The Holy Rosary Explained.

Michael Blackburn was asked to speak to the Carmelite Nuns of Kirk Edge Sheffield. For his talk he decided to explain about the significant meaning of the Holy Rosary as follows:


When Mother Prioress asked me to give this talk my first thoughts were of the many things I could talk about; Rosary Beads, Decades,. Mysteries, The Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, The History, Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje – and then I suddenly stopped – in my haste I had missed the most important of all ‘Our Lady’.


There is no point in talking about The Holy Rosary unless we have learned to love Our Lady. How do I learn to love her?


By knowing that she loves us with a love greater than we can ever understand.


By knowing that Our Lady is the Mediatrix between Jesus and ourselves. My belief is that all our prayers go to Jesus through her.


By knowing that at the foot of the cross she offered herself as a Co-Redemptrix along with her Son who she saw die in appalling agony. Crucifixion was so unbelievably painful, so evil, that the Romans themselves stopped using that form of execution. Even the cruel Romans accepted that Crucifixion was barbaric and beyond what any man should do to another.


Padre Pio told us that wherever Jesus is Our Lady is also there. So while we are here in St Teresa’s Room Our Lady is with Jesus in the Chapel. As a Eucharistic minister I often have to travel by car and to remind myself that she is we us I say “Our Lady, fasten your seat belt please”!


Then there was that most poignant moment when from his agony on the Cross Jesus spoke to St John and said “Here is your mother”. At that moment she became the mother of us all. She deserves our love and in this holy Carmelite environment at Kirk Edge we are safe in the knowledge that she receives it.


What can we say about Mary? When God created her soul he kept it pure and devoid of original sin. So from the very first she was given special heavenly blessings. But her Free Will was the same as ours. She was free to make whatever choice suited her. And when the Angel Gabriel told her of God’s plan she had to make a choice. We thank God that she chose to be His Mother and the Mother of us all. In doing this she replaced Eve as Jesus, her Son, replaced Adam.


Being a Eucharistic Minister is a great privilege. The Communicant and I recognise that where Jesus is, Our Lady is also present so we say a Hail Mary thanking her for being with us and asking her to stay until the next time Jesus comes. We can take it further and say that where Our Lady is there will be a host of angels. So after I have made a Eucharistic visit I leave behind Jesus, Our Lady and choir of angels. Being a Eucharistic Minister can never be dull!


It is only when we love Our Lady that we can prepare ourselves for trying to understand her Holy Rosary.


So we start by looking at the history of the Rosary.


How did the Rosary commence and how did I come to its present form of twenty decades made up of a total of two hundred Hail Mary’s spilt into four Mysteries; Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious?


Until October 2002 the Rosary was made up of fifteen decades which totalled One Hundred & Fifty Hail Mary’s and as far as can be discovered the use of ‘one hundred and fifty’ came from the early Monasteries where the monks obeyed the strict rule of St Benedict by daily recitation of King David’s one hundred and fifty Psalms. In those early days, many of the monks were illiterate so to either read or memorise the Psalms was beyond them. To enable them to take part in the prayer of the community they were allowed to recite an appropriate number of Our Fathers (known as Paternosters) an d to keep track of the numbers they used a knotted string. People from the neighbouring villages would attend the services and they too followed the monk’s example and so the use of beads was accepted by the laity.


The next stage in the story takes us to the eleventh century and to St Anselm who was Archbishop of Canterbury. He composed a prayer to Mary which was based on the Psalms and consisted of one hundred and fifty verses, which he divided into three, each verse commencing with the word ‘Ave’. This prayer became know as ‘Our Lady’s Psalter’. Now we move forward to the fourteenth century when a famous Carthusian monk, Henry Egher, claimed to have had a remarkable vision of Our Lady in which she taught him to say the ‘Psalter’ in her honour. He described this occurrence to one of the Priors in his order and in a short space of time the prayer became known throughout the country.


