"One day, Brother Angelus, to your Order of Carmel the Most Blessed Virgin Mary will give a devotion to be known as the Brown Scapular, and to my Order of Preachers she will give a devotion to be known as the Rosary. And one day, through the Rosary and the Scapular, she will save the world." -Saint Dominic de Guzman, prophecy spoken to Saint Angelus and Saint Francis of Assisi, and recorded in the ancient history of the Carmelite Order by Ventimiglia
"When the Rosary is well said, it gives Jesus and Mary more glory and is more meritorious for the soul than any other prayer." -Saint Louis Marie de Montfort
From the very earliest times there have been special devotions and prayers outside of the Sacred Liturgy (which principally consists of Holy Mass and the Divine Office). We see very early on a number of devotions that consisted of repeated prayers in a certain number, which were tracked by a string with beads or knots on it. The Byzantines have their prayer rope with special knots that each form a cross and upon which are prayed the “Jesus Prayer”:
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
There were also similar devotions that repeated the Angelic Salutation (Lk 1:28) and to which later was added by the devotion of people after the council of Ephesus the invocation to Mary in her divine maternity. Logically then the prayer we know as the “Hail Mary” was completed with a petition to our Lady to help us who are sinners during our life and especially at our last end. A similar devotion of repeating the Our Father was also popular from the earliest times as it was the special prayer formulated by our Lord himself and given to the disciples along with the command to pray.
The most popular of all of these in the west has for nearly 1000 years been the Rosary. It is composed of the most ancient and popular prayers of the Church: the Apostles Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the great doxology of the Glory Be. The Salve Regina was most fittingly added to the end as the most popular of the four great Marian Antiphons.
Today we have many different chaplets and devotions said on various kinds of beads, and many simply employ the Rosary beads, such as the Divine Mercy Chaplet or the Saint Gertrude the Great Chaplet. And there are also many versions of the Rosary itself today such as the Brigittine Rosary which is also that particular to the Order of Mount Carmel. It is interesting to note that the statue of Saint Bernadette at Lourdes has her holding a Rosary in her hand, and if you look closely you will see it is actually a Brigittine Rosary. But the most popular and well known Rosary is that given by our Lady to Saint Dominic in the early 13th Century. It is this particular devotion and that has been more heavily indulgenced and promoted by Holy Mother Church than any other after the Sacred Liturgy itself.
What follows is an overview of the origin and history of the Rosary. There are two accounts: first from the official history given by the Church in the Divine Office for the Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, and then following that given by Saint Louis Marie de Montfort in his Secret of the Rosary.
Feast of the Most Holy Rosary
From the Readings at Matins
When the heresy of the Albigenses was making head against God in the County of Toulouse, and striking deeper roots every day, the holy Dominick, who had but just laid the foundations of the Order of Friars Preachers, threw his whole strength into the travail of plucking these blasphemies up. That he might be fitter for the work, he cried for help with his whole soul to that Blessed Maiden, whose glory the falsehoods of the heretics so insolently assailed, and to whom it hath been granted to trample down every heresy throughout the whole earth. It is said that he had from her a word, bidding him preach up the saying of the Rosary among the people, as a strong help against heresy and sin, and it is wonderful with how stout an heart and how good a success he did the work laid upon him. This Rose-garden (or Rosary) is a certain form of prayer, wherein we say onehundred-and-fifty times the salutation of the Angel, and the Lord's Prayer between every ten times, and, each of the fifteen times that we say the Lord's Prayer, and repeat tenfold the salutation, think of one of fifteen great events in the history of our Redemption. From that time forth this form of godly prayer was extraordinarily spread about by holy Dominick, and waxed common. That this same Dominick was the founder and prime mover thereof hath been said by Popes in divers letters of the Apostolic See.
From this healthy exercise have grown up numberless good fruits in the Christian Commonwealth. Among these deserveth well to be named that great victory over the Sultan of Turkey, which the most holy Pope Pius V., and the Christian Princes whom he had roused, won at Lepanto, (on the th day of October, the first Lord's Day in the month, in the year of our Lord 1571) The day whereon this victory was gained was the very one whereon the Guildbrethren of the most holy Rosary, throughout the whole world, were used to offer their accustomed prayers and appointed supplications, and the event therefore was not unnaturally connected therewith. This being the avowed opinion of Gregory XIII., he ordered that in all Churches where there was, or should be, an Altar of the Rosary, a Feast, in the form of a Greater Double, should be kept for ever upon the first Lord's Day of the month of October, to give unceasing thanks to the Blessed Virgin, under her style of (Queen of) the (Most Holy) Rosary, for that extraordinary mercy of God. Other Popes also have granted almost numberless Indulgences to those who say the Rosary, and to those who join its Guilds.
