Today we face unprecedented challenges on every front. The evils of “this present darkness” weigh heavy against us. Perhaps this is what makes the advice of Saint Padre Pio, a holy man from our own age, so valuable and insightful."Some people are so foolish that they think they can go through life without the help of the Blessed Mother. Love the Madonna and pray the Rosary, for her Rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today. All graces given by God pass through the Blessed Mother." —Saint Padre Pio
He reminds us of the Rosary’s power against the devil and his minions, and he reminds us of the efficacy of the Blessed Virgin’s mediation for us through it. Pope Pius XII’s words, too, seem right and fitting: “We put great confidence in the Holy Rosary for the healing of evils which afflict our times.”
What makes this prayer so powerful and effective? One indication may be found in its earliest reference. It seems it was born out of the strife, sacrifice, and persecution of the early Church martyrs. The term Rosary comes from the Latin Rosarium, which means “crown of roses” or “garland of roses.”
As young virgins prepared to walk into the arena of the Coliseum to face the beasts that would tear them asunder, they made ready to meet Jesus Christ, King of Kings, for whom they were offering their lives. They fittingly adorned themselves in festive garments, with crowns of roses for their heads. Thus bedecked, they joined their Savior in His Passion.
At night, the faithful would gather up the martyrs’ crowns and say their prayers on them, one prayer for each rose. Their prayer was a journey, perhaps, into the mystery of what they had witnessed.
Using a device to count prayers was common in the Church. In the fourth century, the Desert Fathers kept track of their devotions on prayer cords. In the fifth century, Saint Brigid of Ireland strung pieces of stone and wood together to form a little wreath, and upon these pieces, she would pray the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Creed.
During this same time, it became the custom of Christians in both East and West to divide the psalter into three groups of fifty psalms each and pray or chant them in public. The custom was adapted for those who were uneducated or poor, or who toiled in the fields far away from the churches. These substituted fifty repetitions of the Angelic salutation (Ave Maria) for the fifty psalms. These Aves were recited along with verses from the Gospel relating to the joys of Mary, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption.
This style of prayer became known as a Rosarium. According to writings by the Venerable Bede, churches in England and France were making prayer beads available to the faithful by the eighth century.
The first clear historical reference we have to the Rosary as we know it today dates back to the thirteenth century, from the life of Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans. According to tradition, Dominic devised the Rosary after Our Lady appeared to him and told him to pray in this manner as an antidote for heresy and sin.
He obeyed, and he preached the Rosary with great success in France during the time of the Albigensian heresy.
One of the most famous miracles of the Rosary was performed at the hands of Saint Dominic. He expelled thousands of demons from a possessed man in front of a crowd of twelve thousand, after putting a Rosary around the man’s neck.
In spite of this and many other spectacular miracles, the Rosary fell into disuse until two centuries later, when a Dominican theologian named Blessed Alain de la Roche (d. 1475) made it his life’s mission to restore the devotion. He is credited with establishing Rosary confraternities to promote the Rosary and developing what is known as the “Dominican Rosary.”
This Rosary included three groups of mysteries related to the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection of Christ. This became the most popular form of the Rosary.
The beads underwent many changes over time with special devotions, local customs, and even the latest fashions impacting the style in use. For instance, a short form of the Rosary, containing only ten beads and known as a “tenner” (also called a “decade Rosary”), was a favorite among men.
Women liked the longer version, and they often adorned their Rosaries with gems, pearls, miniature figurines, and even scented fruits and flowers.
Rosaries have been made of everything from pure gold to painted apricot pits. Filigree Rosaries were popular in the eighteenth century, and chain-stitched Rosaries were the rage during the nineteenth. Also during this time, the three beads for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity were added to the beginning of the Rosary.
No matter the enhancements, adornments, and forms that have graced this sacramental over the years, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Rosary is first and foremost a powerful spiritual weapon. It has been credited with some of the greatest triumphs in history.