Except for the Our Father, no Catholic prayer or devotion may be more revered than the Rosary.

Many say the Rosary daily, reciting this prayer not only in church but during special times and places we set aside. Many keep the beads in their pocket, hang them in cars, put them on bedposts. They may be part of the essentials carried every day, such as keys, wallets or purses. When lost or misplaced, many may feel incomplete until the beads are found or a new set is in their possession. But when did this whole idea of counting beads while praying begin? Where did the Rosary originate?

For centuries long before Christ, the faithful said prayers in a repetitive manner and found different methods of keeping count, often by using rocks or pebbles. By at least the ninth century, monks were reciting all 150 psalms, at first every day, but later every week as part of their prayers and devotions. One way they kept track was to count out 150 pebbles and then place one pebble in a container or pouch as they said each psalm. People living near the monks wanted to mimic this devotion, but due to lack of education couldn’t memorize all the psalms. Printed copies, even if individuals could read, were not available as the printing press was centuries away. So Christians began to pray 50 or 150 Our Fathers (or Paternosters) each week instead of the psalms. In order to keep count of the Our Fathers, they often used string with knots in it instead of counting on rocks. Later the knots gave way to small pieces of wood and eventually to the use of beads.

St. Dominic

There has long been a tradition in the Church that St. Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221) is the source of the Rosary. In the 12th century, the Albigenses heresy was widespread in Europe, especially in southern France and Italy. The Albigenses denied the mystery of the Incarnation, rejected Church sacraments and condoned many secular activities considered evil by the Catholic faith. Among the efforts by the Church to combat this heresy was the organization of the mendicant orders, including one led by St. Dominic. The Dominicans, as they became known, tried to reverse the vile teachings of the Albigenses by roaming the countryside preaching against the heresy, trying to influence the fallen away back into the Church. Tradition has it that St. Dominic’s efforts were most effective following a visit from the Blessed Virgin Mary in the year 1214. Neither Dominic nor his order ever made this claim.

The legend spread from an alleged dream of Blessed Alan de la Roche in the 15th century, more than 250 years after Dominic died. De la Roche was a respected writer and theologian of his time (c. 1428-1478) and instrumental in spreading the Rosary devotion throughout the Western Church. In his dream, Mary gave Dominic the Rosary and instructed the saint to preach the Rosary as part of his effort to thwart heresy. According to de la Roche, Mary said to Dominic, “If you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter.” The Psalter refers to the Angelic Prayer, the Hail Mary. Among those who related this beautiful story is St. Louis Marie de Montfort in the book “God Alone: The Collected Writings of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort.”

While many Church scholars do not give credence to de la Roche’s story, numerous popes have advocated Dominic as indeed the source of the Rosary. In the 18th century, the Bollandists, a religious community that researches and verifies Church facts and historical allegations, questioned the role of Dominic in the Rosary story. The future Pope Benedict XIV (r. 1740-58), at the time a member of the Vatican Sacred Congregation of Rites, responded to the Bollandists: “You ask whether St. Dominic was really the illustrator of the Rosary, you declare yourselves perplexed and full of doubt upon the subject. But what account do you make of the decisions of so many sovereign pontiffs — of Leo X, of St. Pius V, of Gregory XIII, of Sixtus V, of Clement VIII, of Alexander VII, of Innocent XI, of Clement XI, of Innocent XIII, of Benedict XIII, and of many others who are all unanimous in declaring the Rosary to have been instituted by St. Dominic himself?” (Augusta T. Drane, “The History of St Dominic, Founder of the Friars Preachers,” Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1891, p. 136, and other sources.)

Rosary Evolution

Notwithstanding papal advocacy for Dominic’s role, there are divergent views regarding the evolution of this most beautiful of Marian devotions. Many scholars and theologians conclude that it is the outgrowth from the early monks saying the psalms, but some differ in regard to the identity of individuals contributing to the growth throughout the centuries. Despite the different views, there is widespread agreement on certain facts.

