Beads of Power

Book cover
The Mystery of the Rosaryby By Nathan D. MitchellNew York Univ. Press. 336p $37

It is said that on one occasion a reporter from a national newsmagazine went to a Jesuit residence to interview John Courtney Murray, S.J. The reporter arrived unexpectedly early and found him walking in the garden saying the rosary. An embarrassed Father Murray hastily shoved the rosary into his pocket because he did not want to make a display of his piety. Whether the story is true or ben trovato, it illustrates nicely one of the themes of this book, the perennial appeal of the rosary to high and low alike, both to distinguished theologians like Murray and to countless other Christians who never cracked a book because they were illiterate. The author notes without comment the popularity of the rosary today with people as diverse as Garry Wills and Mother Angelica.

The use of beads to facilitate prayer is older than Christianity itself and is not confined to Christians today. Over a century ago Catholic scholars (fortunately, one of them a German Dominican) demolished the venerable legend that Mary personally gave the rosary to St. Dominic. Nathan D. Mitchell, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, offers only a cursory survey of the shadowy late medieval origins of the rosary in order to concentrate on the vital role that the rosary played in the renewal of Catholicism in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.


Mitchell draws upon contemporary historical scholarship, as well as the pioneering work of an older generation of historians like H. Outram-Evennett and John Bossy, to demonstrate the positive and innovative side of the Counter-Reformation, an aspect that he says came to the surface especially in the quarter century between 1585 and 1610. Although he never uses the word, he emphasizes the populist side of the Counter-Reformation that found expression in the preaching of St. Philip Neri and the madonnas of Caravaggio, “where saints, nobles, working mothers and toddlers, lazzaroni with dirty feet and grasping hands, all are drawn into the orbit of Mary and the Christ child.”

The author places the revalorization of the rosary in this context, since it was in Counter-Reformation Rome, if not earlier, that the telling of the beads was associated with meditation on the great events in salvation history. Moreover, by linking the mysteries of the rosary with the Ignatian meditative practice of considering oneself a participant in the biblical events, the rosary became an interactive form of prayer. In Mitchell’s words, the rosary “was no longer an exercise in ‘thinking about’ divine mysteries but of participating directly in them.”

Mitchell is too honest a scholar to ignore a darker side of the development of Marian piety associated with the rosary. At the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571, the largest naval battle in history to that date, the Spanish and Venetian fleets won a decisive victory over the Turks. The Christian triumph was widely attributed by Catholics to the intercession of Mary, who had responded to the prayers of the faithful (and of a Dominican pope, Pius V), who were praying the rosary during the battle. The unfortunate result was the intensification of a cult of Mary not only as gentle mother, but also as “warrior queen.” The feast of the Holy Rosary, still celebrated on Oct. 7, which did so much to promote the use of the rosary, was originally called the feast of Our Lady of Victory.

The author rejects the notion that the popularity of the rosary in early modern Europe was confined largely to the rural poor and disdained by the urban elites. On the contrary, he notes the proliferation of parish-based rosary confraternities in Rome and other cities. They were characterized by their inclusivity, the equal participation of men and women and a devotional life that overflowed into a concern for the poor. Nor was the rosary regarded as a strictly private or personal prayer. Thanks in part to the rosary confraternities, it was often linked to the public prayer of the church, and in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome it was recited in choir like one of the liturgical hours. Mitchell also speculates that the popularity of the rosary was due in part to the fact that it gave devout Catholics an opportunity to “customize” their prayers in a way that was increasingly difficult to do in the Tridentine liturgy.

During the centuries of the penal era in England, Ireland and Scotland, when Catholics were deprived of churches and their priests risked their lives to celebrate the Eucharist for them, the rosary acquired special significance both as a means of sanctification and as a badge of Catholic identity. Scottish Catholics cherished the memory of the martyr St. John Ogilvie, who tossed his rosary from the scaffold to a group of Catholics just before his execution in Edinburgh in 1615. Later in the century the Church of Scotland began an intensive search for “Papist beids.”

