In the final minutes before the Titanic sank beneath the icy North Atlantic in 1912, survivors in the lifeboats heard a heart-rending sound: the raised voices of hundreds of trapped third class passengers praying the Rosary. Kneeling round a young English priest, Father Thomas Byles, Catholics were joined by those of other faiths and no faith in the beautiful supplication: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death!"
Fr Byles was one of three Catholic priests on board the doomed liner. He was journeying to New York to officiate at the marriage of his brother. When the huge ship struck the iceberg, he was walking on deck in the dark, reciting his Breviary. He immediately went down to help passengers and, as it became clear that the liner was sinking, he started to pray with the Catholics who had attended Mass with him earlier, and to hear confessions.
At one stage, he helped women and children into the few available lifeboats, and refused invitations to join them. He went back to third class and, after giving a general absolution, began to lead passengers in the beautiful Rosary prayer: "Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!"
As the last remaining lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship, their occupants could hear the responses sounding across the water. "The sound became fainter as we drew away from the ship," a woman survivor said later. In the final seconds before the liner took 1,500 people to their death, the night rang with the poignant hymn 'Nearer my God to thee', mingled with the screams of the trapped passengers.
The Holy Rosary – the people's prayer, a powerful prayer, a rich prayer – has been a cornerstone of the Catholic Faith for the better part of a millennium, and has even played an important part in history. It began as a simple repetition of Gabriel's Angelic Greeting: "Hail Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!" and was known at that time as Mary's Psalter.
There is a beautiful legend which originated in Germany nearly a thousand years ago: a young monk was praying Mary's Psalter, when Mary herself appeared and took rosebuds from his mouth as he prayed. She wove them into a garland, which she placed on her own head. This could well have been the origin of the name 'Rosenkranz' (Wreath of Roses) which became 'Rosarius' (Garland of Roses) in Latin, and 'Rosary' in English.
The prayer was refined through the ages, notably by St Benedict and his disciple, Blessed Alain de la Roche, who can probably claim to have introduced it as a mainstream devotion.
In the year 1214, Mary promised St Dominic: "All who recite the Rosary are my sons, and brothers of my only Son, Jesus Christ!"
The custom of meditating on major events in the Gospels (the Mysteries) developed from this time onwards. The Dominican Order of priests, sisters and brothers must take much of the credit for spreading it throughout the world, and a Dominican Pope, St Pius V, introduced the petitionary prayer ("Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death!") in 1568, to standardise the Rosary essentially as we know it today.
In 1883, Pope Leo XIII ordered that October should be the Month of the Holy Rosary and in 2002, Blessed Pope John Paul II added the Mysteries of Light (featuring significant events in Christ's public life) to the original three Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious). In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI was able to say, joyfully: "The Holy Rosary is enjoying a new springtime ...With Mary, our hearts are oriented towards the mystery of Jesus."
It is worth recording that all the popes of modern times have shown great devotion to the Rosary. Pius XII died reciting the Rosary; John XXIII prayed the entire 15 decades each day; Paul VI prayed the Rosary each evening with his personal secretary; for John Paul II, it was his favourite prayer and Benedict XVI was never without his Rosary beads, and made pilgrimages to the three major Marian Shrines (Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima) during his papacy.
The Rosary has also affected the course of history.
In the Middle Ages, the powerful Ottoman Empire made repeated attempts to conquer Europe for Islam. In 1571, a huge Turkish fleet of 286 galleys had assembled off the coast of Greece at Lepanto, preparing to invade Italy and sack Rome. A much smaller Christian fleet of 208 galleys under Don Juan of Austria went to meet this threat. Before the battle, Don Juan and the commanders of the Christian galleys led their men in praying the Rosary, while the Pope called on all Christians to pray the Rosary. With an icon of Mary at the masthead of their flagship, the Christians won a great victory, scattering and destroying the Turkish ships.
