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The Rosary Encyclicals

by Thomas A. Thompson, S.M.

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    A survey and analysis of the encyclicals by Leo XIII which established the Rosary as part of the public devotion of the Church.
  • Larger Work:
    The Priest
  • Pages: 39-48
  • Publisher & Date:
    Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, October 1998

The period of preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000 is a sharing in the joy of the Virgin Mary, whose free consent to the angel's message made possible the birth of Jesus Christ, the event which is the center of the millennium celebration. Jubilee 2000 is a time of renewal — "a special grace for the Church and all humanity" — and a time of praying for the grace of Christian unity.

One hundred years ago, as the Church entered the 20th century, the Virgin Mary played a significant part in the program of renewal and reunion proposed by the Pope. In 1898, like Pope John Paul II today, Leo XIII was in the 20th year of his pontificate (and 10 years older than John Paul II is now). In that year, Leo issued what would be the last of 12 encyclicals on the Rosary, a project which he had begun 15 years earlier.

During his years as pope (1878-1903), Leo XIII wrote many significant encyclicals. His 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (on the condition of labor) initiated the Church's modern social teachings. He also wrote on the teaching of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in schools and seminaries, on the study of the Bible, on the Holy Spirit and on St. Joseph.

At the turn of the century, he wrote two encyclicals on Christ (on consecration to the Sacred Heart and on Jesus the Redeemer). He also addressed specific political situations in which the Church's liberties were threatened. But the theme to which he returned most frequently in the final years of the last century was the Rosary.

The Rosary was the subject of 12 encyclicals and five apostolic letters. Beginning in 1883 and concluding in 1898, an encyclical on the Rosary appeared almost every year, usually in preparation for the month of October. (Pope John XXIII's encyclical Grata Recordatio [1961] spoke of the "pleasant memory" of hearing those encyclicals read every October.) The Rosary encyclicals can be divided into two main groups: 1883-1885 and 1891-1898. The first group established the Rosary as a public devotion. The first encyclical (1883) prescribed the public recitation of the Rosary and the Litany of Loreto in Catholic churches and chapels as a special observance "for the month of October of this year."

Encouraged by the reception of the observance for 1883, the encyclicals of 1884 and 1885 directed that October devotions be continued. The feast of the Most Holy Rosary was given a higher liturgical standing. The invocation "Queen of the Holy Rosary" was added to the Litany of Loreto. This encouragement of the public recitation of the Rosary in churches conferred a new status on the Rosary. "No longer," said Ave Maria Magazine, "was the Rosary a devotion best suited to the illiterate." It now was officially encouraged as public devotion.

Beginning in 1891, the encyclicals dwelt on the value of the Rosary and on its role within the life of the Church and of society. In these encyclicals, there was frequent reference to the perilous situation in which the Church found itself: anticlerical governments and forces opposed to religion threatened its existence.

Diplomatic relations between Italy and the Holy See were nonexistent, and the Pope was the "prisoner" within the Vatican walls. The Kulturkampf limited the Church in Germany and Switzerland, and the governments of France and Belgium wished to obtain control of the religious schools and expel the religious teaching congregations. Freemasonry, addressed by the Pope in an encyclical, was openly hostile to the Church, and the findings of science seemed to refute long-held religious teachings.

In response to these trying times, Leo XIII followed the example of previous popes by proposing the Rosary as a "weapon" that St. Dominic, eight centuries earlier, had confided to the Church. It was through the Rosary that Dominic had overcome the Albigensian heresy, whose adherents lived in the southwest of France (not far removed from Lourdes). And it was the Rosary that was responsible for the victory of the Christians at the Battle of Lepanto against Turkish forces in 1571. The Rosary would continue to be "balm for the wounds of society" as it had been in the time of Dominic, and it would make possible the two great goals of Leo's papacy: the renovation of Christian life and the reunion of Christendom.