In the year 1716, Charles VI., Elect- Emperor of the Romans, won a famous victory over countless hordes of Turks, near Temeswar, in the kingdom of Hungary, upon the day when the Feast of the Dedication of the Church of St Mary of the Snows was being kept, and almost at the very moment when the Guildbrethren of the most holy Rosary were moving through the streets of Rome in public and solemn procession, amid vast multitudes, all filled with the deepest enthusiasm, calling vehemently upon God for the defeat of the Turks, and entreating the Virgin Mother of God to bring the might of her succour to the help of the Christians. A few days later, (upon the Octave of the Feast of the Assumption,) the Turks raised the siege of Corfu. These mercies Clement XI. devoutly ascribed to the helpful prayers of the Blessed Virgin, and that the memory and the sweetness of such a blessing might for all time coming endure gloriously, he extended to the whole Church the observance of the Feast of the most holy Rosary, for the same day and of the same rank, (as it had already been in the places before mentioned.) Benedict XIII. commanded the record of all these things to be given a place in the Service-book of the Church of Rome; and Leo XIII., in the most troublous times of the Church and the cruel storm of long pressing evils, by fresh Apostolic letters vehemently urged upon all the faithful throughout the earth the often saying of the Rosary of (the Blessed Virgin) Mary, raised the dignity of the yearly festival, added to the Litany of Loretto the Invocation Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, and granted to the whole Church a special Office for this solemn occasion. Let us all then be earnest in honouring the most holy Mother of God in this form which she liketh so well, that even as the entreaties of Christ's faithful people, approaching her in her Garden of Roses, have so often won her to scatter and destroy their earthly foes, so she may gain for them the victory over their hellish foes likewise.
The Secret of the Rosary
Saint Louis Marie de Montfort
Since the Rosary is composed, principally and in substance, of the prayer of Christ and the Angelic Salutation, that is, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, it was without doubt the first prayer and the principal devotion of the faithful and has been in use all through the centuries, from the time of the apostles and disciples down to the present.
It was only in the year 1214, however, that the Church received the Rosary in its present form and according to the method we use today. It was given to the Church by St. Dominic, who had received it from the Blessed Virgin as a means of converting the Albigensians and other sinners.
I will tell you the story of how he received it, which is found in the very well-known book De Dignitate Psalterii, by Blessed Alan de la Roche. Saint Dominic, seeing that the gravity of people's sins was hindering the conversion of the Albigensians, withdrew into a forest near Toulouse, where he prayed continuously for three days and three nights. During this time he did nothing but weep and do harsh penances in order to appease the anger of God. He used his discipline so much that his body was lacerated, and finally he fell into a coma.
At this point our Lady appeared to him, accompanied by three angels, and she said, "Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world?"
"Oh, my Lady," answered Saint Dominic, "you know far better than I do, because next to your Son Jesus Christ you have always been the chief instrument of our salvation."
Then our Lady replied, "I want you to know that, in this kind of warfare, the principal weapon has always been the Angelic Psalter, which is the foundation-stone of the New Testament. Therefore, if you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter."
So he arose, comforted, and burning with zeal for the conversion of the people in that district, he made straight for the cathedral. At once unseen angels rang the bells to gather the people together, and Saint Dominic began to preach.
At the very beginning of his sermon, an appalling storm broke out, the earth shook, the sun was darkened, and there was so much thunder and lightning that all were very much afraid. Even greater was their fear when, looking at a picture of our Lady exposed in a prominent place, they saw her raise her arms to heaven three times to call down God's vengeance upon them if they failed to be converted, to amend their lives, and seek the protection of the holy Mother of God.
God wished, by means of these supernatural phenomena, to spread the new devotion of the holy Rosary and to make it more widely known.
