October is the month of the rosary. The rosary we recite today has a long and interesting history. For centuries Christians made strings of beads or knots on which to count repetitious prayers. In the early Middle Ages these beads were known as ‘Paternosters’ and, as the name suggests, were used for counting ‘Our Fathers’.
It was common to recite 150 Paternosters, imitating the monastic practice of reciting the 150 psalms of the Psalter. The recitation of ‘Hail Mary’ came into being about the 12th century, indeed, the prayer we know today as the ‘Hail Mary’ was the product of the late 16th century. Rosaries, like Books of Hours (‘The Little Hours of the Virgin’) became popular devotions for lay people in the late Middle Ages.
For the many devout people who were unable to read the psalms the recitation of 150 ‘Hail Mary’s’ became a common spiritual practice.
It was the friars of the Dominican Observant movement (to which Savonarola belonged) who popularized the three ‘mysteries’ we know today; the ‘joyful’, ‘sorrowful’ and ‘glorious’ mysteries. This was an effort to ground the practice in the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. (St. John Paul II completed this biblical scheme by including ‘luminous’ mysteries during his pontificate).
From the Middle Ages on the rosary became an enormously popular prayer: ‘Everybody, rich or poor, said it, and everybody who was anybody owned a rosary. Rosaries suited all pockets, as well as all spiritual abilities. They might be as simple as ten dried beans on a piece of string, or they might be an elaborate chain strung with coral or amber, ivory or ebony, and images of them are everywhere in representations of late medieval and early Tudor people’. (Eamon Duffy, Royal Books and Holy Bones, p. 226). The London street names ‘Paternoster Row’ and ‘Ave Maria Lane’ recall the workshops and street stalls of medieval Europe where rosary beads were made and sold.
Over the centuries different religious orders developed or adapted the rosary prayer, according to their own charism and spiritualities.
The Franciscans are responsible for the rosary of the ‘Seven Joys of Our Lady’ also known as the ‘Franciscan crown’.
The ‘Seven Joys of Our Lady’ are the mysteries of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Our Lord, the Adoration of the Magi, the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple, the Resurrection and finally the Assumption/Coronation of Our Lady. For many centuries the long, seven-decade rosary was worn with the cord on the Franciscan habit, and many friars continue to keep either the Franciscan Crown or a rosary of some sort as part of the habit.
This month is a good time to take up the rosary and spend time with this deeply biblical prayer. Please remember to pray a decade for the intention of vocations to our Franciscan family and please pray for those who are discerning a call to the Franciscan Order at this time.