One of the most familiar symbols of Roman Catholicism is the circle of small beads called rosary beads. Although rosary beads come in many varieties and can be very decorative, their function is simple: to count prayers.
The idea of rosary beads is not uniquely Catholic or Christian: the Hebrews used to tie 150 knots on a string to represent the 150 Psalms and Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and Muslims also use strings of beads to keep track of prayers and mantras.
In Catholicism, the prayers that are counted on rosary beads are collectively known as the rosary. A rosary consists of several (often five or fifteen) decades of set prayers. A decade consists of one Our Father, ten Hail Marys and one Glory Be. The development of the practice of praying the rosary and the method for doing so are outlined in this article.
History of the RosaryVarious means of counting prayers have been used in Christianity since the early church. A fourth-century hermit named Paul is recorded as having tossed a pebble into a pile for each of his 300 daily Our Fathers. Later monks kept track of prayers on knotted cords, and in the 11th century the cords were replaced by beads of wood or clay. The English Lady Godiva had a string of jewels that she used to count prayers. In the 12th and 13th centuries some people began adding or substituting Hail Marys.
Today, the rosary is not the only set of prayer beads used in Catholicism. There are over 60 different approved circlets of beads used to guide prayers in the Catholic Church. Each is used for a particular type of prayer: prayer to the Holy Spirit, meditation on the Seven Sorrows, the Sacred Heart, or the Holy Face, prayer to various saints, and prayer to Mary under her many different titles. These prayers, and the beads used to count them, are called chaplets.
The rosary, however, far surpasses all the chaplets in popularity. According to Catholic tradition, the rosary was instituted by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. In the 13th century, she is said to have appeared to St. Dominic (founder of the Dominicans), given him a rosary, and asked that Christians pray the Hail Mary, Our Father and Glory Be prayers instead of the Psalms. The original rosary of St. Dominic had 15 decades.
The Prayers of the Rosary
Although a variety of prayers might be used in saying the rosary, a selection of standard prayers are most commonly used. They are: Hail Mary, Our Father (the Lord's Prayer), Glory Be, and Apostle's Creed.
Apostle's Creed:I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified; died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
Our Father:Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name; They kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
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. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Glory Be:Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Fatima Prayer:O My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.
The Mysteries of the Rosary
To help prevent praying the rosary from becoming a mindless repetition, the practice developed of meditating on events in the lives of Christ and Mary, which are called "mysteries."
They are classified as the Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. Each consists of five events, which correspond to the five decades of the rosary.
The Joyful Mysteries are prayed on Mondays and Saturdays.
The events all have to do with Christ's birth.
- The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-28)
- The Visitation (Luke 1:39-56)
- The Nativity (Luke 2:1-21)
- The Presentation (Luke 2:22-38)
- The Find of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52)
The Luminous Mysteries (or Mysteries of Light) are recalled on Thursdays. They were instituted by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
- The Baptism in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-16)
- The Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-11)
- The Preaching of the Coming of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15)
- The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8)
- The Institution of the Holy Eucharist (Matthew 26)
The Sorrowful Mysteries relate to Jesus' suffering and death. They are recalled on Tuesdays and Fridays.
- The Agony of Jesus in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-56)
- The Scourging at the Pillar (Matthew 27:26)
- The Crowning with Thorns (Matthew 27:27-31)
- The Carrying of the Cross (Matthew 27:32)
- The Crucifixion (Matthew 27:33-56)
The Glorious Mysteries remind the faithful of Jesus' resurrection and the glories of heaven. They are prayed on Wednesdays and Sundays.
- The Resurrection (John 20:1-29)
- The Ascension (Luke 24:36-53)
- The Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-41)
- The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
- The Coronation of Mary in Heaven
How to Pray the Rosary
Following are the steps for praying the rosary using rosary beads.
- On the crucifix, say the Apostles' Creed.
- On the next large bead, pray the Our Father.
- On the next three small beads, pray three Hail Marys.
- On the chain, pray the Glory Be.
- Announce the first mystery (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful or Glorious).
- On the large bead, pray the Our Father.
- On the next ten beads, pray ten Hail Marys.
- On the chain, pray the Glory Be.
- Optional: Add the Fatima Prayer here.
- Repeat steps 5 through 9 for the next four decades.
- John Trigilio, Jr., and Kenneth Brighenti, Catholicism for Dummies (Wiley, 2003), pp. 249-53.
- Keven Orlin Johnson, Why Do Catholics Do That? A Guide to the Teachings and Practices of the Catholic Church (Ballantine Books, 1994), pp. 96-102.
- "Rosary." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford UP, 1997), p. 1417.
- "How to Pray the Rosary (PDF)." New Advent. A handy single sheet with a diagram, step-by-step instructions, and text of prayers.
- Herbert Thurston and Andrew J. Shipman, "The Rosary." The Catholic Encyclopedia.