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Catholic Activity: Family Rosary



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Newland advocates the family recitation of the daily rosary, with an explanation of its background and power, and includes crafts and games to create aids to motivate children to want to say the rosary and remember the mysteries.


Let us face it: children do not always like to say the Rosary. A friend of mine, launching her initial attack, countered the protests ("all those prayers at one time!") with, "The Newlands say it every night." The emphatic reply was, "Well, let 'em."

It is quite true that the Rosary, for children, is too often nothing but a long-drawn-out affair of kneeling eternally on weary knees and repeating over and over a refrain that has lost all meaning.

Not always, of course. Sometimes they go to it with genuine sweetness and find real satisfaction in the rhythmic chanting, but when something so important as the habit of daily Rosary is concerned (Rosary versus radio and TV at that), it is not enough to depend on mood alone. Training children to make a lifelong habit of daily Rosary takes all the parents' gifts of persuasion and imagination, and they have to work hard to dress this daily repetition with color and meaning and beauty.

I remember when I was about eight kneeling with my mother, grandmother, and sisters through interminable Rosaries. One night I decided it was too much and put on what was meant to be a convincing demonstration of Young Child Falls Asleep at Rosary. I drooped and sighed, closed my eyes and fell against my bed, run right into the ground with praying. I waited for some spark of compassion to be aroused in my mother and grandmother, and heard nothing until they were about to leave the room. "Mary," said my mother, "everyone knows you aren't asleep." It was very humiliating, and I never tried it again. Nevertheless, I did not return to daily Rosary any more enthusiastic than before, only more submissive.

Now, many years after, I find children of my own not above trying the same tricks, and the vivid memory of my own boredom at daily Rosary makes me seek ways of making the Rosary come alive for them.

Origin of the Rosary: A Theory

First of all, why the Rosary anyway? And what is it? How did it begin? Who started saying it and who says we should say it?

Most people think that the Rosary began with St. Dominic at the time the Blessed Virgin appeared to him to recommend it as a weapon against heresy, but actually it had far simpler beginnings than that. Like many parts of Christian worship, it grew out of a need, the need of simple people who could neither read nor write and had to substitute some form of prayer for the reading of Psalms or the saying of Masses. Centuries ago, when the priests of the monastic orders were saying Masses for the dead, the illiterate lay brothers would recite fifty prayers instead — usually fifty Our Fathers. Keeping track of fifty Our Fathers on your fingers is something of a project; so in time they started counting them out with fifty pebbles. Now, it seems quite possible to me that, having hit on the idea of counting their fifty prayers with pebbles, one day a very old monk, wearing, naturally, a very old habit, might have discovered a hole in his pocket and, alas, some of his fifty pebbles missing. After struggling with mild scruples, wondering how long they had been missing and if long, how many prayers he had been missing, perhaps it occurred to him that it would be better to count his prayers off with beads on a string instead of pebbles.

Having, perhaps, suggested this to the other brothers, they might conceivably have confessed to misgivings about pebbles possibly lost and prayers possibly not said, and all proceeded to make themselves strings of beads on which to count their prayers. When, over a period of centuries, the custom was gradually changed from saying fifty Our Fathers to fifty Hail Marys, it was quite logical that they should be inspired to make their beads more beautiful and call the circlet of beads — which suggested a wreath — a rosarium, or garland of roses in honor of Mary, the Mystical Rose.

One does not too often see Rosary beads carved to look like roses, but perhaps you have somewhere in your house a box of old medals and broken Rosaries, and poking through it you will find pieces of old black Rosaries with the Our Father beads carved like roses. Children love this. They also like to pretend just once, with pebbles from the driveway or the beach or little colored stones from the fish bowl, that they must count their prayers with stones too, as the monks did so long ago.

Making Rosaries with colored beads, or dried seeds, is fun, and it helps clarify in children's minds the number and sequence of prayers and mysteries.

The Credo, [or Creed] said on the Crucifix, comes first because it sums up all a Catholic believes and was included for this reason long, long ago. Then an Our Father, the words Jesus used when He taught the Apostles how to pray. Then three Hail Marys, one for faith, one for hope, and one for charity, to ask an increase of these gifts received at the moment of our Baptism. The words of the Angel Gabriel and St. Elizabeth compose the first part of the Hail Mary, and the Church has added the words of the second part. Then the Gloria, to give honor to the Ho]y Trinity.

