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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat

An Effective Way of Praying the Rosary

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

How to Say the Rosary

Our present meditation is on how to say the Rosary. As we saw in our previous conference the Rosary of Our Lady has a centuries old history on its doctrinal side. There has been a phenomenal development, not in the sense of an accumulation of new truths of Faith but in a growing depth of understanding and increased clarity in seeing and grasping and applying to our daily lives what God had once and all revealed in Jesus Christ. There then has been a growth in what we call dogmatic progress in each of the fifteen mysteries of the Holy Rosary. What is less well known, however, is that some of the great devotees of Mary have written extensively on the different ways that they have prayed the Rosary. What they have to say is worth hearing. What is probably least well known is that, on occasion, even the Vicars of Christ have volunteered to describe how they personally have found helpful directives for reciting the Rosary of Our Lady.

Insights of Pope John XXIII

My plan in this conference is to share with you some of the insights of Pope John XXIII of happy memory, which he left to posterity on an effective way of praying the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin. To be noted immediately, is that the purpose of the Pope’s explanation is on saying the Rosary as a form of mental prayer. Of course, the Pope has no doubt that the Rosary is a vocal prayer and in that sense is the same. Every believing Christian and Catholic, when he or she says the Rosary, is to pronounce the same words of the Apostles Creed, of the Our Father, of the Hail Mary and of the Glory Be to the Father. However, says the Pope, what is left up to each one’s discretion is how to fulfill the mental prayer responsibility when we say the Rosary. The only difference on the vocal level is the language that the different people speak. Otherwise everyone’s Rosary is the same. Ah, but says the Pope, the moment you go beneath the surface then no two recitations of the Rosary are the same. This, the Pope explains, is not only to prevent the Rosary from becoming a mere vocal recitation. It is also, says the Pope, to obtain from our recitation the graces which the Church assures us are available in abundance, but conditional, depending on how those who say the Rosary vocally and mentally pray the mysteries; the mysteries that began with Mary’s Annunciation and closed with a heavenly culmination.

Preliminary Observations - Two Possible Ways of Reciting the Rosary

First then, after that introduction, some of Pope John XXIII’s preliminary observations. I believe it is worth beginning by briefly quoting what Pope John has to say about the two possible ways of reciting the Rosary. The first the Pope calls “lip homage”, I quote. The second, he says is, I quote again, “a vibrant elevation of the soul and a conversation with the Lord.” The Rosary, according to the Holy Father, can be recited as a monotonous succession of the three prayers: the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria and the Gloria Patri, arranged says the Pope, in the traditional order of fifteen decades and “very kindly”, this is Pope John talking, “to be sure, this is already something,” unquote Pope John XXIII. Is this good to hear? Even if we do nothing else but in our own native language, or maybe acquired language, pronounce the Our Fathers, the Hail Mary’s, and the Glory Be to the Fathers – all right, all right, we are doing something. Again I quote, “This is the true substance of a well meditated rosary; it consists in a three-fold element that give unity and cohesion to the vocal expression,” unquote Pope John. Back to the quotation. By this well meditated recitation of the Rosary, back to the quotation, “there is an unfolding in vivid succession, the episodes rejoin together the life of Jesus and Mary, in reference to the different conditions of the persons praying and the aspirations of the universal Church,” unquote. Let’s go back over this. I read, researched and prayed, Lord help me to find something substantive so that when I give this retreat I won’t just be talking from my own little mind, but sharing with you and others who, please God, will hear Him, or view this retreat on how to have our rosaries rise beyond, quote again, “mere lip homage.”

Unfolding of the Episodes Which Join Together the Lives of Jesus and Mary

What are we being told? He’s going to give us the three elements. In a few minutes we’ll come to those three elements, but now, what will those three elements, which, if we observe when we say our rosaries will give an unfolding, in vivid succession, of the episodes which join together the life of Jesus and Mary? If there is one thing I want to share with you as we’ll begin this evening, with the first of the fifteen mysteries: let’s be sure that we see that each mystery is an intertwining, an interweaving, of the life of both Jesus and Mary. Moreover, we are told, it is not merely that in the lives of Jesus and Mary are intertwined, but we are to see them as we pray the Rosary, meditatively as expressions, I quote the Holy Father, “of the different conditions of the persons praying.” No two people will recite the Rosary in the same way. Indeed, I would say, no one of us will recite the Rosary, if we do it properly, in exactly the same way even from morning till afternoon. In case nobody told you, our conditions change depending on many factors, not excluding the weather. I dare say, we say one kind of a rosary on a hot July afternoon; and another rosary when we’re shivering in bitter January cold.