At last, at the prayer of Saint Dominic, the storm came to an end, and he went on preaching. So fervently and compellingly did he explain the importance and value of the Rosary that almost all the people of Toulouse embraced it and renounced their false beliefs. In a very short time a great improvement was seen in the town; people began leading Christian lives and gave up their former bad habits.
The miraculous way in which the devotion to the holy Rosary was established is something of a parallel to the way in which God gave his law to the world on Mount Sinai, and it obviously proves its value and importance.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, instructed by the Blessed Virgin as well as by his own experience, Saint Dominic preached the Rosary for the rest of his life. He preached it by his example as well as by his sermons, in cities and in country places, to people of high station and low, before scholars and the uneducated, to Catholics and to heretics.
The Rosary, which he said every day, was his preparation for every sermon and his little tryst with our Lady immediately after preaching.
One day he had to preach at Notre Dame in Paris, and it happened to be the feast of St. John the Evangelist. He was in a little chapel behind the high altar prayerfully preparing his sermon by saying the Rosary, as he always did, when our Lady appeared to him and said: "Dominic, even though what you have planned to say may be very good, I am bringing you a much better sermon."
Saint Dominic took in his hands the book our Lady proffered, read the sermon carefully and, when he had understood it and meditated on it, he gave thanks to her.
When the time came, he went up into the pulpit and, in spite of the feast day, made no mention of Saint John other than to say that he had been found worthy to be the guardian of the Queen of Heaven. The congregation was made up of theologians and other eminent people, who were used to hearing unusual and polished discourses; but Saint Dominic told them that it was not his desire to give them a learned discourse, wise in the eyes of the world, but that he would speak in the simplicity of the Holy Spirit and with his forcefulness.
So he began preaching the Rosary and explained the Hail Mary word by word as he would to a group of children, and used the very simple illustrations which were in the book given him by our Lady.
Carthagena, the great scholar, quoting Blessed Alan de la Roche in De Dignitate Psalterii, describes how this took place.
"Blessed Alan writes that one day Father Dominic said to him in a vision, "My son, it is good to preach; but there is always a danger of looking for praise rather than the salvation of souls. Listen carefully to what happened to me in Paris, so that you may be on your guard against this kind of mistake. I was to preach in the great church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and I was particularly anxious to give a fine sermon, not out of pride, but because of the high intellectual stature of the congregation.
An hour before the time I had to preach, I was dutifully saying my Rosary – as I always did before giving a sermon – when I fell into ecstasy. I saw my beloved friend, the Mother of God, coming towards me with a book in her hand. "Dominic," she said, "your sermon for today may be very good indeed, but no matter how good it is, I have brought you one that is very much better."
Of course I was overjoyed, and I took the book and read every word of it. Just as our Lady had said, I found exactly the right things to say in my sermon, so I thanked her with all my heart.
When it was time to begin, I saw that the University of Paris had turned out in full force, as well as a large number of noblemen. They had all seen and heard of the great things that the good Lord had been doing through me.
I went up into the pulpit. It was the feast of Saint John the Evangelist but all I said about him was that he had been found worthy to be the guardian of the Queen of Heaven. Then I addressed the congregation:
"My Lords and illustrious doctors of the University, you are accustomed to hearing learned sermons suited to your refined tastes. Now I do not want to speak to you in the scholarly language of human wisdom but, on the contrary, to show you the Spirit of God and his greatness."
Here ends the quotation from Blessed Alan, after which Carthagena goes on to say in his own words, "Then Saint Dominic explained the Angelic Salutation to them, using simple comparisons and examples from everyday life."
Blessed Alan, according to Carthagena, mentioned several other occasions when our Lord and our Lady appeared to Saint Dominic to urge him and inspire him to preach the Rosary more and more in order to wipe out sin and convert sinners and heretics.
In another passage Carthagena says, "Blessed Alan said our Lady revealed to him that, after she had appeared to Saint Dominic, her blessed Son appeared to him and said, "Dominic, I rejoice to see that you are not relying on your own wisdom and that, rather than seek the empty praise of men, you are working with great humility for the salvation of souls.
But many priests want to preach thunderously against the worst kinds of sin at the very outset, failing to realize that before a sick person is given bitter medicine, he needs to be prepared by being put into the right frame of mind to really benefit by it.
