Theological Reflection: Parish Devotional Life

The rosary has held a very special place in my own devotional life since even before I was a Catholic. Early in the journey of my conversion, I heard a passionate Dominican sermon on the miracles of the rosary and enrolled in the Confraternity of the Rosary that very day, a year or more before I was received into the Church! In the years before entering seminary, I prayed the rosary fervently before and after daily Mass to obtain the grace of clarity in my vocational discernment. In fact, I attribute all the graces of my conversion and my vocation to Our Lady’s intercession. Although there was a time in college seminary that I was inconsistent in praying the rosary, I always returned to it in difficult moments, times of testing and turmoil. One day, when I saw a young man walking hand in hand with his girlfriend down the hill from Mount Angel Abbey and felt some pangs of loneliness and self-pity, I was deeply consoled by the thought that I was holding Mary’s hand as I walked praying her rosary. Another time, when my mom was suddenly hospitalized due to a serious illness and I was hundreds of miles away, feeling powerless and afraid, I felt capable of no other prayer than the continuous repetition of the rosary, which got me through long, dark hours until I heard the good news that she was okay.

I could go on and on with stories of the consolation and strength Our Lady’s rosary has been to me over the years. As I was reflecting on the parish devotional life here at St. Mary’s, however, I was struck by the many and varied ways in which the rosary has brought people together here and given the gifts of peace, hope and communion in such different circumstances. On several occasions, I have had the privilege of leading the rosary before a funeral. Sometimes the gathering of the family before the funeral is tearful, sometimes raucous and noisy, but in both cases I have noticed how this communal prayer, with its soothing repetition like the advancing tide, allows people to settle into a spirit of stillness and peace. It is a perfect preparation for the funeral liturgy. On another occasion, I helped lead the rosary at a pro-life rally, kicking off the Forty Days for Life campaign on the sidewalk outside our local Planned Parenthood clinic. Here again I was struck by the contrast: the rosary made of us an oasis of peace in a place of ugliness, violence, noise and fury. I led a rosary for discernment at the first meeting of our parish priestly discernment group, handing on the great gift I had received in my own early discernment. I have prayed the rosary every week at our parish holy hours, the decades alternating between English, Spanish, and Latin, and I imagine the delight it must bring Our Lady to receive our grateful praises and prayers in our different tongues, like a bouquet of different kinds of flowers bound together by our common love for her and her Son. I think, too, of the decades I prayed in a hospital room with a parishioner who wept, saying how long it had been since she had prayed with another person and what a comfort this familiar prayer was. I knew exactly what she meant. 

Why is the rosary so effective in such vastly different situations, for people of such different cultures, backgrounds and even spiritualities and temperaments, at bringing peace, stillness, comfort, clarity, and countless other spiritual gifts besides? The liturgical handbook of the Archdiocese remarks that “foremost among the Marian devotions is the rosary, which is a kind of compendium of the Gospel and, as such, it is a profoundly Christian devotion that helps the faithful to contemplate the mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ through the eyes of the Virgin Mary.”1 The key, I believe, is that this devotion leads naturally to contemplation. As Saint John Paul the Great eloquently writes, “with the Rosary, the Christian people [are] led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love … The Rosary belongs among the finest and most praiseworthy traditions of Christian contemplation.”2 To reach this end, it must of course be truly prayed and not merely recited, as Pope St. Paul VI instructs us:

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: ‘In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt 6:7). By its nature the recitation of the Rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life as seen through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.3

When the rosary is in fact prayed in this way, it leads to a deep interior stillness before the face of Christ and alongside Mary, His mother and ours. In fact, to quote Pope St. John Paul II one final time, “the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us (cf. Gal 4:19).”4 Like all authentically Christian contemplative prayer, then, the prayer of the rosary does not merely achieve a fleeting psychic state of tranquility; it accomplishes our ever deeper conformity to and union with Jesus Christ.

In spite of the long and profound personal history with the rosary I mentioned above, there was a time when I was first discovering the riches of contemplative prayer that I felt I had “outgrown” the rosary, in favor of purely mental prayer. I was annoyed at parishes where the rosary was prayed before or after Mass, since I preferred to spend that time in the prayer of quiet, preparing for Mass or making my thanksgiving. After more experience with both contemplative prayer and pastoral ministry, and studying at the feet of such great masters, I now see the rosary more clearly as a truly indispensable treasure of our Roman Catholic tradition given to us by the Mother of God herself for our sanctification. As a pastor, therefore, I want to promote the prayer of the rosary among parish groups, at Holy Hours, during the novenas for Marian feast days, on regular processions (I know of one pastor who holds monthly “rosary walks” around his parish boundaries) and on as many other occasions as possible. The Liturgical Handbook notes that “the Catholic faithful enjoy the right to pray the rosary on most occasions,”5 and as a shepherd I intend to zealously guard and promote that right.


Footnotes

  1. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 18.6.6.
  2. Pope St. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (16 October 2002), 1, 5.
  3. Pope St. Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (2 February 1974), 47.
  4. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 15.
  5. ALH, 14.8.6.

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