There are fashions in devotion just as in many aspects of secular life. Today where, besides Africa, would one find a novena to St. Rita, whose cult was so popular a century ago? But Mary is different, and because of Mary the rosary is different. While there is no evidence that the origins of the rosary can be traced to direct divine intervention or even ecclesiastical decrees, Mitchell demonstrates that it can be traced to “popular, vernacular devotion from the ground up,” and that, at least from the 15th century, when it was combined with private meditation, it “gave scope to the human imagination in ways that the church’s more closely regulated rituals did not.” He has effectively drawn from a wide range of historical, literary, artistic and liturgical sources to trace the evolution of the rosary over the past 500 years and explain its enduring popularity.

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Robert O'Connell
9 years ago
Msgr. Shelley's review gave rise to me ordering two copies (one for a priest recovering from surgery and one for myself).

I just want to say "thank you" and add one anecdote. On December 17, 1971, my oldest brother suffered a horrible automobile accident in Houston. After several late calls to my home in Illinois, one block away from our Mother's, describing a hopeless and deteriorating situationI was told to wake our Mother and let her know Jack, my brother was dying.

Another brother and I went to Mother's, woke her and told her Jack had been in a bad accident. She responded, "Get my rosary." She would neither listen nor talk until she said five decades. Then she asked to get my brother's wife on the phone. My brother Jack is still alive, still working at age 79, and, like me, attributes his survival to that rosary.
9 years ago
Regarding "The Mystery Of The Rosary" by Nathan D. Mitchell and reviewed by the respected Fordham University Professor of Church History, Rev. Thomas J. Shelley, please allow the following.

It's hard for me to believe that the great Jesuit priest, John Courtney Murray, was embarrassed to be seen praying the rosary, when a reporter from a national news magazine who had arrived early for the interview, saw him so doing. And because Fr. Murray didn't want to display his piety, he quickly hid the rosary. Piety is, after all, one of the Twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit and for sure, Fr. Murray would never relegate the Holy Spirit to obscurity in any of the Spirit's public manifestations, through what is known as "human respect." I think instead, Fr. Murray was simply being accomodating to the early arrival reporter and placed the rosary in his pocket so as to greet the reporter appropriately.

For centuries and for millions of people, the rosary has been both an affective and effective way to pray and has successfully led countless souls to Christ through Mary. The Servant of God, Holy Cross Father Patrick Peyton comes to mind, with his International Rosary Crusades of the 1950s. I had the privilege to launder some of his clothing on a NYC stop enroute to one of his Rosary Crusades and I still remember his big hand shaking my smaller one vigorously, saying with his Irish brogue, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! God bless you!"

For me, however, in all candor, praying the rosary is difficult, especially alone, but less so in a group. I find the repetition of fifty Hail Marys distracting and experience a better meditative process if I concentrate on a single Hail Mary, allowing myself to be amazed at what I'm saying, rather than interrupting my thoughts fifty times. I also get restless if I try to concentrate on Five Mysteries within a few minutes and find it much more productive to allow myself the freedom to indulge in the environmental smells of any given Mystery, one at a time for as long as I wish the potential of which can be heart-throbbing!

Frankly I don't know why I find praying the rosary so hard. Maybe my spirituality is just too shallow! But I do love Blessed Mother deeply - what an amazing person she is! And I also appreciate the spiritual stamina of the millions who for centuries have successfully prayed the rosary! God bless them all!
Evelyn Baldwin
9 years ago

The rosary appears to be another example where belief matters more than history. Personally, I am thrilled with Marian devotions because they do tend to be 'bottom up' instead of 'top down.' And just when scholars and wise clergy think these irrational devotions are under contrel - Dang! doesn't Mary end up appearing to some peasant somewhere! The message seems to always include, "Pray the rosary."

Popular devotions are popular because they touch souls. Souls that long for the divine feminine. No matter how loved and adored our fathers - in deepest need, we all cry out for our mothers.

Charles Lewis
8 years 8 months ago

I'm late reading this review but ordered a copy of the book once I read it. I like the idea of the rosary as form of lectio divina, but trying to live each of the mysteries. The wonderful thing about the rosary is that can be a real companion. Often times when I'm too tired to pray, or just too lazy, I'll grab the rosary and I almost begin automatically. I find it interesting too how many former Catholics drifted to Eastern religions because of the meditative aspects and yet the rosary is one of the great forms of meditation.

It's also great for insomnia. There's nothing quite as wonderful as praying the rosary and then drifting off to sleep. It's as if the last thought of the day was about Mary and her Son. There are no better last thoughts.


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