Summary of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on the Rosary: “Rosarium Virginis Mariae”

Considered his “favourite prayer… Marvellous in its simplicity and its depth,” St. John Paul II apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, is a great document on the Rosary!

“A Christocentric Prayer”

Since Mary, among all creatures, knows Christ best, the Rosary is “Mary’s way to Christ” (24). By reciting the Rosary, we “contemplate with Mary the face of Christ” (3) and are ultimately put into “living communion with Jesus through – we might say – the heart of his Mother” (2).

“The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium. It is an echo of the prayer of Mary, her perennial Magnificat for the work of the redemptive Incarnation which began in her virginal womb. With the Rosary, the Christian people sits at the school of Mary and is led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love. Through the Rosary the faithful receive abundant grace, as though from the very hands of the Mother of the Redeemer” (1).

Even the Marian character of the Hail Marys is fundamentally Christocentric, with the holy name of Jesus as the hinge of the two parts.

“The Marian character of the ten “Hail Marys”, when properly understood, actually emphasizes and increases the Christological character of the Rosary. First, we share in God’s wonder and pleasure in the greatest miracle of history, the Incarnation of His Son. We climax at the name of Jesus and then appeal to Mary based upon her privileged relationship with Christ” (33).

“A Contemplative Prayer”

With Mary, who is the finest model of contemplating the face of Christ, we enter “into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary” (11), a remembering (zakar) that makes present the events of salvation history, pondering them in our hearts (cf. Lk 2:19; 2:51).

12. The Rosary, precisely because it starts with Mary’s own experience, is an exquisitely contemplative prayer. Without this contemplative dimension, it would lose its meaning, as Pope Paul VI clearly pointed out: “Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ: ‘In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt 6:7). By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord. In this way the unfathomable riches of these mysteries are disclosed” (MC 47).

Beginning with the “Our Father” – because Jesus’ goal is to lead us to the Father in each of His mysteries (32) – and ending with the “Gloria” – because “Trinitarian doxology is the goal of all Christian contemplation” (34) – the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation – simply a means to an end and not an end in itself.

26. Meditation on the mysteries of Christ is proposed in the Rosary by means of a method designed to assist in their assimilation. It is a method based on repetition. This applies above all to the Hail Mary, repeated ten times in each mystery. If this repetition is considered superficially, there could be a temptation to see the Rosary as a dry and boring exercise. It is quite another thing, however, when the Rosary is thought of as an outpouring of that love which tirelessly returns to the person loved with expressions similar in their content but ever fresh in terms of the feeling pervading them… To understand the Rosary, one has to enter into the psychological dynamic proper to love.

“A Liturgical Prayer”

Since the Liturgy is “the summit to which the activity of the Church is directed” (SC 10), the Rosary, in which we enter into Mary’s remembering (zakar) of Christ’s life, is a liturgical prayer (cf. 13).

“not only does this prayer not conflict with the Liturgy, it sustains it, since it serves as an excellent introduction and a faithful echo of the Liturgy, enabling people to participate fully and interiorly in it and to reap its fruits in their daily lives” (4).

“By immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life, it ensures that what he has done and what the liturgy makes present is profoundly assimilated and shapes our existence” (13).

“A Family Prayer”

The Rosary is “a prayer of and for the family” (41).

The family that prays together stays together. The Holy Rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together. Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God” (41).

“The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the centre, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on” (41).  

“It is also beautiful and fruitful to entrust to this prayer the growth and development of children... To pray the Rosary for children, and even more, with children, training them from their earliest years to experience this daily “pause for prayer” with the family, is admittedly not the solution to every problem, but it is a spiritual aid which should not be underestimated” (42).

“A Saint-Making Prayer”

“It would be impossible to name all the many Saints who discovered in the Rosary a genuine path to growth in holiness. We need but mention Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, the author of an excellent work on the Rosary, and, closer to ourselves, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, whom I recently had the joy of canonizing. As a true apostle of the Rosary, Blessed Bartolo Longo had a special charism. His path to holiness rested on an inspiration heard in the depths of his heart: “Whoever spreads the Rosary is saved!” (8)

“An Intercessory Prayer”

“Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son” (16).

“To pray the Rosary is to hand over our burdens to the merciful hearts of Christ and his Mother” (25).

“A Human Prayer”

The Rosary has a special anthropological significance insofar as meditating on the life of Christ reveals the truth about man to himself: “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man is seen in its true light” (GS 22).

