Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of the Poor: Toward a Radical View of the Rosary

Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of the Poor: Toward a Radical View of the Rosary September 14, 2009

rosary-madonna4I started praying the rosary at a young age, probably before I started Catholic school in kindergarten. Of course, all through Catholic elementary school we prayed a decade of the rosary as a school each morning during the months of May and October, traditionally considered “Marian” months. Sometime in grade school, probably first grade, I received a really nice Italian rosary from my uncle who is a priest. It was blessed by Pope John Paul II, and I remember being very proud of it. I was crushed when it was stolen from my desk one day.

In junior high and high school my love of the rosary deepened as I began to make my faith my own in new ways. I participated in rosaries against abortion and for vocations. From my senior year of high school through my freshman year of college I was in a long distance relationship, and my girlfriend and I would arrange “rosary dates” once a week. Where ever we were, we stopped what we were doing and prayed a rosary together.

During my sophomore year of college I switched my major from communications to theology. As most Catholics who study theology will tell you, there is a certain crisis of faith that occurs somewhere along the line, a crisis of faith that comes from exposing one’s beliefs to new kinds of scrutiny and where it feels as though the floor has dropped out beneath you. The de/reconstruction process that often occurs in the course of theological study is somewhat terrifying at times, but can also be a profoundly liberating process, as it gives more opportunities to rediscover and reappropriate the faith of the Church as one’s own. It doesn’t take entrance into a theology program to experience this. All it takes is a serious commitment to enter into the reflectiveness of faith seeking understanding, a reflectiveness that all Christians are called to: all Christians should be, and are, theologians.

Somewhere in this process I purged my spiritual life of many of the forms of prayer from my past, including the rosary, because I began to see the dangers of various popular devotional practices. I dropped the rosary. Eventually I dropped eucharistic adoration. My theology professors certainly did not encourage this. While we discussed the dangers and distortions of various religious practices, all of them, even the most “liberal,” discouraged a type of theological elitism that looks down on popular devotions. Still, because of the shifts in my theological and spiritual horizons that I was experiencing, I felt that I had to reject the rosary as “not fitting” with “where I was” on my “spiritual journey.” I began to explore a whole new world of prayer styles: the Examen and imaginative scripture reflection of Ignatian spirituality, centering prayer, apophatic “emptying” meditation, the Liturgy of the Hours, labyrinths, you name it. At various points in my college career, masters’ work and service as a lay minister in campus ministries and parishes, I have been drawn to different prayer styles for various reasons. But the rosary was, for some reason, left out the entire time.

That is, except in times of extreme need. A Jesuit spiritual director of mine — a close friend of Pope Benedict — gave me one of those single decade rosaries during a “busy student” retreat in college. For some reason I kept the rosary in my car. I always seemed to need that rosary in dark times, times when I felt depressed or confused. Sometimes these cases were in the context of troubled romantic relationships; I just somehow felt that my Mother would understand. On at least one occasion, clutching that rosary probably saved my life. But while I found comfort — and quite literally, salvation — in that rosary, I never saw a need to come back to it, except in these extreme, dark cases. Still, I wondered why I was drawn to the rosary in these times, what it meant.

Fast forward to the present. For some reason I have been drawn to the rosary lately. Not because I am depressed — nearly eleven months after the birth of my daughter, I’m the most deeply happy that I’ve ever been. In fact, I have no idea why I feel drawn to it. Some of it might have to do with another theological turn that I am making — toward a recognition of the importance of popular religious practices as a source for theology, as Latino/a theologians and others are making increasingly clear. My interest in the theologies of marginalized peoples, for example, has impressed upon me that Our Lady of the Poor is also Our Lady of the Rosary.

But there is more to it than simply making intellectual connections and then a subsequent move to be in solidarity with the spirituality of the poor and marginalized. For me, like so many other Catholics I think, prayer has been a struggle. It’s been a struggle because I tend to view prayer in terms of technique rather than an opportunity to “waste time” in consciousness of God’s transforming presence. Perhaps I am being drawn back to the rosary because, in the eyes of the world, it is so obviously a “time waster,” so very unlike the spiritual wares being sold to a consumer culture that is suddenly rediscovering religion — er, spirituality — as a path to “personal wholeness.” The rosary is countercultural. Unlike other forms of spiritual practice, even some Christian forms, which almost seamlessly affirm american individualism, consumerism, and self-obsession, the rosary seems to me entirely out of step with mainstream american culture. Praying the rosary is not easily combined with liberal ideas of individual self-betterment. It is not easy to “get something out of” praying in this way. Note, for example, how most times Catholics pray the rosary not for themselves, but for others: “I’ll pray a rosary for you and for your intentions,” “Come pray a rosary for peace,” “This rosary is for a deeper respect for life at all its stages.”

