Praying the Rosary is an opportunity to pray with Mary, the first Christian contemplative, who "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Or as Blessed John Paul II puts it, "To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ."
Many non-Catholics (and some Catholics!) misunderstand the Rosary, viewing it as the sort of vain repetition that Christ himself condemned. And like so many things in the Catholic Church--indeed the Church herself--it is one of those things that can only be understood by entering into it.
Remember, Christ didn't condemn repetition, per se--if he did that he would have condemned the very Judaism of which he was a part. The Jews, after all, learned the language of prayer from the Psalms, the ultimate Hebrew prayer book.
The Rosary beads themselves serve as a sort of counter, enabling one to enter more deeply into contemplation of the mysteries of Christ's life, to not have to worry about how many prayers you have prayed. The prayers recited, such as the Our Father (aka Lord's Prayer) on the separate, sometimes larger, beads, and the Hail Mary, on the connected decades of ten smaller beads, enable one to develop a rhythmic cadence that allows one to pray with the lips while also joining Mary in interior contemplation on the life and ministry of her Son. Click here to learn how to pray the Rosary.
A few weeks ago, my family was having an internal crisis with one of our children, and we asked our pastor to make a special visit late one evening to pray with us. Despite the fact that he must have been exhausted already, he came as a true servant. And while his presence brought comfort to us, my primary desire from him was not an eloquent interpretation of our crisis. Not because I don't respect him or believe in his wisdom--he is a very holy and good priest--but because all I really wanted him to do--which he did, praise God--was pull out his weathered book of Scriptures and prayers that had been read and prayed countless times before in previous crises.
As far as vain repetition goes, it is certainly possible to pray the Rosary this way, and the Catholic Church condemns it. In the words of Pope Paul VI, "Without contemplation, the Rosary is a body without a soul, and its recitation runs the risk of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas, in violation of the admonition of Christ."
And strangely enough, it's even possible, I have discovered, to pray so-called "spontaneous" prayers with vain repetition, often using the same phrases and terminology from one day to the next. Not that extemporaneous prayer is a bad thing--I personally think one prayer's life should include both spontaneous prayer and the recitation of the great prayers from the Church's history.
Now I don't deny that the kind of contemplation involved in praying the Rosary is an acquired taste. Some of you are reading these words and having flashbacks to painful memories of the family Rosary you prayed as a child (or last week!), in which distraction and boredom dominated in equal measure, or some others may be feeling guilty because, as a Catholic, you feel like you really should appreciate the Rosary but in experience you really don't.
Don't get the wrong impression either, as though I'm a regular Rosary devotee. I'm not; not nearly as much as I'd like to be. Unfortunate, I'm like many people in our current culture; given over to distractions that leave little time for the twenty minutes or so needed to pray the Rosary well. You may have seen this story from a few years ago that illustrates our cultures aversion to the pause of contemplation, when a world-class violinist, dressed incognito, played soaring tunes on a 3 million dollar violin in a Washington D.C. subway station and got very little notice from the rushing commuters. As G. K. Chesterton said, "The world will never starve for want of wonders; only for want of wonder."
Blessed John Paul II's apostolic letter is probably best known for his proposal of adding five additional mysteries to the already established Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries. These events, termed "the luminous mysterious," would fill a particular gap in the Rosary's contemplation, namely Jesus' public life and ministry. After all, the Joyful mysteries center on his infancy and hidden life, the Sorrowful on his Passion, and the Glorious on this Resurrection and Ascension. These new mysteries would begin with Christ's baptism--the inauguration of his public life--and continue with his miracle at Cana, his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his Transfiguration, and the instituion of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday.
Some Protestant Christians are bothered by the Marian flavor of the Rosary, not only the reciting of fifty-three Hail Mary's, through the course of the five mysteries plus three at the beginning), but also that the mysteries conclude with Mary's Assumption into heaven and her coronation as Queen of Heaven.
Mary is, so to speak, the preview of that hope that does not disappoint, a "type" of the Church and a sign that embodies the destiny of all God's saints (and through our baptism, we are all called to be saints--we can't be in heaven without becoming one!). Her Assumption in heaven, body and soul, is a foretaste of what will happen to all of God's friends at the very end of human history, at Christ's second coming, at the resurrection of the dead in which those whose souls have entered heaven are reunited with their risen and glorified bodies.
Thursday's show will involve a stroll through the Luminous mysteries, as well as the following...
And the forgotten grief of Louise Bundy