According to one tradition, the rosary’s defining moment came during an apparition of Mary to Saint Dominic around the year 1221. Dominic was combating a popular heresy in France called Albigensianism. Mary gave him the rosary, told him to teach people this devotion, and promised that his apostolic efforts would be blessed with much success if he did. We know the religious order Dominic founded (the Dominicans) clearly played a major role in promoting the rosary throughout the world in the early years of this devotion.
The Poor Man’s Breviary
Another important development in the history of the rosary is found in its roots in the liturgical prayer of the Church. In the medieval period, there was a desire to give the laity a form of common prayer similar to that of the monasteries. Monastic prayer was structured around the Psalter—the recitation of all 150 psalms from the Bible. At that time, however, most laity could not afford a Psalter, and most could not even read.
As a parallel to the monastic reading of the 150 psalms, the practice developed among the laity of praying the Our Father 150 times throughout the day. is devotion came to be known as “the poor man’s breviary.” e laity eventually were given beads to help them count their prayers.
Marian devotion followed a similar pattern. Gabriel’s words, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28), sometimes were read in the monasteries at the end of a psalm, showing how the psalms found fulfillment in the New Testament with the coming of Christ through the Virgin Mary. Some laity began to recite these words in the manner of the Our Father—150 times, while counting their prayers on beads. In repeating the words of Gabriel, they were reliving the joy of the annunciation and celebrating the mystery of God becoming man in Mary’s womb.
Christians linked this prayer with Elizabeth’s words to Mary at the Visitation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Finally, with the addition of the name “Jesus” in the thirteenth century, the first half of the Hail Mary was in place. is early form of the Hail Mary was recited 150 times on the beads. By the fifteenth century, the 150 Hail Marys had been divided into sets of ten, known as “decades,” with an Our Father at the beginning of each.
Meditating on Mysteries
Another line of development in monastic prayer eventually led to the practice of contemplating Christ’s life while reciting the Hail Marys. Some monasteries began associating the psalms with an aspect of Jesus’s life. At the end of each psalm, the monks would recite a phrase relating that psalm to the life of Jesus or Mary. Taken together, these phrases formed a brief life of Christ and his mother.
A devotion that joined fifty of these phrases with the praying of fifty Hail Marys began in the early fifteenth century. However, since fifty points of reflection generally could not be recalled without a book, the devotion was simplified by reducing the meditation points to fifteen, with one for every decade. us, by the end of the fifteenth century, the basic structure of the rosary was in place: Our Fathers dividing decades of Hail Marys, with meditations on the life of Christ and Mary.
In the sixteenth century, the sets of five Joyful, five Sorrowful, and five Glorious Mysteries as we know them today began to emerge. Also, the vocal prayers of the rosary were finalized. The Glory Be was added to the end of every decade, and the second half of the Hail Mary was formalized: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” In 1569, Pope Saint Pius V officially approved the rosary in this form: fifteen decades of Hail Marys introduced by the Our Father and concluded with the Glory Be.
And so the rosary remained for over four centuries. Then, in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II proposed something new.