How did the praying of the Rosary start? Until the early part of the 17th century, it was widely believed that St. Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers (commonly known as the Dominican Order) received the Rosary from the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. Although many present-day devotional paintings, pictures, calendars, and altar pieces still attest to this belief, historians generally agree that the Rosary, as a form of prayer, was a product of centuries of evolution which began long before the time of St. Dominic.
What the world owes St. Dominic and the Dominicans is not the Rosary as a prayer form, but as a devotion with lingering popularity and as an instrument of preaching the Catholic faith. Many Dominicans after him formed confraternities of lay people whose devout and regular recitation of Hail Marys closely resembled the present-day communal recitation of the Rosary. As Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC writes: “Although the Dominicans were not the sole originators of the Rosary, their influence in the growth, devotion, and spread of this prayer cannot be denied. It would not be inaccurate to call them the principal promoters and defenders of the Rosary throughout history.”
Invocations of the scared or ritualized prayer formulas that are repeated incessantly have been characteristic of world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Islam. To keep track of the number of prayers uttered, which also served to divide a particular day, prayer counters such as rocks, sticks, notches in wood, and even knots and beads were used. The idea of using a string of beads to facilitate prayer and meditation is not exclusive to Christianity.
Before the Psalms in the Old Testament became the main body of the liturgical prayer of the Church, there were formulas or invocations that Christians uttered repeatedly, the most famous of which was the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Church. Hermits and ascetics living in the desert repeatedly intoned, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have pity on me a sinner.”
With the establishment of monasteries, monks and nuns recited the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament as an essential element of their religious obligation (their Divine Office). They would practically recite the entire 150 Psalms every single day, distributed equally among their morning, midday, and evening prayer schedule. This arrangement was good for the monks and nuns, and later for the religious and the clergy, but not for lay people. Many of them could not read, and they had no copies of the Bible. Shortly after the beginning of the 12th century, lay people found a way of participating in the Divine Office by praying 150 times in a day the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) lifted verbatim from the Gospel of Matthew. They would count their Pater Nosters by using pebbles. This practice became so popular that instead of pebbles, the laity would get a large rope and tie 150 knots in it. Every knot corresponded with one Pater Noster. This long rope was later shortened to 50 knots, which they used three times a day.
Towards the end of the 12th century, the invocation “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” took on an importance equal to that of the Pater Noster. This logically arose from the Church’s affirmation of the Blessed Mother’s crucial role in the fulfillment of the prophecies contained in the Old Testament. Soon, 150 meditative phrases about Jesus and Mary were composed, summarizing the Gospel from the Annunciation to the resurrection of Jesus. These 150 meditative phrases were invoked after each of the 150 Hail Marys. This form of prayer (150 Hail Marys divided into three sets of 50) that was popular during the time of St. Dominic was called “Mary’s Psalter.”
In the early 15th century, a Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia, introduced a modification. He shortened the 150 Hail Marys into 50, and linked these with 50 meditative phrases about Jesus and Mary. The word Jesus was added in the last part of the Hail Mary sometime between 1410 and 1439. (The petition “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinner, now and at the hour of death,” came very much later). It was also in the 15th century that the word Rosarium (garden of roses) was applied to this form of prayer. The word Rosary then referred to the recitation of 50 Hail Marys. At about the same time, another Carthusian, Henry Kalkar, contributed further to the development of the Rosary by dividing the 50 Hail Marys into groups of 10, forming five decades with a Pater Noster before each decade.
At the latter part of the 15th century, the 50 mysteries had been reduced to 15 mysteries, one for each decade of Hail Marys. In 1569, the Dominican Pope, St. Pius V, published a decree wherein he definitively fixed the formula for praying the Rosary, taking into consideration the many modifications throughout history. He also officially affirmed the Rosary as an efficacious individual and communal prayer, and assured its many devotees graces and indulgences. Pope St. Pius V also declared October 7 as the feast of the Holy Rosary.
The concluding prayer of the Rosary is taken from the Mass for the Feast day of the Rosary instituted in 1573: “In meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary, we ask that we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through Christ Our Lord.” In 1613, the Doxology (Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…) was added. Also, about this time, the Apostles’ Creed and the pendant (a crucifix) formed part of the Rosary. Later, through popular practice, the beautiful hymn of Mary, Salve Regina, containing many relevant medieval themes and titles of the Blessed Mother, capped the recitation of the Rosary.
About the Author
Rev. Fr. Louie R. Coronel, OP, STL-MA, HEL is a young Dominican historian from the Dominican Province of the Philippines. He finished his licentiate in Ecclesiastical History from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and is currently serving as pastor of Santisimo Rosario Parish - UST in Manila, Pastoral Director of the UST Central Seminary, and spiritual director of the Young Thomasian Professionals Lay Dominican group.
Young Thomasian Professionals Lay Dominican Group
Santísimo Rosario Parish, University of Santo Tomás
España Boulevard, Manila 1015 Philippines