In the same century Eton College was founded by King Henry VI which Included in its statutes that the students were required to recite, every day, ‘the complete Psalter of the Blessed Virgin consisting of a Credo, fifteen Paters and one hundred and fifty Ave Marias’. This was in accordance with the instructions given by Our Lady to the Carthusian monk. Gradually, from being based on the psalms, the Ave-Psalter began to develop a clear character of its own, and the division into the fifties came to represent the three moods that make up the rosary.


But why the name ‘Rosary’? In the early days of the church statues of Mary (Our Lady) would have roses put on her head in the shape of a crown or halo. It seems very credible that it is from those roses has come the name Rosary.


Some of the Joyful Mysteries are attributed to St Thomas a Becket who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the time of King Henry II. He composed a hymn on the seven joys of Our Lady.  Some of his themes are now used as Joyful Mysteries. Over many centuries there followed a natural progression. Having prayed and meditated on the Joyful mysteries is was a natural to want to pray and meditate on the Sorrowful and then the Glorious themes in the life of Jesus and Mary so the other mysteries came into being.


There is a strong tradition that The Rosary, as it is known today, started in England. This seems to be confirmed by a report on the state of England in 1496 made by a secretary of the Venetian Embassy: (I quote) “They all hear Mass every day, and say many Paternosters (Rosaries) in public, the women carrying long strings of beads in their hands.......”. 


There is a tradition that Our Lady gave the Rosary in its present form to St. Dominic. It is believed that on 16th July 1251 Our Lady gave the brown scapular to St Dominic so it is not hard to believe the tradition that she also gave the Rosary to him. The church often accepts tradition. It has always done so in the case of the Sixth Station of the Cross. There is nothing in the Bible regarding Veronica Wiping the Face of Jesus – it is ‘tradition’. That St Dominic was a man of remarkable character is not in doubt. He had the deepest compassion for every sort of human suffering. It is possible that he prayed the Rosary when working with the sick and it is from that the tradition began of him having being given the Rosary by Our Lady.


Then there is the Fatima prayer which we add to the end of each decade: “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell; and lead all souls Heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.” In our Parish as well as the Fatima prayer we have added another prayer at the end of each decade. It came from Father Gobbi of the Marian Association of priests. Mothers were frequently going to him saddened by their children who were not following their faith and he told them to add this prayer to each decade: “Dearest Mother, with these golden chains we bind our children to your Immaculate Heart.” The fact that we are making a specific mention of our children gives us confidence and reassurance.


A story from the end of the last war confirms the power of the Rosary. Following the end of hostilities on the 8th May 1945 the Russians kept going for a further few days by entering Austria to ‘liberate it.’ Their idea of ‘liberation’ was to take everything they could lay their hands on and transport it in trainloads back to Russia! That went on for seven years until a priest in a small parish in the area where the Russians were active asked his parishioners to take up their Rosaries. When Cardinal Koenig heard of this he backed it up by asking everyone to pray their Rosaries and reports of this request were mentioned on the radio. After six months of this the Russian troops moved out without any negotiations and Austria was saved from Russian domination.


Then there is the story of my Rosary. I have told this story before but since then you may have some new members of the Carmel who haven’t heard it. One of the phenomena at Medjjugorje is that the silver chain of Rosaries become a gold colour and that happened to my Rosary. Nothing happens without a reason and over the next five weeks I was to discover the reason.

At that time I was taking Holy Communion to Nursing Homes for the elderly. In one of the homes were husband & wife, Philip and Nellie. When I next visited I told them about my Rosary and showed it to them. Philip is blind so Nellie explained it to him and told him about the gold colour of the chain. Philip was an exemplary Catholic, very devoted to Our Lady and to the Rosary. When, on the following week I visited, Nellie showed me Philip’s Rosary. The silver chain of his rosary had become bright gold as bright as brass.


