary narrative about sin and crime after another? Sisters, I hope you appreciate the grace of your religious vocation; of not being, as you know, you didn’t drop from the sky to enter the novitiate; you know, being protected, and surely, by Our Lady from the constant contact with pressure from a madly sinful world.

God Has Given Us a Body with Which We are to Adore Him

In the twentieth century, when the cult of the human body (and that’s one place where the word cult really fits), when the human body, especially the bodies of women, have become the idols of millions; the Church in Her Wisdom defined Mary’s Bodily Assumption into Heaven. The Rosary had been said for centuries before 1950 when Pius XII defined that Mary was assumed body and soul, after she finished her life here on earth. How we need, how we need to understand and grasp the profound meaning of Mary’s bodily Assumption! As the Holy Father told some six-hundred bishops assembled for the ceremony of the definition on the day after, November the second; he told the prelates one reason, under divine inspiration, I defined Mary’s bodily Assumption into Heaven is to help the world, (beginning with the Church and within the Church, the most faithful devotees of Mary), to realize that God has given us a body with which we are to adore HIM! The body is not an idol; the body is not to be adored. The body is to be used, and the pleasures the body gives us are to be sacrificed to the Infinite God. That chastity, said the Holy Father, is the adoration of God with our bodies and that these bodies, which in this life with God’s grace, we can control according to the Divine Will; and we sacrifice, even we consecrated religious, the legitimate pleasures and joys of marriage, will be rewarded after the last day when our bodies will share in that everlasting joy of the heavenly kingdom. I’m almost, but not quite, finished with going through the mystery of the Holy Rosary.

Pope John Paul II Marian Doctrine: The World Needs Mary as the Model for Women to Imitate

Our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, if there was ever a Marian Pope since Peter until now – it is John Paul II. Marian doctrine, which is the mainstay of the foundation of the Rosary, either the devotion is based on doctrine or it is just verbal piety. Under the present Holy Father, Marian doctrine has grown by leaps and bounds. Just one but very important aspect; with a rising recognition and respect for the role of women in human life and society, our Holy Father keeps associating two things (go back over his writings, and by now they’re becoming a small library), he continues associating two things, one is a doctrine and the other is a devotion. What is the doctrine? The doctrine is that the modern world needs Mary more than the world has ever needed her, ever needed her in all its millennia of history. And the world needs Mary as the model for women to imitate, and world needs Mary as the Mother of a suffering, but understanding Mother of a human race going through the most painful agony that the Pope compares to Mary’s agony on Calvary. That the world needs - Mary is the most powerful intercessor with her Divine Son. To whom can we turn? The Pope says, “To Mary.”

In the Practice of Marian Devotion the Pope Advocates the Holy Rosary

Still on the level of doctrine; that we need Mary as our hope for a world torn by war and abortion, and the breakdown of the family life, and the breakdown of so many human lives. All of this is Marian doctrine. But the same Holy Father keeps stressing (in his writing and speeches) not only the need for remaining firm and deeply understanding Marian doctrine, but also in practicing Marian devotion. And it’s here that the Pope singles out advocating the Holy Rosary. Why? Because through the Rosary, says the Pope, we can expect from God what we most need in today’s world: we need light for a world that is blinded to the truth because it is intoxicated with itself; and we need strength in a world that is paralyzed with fear which strength can be obtained, the Pope keeps telling us, from the all-powerful God, indeed, but through His loving Mother Mary.


A very short prayer. Lord Jesus, over the centuries you’ve inspired your Church to give the Faithful the doctrine of the Holy Rosary as the foundation for devotion to the Rosary. Help us, in our own lives, to show the progress of our understanding of the mysteries of the Rosary, and becoming more devoted everyday to your Mother, so that by our growing knowledge of her and of experiencing her help we might be in our lives channels of grace to everyone whose life we touch because it [is] through your Mother, dear Savior, that we hope to reach that destiny for which we were made. Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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