Nowhere in the dozen encyclicals were there specific indications on how the Rosary was to be prayed, nor was it presented as a devotion exclusively directed to the Virgin Mary. Rather, the Rosary was broadly defined, just as it had been described four centuries earlier when approved in 1571 by Pius V. The essence of the Rosary was "to recall the mysteries of salvation in succession, [while] the subject of meditation is mingled and interlaced with the Angelic Salutation and prayer to God the Father" (1883). Meditation on the mysteries of salvation was a short and easy method to nourish faith and to preserve it from ignorance and error (1895). The mysteries of salvation were not abstract truths but events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.

The Rosary was presented both as a "school of faith" and a "school of charity." Meditation on the mysteries of salvation was to lead to conversion of heart and change of conduct. Contemplation of the mysteries was essentially a loving act of gratitude (1894), through which the heart was "filled with love . . . hope enlarged, and the desire increased for those things which Christ has prepared for such as have united themselves to Him in imitation of His example and in participation in His sufferings" (1891).

Attentive consideration of the "precious memorials" of our Redeemer led to "a heart on fire with gratitude to Him" (1892). The Rosary was an expression of faith in God, the future life, the forgiveness of sins, "the mysteries of the august Trinity, the incarnation of the Word, the Divine Maternity and others" (1896).

The Rosary, the Pope believed, also would influence society as a whole. The 1893 encyclical spoke of the social consequences, or the effects on society, that meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary could produce. The three sets of mysteries were an antidote for the errors afflicting society.

The Joyful Mysteries, centered on the "hidden" life of Christ and the Holy Family at Nazareth, stood in contrast to the contemporary disdain for poverty and simplicity of life. The Sorrowful Mysteries, depicting Christ's acceptance of the cross, stood opposed to the attitude of fleeing from any hardship and suffering. Finally, the Glorious Mysteries — which include the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Spirit and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary — were a reminder that this life is a prelude to a future life with God.

Even when prayed privately, the Rosary had a social and ecclesial dimension. Similar to the Divine Office, the Psalter of Our Lady was part of the Church's "public, constant and universal prayer" (1897). The encyclicals frequently encouraged the sodalities or confraternities whose purpose was to promote the Rosary through meetings, religious services and processions. The last encyclical (1898) was followed by an apostolic letter, with a charter for the sodalities and confraternities of the Rosary. (Recent outgrowths from confraternities are the "Rosary teams," in which groups of lay people establish centers of prayer, hospitality and evangelization.)

The 1897 encyclical encouraged the development of the "Living Rosary," a movement started earlier in the century by Pauline Jaricot (the founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith). Jaricot's Living Rosary was a group of 15 individuals, each pledged to say one decade of the Rosary a day.

"The prayers and praises, rising incessantly from the lips and hearts of so great a multitude, will be most efficacious" (1897).

In all the encyclicals, the Rosary is not so much presented as a devotion directed to Mary. Instead, it is Christ, in all the facets of His life — hidden, public, final suffering and resurrection — who "stands forth" in this prayer (1896). The Rosary is principally an instrument "to expand the kingdom of Christ." It is a prayer that has been "wonderfully developed at the close of the century, for the purpose of stimulating the lagging piety of the faithful" (1897).

The Rosary encyclicals show a great confidence in Mary's power and her intercession for the Church (1892). As "guardian of the faith," the Virgin Mary is able to "ward off the errors of the times" (1895). Mary is a powerful intercessor before God, a "worthy and acceptable Mediatrix to the Mediator" (1896).

The encyclicals of Leo XIII are the first papal documents to speak of Mary's universal motherhood; she is the mother of all peoples — "our mother" — and the one who could bring about the unity of the Church (1895). Through the intercession of Mary, the zeal of the Christian people would be renewed and a deeper unity produced.

None of Leo XIII's biographers have investigated the origins of his great confidence in the power of the Rosary, nor have the few commentaries on the Rosary encyclicals sought for the source of his inspiration. Although never referred to in the encyclicals, the great evenement of Lourdes, to use the Pope's term, appears to have had a major influence on the Rosary encyclicals. The land of St. Dominic was also the land of Lourdes.