That is why, before doing anything else, priests should try to kindle a love of prayer in people's hearts and especially a love of my Angelic Psalter. If only they would all start saying it and would really persevere, God in his mercy could hardly refuse to give them his grace. So I want you to preach my Rosary.""
In another place Blessed Alan says, "All priests say a Hail Mary with the faithful before preaching, to ask for God's grace. They do this because of a revelation that Saint Dominic had from our Lady. "My son," she said one day, "do not be surprised that your sermons fail to bear the results you had hoped for. You are trying to cultivate a piece of ground which has not had any rain. Now when God planned to renew the face of the earth, he started by sending down rain from heaven – and this was the Angelic Salutation. In this way God reformed the world.
So when you give a sermon, urge people to say my Rosary, and in this way your words will bear much fruit for souls."
Saint Dominic lost no time in obeying, and from then on he exerted great influence by his sermons." (This last quotation is from "The Book of Miracles of the Holy Rosary," written in Italian, also found in Justin's works, Sermon 143.)
I have been very pleased to quote these well-known authors word for word for the benefit of those who might otherwise have doubts as to the marvellous power of the Rosary.
As long as priests followed Saint Dominic's example and preached devotion to the holy Rosary, piety and fervour thrived throughout the Christian world and in those religious orders which were devoted to the Rosary. But since people have neglected this gift from heaven, all kinds of sin and disorder have spread far and wide.
All things, even the holiest, are subject to change, especially when they are dependent on man's free will. It is hardly to be wondered at, then, that the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary only retained its first fervour for a century after it was instituted by Saint Dominic. After this it was like a thing buried and forgotten.
Doubtless, too, the wicked scheming and jealousy of the devil were largely responsible for getting people to neglect the Rosary, and thus block the flow of God's grace which it had drawn upon the world.
Thus, in 1349 God punished the whole of Europe with the most terrible plague that had ever been known. Starting in the east, it spread throughout Italy, Germany, France, Poland and Hungary, bringing desolation wherever it went, for out of a hundred men hardly one lived to tell the tale. Big cities, towns, villages and monasteries were almost completely deserted during the three years that the epidemic lasted.
This scourge of God was quickly followed by two others, the heresy of the Flagellants and a tragic schism in 1376.
19. Later on, when these trials were over, thanks to the mercy of God, our Lady told Blessed Alan to revive the former Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. Blessed Alan was one of the Dominican Fathers at the monastery at Dinan, in Brittany. He was an eminent theologian and a famous preacher. Our Lady chose him because, since the Confraternity had originally been started in that province, it was fitting that a Dominican from the same province should have the honour of re-establishing it.
Blessed Alan began this great work in 1460, after a special warning from our Lord. This is how he received that urgent message, as he himself tells it:
One day when he was offering Mass, our Lord, who wished to spur him on to preach the holy Rosary, spoke to him in the Sacred Host. "How can you crucify me again so soon?" Jesus said. "What did you say, Lord?" asked Blessed Alan, horrified. "You crucified me once before by your sins," answered Jesus, "and I would willingly be crucified again rather than have my Father offended by the sins you used to commit. You are crucifying me again now because you have all the learning and understanding that you need to preach my Mother's Rosary, and you are not doing it. If you only did that, you could teach many souls the right path and lead them away from sin. But you are not doing it, and so you yourself are guilty of the sins that they commit."
This terrible reproach made Blessed Alan solemnly resolve to preach the Rosary unceasingly.
Our Lady also said to him one day to inspire him to preach the Rosary more and more, "You were a great sinner in your youth, but I obtained the grace of your conversion from my Son. Had such a thing been possible, I would have liked to have gone through all kinds of suffering to save you, because converted sinners are a glory to me. And I would have done that also to make you worthy of preaching my Rosary far and wide."
Saint Dominic appeared to Blessed Alan as well and told him of the great results of his ministry: he had preached the Rosary unceasingly, his sermons had borne great fruit and many people had been converted during his missions.
He said to Blessed Alan, "See what wonderful results I have had through preaching the Rosary. You and all who love our Lady ought to do the same so that, by means of this holy practice of the Rosary, you may draw all people to the real science of the virtues."
Briefly, then, this is the history of how Saint Dominic established the holy Rosary and of how Blessed Alan de la Roche restored it.