Praying the rosary is not as difficult as you think
Edward Sri is a Catholic theologian, speaker and author whose books include Men, Women and the Mystery of Love (Servant) and A Biblical Walk through the Mass (Ascension Press). He is professor of theology at the Augustine Institute, where he also hosts the film series Symbolon: The Catholic Faith Explained. A co-founder with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), he resides with his wife Elizabeth and their eight children in Littleton, Colo.
Professor Sri’s latest book, Praying the Rosary Like Never Before,was recently published by Servant Books in time for the Month of the Rosary (October) and 100th anniversary of Fatima. I recently interviewed him by email.
There are already shelves of Catholic books on the rosary. Why did you write this one and what makes it different?
I wanted to write something that addressed people’s real life experiences and challenges with the rosary. We often hear about the glories of the rosary—stories about how powerful it is: how it can change your life, save the family, bring world peace.
But that's not the average person's experience with this devotion. For many, the rosary is quite intimidating: “50 plus beads of prayers? Who has time for that?”
For many, the rosary is quite intimidating: “50 plus beads of prayers? Who has time for that?”
For others, it seems to be just rote prayer—an impersonal, dry, mechanical way of talking to God. Still others have the impression it's an outdated form for prayer—maybe something my grandmother did, but not something we need in the post-Vatican II church.
I wanted to write something that didn't just celebrate the glories of the rosary, but spoke to people’s real-life experiences with this prayer—their questions, their impressions, their struggles, their failures. The rosary is a simple prayer, a beautiful prayer and indeed a powerful prayer from our tradition. We need to show how it is meaningful and life-giving to a new generation, many of whom have never had a profound experience with the rosary.
Who is your audience and what do you hope they will take away from this book?
The rosary is like the ocean: there’s something in it for everyone. I had two audiences in mind. The avid devotee of the rosary who tries to pray it regularly but inevitably faces various challenges of distraction, drudgery and dryness. How can we help these people encounter Jesus more in this prayer?
I also had in mind the beginner who is unsure how to get started as well as the many people who know this is an important prayer in our tradition but are intimidated by it, can’t imagine taking time to pray it or don’t understand it.
As you note in this book, the rosary is perhaps the most distinctive Roman Catholic prayer form, but it’s also one that many Catholics do rarely and find hard to get into. What makes it hard for people to pray the rosary?
We don’t talk enough about people’s struggles with the rosary. Many good people get so easily distracted during the rosary. They’re praying the first joyful mystery and get three beads into it when they start thinking about what’s for dinner, a problem at work, something someone said to them earlier that day… “Oh, wait! I’m supposed to be thinking about the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary!”
We don’t talk enough about people’s struggles with the rosary.
Others treat the rosary like a spiritual chore. They know it’s supposed to be good for them—like flossing your teeth—but their heart isn’t in it. Others are too intimidated to get started. In many people’s eyes, the rosary is the marathon of all Catholic devotions. “It takes way too long,” they say. “I'm too busy for that.” Having spoken to thousands of people—laity, religious, priests, bishops—about the rosary, I think everyone faces these kinds of struggles. What can we do to help them?
What are some tips you offer in the book to help people pray the rosary regularly in a more meaningful way?
Let’s take that last point about being “too busy.” One thing I like to tell people is that you don't have to pray the rosary all at once. While it’s beautiful to pray a whole set of mysteries in one sitting, you also can break it up and pray parts at different times throughout the day and fit it into your ordinary routines. You can pray, for example, one decade in your car on the way to work. Another at lunch break. Another in between meetings. Another on the drive home and one before going to bed. That’s how many good people like Pope Benedict XVI prayed the rosary: doing just a couple decades at a time. In this way, all of us could work in a few decades amid the hectic schedule we keep.
Even if you are still unsure you could pray a whole set of mysteries with your busy life, here’s an easy way to start.
Even if you are still unsure you could pray a whole set of mysteries with your busy life, here’s an easy way to start. Do you have two and a half minutes each day that you can give to God? That’s all one decade takes. Just start by praying one decade a day. Our Lady will rejoice and our Lord will bless you abundantly for this small, beautiful gift.
Can you please describe your own experiences of praying the rosary and how they’ve evolved over time?
I experience the same struggles most people do in praying the rosary. I can easily get distracted. I sometimes feel I’m just going through the motions. The advice and tips I offer in the book are for my own soul too! But I found the daily commitment to pray the rosary to be a blessing. I think that’s important. Even if we don’t feel we’re getting much out of this prayer or we think we’re not praying it well, we must remember that the intention and commitment to pray is a small gift, a sacrifice of our time, effort and attention, a small act of love that is very pleasing to God.
When I am able to concentrate well, I find myself entering the biblical scenes of the mysteries. Other times I’m focused more on the words of Gabriel (“Hail Mary full of Grace the Lord is with Thee”) or words of Elizabeth (“Blessed art thou among women…”). I might think of their awe and wonder over the mystery of Christ. Most of the time all I can do is focus on the name of Jesus at the very center of every Hail Mary and try to speak his name with love. And that alone—like the traditional “Jesus Prayer”—can be a source of comfort, calm and strength.
How did your background as a theologian influence your approach to this topic?
In my youth and young adult years, the rosary was a part of my life, but through learning more about the biblical and theological foundations of the prayer, I came to a deeper appreciation for the rosary… and a greater desire to share it with others.
One particularly helpful moment in my growth in understanding the rosary came in 2002 with St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the rosary. His explanation of the Hail Mary completely transformed the way I thought about the rosary and how I prayed it. He discussed how the Hail Mary is a Christ-centered prayer leading us to a deeper encounter with Christ and how it echoes the praise of Gabriel and Elizabeth over the mystery of Christ. He also explained how the prayer draws us to speak the name of Jesus at the center of every Hail Mary with tender love.
Pope Francis has been a great promoter of the rosary, speaking about the great Marian theology that the simplest person praying it can develop. If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about the rosary, what would it be?
“Thank you for your humble, simple, beautiful witness to Marian devotion in your life.” I’ll always remember Pope Francis first appearing on the balcony at St. Peter’s and announcing to the world that the first trip that he would make as pope the next day would be to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The first place he wanted to visit was Mary’s principal church in Rome, and he wanted to put his pontificate under her intercession, care and protection. That was very moving, and inspires me to entrust ever more my life, my family and my work to Our Lady as he did that day.