Our Lady's identification of herself at Lourdes (1858) as the Immaculate Conception confirmed the dogma that Leo's predecessor, Pius IX, had proclaimed in 1854, and initiated a close bond between Rome and Lourdes. The Rosary — along with penance — was central to the message of Lourdes. The Lady of Lourdes was pictured with a rosary. Following the example of Mary in the first apparition, Bernadette prepared for each of the following 17 apparitions by praying the Rosary. Lourdes was termed the "town of the Rosary," and in the 19th century the Rosary procession was the identifying devotion of Lourdes.

Leo's interest and concern in Lourdes is recorded in the Annales de Notre Dame de Lourdes (in The Marian Library's Clugnet Collection). At the beginning of his pontificate, Leo XIII urged the bishop of Tarbes to build a larger church to accommodate pilgrims who were already coming in great numbers, and to ensure that a critical history of the apparitions be written and a record of the hearings be kept.

The year 1883, the silver anniversary of the apparitions at Lourdes, was observed as a jubilee year both at Lourdes and at Rome. In the silver anniversary year, work began on the Church of the Rosary, which would extend the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. (Based on the number of extra trains in service that year between Paris and Lourdes, the Annales estimated that 500,000 traveled to Lourdes by train that year).

It was in 1883 that the first of the Rosary encyclicals was issued calling for special observance "for this year" of October as the month of the Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes on Feb. II was not established until 1892, so October — with its feast of the Holy Rosary — was an appropriate time to recall the events at Lourdes.

The lofty and impersonal style of Pope Leo's encyclicals usually did not include all the reasons motivating an announcement. For example, in 1885, an encyclical announced an extraordinary jubilee year. However, the reason for the jubilee — the 50th anniversary of the Pope's ordination — is not mentioned in the encyclical.

At Lourdes, the new church, with its 15 altars and murals depicting the mysteries of the Rosary, was dedicated in 1901. Leo XIII sent an apostolic letter in the opening year of the century noting the significance of the consecration of the Church of the Rosary. The content of the letter was a summary of previous encyclicals on the Rosary. The Church of the Rosary at Lourdes, with its 15 altar murals, was a summary of the Gospel — summa evangelicae doctrinae. The Rosary itself was like a great basilica in which all the truths of the faith were presented.

In 1901, the Annales announced that the bonds between the Vatican and Lourdes would be even more apparent. As the Vatican was already present at Lourdes through a sculpture of Leo XIII, so now Lourdes would go to the Vatican. Through the efforts of the bishop of Tarbes and other French bishops, a replica of the grotto of Massabielle would be constructed in the Vatican Gardens. (This grotto still stands in the Vatican Gardens.)

The legacy of Pope Leo's encyclicals was that the Rosary was established as a central devotion in western Catholicism. Before Vatican II's encouragement of "active participation" in the liturgy, the Rosary served as a vehicle for entering into and focusing on the mysteries of salvation as depicted in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Vatican II influenced the Rosary and all other devotions. All devotions were to be renewed in the spirit of the liturgy, to be "extensions of the liturgical life of the Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1674). The Rosary complements and extends the liturgy.

The Church's public liturgical worship presents a panoramic view of the whole history of salvation. The Rosary, and Rosary-like prayer, focuses on the events of Christ's life — the Incarnation, our redemption and the promise of eternal life — and on the Virgin Mary's participation in the mystery of Christ. A person praying must be the agent who actively enters into the mysteries, and not simply one before whom the celebration unfolds.

The Rosary is an accessible reminder of the constant prayer of the Church, the incessant prayer of God's people throughout the ages. The Psalter of Mary, as the Rosary is sometimes called, is a remembrance of the Church's deepest nature as a community of continual prayer (1896). •


FATHER THOMPSON writes from The Marian Library and the International Marian Research Institute of the University of Dayton, Ohio.

© The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750.

 

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