I remember some years ago, to celebrate the beginning of Our Lady’s month of May, we were giving out rosary beads to people as they were leaving church. One of the parishioners, a very good man in his 40s, who brought his family to Mass every Sunday, accepted a few sets of beads. Thanking me, he said the beads reminded him of his grandmother who used to pray the rosary. Then he asked, “do people still pray the rosary?”
Today is the feast day of Pope St. Pius V who died on May 1, 1572. He led the Church from 1566-1572, during very difficult times. Christianity in Europe had been deeply wounded by the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church had just gone through the great Ecumenical Council of Trent, which took almost 20 years of fits and starts to complete. And the Ottoman Empire was trying to expand its rule and its religion into the west, threatening an invasion of Greece from modern-day Turkey. Anticipating a decisive confrontation with the Ottoman navy at Lepanto in October 1571, Pius V ordered the churches of Rome to be open day and night and encouraged the faithful to recite the rosary, asking Our Lady’s intercession in the impending struggle. At the great Battle of Lepanto, the fleet led by Don Juan of Austria defeated the Ottoman navy, effectively ending its aspirations for control of the Mediterranean Sea. In gratitude for the victory at Lepanto, Pius V instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory (Oct 7), which would later be known as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
This is among the most dramatic historical examples of the power of the rosary, but countless saints over the centuries have spoken of its importance in the struggles we face in a fallen world. It most likely began in the 13th century as a way for the lay faithful, who were largely illiterate, to participate in the prayers of the monks in their monasteries. The recitation of the “Hail Mary” salutation 150 times over the course of the full devotion was likened to presenting the Blessed Mother a wreath of roses, thus giving the devotion its name.
Almost every pope in the past 150 years has spoken of the power of this devotion. In the face of the dehumanizing threats of 19th century industrialization, Leo XIII spoke of his conviction of the importance of praying the rosary. When Nazism began to seize power in Germany in the 1930s, Pius XI called upon families to pray the rosary for the conversion of the enemies of God and religion. St. John XXIII remembered newborn children in his daily rosary, and asked people to pray the rosary so that the Second Vatican Council would usher in a blessed time of renewal in the life of the Church. Paul VI exhorted families to pray the rosary, contemplating together the mysteries of the life of Christ. The rosary was St. John Paul II’s favorite prayer, and he lamented that people were no longer praying it. He spoke often about the power of the rosary in the struggle against the multitude of overwhelming threats facing family life in the contemporary age. Benedict XVI encouraged the rediscovery of the rosary among young people, noting that in a fragmented age suffering from a crisis of meaning the rosary helps us put Christ back in the center of all things. Pope Francis, who has a deep devotion to Our Lady and prays the rosary daily, has encouraged the faithful to rediscover this great prayer and has composed two prayers that he will recite this year at the end of his daily rosary during the month of May in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. You can find the prayers here: http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200425_lettera-mesedimaggio.html
Over and over we hear that we should be praying the rosary. And not just from popes. Our Lady herself has told the world that we need to pray the rosary. At Lourdes, Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette holding rosary beads, counting off the Hail Mary prayers with Bernadette as she recited them. At Fatima, the Blessed Mother told the children to pray the rosary every day for peace in the world.
Perhaps during this month of May we might try to make the rosary a part of our lives. If we’ve tried in the past but failed, this is the time to start again. If five decades is too much at once, start with a decade. If you have no one to pray it with, find a rosary app for your phone, or even better – ask someone to join you in person or on the phone.
Do people still pray the rosary? “Yes, of course!” I told the gentlemen outside the church that day. If I could go back in time, I would have added: “But not enough people do.”