Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 7, 2003
A protestant reveres the rosary
Myths, prejudices melt away as reflections become spiritual realities
By MARK PICKUP
Special to the WCR
Since medieval times, millions of Christians have been devoted to the rosary. As an evangelical Protestant, this fact puzzled me. What could anybody possibly find fulfilling in making the sign of the cross, kissing a crucifix, repetitively droning the Hail Mary prayer, interspersed with numerous Our Fathers and "Glory be," counted off on a string of beads?
It seemed like empty ritualism, worshipping the created more than the Creator. That's what I thought; yet the fact that countless Christians throughout the ages, up to the present time, continue to embrace such tender devotion to praying the rosary demanded closer examination. And so it was with the baggage of Protestant suspicions, upbringing and preconceived notions that I approached the rosary. I expected to find idolatry but found joy.
My offence to the rosary began with the Hail Mary itself. I thought it was a form of Mary worship. Wrong! It's Hail Mary not Heil Mary. Hail Mary means "greetings" or "rejoice." "Hail Mary full of grace" is the phrase used by God's messenger Gabriel to announce Mary was highly favoured to be the mother of Christ (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2676). Why wouldn't Gabriel honour God's chosen vessel to bring the Messiah into the world?
That's honour not worship - or was I saying that the angel who stands in the presence of the Almighty Creator (Luke 1.29) was guilty of idolatry and offending that jealous God (Deuteronomy 5.8)? Only a cynic of the lowest order would still entertain a thought so despicable, upon reflection. Rather than taking offence, I should feel honoured to utter such profound truth.
"Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" are the words of Elizabeth said under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely words prompted by the Holy Spirit possess a certain perfection. The last part of that prayer, "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death" dares to presume that I might be able to ask for someone else's prayers - the powerful prayers of the Mother of God. I should be humbled not offended.
Asking someone to pray for me is not a new idea. I do it quite regularly. In fact, last Sunday I leaned across the pew to a friend and said, "George, pray for me, my bunions are killing me." Why am I more apt to ask George, who's on this side the grave, to pray for something trivial (like my bunions) than humbly ask the Mother of God, who is on the other side of the grave, and certainly closer to Christ, to pray for something eternally important (like my sin and the hour of my death)?
A 'cloud of witnesses'
St. Paul likened the Christian journey to an athletic contest being watched by "a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12.1.). These witnesses are saints and martyrs who preceded us into glory (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2683); many are ancient heroes of the faith mentioned in Hebrews 11. They are aware and concerned about earthly events, so why wouldn't I ask for their prayers?
The cloud of witnesses are not just spectators, they are our examples. The Apostles' Creed speaks of the communion of saints. In the Creed (also in my Baptist Church hymnal), we are asked to internalize the reality that the Church is comprised of the living and the dead in Christ.
Fumbling with the rosary
I began to pray the rosary, fumbling and faltering at first, but intent on discovering its attraction for millions of Christians. Looking at the rosary in my hands, I wondered, "Do I pray clockwise or counter-clockwise?" Duh! I discovered the beads (initially so foreign to my touch) gave order and organization to the rosary prayers and encouraged reflection on the mysteries. I was being introduced to the discipline of contemplative prayer: mastery of it is a life-long process (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2709-24). Unwittingly, I found myself caressing the rosary, disappointed when the chaplet was complete.
The greatness of the rosary lies more in its silent reflections than its sacred words: Blessed are thou among women (pause to contemplate the mystery) and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, (sweet, reflective pause) Jesus." The pauses provide a spiritual turn to the prayer's meaning and significance. It's as though the words become alive as I prayerfully internalize the life of Christ and faithfulness of his mother. The rosary's 12 articles of faith (Apostles' Creed), the silent interludes with Christ, the contemplation of the mysteries and Gospel explain why Christians throughout the ages tenderly embrace the holy rosary.
Now I have joined an army of Christians joyfully devoted to the holy rosary.
(Mark Pickup writes from his home in Beaumont. His commentaries have been published across North America.)