Then follow the familiar decades, and after each Gloria the little prayer Our Lady of Fatima asked us to include:

O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fire of hell; draw all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.

At the end, the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen). You might tell them this prayer is supposed to have been written by Blessed Herman the Cripple, whose story is one of the most touching in all the lives of the saints.

Motivating the Rosary

Merely knowing how to say the Rosary and what the beads mean is no guarantee that children will love it; so we pray for help before starting: "Please, Blessed Mother, help us to love the Rosary and help us to say it nicely." Now that we have received the grace to say it nicely, all that remains is to use the grace and say it nicely. With the reminder that if they will attend to business it will take only fifteen or twenty minutes, the effort doesn't look endless after all.

The most wonderful thing of all about the Rosary is that it is the story of Jesus and Mary. It is the full circle, beginning at the Annunciation and ending in Mary's triumph as Queen of Heaven. It sums up all the Gospels, Christ's life, death, and resurrection, it is the great feasts of the Church linked together in logical succession, and it is all the liturgical seasons. There is no sorrow or joy, event or situation in our own lives which is not mirrored in the Rosary; and if we say it — and meditate on it — daily, there are few better ways of living close to the life of Christ.

A word here about the age at which to start the Rosary. Almost every family with a baby who has been watching his elders recite the Rosary from his play pen or high chair will tell you that very early the baby begins to imitate them. If you give him a Rosary he will babble convincingly in the manner of one saying the Rosary — for a few minutes, at least — and then he will break the Rosary. So, if the Rosary recitation in your house is reasonably harmonious, then by all means expose the baby. Three- and four-year-olds will not apply themselves to it for very long, and when their interest wanders they will start to play; but being allowed to play near the rest who pray helps to accustom them to the idea that "big" people say the Rosary every night. Since our five-year-old does a very good job at the Rosary, he is expected to say it with the rest, except on nights when he is too tired and is more of a distraction than an addition, in which case he is excused to go to bed. All the rest say it well (the oldest is ten), and very well when they are allowed to take an active part.

After we have broken down the original barrier — boredom, told them of its beginnings, and taught them to pray for the grace to love it, we must teach them how to use it — how to pray, not just say, the Rosary.

Taking an Active Part

The word meditate leaves children cold, even when they understand it. It is not an active word and children are very active. The Rosary must be an activity for them. There is a game to play while saying the Rosary — "Let's pretend we're there."

"Let's pretend we're there when Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she is to be the Mother of God. We could be very small like a mouse in the corner and watch what happened. Where do you suppose she was when he came? Maybe she was shelling peas on the back porch (like the picture in The Ageless Story), and he knelt beside her in the sun. Or perhaps she was out in her garden under a tree, peeling apples for a pie. Maybe she was standing in her room, looking out the window at the hills and thinking about God. You can pretend her house was like our house, and her yard like our yard — it might have been. Remember, she was very young, only fifteen, very beautiful, and very pure and holy. What did Gabriel say to her when he came?"

"Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women."

"But she was frightened, and didn't understand what he meant. So he said, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, because you have found grace with God.' And he told her she was to have a baby and His name would be Jesus. Then he explained that her Son would be conceived by the Holy Ghost (that means God would be His Father), as it says in the Apostles' Creed: 'Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.' And Mary understood and was full of love for God's will, and said: 'Be it done unto me according to thy word.'"

Then the first decade starts with everyone saying together: "The First Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation — that means the announcing that Mary is to be the Mother of God." The other mysteries can be introduced the same way. Reading between times the accounts of these events in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles (all except the Assumption and the Coronation) helps them see the Rosary as not only a tribute to Mary but also a testimony to Christ.

Remembering the Mysteries

Children must be themselves, even at the Rosary. After they have learned the mysteries it helps to keep the Rosary lively if they take turns identifying the mysteries, describing them and leading a decade. They may depart from tradition, as Jamie did when he described the Third Joyful Mystery as "She had her Baby." But their innovations are reverent, and if they can explain it in their own words, you know that they know it.

Once they know the mysteries it is fun to dramatize them, and sometimes we do charades instead of merely explaining them. All but the Sorrowful Mysteries make good charades (it would be an indignity to make charades of them), and for children who learn best by doing, acting-out should be used often.

As an example, the Visitation. This is quickly enacted with one child standing in the room and another approaching the door, knocking and entering. "Elizabeth, dear, are you at home?" Another runs quickly to greet the visitor with, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." And they embrace.

