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The Rosary and the Christian Wake

by Alfred C. Rush, C.SS.R.


In this article Alfred C. Rush, C.SS.R. examines the question whether or not the Rosary prayers should be recited at a Christian wake. He states, ". . .in Christian life as a whole, the Rosary is a very apt means of bringing about a greater awareness and knowledge of the Paschal Mystery. In a special manner, when used at a wake, it is a very appropriate prayer for calling to mind the richness of the mystery of death in Christ."

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, May 1964

On the eve of the first Sunday of Advent 1964, when the Liturgy was carried out in keeping with the norms of the Constitution on the Liturgy, America printed an editorial on private devotions. Speaking of nonliturgical prayers, the editorial remarked:

There seems to be a rather widespread impression that all nonliturgical prayers are now discouraged by the Church. The remarks we hear or read concerning the traditional devotions are chiefly derogatory in tone. Fortunately, if the general public has tended to upstage public prayer, the Vatican Council did not forget the place of private devotions when establishing norms for the liturgical revival.

After referring to the Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia that selected several texts showing the mind of the Church on this point, the editorial concluded:

These texts display the concern of the Vatican Council to establish the official worship in a central role and to subordinate all nonliturgical devotions, individual or collective, to this higher prayer. Yet, when this centrality of the liturgy is assured, there is still place for Holy Hours, novenas, Rosary devotions, May devotions, Sacred Heart devotions and other similar traditional practices of piety. These have proved their value and brought rich spiritual benefits to millions of souls. Their day is not over. It is even reasonable to anticipate that, purged by the liturgical decrees of certain exaggerations and given new consistency and direction, private devotions will now enjoy a renewal of their own.1

With the emphasis on the liturgy, on the Paschal Mystery, the Easter mystery, on the resurrected Resurrection theology, it is not surprising that questions should be raised about certain forms of prayer. It is not surprising that questions should be asked and opinions expressed about praying the rosary at wakes. A statement expressing the mind of one individual seems to be a good summary of views expressed by others orally and privately. That statement, containing the expression of personal preference and opinions, says:

It is the opinion of this writer that the rosary is no longer the most appropriate prayer for wakes. The repetition involved in this devotion is confusing and disturbing to the non-Catholics who are always properly present. Also, there is little direct relationship between the rosary of the Blessed Virgin and the death of a Christian. Though it is always possible to explain the indirect tie between Christian death and the sorrowful mysteries, few bother to explain this when the rosary is recited at a wake.2

A statement like that should be regarded as the honest and sincere presentation of a person's views. It is only when it is regarded in this light that a different answer can be given and regarded as an honest and sincere approach to the same problem.

Bishop Wright's Rosary

Before presenting my own views on the place of the rosary at wakes, it would be worthwhile to hear a different statement from the one previously quoted. In the annals of the history of the rosary in the Church in the United States this will probably be known as "Bishop Wright's Rosary." Open-minded as he is, the Bishop of Pittsburgh approved two new devotional exercises to be used at wakes. Then with his customary balance and forthrightness the Bishop said that he was not enthusiastic about their substitution for the recitation of the rosary. Stressing his affection for the rosary, the Bishop went on to say that it "has a place in the traditions of Catholic piety, especially in time of sorrow, such that I, for one, would never say a word that would downgrade it, however many or however excellent may be the devotions which supplement it." Speaking of his own eventual wake, Bishop Wright remarked:

For my part, I shall be grateful for all prayers said at my own eventual wake, whether they be purely private devotions or solidly liturgical. I certainly count on remembrance in the affectionate recitation of the Rosary by good souls who survive me.

If by any chance no one who comes to my modest wake has with him the beads with which to lead the Rosary, I suggest that an appropriate person search my pockets. Underneath my liturgical vestments he will find, unless I've been robbed, the cherished beads with which we priests and faithful people seek to add humble private prayers to those supremely hallowed mementoes in the Mass that we give those we love at the altar of God.3

