The History of the Rosary
It is hard to pinpoint the origin of the Rosary. “Prayer beads” or
use of beads to keep track of the number of repeated prayers as an aid
to meditation come from some of the earliest days of the Church, tracing
itself to the desert monasteries in the first few centuries. By the
time the Middle-ages arrived, a string of beads had been developed
called “Paternosters” (Latin for Our Father) that kept track of Our
Fathers and Hail Marys. It wasn’t until the 1500’s that the Rosary took
it’s final form. It is believed that the rosary began as a substitute
for the Divine Office, the normal prayer of the monks, when the laity
became unable to pray the office in Latin due to a combination of time,
illiteracy, and the movement of the European languages away from Latin.
The 150 Hail Marys replaced the 150 psalms, offered by the laity in
communion with the monastic orders in remembering Jesus throughout the
day. In the 14th century a Carthusian monk divided the Rosary into
decades, by which one could intersperse 15 Our Fathers. Over time the mysteries
were added to the Rosary by a Dominican, which allowed the illiterate a
way to reflect upon the various events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
It is said that St. Dominic received the Rosary from the Blessed
Virgin and used it in his preaching against the heresy of
Albigensianism, a cousin of Gnosticism. This claim however, is
unfounded, since this story did not become known until 200 years after
Dominic’s death, the Dominican constitutions of that time don’t link him
with it, and the contemporary hagiography does not ascribe it to him.
There may be a grain in truth in it, that Dominic did preach it,
perhaps even under the mandate of Our Lady, but it was already in
existence by his time.
The Rosary finally secured itself in popular Catholic devotion
during the 1500’s, when Muslim Turks were invading Eastern Europe.
Control of the Mediterranean soon became at stake so in 1571, Pope St.
Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria.
While preparations were underway, the Holy Father asked all of the
faithful to say the rosary and implore our Blessed Mother’s prayers,
under the title Our Lady of Victory, that our Lord would grant victory
to the Christians. Although the Muslim fleet outnumbered that of the
Christians in both vessels and sailors, the forces were ready to meet in
battle. The Christian flagship flew a blue banner depicting Christ
crucified and another banner with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe a
recent apparition from Mexico that had just been approved. On October 7,
1571, the Muslims were defeated at Lepanto. The following year, Pope
St. Pius V established the Feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7,
encouraging the faithful to not only remember this victory, but also
give thanks to the Lord for all of His benefits and remember the
powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother. This feast day, as a
testament to the power of the Rosary, is still celebrated every year on
During the apparition of Fatima in 1917, Our Lady asked that the prayer “O My Jesus” be
added after each decade. On October 16, 2002, Pope St. John Paul II
declared that the following year would be a year of the Rosary. During
that year, in his encyclical Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul added 5 new mysteries to the Rosary which he called the “Luminous Mysteries” or mysteries of light.