Still, for all its countercultural aspects, it is still difficult to integrate the rosary as it has been traditionally practiced into my self-understanding of what it means to follow Christ, to be a Christian. In response to having grown up in a part of the united states that is particularly drenched (drowning?) in individualistic and spiritualized conceptions of Christianity, my spiritual and theological path has taken me to a deeper understanding of the social and political dimensions of Christian faith, not as an avoidance of the personal dimension but as the only way the personal dimension can be authentically Christian.

So imagine my excitement when I found a recent piece by a Capuchin by the name of Brother Vito who reflects on similar issues regarding his recitation of the rosary. Br. Vito is involved in social ministries and activism, and he expressed frustration with finding time to pray and with integrating the traditional form of the rosary into his activist spirituality.

His solution was to rethink the mysteries of the rosary in a way analogous to John Paul II’s introduction of a new set of christologically-focused mysteries to the rosary a few years back. As the Pope wrote,

I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion.

In a similar way, and noting the Pope’s emphasis on the “freedom of individuals and communities” and respect for their needs, Br. Vito has developed a set of mysteries called the “Subversive Mysteries,” five events in the life of Christ that he finds particularly fruitful for reflection from the perspective of a Catholic engaged in social justice work. Each mystery includes a “fruit” for which one could pray for that mystery, as well as a prayerful reflection question.

1. The Magnificat
Fruit: Service/Model of Liberation

Challenge: Am I a humble servant, or do I try to make myself important?

2. The Gathering of the Disciples
Fruit: (Grass Roots Organization)

Challenge: Can I work with people of different beliefs, gender, or culture towards the reign of God?

3. The Cleansing of the Temple
Fruit: (Protest of Exploitation)

Challenge: Does my work reflect the Gospel, or are my acts full of empty anger and destruction?

4. Jesus Is Tried As A Criminal
Fruit: (Passive Resistance, Defiant Truth)

Challenge: Will I speak the truth when confronted with fear, personal injury, or the lure of money/power?

5. Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Fruit: (Empowerment)

Challenge: Do I share my gifts with others so they may have a voice?

Br. Vito fleshes out the mysteries a bit in a follow-up piece here. As the rosary was originally a popular form of devotion, irrupting “from below,” it is altogether fitting that communities develop and implement new ways of praying the rosary, breathing new life into the older forms. It certainly seems to be in keeping with John Paul II’s intentions in his own development of “new” mysteries of the rosary.

The rosary, both in its traditional and “renewed” forms, reveals the mysteries of Christ’s relationship with his mother, a mystery that includes Mary’s Christlike, kenotic love: a love that has embraced me when I have been at my lowest and a love that embraces the poor and oppressed in their suffering. Mary opts for the poor still today and, like her son, announces the good news of liberation. How fitting it is to rediscover the rosary in these troubled times, and in doing so, to rediscover Christ and his mother’s option for the poor.


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  • Kevin McManus

    Michael – you might like this: Mysteries of the Rosary in Ordinary Life, by Teresa Rhodes McGee (Orbis, 2007) http://openlibrary.org/b/OL8699008M/Mysteries_of_the_Rosary_in_Ordinary_Life

  • Ah, Orbis. I like it already. 🙂

  • dpt

    Appreciate the post!
    And thank you for the link to Bro. Vito’s writings on the Rosary.

  • I like this post up until the “let’s make up mysteries of the rosary” part. I do think the rosary is a radical prayer, but I think I have a far different view of radical than you do.

    For what it’s worth, I believe the nuns asked Mother Teresa if they could spend less time in Adoration b/c it was taking from their time to help the poor. In response, Mother Teresa doubled the time in Adoration.

  • Sara

    It is interesting to “follow” your devotional practices over several stages of life and see how we change and what we come back to. Some recent University graduates have blogged here (http://discover-your-roots.blogspot.com/) about the spiritual practices that they incorporated into their lives during the past four years. Life after college is very different and maybe calls for different devotions.

  • I like this post up until the “let’s make up mysteries of the rosary” part

    Well, the mysteries aren’t being “made up.” They are drawn from the scriptures. You probably know that, so I’m guessing you either 1) feel the episodes in Jesus’ life that make up the Subversive Mysteries are not worth reflecting on, or 2) think that the original three sets of mysteries just fell out of heaven one day and that human beings played no part in coming up with them.

