Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Why bother with the Rosary anyway?

A lot has been going on in and around the Church in America lately, a lot of it depressing. Many Catholic websurfers seem to be searching for a change from further news about the Situation, or just for some novelty. Well, last week the Holy Father fed some red meat to those wanting something else to discuss, the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. No more errant priests -- lets argue over the Rosary! Some already think some of John Paul's suggestions are great, some think they are misguided (or worse), and many don't care.

Well, why should we care? That's the issue I would like to tackle here.

This is addressed to all of us post Vatican II Catholics who just never developed a "rosary habit". We may (or may not) have a prayer life worth mentioning and we get to Mass once a week (or more), but the Rosary has never "caught fire" for us. We who find the rosary boring, or too complicated, or too old fashioned, or irrelevant, or just to "Catholic", and therefore uncool. We who can't remember where our rosary beads are, unless they are draped over the rear view mirror of our car.

Well, this is a letter to us. A letter about why we need the Rosary, and suggestions from the senior bead wrangler himself on how best to get what we need from it. It is the latest letter to us of several laying out the needs of ourselves and others, and God's plan for the Church to meet them.

Also, one important point is that the Holy Father goes out of his way throughout this letter to us to say that these are suggestions, not commands. We are not ordered to say the Rosary, it is something that the Church offers to us, freely.

The new millennium

While many of us in the West are more than adequately provided with food, clothing and shelter (and much more) we still go to bed hungry each night -- spiritually. Last year John Paul wrote of just this need:

Is it not one of the "signs of the times" that in today's world, despite widespread secularization, there is a widespread demand for spirituality, a demand which expresses itself in large part as a renewed need for prayer? Other religions, which are now widely present in ancient Christian lands, offer their own responses to this need, and sometimes they do so in appealing ways. But we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Saviour of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.
This is from the apostolic letter Novo Millenio Ineunte -- At the Beginning of the New Millennium -- a reflection by John Paul II on the Church's experience during the Jubiliee and what that means for the new millennium. In summing up that experience, he put meeting this need for prayer at the center of the Church's program, as it always has been:
It is important however that what we propose, with the help of God, should be profoundly rooted in contemplation and prayer. Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of "doing for the sake of doing". We must resist this temptation by trying "to be" before trying "to do".
So how are we to do that? By prayerful contemplation of the Face of the Lord:
... the men and women of our own day — often perhaps unconsciously — ask believers not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him to them. And is it not the Church's task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium?

Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first contemplated his face. The Great Jubilee has certainly helped us to do this more deeply. At the end of the Jubilee, as we go back to our ordinary routine, storing in our hearts the treasures of this very special time, our gaze is more than ever firmly set on the face of the Lord.
We are to plunge deep into the Gospels, to conteplate the mystery of both his human and divine natures, to see both the Face of sorrow and the Face of the Risen Lord. This makes it possible, it prepares us, to do the work set out for us, to start on the adventure we have been called to. As John Paul put it, Duc in altum: set out into the deep!

The Rosary

So, weren't we talking about the Rosary, and the letter sent out last week?

Just a few pages into this new letter on the Rosary, the Holy Father starts referring to the earlier letter:
I have felt drawn to offer a reflection on the Rosary, as a kind of Marian complement to that Letter and an exhortation to contemplate the face of Christ in union with, and at the school of, his Most Holy Mother. To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.
He then discusses the timeliness of a revival in the Rosary, first to counter "a certain crisis of the Rosary" that may be resulting in the Rosary not being taught. (I can attest to that -- in my work as a CCD teacher and in youth ministry, I have encountered many kids who have never even heard of the Rosary.) He states that, properly understood, the Rosary is not in conflict with either the centrality of the Eucharist or with ecumenical activity.
But the most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the Rosary is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine “training in holiness”: “What is needed is a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer”. Inasmuch as contemporary culture, even amid so many indications to the contrary, has witnessed the flowering of a new call for spirituality, due also to the influence of other religions, it is more urgent than ever that our Christian communities should become “genuine schools of prayer”.

The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation. Developed in the West, it is a typically meditative prayer, corresponding in some way to the “prayer of the heart” or “Jesus prayer” which took root in the soil of the Christian East.
The one thing that we are not being called to, is some sort of limp pietism. The Holy Father is placing the Rosary, properly understood and practiced, on the level with the other meditative traditions that have become popular recently:
... the West is now experiencing a renewed demand for meditation, which at times leads to a keen interest in aspects of other religions. Some Christians, limited in their knowledge of the Christian contemplative tradition, are attracted by those forms of prayer. While the latter contain many elements which are positive and at times compatible with Christian experience, they are often based on ultimately unacceptable premises. Much in vogue among these approaches are methods aimed at attaining a high level of spiritual concentration by using techniques of a psychophysical, repetitive and symbolic nature. The Rosary is situated within this broad gamut of religious phenomena, but it is distinguished by characteristics of its own which correspond to specifically Christian requirements.
Why care about the Rosary? Because we feel the need for a deepness in prayer that goes beyond chatter and we don't seem to know what to do about that need. The Rosary is simple, but it is theologically sound and suited for deep contemplation. It is time for many of us to just get over our hangups about the Rosary (just part of getting over ourselves in general) and get to it.

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