The Rosary: Its History and Development

It is said that the Blessed Virgin gave the rosary to St. Dominic (1170-1221), the founder of the Dominican order. Although Dominicans have been great promoters of the rosary down through history, the rosary as we know it today took several centuries to develop, and its route was nothing if not circuitous.

The ultimate source of the rosary as a prayer form is the Book of Psalms in the Bible, writes Dominican Father Frederick M. Jelly, in Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition. From the very beginning, the Church claimed the psalms as part of its Jewish heritage and placed their recitation at the heart of its liturgy and daily prayer. The practice of praying an Our Father instead of a psalm caught on in the early medieval period, and this marked the birth of the rosary devotion. "In order to keep count of the prayers," Father Jelly writes, "strings of beads were used, and these would gradually become our rosary beads."

Soon, to each of the 150 Our Fathers people began to add a short phrase about Jesus and Mary, thus linking vocal prayer to contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. Then, they substituted brief meditations on Jesus and Mary from the Annunciation to the Resurrection of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary.

According to Father Jelly, in the early 15th century a Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia, helped to popularize this devotion by linking 50 Hail Marys with 50 phrases about Jesus and Mary. "This is the origin of the word rosary, since the series of 50 points of meditation was called a rosarium (rose garden)." The rose, a symbol of joy, referred to Mary, and "rosary" came to refer to the recitation of 50 Hail Marys.

About the same time, another Carthusian, Henry Kalkar, contributed further to the development of the rosary by organizing the Hail Marys into groups of ten (decades), with an Our Father before each.

By 1480, rosaries of 50 mysteries, one for each Hail Mary, had been reduced to 5 mysteries, one for each decade. "In 1483," Father Jelly writes, "Our Dear Lady's Psalter, a rosary book by a Dominican, makes mention of 15 mysteries, all of which are the same as we have today except the final two glorious mysteries." The anonymous Dominican author combined Mary's Assumption and Coronation into one mystery and named the Last Judgment as the final glorious mystery.

In 1521, Alberto de Costello, another Dominican, was the first to use the term "mystery" to refer to the meditations for each decade of the rosary. He attached a mystery to each of the 15 Our Fathers while retaining 150 sub-mysteries for each Hail Mary.

During the 16th century, the 15-decade rosary became quite popular, and in 1470 still another Dominican, Blessed Alan de la Roche, founded the Confraternity of the Psalter of Jesus and Mary, which contributed enormously to the rosary's popularity.


Finally, in 1569, Pope St. Pius V published a papal bull that is often called the magna carta of the rosary, Consueverent Romani Pontifices. In doing this, Pope St. Pius V formally established the prayer form that had been developing for centuries and standardized the 15 Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries that we know today. He also made a lasting contribution by definitively linking meditation on the mysteries of Christ's life to the prayer of the rosary.

Since then, numerous popes have devoted much attention to the rosary, notably Pope Leo XIII, Blessed John XXIII, and Pope Paul VI. In his apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus, Paul VI reminded the Church that the rosary is a "prayer with a clearly Christological orientation."

On October 16, 2002, Pope John Paul II surprised the world with the most significant document on the rosary in over four centuries, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, and proclaimed Ocober 2002 to October 2003 the Year of the Rosary. In this apostolic letter, John Paul II appeals to Christians throughout the world to rediscover the spiritual richness of the rosary. He proposes some theological considerations that he hopes will renew the centuries-old devotion and deepen its contemplative dimension. He also responds to contemporary objections to the rosary, noting that its Marian and repetitive dimensions do not detract from but actually enhance its Christological and prayerful depth.

Moreover, John Paul II suggests five new "mysteries of light" for meditation. "I believe," he writes, "to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ's public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion." He names them the luminous mysteries for "it is during the years of his public ministry that the mystery of Christ is most evidently a mystery of light: ‘While I am in the world, I am the light of the world' (Jn 9:5)."

In the conclusion of his letter, Pope John Paul II, noting that "the Church has always attributed a particular efficacy to this prayer," entrusts the cause of peace in the world and the cause of the family to the power of the rosary. At the dawn of this new millennium, we may well hope that the Church will respond with vigor to his appeal and, in rediscovering the spiritual richness of the rosary, contribute to the spiritual rejuvenation of societies and families.

On the day that Pope John Paul II began the 25th year of his pontificate, he published the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary). He called all Catholics to “reclaim the full meaning of the rosary.” The rosary, he said, “deserves to be rediscovered” because it is “an inner journey which [brings] the faithful into living contact with the mystery of Christ and his Blessed Mother.” The pope referred to the rosary as “the school of Mary” in which we are “led to contemplate the beauty of the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love.” The rosary “offers the ‘secret’ which leads easily to a profound and inward knowledge of Christ.” The rosary “is a means of learning from [Mary] to ‘read’ Christ, to discover his secrets, and to understand his message.” For “Mary constantly sets before the faithful the ‘mysteries’ of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power.” Through the rosary “in Mary’s company” we are enabled “to share [Christ’s] deepest feelings.”


This revival of the rosary is crucial because “today we are facing new challenges” that require recourse to the rosary. The letter speaks of the urgent need to “counter a certain crisis of the rosary” caused when the rosary is devalued and, therefore, “no longer taught to the younger generation.” For this reason, the Holy Father places the focus of the revival of the rosary on Christian families since renewed devotion to the rosary within family life “will be an effective aid to countering the devastating effects of this crisis typical of our age.” At the same time, the Holy Father calls for a “revival of the rosary…to implore from God the gift of peace.” For “the rosary is by its nature a prayer for peace…. One cannot recite the rosary without feeling caught up in a clear commitment to advancing peace.” This prompts Pope John Paul to declare: “I willingly entrust to the power of this prayer…the cause of peace in the world and the cause of the family.”

by Dominican Father Peter John Cameron in the Knights of Columbus Magazine,
October 2002

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