The word Rosary means crown of roses.
In pre-Christian times, pagans used to crown their statues with roses to symbolize the rendering of their hearts to the gods. With the coming of Christianity, the fusing of their love for false gods with their hatred for the early Christians led to the Roman persecutions.
During these persecutions, Christian virgins, dressed in their best and crowned with roses, went to their martyrdom in the sandy arena of the Coliseum. Their brethren in the Faith later collected these crowns of roses and prayed before them, saying one prayer per rose.
Among these prayers, that which held the foremost place in Christian hearts from the beginning was the one that flowed from the lips of our Divine Redeemer Himself: the Our Father.
The Hail Mary
Little by little, as though to complement this most perfect prayer, the Holy Spirit inspired the faithful to address the Mother of the Redeemer with the words spoken by the Angel and by Saint Elizabeth, giving rise to the recitation of the first part of the Hail Mary. The Church added the name of Mary to the beginning and that of Jesus to the end of this salutation.
At the Council of Ephesus, in 431, Holy Mother Church defined that the Blessed Virgin is truly the Mother of God and gave us the conclusion of the Hail Mary, "Holy Mary, Mother of God . . .," which officially became the second part of the Hail Mary in 1568.
In the monasteries of the Middle Ages, the monks who could not read replaced the recitation of the Psalms with the repetition of the Our Father. Since there are 150 Psalms in the Bible, they prayed a series of 150 Our Fathers, which they called the "Psalter of Christ." To count the Our Fathers, the monks used knotted ropes or collars of grains, which in France were called "paternotres."
In the eleventh century, some hermits and laymen began to recite "Our Lady's Psalter," that is, 150 salutations "Hail Mary... fruit of thy womb," instead of the 150 Our Fathers. They divided these salutations into three series of 50, which they termed "rosaries" or "crowns" because of the custom of crowning Our Lady's statues with flowers.
A Means to Reform the World
But it was only in 1214, according to a pious and admirable tradition, that the Most Holy Virgin herself consecrated this devotion by appearing to Saint Dominic of Guzman, founder of the Dominicans, and giving him the Rosary in its present form as a weapon to combat the Albigensian heresy that was devastating southern France.
Let the great apostle of Mary, Saint Louis De Montfort, tell us the circumstances in which that great event took place:
"Saint Dominic, seeing that the gravity of people's sins was hindering the conversion of the Albigensians, withdrew into forest near Toulouse where he prayed unceasingly for three days and three nights. During this time he did nothing but weep and do harsh penances in order to appease the anger of Almighty God. He used his discipline so much that his body was lacerated, and finally he fell into a coma.
At this point Our Lady appeared to him, accompanied by three angels, and she said:
Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world?
Oh, my Lady,' answered Saint Dominic, 'you know far better than I do because next to your Son Jesus Christ you have always been the chief instrument of our salvation.
Then Our Lady replied: I want you to know that, in this kind of warfare, the battering ram has always been the Angelic Psalter which is the foundation stone of the New Testament. Therefore if you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter.
So he arose, comforted, and burning with zeal for the conversion of the people in that district he made straight for the Cathedral. At once, unseen angels rang the bells to gather the people together and Saint Dominic began to preach.
At the very beginning of his sermon an appalling storm broke out, the earth shook, the sun was darkened, and there was so much thunder and lightning that all were very much afraid. Even greater was their fear when, looking at a picture of Our Lady exposed in a prominent place, they saw her raise her arms to heaven three times to call down God's vengeance upon them if they failed to be converted, to amend their lives, and seek the protection of the Holy Mother of God.
At last, at the prayer of Saint Dominic, the storm came to an end, and he went on preaching. So fervently and compellingly did he explain the importance and value of the Holy Rosary that almost all the people of Toulouse embraced it and renounced their false beliefs." (The Secret of the Rosary, Montfort Publications, Bay Shore, N.Y., 1954, pp. 18-19).
After this brilliant victory of the Faith, obtained by preaching the Rosary, Saint Dominic endeavored with renewed fervor to spread such a meritorious devotion. But after his death in 1221, as the memory of his preaching gradually faded in the minds of the Christians who had heard him, devotion to the Rosary declined.
One century later it was practically buried and forgotten.