Twenty Questions, "Who am I?" and "What am I?" are excellent games for teaching the mysteries and ought to be used frequently, especially at times like doing dishes, hanging out clothes, weeding the garden. Suppose you are one of the doves in the Presentation in the Temple, a "What am I?"

"Are you a bird?" Yes, a bird.

"A special bird?" Yes, a special bird.

"In a special story?" Yes, a special story.

"About Jesus?" Yes, about Jesus.

"One of the sparrows God watches when it falls?" No, not that.

"The hen — the time Jesus said He would like to gather Jerusalem under His wings like a mother hen?" No, not that.

"In a mystery?" Yes, in a mystery.

"Oh! In the basket, when Blessed Mother went to the temple? I know — one of the doves in the Fourth Joyful Mystery — the Presentation in the Temple."

Because it's really good fun they don't realize that they are having a lesson in religion.

Drawing and painting the mysteries is instructive also. One of Monica's most successful attempts with water color was an Annunciation with Mary sitting over the mending basket, a cat at her feet, and Gabriel alighting in the corner.

Drawing the mysteries with colored chalk is another way of having fun and learning at the same time. We made a blackboard for the purpose from a piece of masonite painted with blackboard paint (4' x 8'). Across the wall from the blackboard, we mounted a piece of insulation board the same size [or use a bulletin board] on which paintings and drawings can be mounted (with straight pins — you don't even need thumbtacks). It is one thing to have your pictures admired and then tossed around for the baby to chew. It is quite another to have them mounted where they can be seen. And show me the child who will not stop to explain in great detail what he has painted and why (and if it's a mystery of the Rosary, so much the better), if someone will stop to admire it.

Plasticine [Editor's Note: Plasticene is an oil based clay that does not dry out and can be melted and cooled repeatedly. Plasticine will not harden beyond its original state and can be manipulated or molded by hand. --JGM] and the kind of pottery clay which dries in the oven are cheap, easy to handle; and children who do not know the mysteries will begin to know them when they model, say, Simeon holding the Infant Jesus in his arms and Mary with her basket of doves at the Presentation.

Then there are outdoor things to learn from too. In our woods in spring there is always thorn apple growing, a small bush with cruel thorns. The Crowning of Thorns has new meaning after a walk to pick thorn apple, and we return home with stinging scratches to remind us that thorns really hurt, very much. The barberry hedges growing in city parks will have the same effect for city children, and a small branch of locust makes a very poignant reminder of the Third Sorrowful Mystery. One spring we put our sprig of thorn apple in water, and God did a lovely thing with it for us. He let it sprout little green leaves on Good Friday. This way He taught the children that out of His Son's death on the cross came new life for all of us.

The Church has a Blessing for Herbs and Flowers which is traditionally bestowed on the Feast of the Assumption, in August, and she encourages families to use this blessing over their flower gardens if they have them, or even the potted plants in the windows of city apartments. English translations of this and many other "family" blessings are available. Children assisting at this little rite love to hear the legend about the Apostles finding flowers in Our Lady's tomb, and remember both the Feast and the blessing in connection with the Fourth Glorious Mystery.

The Epistle for the Mass of the Assumption calls Mary "exalted like a cedar in Libanus, a cypress tree on Mount Sion, a palm tree in Cades, a rose plant in Jericho, a fair olive tree by the water in the streets, a sweet smell like cinnamon and aromatic balm, a sweet odor like the best myrrh." Every mother has cinnamon in her pantry, and many have the sweet smell of cedar in their closets, and children — who learn best by sniffing and touching and tasting and seeing — love the association of her Assumption with such delicious odors. Then even the stick of cinnamon in the applesauce is a reminder of the Assumption.

Scrapbooks illustrating the mysteries are fun, made from religious greeting cards and holy pictures, and they make wonderful gifts for grandmothers and aunts. And one of the best things of all is to make a magic garden. Made outdoors under a tree, with leaves and grasses, snips of cloth, beads, bits of stone and colored glass, this setting can represent a number of things — Mary's garden for the Annunciation, Elizabeth's doorstep at the Visitation, or the hill outside of Bethany for the Ascension. If there is no outdoors available, a child can make one in an empty box, with spools and thimbles, matchsticks, a broken mirror, colored paper, buttons — all kinds of things. The empty tomb at the Resurrection, the Upper Room for the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles or the temple where the Boy Jesus was preaching at the Finding in the Temple — all these take on form and mystery when created in a shoe box. Children's building blocks make wonderful temples, with pillars and steps and mysterious holy places. Friends of ours have their children spend the three hours on Good Friday making Easter gardens in the back yard; and they have been so intent on the three crosses, the empty tomb, the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, that they have spent the entire three hours in silence.