There is a happy sequel to the story. Philip and Nellie preferred not to receive Holy Communion from a lay person. So week after week they missed the chance of receiving the Eucharist. Following the change to his Rosary Philip and Nellie had second thoughts and decided that they would receive from me. Five weeks later Philip died fortified by the Rites of the Church. But on his death bed he was too ill to receive Holy Communion. The last time he received was a few days earlier when I had visited. It is not too difficult to understand that the change in my Rosary was Our Lady’s way of ensuring that Philip would receive the Eucharist before he died.


To complete the history of the Holy Rosary it is necessary to mention the Mysteries of Light which The Holy Father John Paul II introduced in October 2002. I had often thought it would be nice to meditate on The Marriage Feast at Cana and The Last Supper. Whist it was always possible to do so we now have the authority which makes it very acceptable.


There must be many ways of praying the Holy Rosary and, in time, we find the way that suits us best. There used to be a CTS pamphlet entitled Pope John XXIII Prays the Rosary. I learnt to pray my Rosary from reading that pamphlet and then shaping it to suit my own needs. Pope John XXIII explained that he had a different Petition for every mystery. I follow that scheme but so many friends asking me to pray for ‘this and that and the other’ that for some of the decades each bead has a special petition. Also over the years I have taken on the promise of praying a decade a day for a particular purpose. It might be for an end to abortion or for some similar worthy cause so at the present time I have five such specific decades. I do have a favourite decade and it is the Fifth Sorrowful decade because as I pray it I think of the Souls in Purgatory and hopefully by the end of that decade one of two of them may have been forgiven and accepted into heaven. Of course you will recognise that I am being totally selfish knowing that having such friends in heaven might be useful in the future.


Another way of praying the Rosary is to use the decades as stepping stones through our lives. As examples: the Annunciation can remind us of our own start in life and that wonderful moment when God gave us an Immortal Soul. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan reminds us of our own baptism. There was an occasion when Padre Pio was seen to be crying. The friars rushed over to him and asked him “what is the matter?” “I have just realised“, he said “that I have never thanked God for my Baptism”. On the basis of that I should never stop crying for the things for which I have never said “thank you”. The fifth decade of the Mysteries of Light can remind us of our first Holy Communion thanking God for that wonderful Sacrament. I suggest some caution with the Sorrowful Mysteries. I might be tempted to dwell on my sins which have caused these sad mediations. But I have confessed my sins and to dwell on them even for a moment would be to throw God’s forgiveness back in his face. So the Sorrowful Mysteries can be used to wonder at the immensity of Gods love, always remembering the Souls in Purgatory and praying for their release. The Glorious Mysteries remind me that Jesus conquered death and that the death which I will certainly undergo will be the start of an Everlasting Life in Eternity.


I enjoy praying whilst sitting in the Garden and on an occasion in the Summer I was praying The Assumption of Our Lady Body and Soul into Heaven. We have no idea where Heaven is but we think of it as being ‘up there’. It was a warm but slightly cloudy day and as I looked up what did I see a beautiful blue sky with white fluffy clouds - Our Lady’s Colours; blue and white. It struck me very forcefully how Our Lady surrounds us the whole the time.


I would like to share with you something which happened several years ago. I was on my way to work and used to find time to pray one mystery of The Holy Rosary. But on that occasion I was meditating on the mysteries rather than praying the beads. I was meditating on The Nativity when I had a moment of clear understanding, completely clear, of what was meant by ‘The Incarnation’. I can remember the occurrence but I cannot explain or describe it. It was as if a door had opened in my brain and a fraction of a second later had closed. Why did it happen? I don’t know and I don’t feel qualified to question God! It was a very rare moment and I thank God for it.


In thinking about the Holy Rosary I have come to realise that Our Lady follows on from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, The Judges, and The Prophets. Those Patriarchs and Spiritual Leaders of their time have been replaced with one Perfect Prophet, the Mother of God. John the Baptist was the last of the Prophets and we can recall what Jesus said of him; “In truth I tell you, of all the children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist”. Now there is one who is greater, Mary, and God sends her to us to guide us on our way to Everlasting Life in Heaven. She is greater than all the Patriarchs and Prophets put together. That being the case why is it that many, even good Catholics, find the Rosary difficult to pray and refuse to even make a start by taking up the beads and trying.