    Which is it?

    …but I think I have a far different view of radical than you do.

    Well, obviously you do.

  • rcm

    Michael, I went through a rather anti-Marian phase as well. I give her credit for calling me back. I do think more and more people are being called back to her. One cannot contemplate Mary without contemplating her son.

    And the Magnificat is quite radical in what it has to say about the wealthy and the powerful. She notes that God will leave them empty and raise up the poor.

    Anyway, I am so grateful to Our Lady that she takes all of us who at one point thought we were too good for her.

  • Are you also chastising Pope John Paul for “making up” the mysteries?

  • david

    Good for you Michael. Now make more babies, it only gets better!

  • Note the “pope” aspect to JPII…also the sainthood part. I trust his holiness and his authority?

    Random Capuchin with “subversive” mysteries? No.

    But then again, I’m ignorant enough to think Martin Luther King, Jr. shouldn’t be in the litany of the saints in the liturgy for Catholic baptisms, so perhaps I should just stay out of this.

  • …so perhaps I should just stay out of this

    You’re free to have your opinion, you are free not to pray the subversive mysteries, you are free to emphasize again and again who you will and will not consider saintly material, you are free to be a papocentrist. Just don’t hold us to your opinions.

  • David Raber

    Vox populi vox dei, as they say. Truer words were never spoken.

    To those who love to say that “the Church is not a democracy,” I say look at this practice of the rosary, which has achieved its prominent place in Catholicism by the votes of millions of common and uncommon Catholics over centuries, not by any decree of the Church’s rulers.

    Thank God for the rosary, which is a great help to individual Christians, and a great force building up the Church and advancing the cause of Christ in the world!

    Thanks for an enlightening post.

  • To those who love to say that “the Church is not a democracy,” I say look at this practice of the rosary, which has achieved its prominent place in Catholicism by the votes of millions of common and uncommon Catholics over centuries, not by any decree of the Church’s rulers.

    You’re right. The people made up the practice. Not like mary gave it to St. Dominic. for the world or prayed for its success. Nope; came from the democratic Church.

    Hubris is amusing.

    I do like being called “papocentrist.”

  • Michael D. – It’s a beautiful story, isn’t it?

  • Magdalena

    #5 “empowerment” is the one that bothers me. And actually that’s what bothers me about liberation theology in general. It just seems to have an obsession with issues of power and control and makes the Gospel a story about power, who has it and who doesn’t, and how that is going to be reversed. From my point of view the Gospel is all about DIS-empowerment, loss of control, etc. That is an oversimplification of course and there are probably strands in LT that avoid the “empowerment” pitfalls, but I am not an expert so I don’t know.

    #2: I’m not sure I would categorize the “gathering of the disciples” as a grassroots organization in the sense that we know it today… or maybe I would. The use of that terminology is a touch jarring.

    With regard to #1, When I first began practicing my faith, the Magnificat made me very depressed and miserable in much the same way that the young man who asked Jesus what he could do besides following the commandments “went away sad.” This was all because of the line “the rich He has sent away empty-handed.” I, like probably most everyone reading this blog, qualify as rich when taking into account the whole mass of humanity so I identified myself with that role in Mary’s canticle. I hated the idea of being “sent away” by God, and being sent away “empty-handed” had Eucharistic implications to me, especially when compared to the hungry who would be “filled with good things.”

    As I matured in my faith I came to understand just how poor and hungry I was and that it was a mistake to equate material wealth with actual wealth. In many respects I am far poorer than Our Lady was when she sang the Magnificat. This realization was both humbling and liberating, to find myself also among the ranks of the poor, with a poverty that was different from many but just as real, and a real famine that God wanted to end in me. So THAT mystery I can really relate to and would enjoy praying…

  • It’s a beautiful story, isn’t it?

    I hope that’s not a indication that you believe the story of Mary’s appearance to St. Dominic to be fictitious.

  • JohnH

    I hope that’s not a indication that you believe the story of Mary’s appearance to St. Dominic to be fictitious.

    I think the story of Mary and St. Dominic would fall under pious legend. The rosary as a method of prayer predates St. Dominic, and the form we have now is a form that arose after his death. That doesn’t diminish its importance, but history is history.

  • Michael Denton – JohnH expressed my own thinking on the issue perfectly.