About 150 years later, the Turks mounted another invasion of Europe in 1716, with an army of more than 120,000 marching through Hungary towards Vienna. Again, the Christian forces were heavily outnumbered – an army of about 50,000 European troops under Prince Eugene of Savoy went to meet the Turkish horde. Before the battle, the prince led his troops in praying the Rosary. In a series of battles, the Christian army scored another great victory, routing the Turks at Peterwardein ( Petrovaradin) in Hungary and driving them out of Europe for the last time.
Closer to modern times, many Catholic missionaries, returning to countries where the Faith had been suppressed for decades, were astonished to find the Faith maintained, and even flourishing, without the Sacraments. Almost invariably, this was because of continued devotion to the Rosary.
As a young man, newly received into the Catholic Church after World War II, one of my greatest pleasures was taking part in the weekly Saturday morning Rosary, conducted by the Dominican Sisters at a chapel in Cape Town, South Africa, with a full chapel. A decade later, following the Second Vatican Council, the Saturday Rosary seemed to fade into oblivion.
It was not until the turn of the century, when my wife and I started a new life in Australia, that the Rosary came back into my life, as a small group of people introduced the 9am Saturday Rosary at the newly-built Catholic Church on Macleay Island in Moreton Bay, Queensland. We were only five or six people, but we knelt before the altar and the beautiful statue of Mary and recited the Rosary prayers with joy, singing a Marian hymn after each decade, accompanied by the organ.
When we moved to the mainland six years ago, I was saddened to find that there was no Saturday morning Rosary in our parish church, though a group of ladies prayed the Rosary on Tuesdays. But Saturday is Mary's day so, with the permission of the parish priest, I started a Saturday morning Rosary. After a small start, by the grace of God, it has now grown into a Holy Hour with Mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Benediction, a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and lastly, the Rosary itself. Most importantly, the attendance is heart-warming.
Power of Rosary
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of examples of the power of the Rosary. St Dominic overcame some dangerous heresies after Our Lady appeared to him, accompanied by three angels, and told him to "preach the Rosary, which is the foundation stone of the New Testament, and the weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world."
For no real reason, the Holy Rosary is shunned and criticised by non-Catholics, and even by some Catholics. It is a beautiful prayer, dedicated at start and finish to the Holy Trinity, incorporating the Apostles' Creed, the Our Father and the Glory be, and introducing the special prayer which Mary taught to the three children at Fatima in 1917: "Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy!"
Some accuse us of worshipping Mary, or claim that she cannot be the Mother of God, or that it is too repetitive, or a childish prayer. In truth, it is a prayer to the Holy Trinity through Mary, who historically is the Mother of Jesus, or Christ, or God. As recorded in John's Gospel, Our Lord told his disciples: "The Father and I are One." The Hail Mary prayers certainly are repetitive, as we meditate on the Mysteries of the New Testament and pour out our love for Our Lord and his Mother. And childish? Of course! Did Jesus not say: "Unless you become again as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
He also told Venerable Maria of Jesus of Agreda nearly 400 years ago: "Who honours my Mother, honours Me." Would anyone dare to challenge that? There is a bond of love between Our Lord and his Mother which was blessed for all eternity by God the Father, when Mary presented her infant Son in the Temple in Jerusalem, and which is far beyond our human capacity to love.
For devotees of Mary, a most important event in the last century was the appearance of Our Lady at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. At Fatima, the Blessed Virgin – before a crowd of 70,000 people in the last of her six visits – told the three children that we must pray the Rosary daily, and added the Fatima Prayer mentioned earlier. She even intimated that the Rosary can be a pathway to Heaven, when the children asked whether they would be going to Heaven when they died.
Mary promised that the two girls, Lucia and Jacinta, would be with her in Heaven. When the nine-year-old Francisco asked whether he too would get to Heaven, Mary answered: "Yes, but first you must pray many Rosaries." His family reported after his death in the disastrous 1919 Spanish flu epidemic that he prayed as many as eight or nine Rosaries each day.
Perhaps the most beautiful tribute to this wonderful prayer comes from Fr Martin M. Barta of Aid to the Church in Need. Writing in that organisation's journal, marking the start of the Year of Faith, he states simply: "The Rosary is the key that unlocks the door of faith."