For Each Picture There is a Three-fold Emphasis

Moreover, says the Pope, the rosaries that we say meditatively should also reflect the aspirations of the universal Church. This, surely, was the Vicar of Christ speaking; the one on whose shoulders the Master placed the burdens of the whole Mystical Body. He needs our rosaries so that he may more effectively govern the Church of God. We go on. See how much I’m plagiarizing the Holy Father, but it’s not plagiarism when you admit where you got it. What more does Pope John say but what he calls the well-meditated rosary? He says two things. They are crucial. First, I quote, “for each decade of the Hail Mary’s there is a picture,” unquote. Second, quote again, “for each picture there is a three-fold emphasis which is at once mystical contemplation, intimate reflection, and pious intention,” unquote.

What I plan to do, from now on until the end of this conference is, first, to say a few words, more briefly, on what the Holy Father calls; for each decade of Hail Mary’s, there is a picture. First, then, something about the picture, and then on the three ways on which we are to respond to that picture. First, then, the picture. Following on the Pope’s directives we see there is, first of all, and I repeat, a picture for each decade. I feel very comfortable with this language; it is exactly the language of St. Ignatius Loyola. Later on, Ignatius would have some of the greatest minds in Catholic history as his followers and spiritual sons: a Suarez, a Robert Bellarmine, a Peter Canisius; but Ignatius himself - this is a very safe statement - was no theologian. Go through his spiritual exercises and some overly educated minds are turned off. He’s telling me to picture to myself the angel appearing to Mary. I’m a theologian! Pictures are for children, for the illiterate, the uneducated, you know, the hoi polloi.

Well, Pope John XXIII, to make another comparison, was not a John Paul II. Pope John Paul II was, before he became the Vicar of Christ, recognized as one of the five greatest minds in the world. But this is Pope John XXIII talking. Ignatius would call this the composition of place. Each decade, now back to Pope John, each decade recalls something that actually occurred. The Holy Father calls that an episode. What an episode took place on Christmas morning! But, it was an episode; it took place. At the Annunciation the archangel Gabriel actually appeared to Mary. Hold on to that, hold on to that adverb! Actually, really, historically, hold on to that! I know too much scholarship. I’ve spent over fifty years with the most intellectual Order in the Catholic Church. Pray for us.

The First Condition for Mental Prayer - Using the Will to Control the Imagination

The Annunciation took place. It really occurred. The angel really spoke to Our Lady and she really spoke to him. And so on, Pope John would tell us, or shall I say, and so up, the fifteen decades of the full rosary. Each is an episode. Each is an event, each is meant - that’s why God became Man - that we creatures of flesh and blood might be able to use our senses, here, our internal senses are recalling the events that occurred. We are still on the picture-making stage of the rosary. There is such a thing as using our imagination when saying the rosary. Do you know that in spite of all the phantasms that can crowd into our imagination, did you know that we have control over our imagination? Did you know that? Maybe a big secret to some people, but it’s my imagination. Yes, my dear, it’s your imagination all right; but controlling the imagination is not only keeping my will from consenting to images, or sensations, or emotions stirred up by my imagination, which faith tells me are contrary to the Will of God; Oh no! The primary purpose of the will, regard to the imagination, is to have that will tell the imagination: now all right, come up, I want to picture so and so. The imagination says, I’m not in the mood. Look, the will says, I’m in charge. Get up! And this, my friends, is the first condition for mental prayer; using the will to command the imagination to recall and dwell on what the Pope casually calls episodes in the life of the Son of God, who became the Son of Man, so we could picture God in action in this world. In other words, this will of ours is not only to protect our imagination from wallowing in things which we know are contrary to the Will of God; the will is to tell the imagination, pardon the verb, what to imagine. For some people this may be a very difficult enterprise. All I’m saying is, quoting the Vicar of Christ, all of this has to do with the picture stage of saying a rosary that goes beyond “mere lip homage.” Let’s now pull the curtain on the picture; but just one more observation. There are fifteen successive cardinal events in the life on earth and the heavenly glory of Jesus and Mary. And we are recommended, when we say each decade, to use our wills to tell the imagination, I want this picture and I want it now! And as we’ve indicated before, depending on your mood, all kinds of different pictures will come up for the same mystery. So much for the picture-stage of how to say the rosary.

Three Elements Make Up a Well-Meditated Rosary

Then as, remember, the Holy Father tells us there are three elements that go to make up a well-meditated rosary. The first of these and you almost want to close your eyes when you hear it, the first says the Pope is mystical contemplation. Your Holiness, thanks for the compliment. Honest, I’m not even a budding Teresa of Avila. Thanks for the suggestion, Your Holiness. Can you tell me something more simple that will apply to me? Clearly the term, which the Pope uses, “mystical contemplation” needs to be explained. My notes tell me to tell you we may be confused or turned off to be told that in saying each successive decade we are to practice quote, “mystical contemplation”, unquote. But there’s nothing here either for confusion or being turned off. You know what our problem is – our Mother language, English. I think I’ve spent most of my theological life telling my students the one language that is not Catholic is English. To use the plain Anglo-Saxon, “it ain’t Catholic.” The result is all kinds of meanings, connotations are brought up when we hear words like mystic and contemplation.

