Holding Mary's Hand

For readers who need want to see the entire series, we are repeating the rosaries I called Holding Mary's Hand.

In saying the rosary I have always found it hard to say the Hail Mary’s while I was meditating on the mysteries. But, then, a memory from when I was four years old came back, putting an end to my confusion.

When I was four my mother would take me in tow as she pushed her way through a department store’s bustle. While I was gaga over the sights and sounds, and seemed to be forgetting her, I was holding my mother’s hand tighter than ever. It’s the same now with the rosary. I give my attention to the mysteries while I cling to Mary’s hand with the Hail Mary’s.
My mother was happy with my just holding her hand, me only occasionally throwing a loving glance up at her.  So, Mary lets me mouth her Hail Mary’s while I am lost in the mysteries. It’s enough for her that I just now and then put my heart into praying a phrase like, “Hail, Mary,” or, “Pray for us sinners.” 


I am writing these pages to urge people to make up their own rosary mysteries by stringing together their favorite Bible verses. I would not have recommended this ten years ago, but then, Pope John Paul II opened the way for it.

In 2001 he suggested we follow what he called his five Luminous Mysteries. He suggested we say a decade each on Christ’s Baptism, on his presence at the Marriage at Cana, on his sending out the disciples, and on his Transfiguration and on the Last Supper.

For myself, after seventy years of trying to meditate on the Presentation and the Crowning of Mary, it was a pleasure being creative over picturing Cana’s wedding banquet and the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. Still, while following the new mysteries on Sundays, I kept to staying the Joyful Mysteries on Mondays and Thursdays, the Sorrowful ones on Tuesdays and Fridays, the Glorious on Wednesdays and Saturday.
I hadn’t felt easy about straying from what the Dominican Sisters in grade school taught me about the rosary’s heavenly origins. Robed in white, with long rosaries clacking down to the floor, the sisters told us that Mary herself had given the beads and mysteries to their St. Dominic. It seemed odd to me that even the pope would want to change what Mary had given us.

I started wondering if the pope had any justification for changing the way Mary wanted her rosary said. To find out I went to the 15 volume set of the Catholic Encyclopedias I bought forty years ago. There I found that none of the writings from St. Dominic’s lifetime made any mention of the rosary. As well, I found that the story of Mary giving Dominic  the rosary and its mysteries can only be traced back to sermons preached by a Dominican priest, Alan de la Roche, who lived  three hundred years after St. Dominic.

So, if the rosary cannot be traced back to St. Dominic, I set myself to finding where did it come from?


A fine article on the rosary in the Catholic Encyclopedia gives credit for developing the rosary to the peasants of the Middle Ages. The only church buildings open to them were monastery chapels where they crowded in against the choir walls. As they huddled there, listening to the monks chanting the hundred and fifty Psalms, they felt a need to somehow join in the worship.

Without being able to read the psalms, they fell back on repeating the only prayer they knew, which was the Latin version of the Our Father. Using it, they set for themselves the goal of praying the Our Father a hundred and fifty times a week. The peasants at one monastery devised a way of keeping count, and over time the peasants at other monasteries followed them. What they did was fashion cords on which they strung a hundred and fifty beans. They called those primitive rosaries their “Paternosters,” and they called each bean a “bead,” which was their word for a prayer.

Sometimes when fingering their Paternosters and saying their Our Father’s, they fell behind. To catch up, and to finger the beads quicker, they improvised a shorter prayer. They took to calling out Gabriel and Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, and over time this new prayer, the Hail Mary, took shape, and found its way on to their beads.


Next, the peasants came on another way of keeping pace with the monks. The monks, following a tradition that went a thousand years back to St. Anthony in the desert, were using the Psalms as the core of their prayer life; but as men of the New Testament they felt the need for a stronger Christian element in their rituals. For this they brought hymns to Jesus and Mary into each hour of prayer.

The peasants, wanting to copy the monks into bringing the Gospels into their ritual,  took to pausing after every ten beads to mention an event like the Annunciation, the Nativity, or the death of Jesus on the cross.

By the time Father Alan de la Roche began preaching his sermons in the Sixteenth Century the rosary had settled into the form it has today. It had fifteen mysteries, and it had Catholics pausing for an Our Father after every ten Hail Mary’s. All that has been introduced since then has been a change in emphasis. Saintly people have been elevating the rosary from being just a vocal prayer to becoming a vehicle for contemplative prayers.


In his Luminous Mysteries Pope John Paul II made us aware of that contemplative aspect of the rosary. He was in agreement with his friend Father Karl Rahner who said, “Nothing benefits us as much as the contemplation of the mysteries of our religion.”

We all have our own approaches to prayer. Some people pray to praise and thank God, others to gain favors. I pray to bring myself to believe and behave in the right way. A thousand mornings in the major seminary gave me those priorities of believing and behaving as I should. After our meditation, our Mass, breakfast and duties, we went to our classrooms. There we always had an hour each of systematic Theology, of Moral Theology, and of Bible study.

That routine shaped my favorite way of praying the rosary, using it to work on my beliefs and my behavior. As the Bible source for meditating on what my beliefs should be, three days a week I devise my mysteries from verses in Chapter One of John’s Gospel. On the alternate days, when I work at bringing my behavior into line with what God wants, I make up fifteen rosary mysteries by combining the eight Beatitudes with the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.


Let me bring up something they drum into young people during their novitiate. There is a difference between meditation and contemplation. Meditating is constructive thinking about the message for us in Bible passages. Contemplation is different. It is responding to God the way a fish responds to the currents of the ocean. Meditating on our mysteries gets us started, but hopefully contemplation will take over as we subject ourselves to God’s wishes.

My plan for the following pages is to set before you sample meditations for two different sets of fifteen mysteries each. First, for summarizing our beliefs I will give you one by one my fifteen mysteries from Chapter One of John’s Gospel. Then, for putting our behavior in order, I will lay out fifteen mysteries based on the Bestitudes and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But, since I have suggested that you make up your own mysteries going elsewhere in the Bible, at the end I will show how you might line up the Bible verses for two other sets of mysteries. One set gives references for fifteen mysteries on Our Lord’s activities in Holy Week, the other set gives fifteen references for meditating on Mary’s role in our lives.

1 comment:

Anne B said...

Great idea Father Sullivan! I am going to try this. I once had the privilege of driving the Irish Columban Fr Aiden McGrath from Moyhu to Wangaratta Vic. Australia. He was here to give a talk at the 75th Anniversary of the Legion of Mary, just over the border in Albury, NSW. He died Christmas Day 2000 in his sister's home in Ireland - after they had enjoyed Christmas Dinner! Requiescat in Pace.

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