In the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, dropped off sharply in the Western world. Statues were removed from churches and the tradition of praying the rosary was far less widespread than it had been.
On one hand, it might seem difficult to understand this decline. The council, after all, had devoted the key final chapter of perhaps its most important document, The Constitution on the Church, to Mary's role as mother of the church. It even urged that devotion to Mary be "generously fostered."
However, the council also stressed the importance of the Eucharist as "the source and summit of Christian life." As well-founded and fruitful as this move has been, it has also had the effect of marginalizing devotions such as the rosary which previously had been so central to the prayer life of Catholics.
Lately, the rosary has been making something of a comeback. The Catholic faithful have accepted the Eucharist as central. But we are also realizing that treating the Eucharist as the most important act of our faith does not mean jettisoning devotions as useless or trivial. They can perform a valuable role in preparing our hearts to celebrate the Eucharist and in echoing the effects of the liturgy through our daily lives.
Pope Paul VI, pope during most of the council, was anxious to promote use of the rosary in such a manner. Pope Paul viewed the 15 mysteries of the rosary as "the compendium of the entire Gospel" (Marialus Cultus, 42). These mysteries, which trace key events in the process of our redemption and in its first fruits in the life of Mary, can lead one to frequently ponder and meditate on the meaning of the life of Christ.
When the church officially endorsed the rosary in 1569, Pope St. Pius V made a plenary indulgence for reciting the rosary conditional on the person praying the rosary meditating on the mysteries. It is worthwhile to be reminded of that because praying the rosary can easily fall into rote recitation with no spiritual value.
Pope Paul emphasized this element of meditation in his statement on Marian devotion. Without such meditation, "the rosary is a body without a soul. . . . By its nature the recitation of the rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord's life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord. In this way the unfathomable riches of these mysteries are unfolded" (no. 47).
How does one avoid rattling off the beads and ensure that the rosary retains its soul? By clearing one's mind before starting to pray, and by taking one's time once the prayer has started. It is much better to pray one decade of the rosary with devotion than to pray all 15 hurriedly.
Each mystery contains great riches. Each one has the ability to get inside a person and gently alter one's relationship with God and with others. There are several books containing meditations on each mystery which one can use while praying the rosary.
Each Hail Mary can provide a background for meditation, a soothing mantra which helps the meditation reach further into one's soul. Father Romano Guardini writes that "To say the rosary rightly demands practice, but once we are fully acquainted with it, it may become for us a quiet hidden land in which we may dwell and find peace" (The Art of Praying, p. 106).
Here is the gift of the rosary to our unquiet age. It can slow a person, lift him or her out of the rat race and place that person in "a quiet, hidden land," foreign to those who shout at us from our TV sets. In that land, God has our attention and can speak. Christ will take root in our hearts and fill us with the gentle power of the Holy Spirit.
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