First: Mystical Contemplation

Back to Pope John. Here’s how he explains what he means by this mystical contemplation. He says, “It is simply intimate communication of thought and sentiment with the teaching and life of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,” unquote. We ask ourselves again, what does the Pope mean? He means that having set the pictures for each mystery, we start each decade thinking, thinking in Our Lord’s Presence, what the mystery is about. And if there should be no doubt, over the power of the will in mastering the imagination let me tell you, the will has tremendous power over our minds. I’ve taught too many students by now undeservedly, thousands, not to know that not all my students (what a safe statement) all the while that I’m teaching, were thinking. If we want to think, we will think; if we don’t want to think, we won’t think. I’ve seen it; I can prove it. But not only do we have control over whether we are going to think or not; we also have mastery over what we are going to think about. In other words, the same free will that sets the imagination to present a picture, here we are told by the Holy Father, sets the intellect to start thinking, thinking about what the picture is telling us. There is no need of deep theological analysis. That should be comforting. It is not speculation. It is prayer. Whatever thoughts come to my mind, during the decade that somehow deal with the mystery on which I’m supposed to be meditating constitutes, to use the Pope’s vocabulary, quote, “mystical contemplation.”

One of my favorite definitions of a mystic, I mean a genuine mystic, is one who is blessed with the grace of constantly thinking of God. And unless, and such people are rare, let me tell you. And you don’t have to be blessed with a gift of mystical contemplation, as just described, to be a saint. A reassurance. As long as my mind is somehow in the presence of God, I am engaging, to satisfy the Holy Father’s words, I am engaging in mystical contemplation. Saint Thomas’ definition of contemplation; looking at the Truth with love. My mind is thinking, ever momentarily and I should add, however distractedly; my mind is trying to think of the episode that I’ve pictured in my imagination, but my Faith tells me this is no mere picture. God became Man and was born of a human mother, precisely that He might be imagined. You know what I’m saying? That God could be pictured. My mind (however dimly or weakly) aware of Whom I am praying to, what I’m praying about, satisfies that difficult term, mystical contemplation.

Second: Intimate Reflection

Second recommendation: intimate reflection. By this term Pope John XXIII means that we apply, if only for a moment, the mystery of each decade for ourselves. In the Pope’s words, I quote, “each person finds countless applications in each mystery for his or her own spiritual needs, as well as those for his or her daily life.” unquote. In other words, the recitation of the rosary should include us! As we say each decade, we momentarily ask ourselves such questions as these: How does this mystery, say the Visitation, apply to me? Or, what graces do I need for my spiritual life as I reflect on Christ’s humility at Bethlehem, or Mary’s acceptance of God’s Will when Simeon told her that her heart would be pierced by a sword?

Always implied in saying the Rosary is that it should be practical. It should, on the second of the three recommendations of Pope John, it should open our eyes to see the virtues of Jesus and Mary and open our hearts to want to follow in their footsteps. So much for number two.

Three: Pious Intention

Now number three: pious intention. The vocabulary is not so clear to us in English. What does the Holy Father mean by pious intention? Following the note on mystical contemplation, intimate reflection and now pious intention. Here we are told in each decade, if even momentarily (I will keep repeating this adverb), if even momentarily we ask for what we need. Having seen stage number one what each mystery of the Rosary is telling us, having reflected again momentarily in the implication of this mystery, that apply to me. I now, even though implicitly, and my friend, it is a good idea to plan our rosaries. How’s that? That make sense? Why not? I now, even implicitly, in the depths of my heart, ask Our Lady to obtain for me what I need. Now the needs can be very general like holiness of life but they can also be particular like asking for patience. Somebody calls up. “We have another telephone, pardon me Father, will you wait until I answer the other call?” So I whip out my rosary - you never know, they’re paying for the call, but I need patience - so the first words after what was not a minute my voice will be very gentle – yes? But even, and this is a good idea. I’m sure anyone of us, sat down or better, knelt down and asked ourselves in Our Lord’s Presence: Lord, what would you say of the fifteen virtues that I mostly need? As you see I’m talking autobiographically; I need more than fifteen. I’m judging other people accordingly. To be specific how am I to do an assigned task? How am I to meet a foreseeable situation? How am I to live out in my life what Jesus and Mary lived on in their lives on earth? All of this, and much more, is locked up in the simple directives of Pope John XXIII which I thought was worth sharing with you.


A short closing prayer. Lord Jesus, You were conceived and born of Your Virgin Mother. She always shared with You from the moment You dwelt in her womb, to the moment You crowned her as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Grant us, we implore you, through the love You have for her, the needs we have in our lives to become more and more like her and thus, become more and more like You who are her Divine Son. 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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