The answer must be that not much has changed. As the Old Testament Prophets were ignored by the people of their time so now Our Lady is equally ignored. At Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje she has made her request perfectly clear ‘Pray the Rosary’. If we were to only pray one decade a day then we are putting her request into practice. But to turn one’s back on Mary’s request and not even attempt to carry out her request is very sad. When Mary comes to us she is surely doing so at the behest of her Son. Therefore to ignore Mary is to ignore Jesus.


It all comes down to devotion. If we are devoted to Jesus then it follows that we are devoted to His Sacred Heart. If we are devoted to Mary then it follows that we are devoted to her Holy Rosary.


The great composer Franz Haydn loved Our Lady and the Rosary. Once, when discussing mental fatigue, he shared his secret: “I always carry a rosary with me. After a few decades I am sure to feel refreshed both in mind and body.” Haydn once set out to write a religious oratorio. In order to do so he became practically a hermit. For 13 months the composer remained in  seclusion praying studying and working. Some days were filled with success, others with anguish. Often he went for days without an idea. “Then I would pick up my rosary”. he later said, “and as the beads slipped through my fingers, I would relax, gather new strength and collect my thoughts. I would return to my piano and once again hammer away!”


Pope John Paul II said “It was thanks to the Lord that I was not assassinated”. The first time he said that was on the occasion of the Feast of The Holy Rosary.


Pope Leo XIII said ”There is nothing more excellent than that numerous voices praying without interruption from all parts of the world, simultaneously lifting up supplications to the Blessed Virgin Mary as they meditate on the mysteries of the Holy Rosary. May Christian nations seek the protection of the Mother of God with an ardour that grows greater every day; may they cling more and more to the practice of the Holy Rosary, not only as a remedy for the misfortunes, but as the very BADGE of Christian piety! The Rosary is the protection of the Mother of God against the enemies of the Catholic Church. To Mary we must fly. We wish to see it offered more widely in all places and at all times! The great virgin of the Rosary is the most potent help of Christians”.


Bishop Fulton Sheen said “The Rosary is the book of the blind, where souls see and there enact the greatest drama of love the world has ever known; it is the book of the simple, which initiates them into the mysteries and knowledge more satisfying than the education of other men; it is the book of the aged, whose eyes close upon the shadow of this world and open on the substance of the next.


Padre Pio called the Rosary his weapon.


In Medjugorje Our Lady said “When you are tired and sick and you do not know the meaning of your life, take the Rosary and pray; pray until prayer becomes for you a joyful meeting with our Saviour.


The best people I have come across for Praying the Rosary are Catenians in Zimbabwe. Having to live under President Mugabe is not easy. That sad man should be a Catholic but his actions do not show any sign of love which is the mark of a Christian. To give you an idea of the sort of problem they face I’ll ask Mother to pass around the Catena Magazine. It shows cars queuing for fuel. No matter however difficult things have got in the UK  I never recall anything like the chaos shown in that picture. And how do my Zimbabwe Catenian friends react to that situation? They meet and pray the Holy Rosary. They pray the Rosary before every meeting and whenever any new emergency befalls them. They are not expecting miracles they just want to share their frustrations and perhaps even ‘offer them up’.


Let us give the last words to our late Holy Father John Paul II. Here are some excerpts from his Apostolic Letter ‘The Rosary and the Virgin Mary’.


“To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”


“Although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed with her and through her.”


“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’.”


“The revival of the Rosary in Christian families….will be an effective aid to countering the devastating effects of the breakdown of the family typical of our age.”


“Contemplating the scenes of the Rosary in union with Mary is a means of learning from her to ‘read’ Christ, to discover His secrets and to understand His message.”


Dear Mother and Sisters we know that Christ’s message is Love, and Christine and I thank you for allowing us to visit you and to share His love with you.