Mary and the Wake of the Christian

In this problem of the rosary and the Christian wake, there is no attempt to exclude Mary from the wake itself. The relatives are never excluded from the wake which is as old as the recorded history of man.4 In Christianity the wake is as old as Christianity itself. Significantly, the first wake was the wake that Mary conducted for her own Son. She was present at His first sign when He changed water into wine; she was present at His last sign when the Temple of Christ's Body was destroyed to be raised up on the third day. Before being buried, Christ was laid out in Mary's arms. At that wake she was the Mother of Sorrows, grieving over the death of her Son and living, only in the expectation of faith, for His glorious resurrection. At that wake She was the Pieta, recorded in the inspired words of the St. John and immortalized in the inspired sculpture of Michelangelo. She was present at that wake in her role as Mother of her Son. She is present at the wake of every follower of her Son in her role as Spiritual Mother of the deceased and Spiritual Mother of the bereaved.5 There is, then, no thought of excluding Mary from the wake. The only problem is what form of prayer will be chosen to honor her presence at the mystery of death as we pray to her to show her motherly love and help to one who has gone on before us with the sign of faith, and also to help the members of the family accept death in the same spirit of expectant faith with which she faced death in her family.

The Rosary And The Mystery Of Death

As a form of prayer the rosary is historically rooted in the centuries-old tradition in the Church. It is also deeply rooted in the hearts and love of the faithful.6 Granted these two statements, why should it be a form of prayer at a wake? What relation is there between the rosary and death? One reason given for questioning the place of the rosary at wakes is the statement that "there is little direct relationship between the rosary of the Blessed Virgin and the death of a Christian."

It is precisely because there is such a vitally direct relation between the rosary and the death of a Christian that the rosary deserves its place at a wake. The rosary is a truly Christian response to the mystery of death because it is a capsule form of the Paschal Mystery, the Easter Mystery, the passing of Christ out of this world to the Father, and the passing of the followers of Christ out of this world with Him to the Father. The rosary teaches us about "the work of our Redemption," and we see God's plan realized so perfectly, so concretely, so personally and ecclesially in Mary from the moment when she was greeted as "full of grace" until she was proclaimed as "full of glory." Under the vivifying action of the Spirit there is in the Church what is known as "the Christian sense" and "the sense of the faithful." The recitation of the rosary at a wake is one manifestation of this "sense of the faithful." To them the recitation of the rosary does not merely mean that Our Lord and Our Blessed Mother bring comfort to them in their sorrow. Rather, in their own popular way, in a manner partly intuitive and vague, they see in the rosary the mystery of death in Christ, the passage out of this world to the Father. It is precisely for this reason that the practice of praying the rosary should be fostered. The rosary can be the means--to quote the words of Vatican II--"to express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death."7

The Sorrowful Mysteries: Life-Giving Death

The statement that "there is little direct relationship between the rosary of the Blessed Virgin and the death of a Christian" leads to the earlier remark about the sorrowful mysteries: "Though it is always possible to explain the indirect tie between Christian death and the sorrowful mysteries, few bother to explain this when the rosary is recited at a wake." The last idea needs to be stressed because it is a tragedy that few explain the relation between the rosary and death at a wake. When it is explained, it is not only a source of comfort and solace, but it is also a lesson that is enlightening and instructive. It opens new vistas into an understanding of the paschal mystery. Actually, in these days of renewal, it is the explanation of the mysteries that, like little homilies, will give contemporary relevance to the mystery of death in Christ.

Most often the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary are the prayers at a wake. People, in the sorrow of death, look to Him Whose soul was sad, even unto death.8 They look to the death of Christ to contemplate the mystery of infinite love that led Him to lay down His life for His friends.9 Aside from these considerations, the sorrowful mysteries are apt prayers for a wake because of their relation to the mystery of death. Between the sorrowful mysteries and death there is not an "indirect tie" but a decidedly direct tie. The death of Christ on the cross is not only the sacrifice of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world, it is also Christ's death unto death. He, the sinless One, accepted our death that was brought on by sin, and we died with Him. As St. Paul concludes: "Since one died for all, therefore all died."10

The death of Christ destroyed death by bringing on life. Death on the Cross leads into the life of the Resurrection. St. Paul tells us that "He has destroyed death and brought to light life incorruption. "11 Our Lord Himself tells us that the Cross and Death are things that He had to suffer before entering into His glory.12 St. Paul echoes these same sentiments when he speaks of Christ humbling Himself and becoming obedient to death, even to death on a cross. He then insists that it was precisely for this reason that God exalted Him and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father.13

