By Barry Michaels
Baptism in the Jordan. Wedding at Cana. Proclamation of the kingdom. Transfiguration. Institution of the Eucharist. Pope John Paul II brought these major events in Jesus' life to the beloved Rosary, and catechized millions of Catholics at the same time.
In October 2002 -- five years ago -- he published his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae ("On the Most Holy Rosary") and launched a Year of the Rosary for Catholics around the world to pay special notice to this important devotion.
With this document, Pope John Paul, like many popes before him, proposed the Rosary as a rich source of spiritual nourishment and prayer. "With the Rosary," he wrote, "the Christian people sit at the school of Mary and are led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love."
But he also added his own personal stamp on how the Rosary is prayed in a way his predecessors never did. Set in a pontificate loaded with important teaching documents, Rosarium Virginis Mariae remains among the most dramatic, most personal and most accessible of them all.
"This letter is one of the most accessible things that he wrote. It's a wonderful introduction to the Rosary," said Amy Welborn, co-author of "Praying the Rosary" (OSV, $6.95). "It situates the Rosary within the whole spiritual life in a very helpful way."
To sense that this apostolic letter was a personal matter for the pope, one need look no further than its date of publication: Oct. 16, 2002, the 24th anniversary of his election to the papacy.
He chose to make the letter public on this day, despite that just a few days earlier, on Oct. 6, the Church celebrated the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary -- a seemingly perfect day for such an event.
"How many graces have I received in these years from the Blessed Virgin through the Rosary," Pope John Paul wrote. Of course, his devotion to Mary was widely known and an intense personal matter.
When ordained an auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958, he took the motto Totus Tuus ("totally yours") -- words taken from a prayer to Mary penned by St. Louis de Montfort (see sidebar). He also strayed from episcopal tradition and included the letter M, for Mary, in his coat of arms.
In addition to writing about the rich meaning of this prayer, Pope John Paul proposed the addition of five new mysteries to the 15 that already had made up the traditional Rosary for many centuries.
For generations, Christians prayed the Joyful Mysteries, which highlight events from the early life of Christ; the Sorrowful Mysteries, which highlight the suffering he endured at the end of his life; and the Glorious Mysteries, which focus on the heavenly glory of the Lord and his mother.
To these, the pope added the Luminous Mysteries (sometimes called the Mysteries of Light), five significant events from the public ministry of Jesus as it is presented in the Gospels (see sidebar).
In this way, Pope John Paul filled the significant and centuries-old "gap" in the Rosary between the beginning and the end of Jesus' life on earth.
"The addition of these new mysteries," he wrote, "is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the Rosary's place within Christian spirituality as a true doorway to the depths of the heart of Christ, ocean of joy and light, of suffering and of glory." He added that the new mysteries would help the Rosary "become more fully 'a compendium of the Gospel.' "
"When it [the addition of the five new mysteries] first happened, I thought, 'Of course! Why didn't somebody else think of that?' " said Mitch Finley, author of "The Rosary Handbook: A Guide for Newcomers, Old-Timers and Those in Between" (Word Among Us, $11.95).
Many others apparently agreed because Welborn's and Finley's books are among a slew of new ones published in the past five years to help Catholics better pray the Rosary.
"Each of the new mysteries is almost bottomless in terms of reflection that could be done about the Christian faith and being Catholic," Finley told OSV. "They used to say that if the New Testament somehow disappeared, you could find the whole Gospel contained in the Rosary. Well, that's even more true now."
Pope John Paul's letter provides more than a list of new mysteries.
He also offers concrete advice to Christians about prayer in general, and praying the Rosary in particular.
He suggested that people look at a picture that depicts the events of each mystery and read passages from the Gospels about those events while praying. "It is not a matter of recalling information but of allowing God to speak," he wrote.
The pope also reflects on the words of the three main prayers of the Rosary: the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be. He emphasizes that there are no magic words to any form of praying and that, in the end, all prayer is about love. The Rosary, he says, can and should be "an exquisitely contemplative prayer."
The result is a rich spiritual resource meant for every Catholic.
"Catholics would benefit from taking a look at the letter," Welborn said, "both those who are still skeptical of the Rosary and those who enjoy praying the Rosary and are seeking to go deeper still."
When prayed daily, different mysteries are featured on different days. This is just a suggestion to allow the person to pray through all of the mysteries. Here is the schedule:
Joyful Mysteries: Monday and Saturday
Luminious Mysteries: Thursday
Sorrowful Mysteries: Tuesday and Friday
Glorious Mysteries: Wednesday and Sunday
Karol Wojtyla's inspiration
While working in the salt mines of Poland as a young man, Karol Wojtyla deepened his devotion to Our Lady by reading St. Louis de Montfort's "True Devotion." It's a widely read work that says, since it was through Mary that Christ redeemed the world, it is through Mary that he rules the world.
This love of Mary takes the form of offering oneself to Jesus through Mary. De Montfort also developed a way for the faithful to dedicate themselves to the Mary through a 33-day consecration.
In Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II notes de Montfort's contribution: "It would be impossible to name all the many saints who discovered in the Rosary a genuine path to growth in holiness. We need but mention St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, the author of an excellent work on the Rosary" (No. 8).
To peruse Rosarium Virginis Mariae go to www.vatican.va/holy<[lb]>father/johnpaulii.
Also check out books to help you pray the Rosary better.
How did we get the Rosary?
The Rosary has an interesting place in Catholic spirituality that in some ways reaches back before Christianity itself.
Hindus prayed repetitive prayers and counted them with stones, beads and notches in sticks centuries before Christ. Within Christianity, it was the ancient Desert Fathers who began the custom of praying repetitively as a means of meditation, often using the number 150, the number of psalms in the Book of Psalms, the Bible's own prayer book.
It wasn't until the Middle Ages that what we would recognize as the Rosary today began to take shape. Specific events in the lives of Jesus and Mary were connected with sets of prayers, especially the Hail Mary and Our Father.
Though a popular Christian legend holds that St. Dominic (1170-1221) received the Rosary from the hands of Mary herself in a mystical experience, most Church historians today have dismissed this as pious legend.
--Barry Michaels is author of "Saints for Our Times: New Novenas and Prayers" (Pauline, $12.95).