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Most Catholics are very familiar with the Rosary, but many are surprised when they discover the level of depth that is possible while “telling the beads.”
An essential component of the Rosary is the association of one of the mysteries of Christ’s life with each decade. The importance of these mysteries was well expressed by Pope Paul VI, who called them the “soul” of the Rosary (Marialis cultus, 47) because it is precisely in these meditations that we come to know the various aspects of Jesus Christ’s work to save the world from sin and separation from God.
The first set of five mysteries are called Joyful and meditate on Jesus’ birth, infancy, and childhood, especially as recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel. The Luminous Mysteries consider key events from Christ’s public ministry. The Sorrowful Mysteries consider his suffering and death, and the Glorious Mysteries consider his resurrection and its aftermath.
There are a number of reasons to meditate on these mysteries while praying the ten Hail Marys of each decade. First, we learn to approach each mystery from the perspective of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Recall that Our Lady was present at many of these events, not only in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, but also at the wedding feast of Cana and while Jesus carried his cross and was crucified. She was with the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost, so we can also safely assume that she saw the risen Lord Jesus and perhaps his ascension. Of course, she experienced her own assumption and crowning in heaven.
By repeating the Hail Mary, we address Our Lady with those greetings of St. Gabriel and St. Elizabeth, and then we ask for her prayers as we consider the mysteries. In this process, it is as if we were trying to look at each mystery of salvation from her maternal perspective, seeking to love Jesus Christ, the center of each mystery, as she does. I assume that the Virgin Mary had a more personal and a more highly motivated love of Jesus than we sinners do! As much as we may love Christ, the Virgin Mary can always lead us to a deeper love and a more uplifting perspective of faith in him.
Another reason to keep returning to these mysteries is to integrate the cycle of all twenty mysteries into the rhythm of our lives. At times the temptation may be to focus on the mysteries we like—perhaps the warmth of the nativity or the glory of the resurrection or the power of Pentecost. While it is permissible to feel drawn to emphasize a certain aspect of the mystery of salvation, as do many of the religious orders—the Passionists or the Resurrectionists, for example—the Christian faith encompasses all aspects of salvation. Praying through the cycle of the twenty mysteries will remind us to balance our meditation on all the key mysteries of salvation.
A variety of aids to meditating on the mysteries are available, including books or pamphlets called “Scriptural Rosaries,” which provide one verse of Scripture for each Hail Mary in every decade, or those with short reflections on each mystery. A person might do well to look up the mysteries in the Bible and read a small part of that passage, either at the beginning of each decade or in small sections between each Hail Mary. Other people simply focus on their own imaginative sense of each mystery, while still others concentrate on the words of the Hail Mary, the Our Father, or the Glory Be.
Everyone is free to approach the Rosary according to one’s own preference. However, the more open in heart and mind we are to the prayers and the mysteries, the greater will be the depth of prayer we experience.
Biblical scholar Fr. Mitch Pacwa is a popular speaker, writer, and TV host. This article is adapted from his book How to Listen When God Is Speaking (The Word Among Us Press, 2011). This, and other of Fr. Pacwa’s books are available at wau.org/books