St Pope John Paul II was a powerful and persuasive advocate for the Rosary, which he saw as a meditative prayer akin to some of those born in the East, like the ‘Jesus Prayer’. It was a ‘great treasure’ to be discovered again, a prayer that simultaneously deepens our connection to Jesus, the Scriptures, Mary and the rest of the Church.
In 2002, he published a whole encyclical on the subject, Rosarium Virginis Mariae. October, the month of the Rosary, is an opportunity to revisit this great text and listen to the plea of Pope John Paul II, who invited us to consider the prayer as an expression of discipleship and a valuable gift to families.
Echoing his words elsewhere, Pope John Paul II wrote that what we need today is ‘a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer’ (§5). He was sensitive to the fact that despite Western culture’s attempt to distance itself from God, there had been a new ‘flowering’, a yearning among people for something spiritual. In the midst of this, he called Christian communities to become ‘genuine schools of prayer’, communities where people's deep yearnings could find proper and deep fulfilment.
To become these communities, he said, disciples of Jesus need a ‘commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery’: that is, the mystery of Christ.
Contemplation, however, is not helped by speed or noise or distraction—things that have become habitual in our culture. Instead, it requires us to carve out time we wouldn’t otherwise have, to think and pray slowly. With its ‘quiet rhythm’ and ‘lingering pace’, the Rosary is ideally suited to nurturing this habit of contemplation in us (§12).
The Rosary is not an esoteric or 'other-worldly' prayer, though. Nor is it simply another form of mindfulness meditation. It’s actually an expression of discipleship.
‘Christian spirituality is distinguished,’ the pontiff wrote, ‘by the disciple’s commitment to become conformed ever more fully to his Master’ (§15). This process of becoming more like Christ comes from deep friendship with him. True friends seek to journey with the people they love, even into the darker aspects of their life. Through the Rosary, Mary takes us by the hand and journeys with us through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
In this way, it is a grounded and practical prayer. We’re always struggling to find ways to keep Christ at the centre of our lives, at the centre of our focus, amidst the noise and the chaos. The Rosary achieves two things simultaneously: it forces us to slow down, to set time aside, to search for quiet; it also keeps us utterly focussed on Christ.
Though some might suggest the Rosary distracts us from Christ, nothing could be further from the truth, according to St Pope John Paul II. The Rosary is a turn towards Christ with and through Mary, not a turn away from him.
The Rosary is also ‘a prayer of and for the family,’ he wrote (§41). Prayer must be the heart of our families, and if it isn’t, we need to recover it.
In the final paragraphs of the encyclical, he draws what is perhaps a surprising connection between the Rosary and contemporary challenges within the family. Many challenges arise, especially in economically developed societies, from the ‘increasing difficulty in communicating,’ he said. Families struggle to come together these days, and when they do, television often features as the communal event. This doesn’t help the art of communication.
‘To return to the recitation of the Rosary means filling daily life with different images,’ he suggested, ‘images of the mystery of salvation’. As we learn to look Jesus in the eye through the Rosary, we will learn to look each other in the eye:
Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.
It is especially important that we pray with our children, he suggested, since the ‘cultural distance’ between the generations grows vaster all the time. Cultivating from an early age those moments in which we ‘pause for prayer’ is not something to be underestimated. Young people can surprise us all the time, and if their energy and enthusiasm can be turned to something as important as prayer, what a blessing that would be (§42).
Fiona Basile30 November 2022
Melbourne Catholic30 November 2022