The Rosary “marks the rhythm of human life” (25). From the Annunciation to the Crowning of Mary and every Mystery in between, we receive light about our own life.

“We should not be surprised that our relationship with Christ makes use of a method. God communicates himself to us respecting our human nature and its vital rhythms. Hence, while Christian spirituality is familiar with the most sublime forms of mystical silence in which images, words and gestures are all, so to speak, superseded by an intense and ineffable union with God, it normally engages the whole person in all his complex psychological, physical and relational reality” (27).

“A Peaceful Prayer”

The Rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace, since it consists in the contemplation of Christ, the Prince of Peace, the one who is “our peace” (Eph 2:14). Anyone who assimilates the mystery of Christ – and this is clearly the goal of the Rosary – learns the secret of peace and makes it his life’s project. Moreover, by virtue of its meditative character, with the tranquil succession of Hail Marys, the Rosary has a peaceful effect on those who pray it, disposing them to receive and experience in their innermost depths, and to spread around them, that true peace which is the special gift of the Risen Lord (cf. Jn 14:27; 20.21)” (40).

“In a word, by focusing our eyes on Christ, the Rosary also makes us peacemakers in the world. By its nature as an insistent choral petition in harmony with Christ’s invitation to “pray ceaselessly” (Lk 18:1), the Rosary allows us to hope that, even today, the difficult “battle” for peace can be won. Far from offering an escape from the problems of the world, the Rosary obliges us to see them with responsible and generous eyes, and obtains for us the strength to face them with the certainty of God’s help and the firm intention of bearing witness in every situation to “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14)” (40).

JP2’s Tips for Praying the Rosary:

Use suitable icons to meditate on each Mystery.

Announcing each mystery, and perhaps even using a suitable icon to portray it, is as it were to open up a scenario on which to focus our attention. The words direct the imagination and the mind towards a particular episode or moment in the life of Christ… This is a methodology, moreover, which corresponds to the inner logic of the Incarnation: in Jesus, God wanted to take on human features. It is through his bodily reality that we are led into contact with the mystery of his divinity” (29).

Rosary-based lectio divina.

“Obviously these mysteries neither replace the Gospel nor exhaust its content. The Rosary, therefore, is no substitute for lectio divina; on the contrary, it presupposes and promotes it” (29).

Use Scripture.

“In order to supply a Biblical foundation and greater depth to our meditation, it is helpful to follow the announcement of the mystery with the proclamation of a related Biblical passage, long or short, depending on the circumstances. No other words can ever match the efficacy of the inspired word. As we listen, we are certain that this is the word of God, spoken for today and spoken “for me”” (30).

If received in this way, the word of God can become part of the Rosary’s methodology of repetition without giving rise to the ennui derived from the simple recollection of something already well known. It is not a matter of recalling information but of allowing God to speak. In certain solemn communal celebrations, this word can be appropriately illustrated by a brief commentary.

Silence

31. Listening and meditation are nourished by silence. After the announcement of the mystery and the proclamation of the word, it is fitting to pause and focus one’s attention for a suitable period of time on the mystery concerned, before moving into vocal prayer. A discovery of the importance of silence is one of the secrets of practicing contemplation and meditation. One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. Just as moments of silence are recommended in the Liturgy, so too in the recitation of the Rosary it is fitting to pause briefly after listening to the word of God, while the mind focuses on the content of a particular mystery.

Clausular Rosary

Add a relative clause following the name of Jesus that refers to the mystery being contemplated. JP2 calls it “a praiseworthy custom” (33). See Directory for Popular Piety 201.

“It gives forceful expression to our faith in Christ, directed to the different moments of the Redeemer’s life. It is at once a profession of faith and an aid in concentrating our meditation, since it facilitates the process of assimilation to the mystery of Christ inherent in the repetition of the Hail Mary. When we repeat the name of Jesus – the only name given to us by which we may hope for salvation (cf. Acts 4:12) – in close association with the name of his Blessed Mother, almost as if it were done at her suggestion, we set out on a path of assimilation meant to help us enter more deeply into the life of Christ” (33).

Concluding Petition for the fruits specific to that particular mystery (35).

Without in any way diminishing the value of such invocations, it is worthwhile to note that the contemplation of the mysteries could better express their full spiritual fruitfulness if an effort were made to conclude each mystery with a prayer for the fruits specific to that particular mystery. In this way the Rosary would better express its connection with the Christian life. One fine liturgical prayer suggests as much, inviting us to pray that, by meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary, we may come to “imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise”. 35

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