Catholic Rosaries


Since the Middle Ages, rosaries have represented an integral component of the act of praying within the Roman Catholic Church, after becoming a widely accepted and useful means of counting and remembering complex cycles of devotional prayers written in liturgical languages. In the 12th century, Christianity became the last major religion to adopt the use of prayer beads, a decision possibly influenced by frequent contact with the Arabs during the Holy Crusades or in Moorish Spain. It is also arguable that the use of such prayer-counters developed independently in the West, perhaps in Ireland, in response to the growing desire of congregations to keep track of an ever-expanding repertoire of prayers.

Roman Catholic Prayer Tradition

The term "rosary" refers to the repetition of prayers as well as the string of beads on which prayers are actually recited. One of the many meanings of the word "rosary" is "wreath of roses," symbolizing the string of prayers. The word derives from the Latin rosarium, or "rose garden," a contemplative place for meditation associated with the garden of Eden and Paradise.

The Roman Catholic rosary is recited for the greater glory of God, to honor the Blessed Virgin and for the good of all souls, including one's own.

The devotee recites the Lord's Prayer, or Our Father, followed by 10 Hail Marys upon the prayer beads, which number 150, as do the Psalms. In doing so, the believer participates in the Angelic Salutation spoken by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. The Apostle's Creed and the Doxology, or Glory Be, can also be stated with other beads and medals.

On specific days of the week and during certain liturgical seasons, the worshipper can choose to selectively meditate on the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, crucial events in the life of Christ and the Virgin, while reciting the rosary.

Opportunities for Prayer

Rosaries offer a portable access to prayer, a means of praising God wherever you happen to find yourself without necessarily having to attend Mass service. The believer can thus take time from the hectic pace of modern life to actively meditate on the example of the lives of Jesus and the Virgin and achieve a holier inner state through the solitude found in prayer.

Different Types of Catholic Rosaries

The full Roman Catholic rosary took its current form during the 16th century, when it was commonly known as a paternoster. Other Latin terms for prayer beads, such as numeralia, computum and calculi, bear witness to the intricacies of the act of counting. Numbering 150, the standard Catholic rosary features beads organized into 15 decades, or rows of 10 beads, which help the user to mark divisions between different prayers. A five-decade rosary (50 beads) is commonly used in these practices. A chaplet refers to any other number of beads on a string and some prayer ropes may even have as few as 10 beads but, by passing the cord around each finger, devotees can easily count up to 50.

Types of Beads

As the essence and spiritual efficacy of rosary devotion within the Roman Catholic religion lies in the holy names that the prayers variously honor, it is apt that the most numerous beads on the rosary are Ave, or Hail Mary beads, in honor of the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God. These standard beads are interrupted by accent beads, which indicate where other prayers begin—the Our Father prayer, for instance—as well as by medals and crucifixes. The bead that lies at the base of the string is known as the holy Introit bead and forms the entrance into the circle of prayer.

Over the centuries, different types of rosaries and chaplets have emerged from various orders within the Church to facilitate the act of praying different combinations of prayers. The Brigittine rosary, for example, features seven Our Father beads plus 63 Hail Mary beads to mark the Virgin's age. Compare this with the Franciscan Crown of Our Lady rosary, whose 72 Hail Mary beads are also said to signify the years of her life. The Crown of Our Lord rosary is made up of 33 Our Father beads to celebrate Christ's years on earth, plus five Hail Mary beads to represent His wounds. Some families still keep a tradition of long, oversized rosaries which allow each family member to join in the rosary prayers simultaneously. Praying together as a family is a practice that the Catholic Church is increasingly keen to promote and encourage in the 21st century as a means of strengthening the identity of the Roman Catholic family nucleus.

Holy Materials

Through the course of history, regional folklore and local beliefs have combined to attach particular mystical meanings and protective connotations to the color, appearance and substance of various gemstones and other materials used to make rosary beads. To boost the sacred essence of rosaries even further, Catholics often ask for them to be blessed by prayer or with holy water by priests.

  • Olive pits, or olive-wood beads, have a long-standing historical significance for Christians, recalling the reconciliation of God with Man after the Biblical flood. In Greek, the same root gives the words "olive" and "mercy." Olive rosaries acquired in Jerusalem, for example, refer back to the event of Christ's withdrawal into the olive grove of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives on the eve of his Crucifixion.

  • Roses, among all types of flowers, are considered to be the only blooms to successfully yield rosary beads from their petals due to a high oil content. Worthy of note, from the 15th century onwards, is the rose's rich symbolic associations with the Virgin Mary.

  • Coral beads have been highly valued for the protective powers since the Middle Ages. Rosary beads made from coral are also thought to encourage wisdom.

  • Pearls are considered to be natural symbols of perfection and purity, developing as they do from the imperfection of a grain of sand. Pearls signal wisdom, understood not as intelligence, but as Hagia Sophia—a sacred knowing.

  • Amethyst is regarded as the stone of piety and mental balance. Its distinctive color is associated with a high state of spirituality.

  • Topaz, according to St. Hildegard (19087-1179 CE), was a cure for eyesight problems, which could also be interpreted as a metaphor for achieving religious insight.

  • Sapphire, perhaps because its color recalls the celestial realm most, made early Christian theologians believe that holding their gaze on this gemstone could elevate their thoughts from the earthly realm into a more heavenly dimension.

  • Bloodstone, with its red speckles, recalls the blood of Christ. Rosary beads made from this type of stone bring peace and understanding.

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.