The Rosary includes six of Catholicism’s most familiar prayers: the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Fátima Prayer (“O My Jesus”) and the Hail Holy Queen. The inclusion of these prayers in the Rosary did not happen overnight but was a lengthy evolution down through the centuries. Originally, the Our Father was said 150 times as a replacement for the psalms, saying the prayer on each bead of the Rosary string. A Glory Be was normally part of the prayer. During the 11th century, St. Peter Damian (d. 1072) suggested praying 150 Angelic Salutations, the Hail Mary, as an alternative prayer to the Our Father. The Hail Mary at that time consisted of Gabriel’s angelic salutation to Mary, “Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with you” (see Lk 1:28-31), and the exchange between Mary and Elizabeth during the visitation, “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Lk 1:39-45). The name of Jesus (“blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) was included sometime later. In 1365, a Carthusian monk named Henry of Kalkar (1328-1408) divided the 150 Hail Marys into 15 groups of 10 beads each. He placed an Our Father between each group or decade (10 beads); the prayer was thus made up of 10 Hail Marys, repeated 15 times with an Our Father in between each set.

In the mid-15th century, another Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia (1382-1461), introduced a similar devotion that included 50 Hail Marys with 50 individual thoughts or phrases about Jesus and Mary. A different thought or phrase would accompany each Hail Mary.

Around 1480, the evolution continued when “an anonymous Dominican priest … retained the pattern of the decades that Henry of Kalkar suggested but focused them on fifteen episodes in the life and work of Mary and Jesus, not on fifty or one hundred and fifty of them. Instead of meditating on a Mystery for the space of a single Hail Mary, people could meditate more deeply for the time it took to recite ten Hail Marys devoutly; and instead of circling the Mystery by meditating on a myriad of details, they would approach the details by focusing on the heart of the Mystery itself.” (Kevin O. Johnson, “Rosary: Mysteries, Meditations and the Telling of the Beads,” Pangaeus Press, Dallas, 1997, p. 199). By now there were 15 groups of 10 beads, 15 decades. Each decade, instead of each bead, was accompanied by a meditation on the life of Christ and Mary.

Completion of the Hail Mary

By the first part of the 15th century the Hail Mary consisted of: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The third part, known as the petition (“Pray for us Holy Mother of God…”) is traced back to the Council of Ephesus in 431. At that council, Church leaders officially defined Mary as not only the Mother of Jesus but as Theotokos (God-bearer, the Mother of God).

On the night this proclamation was made, the citizens of Ephesus marched through the town joyfully chanting, “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” This petition, including the words “now and at the hour of our death” would become part of the prayer by the time Pope St. Pius V (r. 1566-72) issued the papal bull Consueverunt Romani Pontifices in 1569 encouraging the universal use of the Rosary.

Since Pope Pius V issued that document, only the Fátima Prayer has been added to the Rosary. The Fátima prayer, given to the Portuguese children during the Fátima apparition in 1908, is widely used, but it is not universal. The Rosary made up of 150 beads, promoted by Pope Pius V, is still subscribed to by the Church but is, of course, different than the popular Rosary with 50 beads that many of us carry in our pockets.

From the 16th century until the 21st century there were three sets of mysteries: the Joyful, the Glorious and the Sorrowful. But in 2001 Pope St. John Paul II added the Mysteries of Light. The intent was to include meditations on the time in Jesus’ life between His incarnation (a Joyful Mystery) and His passion (a Sorrowful Mystery).

We Catholics instinctively turn to the Rosary in times of crises and life’s sorrows, in the midst of personal and even public tragedies.

How many soldiers have repeated the Hail Mary over and over on the battlefield? In our darkest hour, even the hour of our death, we plead for the intercession, the blessing and comfort of the Blessed Mother using this 700-year-old devotion which ends, in part, “Turn then most gracious advocate thine eyes of mercy toward us …”

D.D. Emmons writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.