Blessed Alan de la Roche
To reestablish this devotion in its pristine fervor, Our Lady chose Blessed Alan de la Roche, a Dominican from the monastery at Dinan, France. In 1464, after apparitions of Our Lord, Our Lady and Saint Dominic himself, Blessed Alan solemnly resolved to preach the Rosary incessantly, which he did until his death in 1475, around the time of the founding of the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary at the Dominican convent at Cologne. It was to him and Saint Dominic that Our Lady gave her promises to those who pray the Rosary.
The erection of confraternities in many other places led to the printing of numerous books on the Rosary. The devotion quickly spread throughout Europe. It is to the confraternities that the acceptance of the list of fifteen mysteries to be meditated on during the recitation of the Hail Marys is mainly due. Pope Saint Pius V, a Dominican himself, enunciated the list in his Consueverunt of 1569.
The Battle of Lepanto
By then, Europe was tragically menaced by the might of the Turkish empire. Saint Pius V convoked a crusade to save Christendom. However, many Christian peoples, either rendered lukewarm by the Renaissance or alienated from the bosom of the Church by Protestantism, turned a deaf ear to the Pope. But the Holy Father did not rest until he had organized a fleet of about 200 galleys from the Papal States, Malta, Spain, Naples and Sicily, and the states of Venice and Genoa.
This Christian fleet, placed under the Most Holy Virgin's protection by the Pope, sailed under the command of Don John of Austria, half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. The Moslem fleet was sighted about 50 miles west of the harbor of Lepanto, which is just inside the narrow entrance of the Gulf of Corinth.
Battle was joined on October 7, 1571. Upon its outcome depended the future of Christendom.
During four long hours, galleys crashed into each other, musket balls and arrows flew everywhere, men swarmed aboard the enemy ships wherever they could get a grip.
Although things had gone badly for the Christians at first, in the end they were victorious. Alt Pasha, the commander in chief of the Moslem fleet, was killed and his standard taken. The Moslems, losing courage, began to flee.
The combat became a slaughter of infidels. It is reckoned that 24,000 Moslems were killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. The Christians captured 177 ships and freed perhaps as many as 15,000 Christian rowers, slaves in the Turkish galleys.
On the day of the battle, Saint Pius V was working with the cardinals. Suddenly, interrupting his work and opening the window, he looked at the sky and cried out:
"A truce to business; our great task at present is to thank God for the victory He has just given the Christian army."
Two weeks and more later, a courier, delayed by storms at sea, arrived in Rome with the news of the naval victory of Lepanto. The Pope wept for joy: the power of Islam had been dealt a shattering blow from which it would never recover.
To thank the Most Holy Virgin for this triumph obtained while the members of all the confraternities of Rome were holding Rosary processions, Saint Pius V added to the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary the supplication "Help of Christians" and instituted for the first Sunday of October the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which was changed by Gregory XIII to the feast of the Most Holy Rosary.
After a new victory over the Turks gained by Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1716, at Peterwardein in Hungary, Pope Clement XI extended the celebration of the feast of the Rosary to the universal Church. In our century, the great Saint Pius X fixed the feast on October 7.
What Happened at Fatima, Portugal
In 1917, less than three years after the death of Saint Pius X, Our Lady appeared to three shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta (aged ten, nine and seven respectively), at Cova da Iria, Fatima, Portugal, in a series of six apparitions that began May 13 and ended October 13. The authenticity of these apparitions was confirmed by the miracle of the sun witnessed by about 70,000 spectators during the final apparition.
At Fatima, Our Lady gave the three children the mission of telling the world that she was profoundly displeased with the impiety and corruption of men. She warned that if mankind did not amend its ways a terrible chastisement would come, several nations would disappear, Russia would spread its errors throughout the world and the Holy Father would have much to suffer.
In her message, the Queen of Heaven and Earth along with pointing out the danger tells us how to avoid it. She maternally provides guidelines to avert this terrible chastisement: she asks for prayer and penance, and especially the recitation of the Holy Rosary.
It was after giving the warning of the chastisement and the ways to avoid it that Our Lady taught us the prayer to be recited at the end of each mystery of the Rosary. She told Lucia: "When you pray the Rosary, after each decade say, 'O my Jesus, forgive us, save us from the fire of hell; lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need.' "
At the tempestuous end of the twentieth century, amidst the most devastating crisis in history, a beacon of hope shines in the words spoken by Our Lady at Fatima, for she has assured us: "Finally, my Immaculate Heart will triumph!"