  • There is a difference between fiction or myth. Whether or not it happened as the legends go is irrelevant; it is a myth which demonstrates how Mary intended this prayer to be said in order to help the people. Whom she inspired is irrelevant.

    Furthermore, the rosary developed over time. Some guy sitting down whining that he didn’t like the rosary b/c it didn’t emphasize his social justice initiatives doesn’t quite compare to the formation of the rosary.

  • Michael Denton,

    I think Pope John Paul II made it clear that the interest was to help increase devotion and understanding of the rosary by adding new mysteries so not to get caught up in thinking it is only the form we have/are used to is the way to engage it, as if it is a magic ritual which can be used only one way.

    “In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation. As a method, it serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself. All the same, as the fruit of centuries of experience, this method should not be undervalued. In its favour one could cite the experience of countless Saints. This is not to say, however, that the method cannot be improved. Such is the intent of the addition of the new series of mysteria lucis to the overall cycle of mysteries and of the few suggestions which I am proposing in this Letter regarding its manner of recitation. These suggestions, while respecting the well-established structure of this prayer, are intended to help the faithful to understand it in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life. Otherwise there is a risk that the Rosary would not only fail to produce the intended spiritual effects, but even that the beads, with which it is usually said, could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function.” ROSARIUM VIRGINIS MARIAE, 28.

  • There is a difference between fiction or myth.

    I never used the word fiction, though, did I?

    Whether or not it happened as the legends go is irrelevant

    It sure wasn’t “irrelevant” earlier when you cited the story as evidence against the claim being made here that the rosary developed over time from among the people.

    Furthermore, the rosary developed over time. Some guy sitting down whining that he didn’t like the rosary b/c it didn’t emphasize his social justice initiatives doesn’t quite compare to the formation of the rosary.

    You’re feeling quite condescending today, aren’t you? I would certainly take the spiritual advice of a Capuchin over you any day.

  • Iafrate:

    No, I used the word “fiction” and I did so intentionally.

    The myth still maintains a point: the source is from God, not people (the rosary came not even from Dominic but from God through Mary in the story) the way you’re using the term.

    Furthermore, the rosary is not beautiful b/c people liked it or “voted” on it (as the commenter who I was responded to seemed to argue, but b/c it is beautiful. And it is beautiful because it ultimately comes from God. It became a part of Catholic life through the people and not decree, but that was as a response to the beauty of an awesome practice and not some decision of the people (other than the decision to respond to the grace being offered).

    I’m thinking St. Louis De Montefort claimed that the rosary was more than a mere devotion, but I haven’t read him to be able to explain why.

    Anyway, in thinking about this I have some real problems with this monk’s work: namely it’s not subversive at all. http://forthegreaterglory.blogspot.com/2009/09/tameness-of-subversive-mysteries-dont.html. Perhaps that will make more sense.


    I don’t disagree. Traditions can be changed, but they ought to be changed as a result of careful consideration and prayer which in the “subversive” mysteries was not done, or at least does not seem to have been done.

    That doesn’t change my point of the dangers of the ultra-democratic approach some seem to be taking towards tradition and the church.

  • I wondered how long it would take you to blog about this. You did not disappoint.

  • Mr. Denton, I’ve asked you before to call me by my first name.

    You seem to think that there is a conflict between someone being “from God” and something being “from the people.” Sometimes things from the people are not from God. But nothing that is from God comes directly from God. It is always mediated.

    No one has suggested that the rosary is valuable because people “voted” on it. But that is a typical american response to any discussion of democracy. Only in america is democracy synonymous with voting.

    You seem to have an uncharitable reaction to the Capuchin I cited, assuming that what he is suggesting is somehow flippant or unprayerful. You have no evidence for this, and you obviously have not read either of the essays by him that I linked to.

    I’ll check out your blog post at some point.

  • I’ve emailed you in response to your heresy hunting crusade, Mr. Denton.

  • Michael, I really enjoyed reading this. But I just wanted to point out that when Christ called the disciples they had no clue what they were really doing, what the mission was about. Only Jesus knew at that point. So it would seem to me a little more hierarchical, a little more like “astroturf” rather than grass.

  • grega

    Thanks David Raber for your enlightening comment.
    I just returned from visiting my parents in Germany. There the priest shortage and a lack of charismatic dynamic Priests really negatively affected official church. However a powerful core group of lay Catholics seem to step into the void and keeps the flame alive not in small part through regular self organized practice of the rosary. This literally keeps the churches alive and open and empowers the catholic lay community.