The death of Christ on the Cross is also to be seen and explained in the light of the instruction and prayer of the liturgy. During Passiontide the Church glories in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in Whom is our salvation, life and resurrection.14 It also gives thanks to the Omnipotent Father, Eternal God Who set the salvation of the human race in the tree of the Cross that life might rise forth from what was the source of death.15 In the dazzling brilliance of the Risen Christ, after the Church has celebrated its Pasch, it looks back to its Paschal Lamb and says: "He indeed is the true Lamb Who took away sins of world. He, by dying, destroyed our death; rising, restored life."16 What is the relation between the sorrowful mysteries and Christian death? For one who dies in the Lord, death is not final. Death is not the last word, because his death, like death in Christ, has been swallowed up in victory.17

The Glorious Mysteries: In The Glory Of God The Father

To proclaim the full Christian outlook on death, and to reflect in the twentieth century the victorious response of the early Christians who called the day of death the birthday to the life of glory,18 I would like to make the recommendation that the glorious mysteries be used at wakes. The five glorious mysteries, obviously, contain these three themes: 1) the glorification of Christ, 2) the mystery of the life-giving Spirit, and 3) the glorification of Mary.

The resurrection and glorification of Jesus is the mystery of victory, of death being swallowed up in victory. Christ on Easter Sunday did not merely come back to life from the dead. Rather He was born to a new life, a life in which the "likeness of sinful flesh" was completely consumed by the power Spirit Whom He constituted Son God in power, a life which His humanity penetrated through and with divine glory.19 To this birth of the resurrection, St. Paul applies the words of the second psalm: "Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee."20 By this birth the mystery of his passage out of this world to the Father was completed. He who died for all also rose for all and the passage of Christ to the Father is the cause and prototype of ours. That is why the Christ of Easter is "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," and beginning, firstborn dead."21

Raised up by the power of the Spirit, the glorified humanity of Christ became the source of the Spirit who was sent to vivify and dynamize the Church and to carry on in the Church and in each follower of Christ the mystery of Christ.22 It is the Spirit who, "by the power of the Gospel, makes the Church keep the freshness of youth, and who is perpetually renewing it and leading it on to perfect union with its Spouse. For the Spirit and the Bride say to the Lord Jesus: Come."23

After the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, one of his first works was the glorification of Mary. The Christ of Easter, through the power of the Spirit, was the "first fruits of those who have fallen asleep," and "the first-born dead." Mary, glorified in body soul, is complete victory Christ.24 For the Church as a whole, for the redeemed as a whole, the Holy Spirit is "the Spirit of life, or rather, fountain water springing up unto life everlasting, through whom Father gives to men, dead sin, until he brings their mortal bodies in Christ."25 This general law of God, to grant the full effect of the victory over death only at the end of time, did not apply to Mary. "She did not have to wait until the end of time for redemption her body. who was generous associate divine Redeemer, won a full triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained as supreme crown privileges, that should be preserved free from corruption grave that, like Son after overcoming death, taken up in body soul glory heaven."26

In her glorification, which is the victory of Christ and Christ's first and complete victory in mankind, Mary is the archetype and personification of the Church and every follower of Christ.27 The pilgrim church on earth looks to Mary to see a replica of herself as the eternal church in glory, as the Ecclesia Resurgentium. Every follower of Christ already beholds in Mary a pledge of the glory that Christ has in store for him. As the Second Vatican Council teaches: "Just as the Mother of Jesus, already glorified both in body and soul in heaven, is the image and the beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected in the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, as a sign of sure hope and solace to the pilgrim people of God."28


These considerations point to the fact that, in Christian life as a whole, the Rosary is a very apt means of bringing about a greater awareness and knowledge of the Paschal Mystery. In a special manner, when used at a wake, it is a very appropriate prayer for calling to mind the richness of the mystery of death in Christ. It is structured in such a way that the leader can give a little homily or thought on each mystery. Furthermore, it has the setting to be used as a Bible Vigil. Passages from Scripture, together with readings from the Liturgy, can be chosen to illustrate the mystery of death and the death of Mary as the first and complete victory of Christ in us. This brings us back to Bishop Wright who draws the distinction between practices that are a substitution for the recitation of the Rosary and practices that supplement it. Why supplant it when it is so easy to supplement it with theological explanations and passages from Scripture?