Still another way of remembering is to cut a symbol of a mystery in the top of the pie crust. The nails and crown of thorns, or a manger and a star, a candle with a flame — all these serve the purpose for which slits are needed in pies and at the same time rehearse the small ones in the details of the mysteries.

Postcard reproductions of fine Christian art are cheap and easy to find in art supply stores, bookstores or museums; and when friends go off to Europe we should beg them to bring back postcard reproductions of the Christian art they will see. We have a collection that starts with the Christian primitives and goes through Italian, Flemish, German, Spanish, Byzantine, Norman, and Gothic art. There are paintings, frescoes, woodcarvings, ceramics, enamels, mosaics, ikons, all on postcards, all telling some part of the story of Jesus and Mary. Some appeal to the children, some merely provoke them, but all make for discussion, and many times they meditate on the mysteries as they say them by choosing a postcard to look at. City children should visit the museums as often as possible to see the exhibits of Christian art. It may seem complicated to get them there and back, but when it is spiritual enrichment as well as cultural, it is worth the effort. There they will see that the mysteries they meditate each evening have been painted and carved for hundreds of years, to be hung in palaces, on the walls of cathedrals, even in the streets of cities, and the horizons of their reverence will widen farther than ever.

All this, of course, is not meant to make such a production of the Rosary that one cannot do it without a package of postcards in his pocket, a paintbrush in his band, or a cast for charades at his beck and call. It is the making of a rich store of pictures, colors, figures, sounds, smells, and activities which help the whole family meditate on the meaning of the Rosary and enjoy saying it.

It isn't necessary to kneel each time for the Rosary. Some days, if it isn't said while we work, it isn't said at all. It is a wholesome thing for children to say the Rosary with their chores, while they wipe dishes, help with the ironing, watch the breadbaking. One family we know always starts their weekend ride to the country by saying the Rosary, that day, in the car. Another friend told me her mother said it while she hung the clothes, using clothespins to count the prayers on the clothesline. Kneeling should not be omitted entirely, of course (incidentally, you can teach children to make an act of adoration every time they kneel for anything, whether mopping spilled milk, tying baby's shoes, whatever).

The Power of the Rosary

The most elaborate session we have had with the Rosary was the time friends with nine children visited us for the week. Their nine (at the time) and our five (at the time) are a lot of children, and gathering them for the Rosary wasn't always entirely successful. One day we decided to try it right after lunch, and the moans and groans that greeted this suggestion were properly discouraging. We reminded them of Our Lady's promise at Fatima, of the grace to be won, of the merit stored in Heaven, of the time off in Purgatory, and no one even cared. Then we asked about their intentions. Did any of them have special intentions? That was what got them: everyone took turns listing his personal intentions, the private ones silently, the others aloud. There were the usual things "I want," and the lists of people: all priests, all religious, all bishops, the Holy Father, the Russians, the soldiers fighting at the time, the refugees, all prisoners, all who would die today, all tempted to commit mortal sin today, the souls in Purgatory, sick friends, friends in financial distress, friends who had helped us, our enemies, our parishes, our families — and, "Please, help us all to be saints."

The Rosary went swiftly and enthusiastically; and when it was finished we counted the prayers (ten people in all, babies napping and a few having ducked out), and they totaled seven hundred and thirty.


In a new way, they could see the real power of the Rosary. This seems to be the greatest incentive of all for children — showing them how they may use the Rosary, what a power it is in their hands.

Long-term promises are wearying, and Our Lord warned us to beware of fretting too much over tomorrow. "Sufficient unto the day. . . ." One Rosary at a time, in other words. Then, if a child remarks to you, as one of mine did recently, "You know, Mother, I don't always exactly like to say the Rosary, and sometimes I think that when I am grown up and don't have to mind you any more, I won't say it," you can laugh. You can laugh and tell her with confidence that she needn't concern herself now about whether she will say it when she is grown. If she will say it now, one day at a time. asking for the grace to love it and say it well, Our Lady will fill in what is lacking. If we work hard to help them meditate its mysteries, and give them the sense of its real power, then we are teaching our children not only how to say, how to pray the Rosary — but, best of all, how to use it.

Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961