The recitation of the Rosary at a wake is an ideal private devotion, completely in line with the norms of the Constitution on the Liturgy, because it leads to the liturgy.29 It leads from the funeral parlor to the Church and prepares the bereaved for the distinctive feature of Catholic burial, the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Mass the Church celebrates the mystery of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. The Mass is the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the passage of Christ out of this world to the Father. Something else is celebrated in that Mass: the mystery of the passage of the deceased out of this world with Christ to the Father. When he will be with Christ in the glory of the Father is kept in God's secret designs. One thing is certain: the prayer of the Church in the Mass will help that soul in coming to life everlasting with God. The joy of heaven is not only individual but collective, not only personal but ecclesial. In the glorified humanity of Christ, and in the glory of Mary in body and soul, the soul sees the eternal victory over death when its body and the bodies of all the elect will put on immortality. 30

For one who has died in the Lord the best prayer of all is the Liturgy, precisely because, as the Second Vatican Council tells us, it far surpasses all private devotions. 31 On the level of private and popular devotions, the Rosary at wakes is ideal for expressing the mystery of death in Christ. This is so because the Church has purposely seen to this.32 To see briefly how the Church has done this, all we need to do is look at the concluding prayer: "O God, whose Only-begotten Son has purchased for us the rewards of eternal salvation through His life, death and resurrection, grant, we ask You, that we who meditate on these mysteries, by means of the most holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise. Through the same Christ, Our Lord."


1 America Nov. 28, 1964.

2 A. Longley, "Make Christian Burial Christian," Ave Maria 99 (June 20, 1964), 10.

3 NCWC News Service (Domestic, 5/28/64), p. 3.

4 A. C. Rush, C.SS.R., Death and Burial in Christian Antiquity (Washington, D. C., 1941), pp. 150-186.

5 Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, AAS 35 (1943), p. 247; Paul VI, Post duos menses, AAS 56 (1964), 1014-1018; Vaticanum II, Constitutio dogmatica de Ecclesia, 52, 53, 54, 56.

6 G. Shea, "The Dominican Rosary," in Mariology, ed. J. Carol, O.F.M., vol. 3 (Milwaukee 1961), 88-127.

7 Vaticanum II, Constitutio de Sacra Liturgia, 81, AAS 56 (1964), 120.

8 Mt. 26:38.

9 John 15:13.

10 II Cor. 5:15; Heb. 2 :9.

11 II Tim. 1:10-11.

12 Luke 24:26.

13 Phil. 2:8-11.

14 Introit for Holy Thursday and the feast of the Holy Cross.

15 Preface of the Cross.

16 Preface for Easter.

17 I Cor. 15:55.

18 A. C. Rush, op. cit., pp. 72-87.

19 F. X. Durwell, C.SS.R., The Resurrection, tr. R. Sheed (New York 1960), pp. 78-150.

20 Acts 13:33.

21 I Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18. See M. Bourke, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ (Glen Rock, N. J., 1963), pp. 17-27. The excellent "Doctrinal Pamphlet Series" published by the Paulist Press contains many other pamphlets that deal with the Paschal Mystery of life in Christ.

22 F. X, Durwell, op. cit., pp. 103 ff.

23 Vaticanum II, Constitutio dogmatica de Ecclesia, 4.

24 Pius XIII, Munificentissimus Deus, AAS 42 (1950), 753-771.

25 Vaticanum II, Constitutio dogmatica de Ecclesia, 4.

26 Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, AAS 42 (1950), 754, 768-769.

27 O. Semmelroth, S.J., Mary, Archetype of the Church, New York, 1963.

28 Vaticanum II, Constitutio dogmatica de Ecclesia, 68.

29 Vaticanum II, Constitutio de sacra Liturgia, 13, AAS 56 (1964), 103.

30 I Cor. 15:54.

31 Vaticammi II, Constitutio de sacra Liturgia, 13, AAS 56 (1964), 103.

32 Attention should be called to the sober and enlightening remarks of E. Schillebeeckx, O.P., in Mary, Mother of the Redemption, tr. N. Smith (New York 1964), pp. 164-171.

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