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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIV, No. 3
Michaelmas 2009

Women for Faith & Family
Celebrating 25 years of service to the Church

The Rosary and why we need to pray it...

by Joanna Bogle

I had some time on my hands. I had things that worried me. I did what countless other people have done over the past hundred years. I took my rosary and went into Westminster Cathedral.

The word “rosary” has come to mean both the prayer that we say, and the string of beads that we hold as we say it. It also means a rose garden. Medieval paintings of Mary often depicted her in an enclosed rose garden, a symbol of her virginity and also a link with our salvation history, for it connected with the Garden of Eden, where man first fell from grace, the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ began His suffering, and the Garden of the Resurrection.

Westminster Cathedral is very much a “Rosary church” — of the large numbers that drop in and out daily, there will always be several to be found at any one time with a rosary in their hands, in the Lady Chapel or before the Blessed Sacrament.

Rosaries are sold in the gift shop, and in the Catholic bookshops near the cathedral. A rosary is practically the defining object of being a Catholic: if you want to show, in a film or TV play, that someone is a Catholic, you show them with a rosary.

England has a special connection to the Rosary. The rose is the symbol of our country. England was known from early Medieval days as “Our Lady’s Dowry”. The shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk was for hundreds of years one of the most-visited pilgrimage places in Europe — so many were the numbers thronging the lanes and roads toward it that the galaxy of stars that we call the “Milky Way” was known as the “Walsingham way” because the massive cluster of stars seemed like the great clusters of people making their way to the shrine.

Today, people still go to Walsingham, and the standard meeting-point for pilgrims from London and its suburbs is, of course, Westminster Cathedral, where coaches draw up on Ambrosden Avenue, alongside the piazza. This is also a meeting-point for many pilgrims to Lourdes, including the sick and disabled travelling in the famous Jumbulances. As pilgrims set off, the standard procedure along the way is to say the Rosary aloud together.

London was a center for making rosaries. Near St. Paul’s Cathedral is a road named Paternoster Row — rosary-makers had their workshops here, making their strings of Pater Noster and Ave Maria beads.

Why is October the month of the Rosary? In October 1571 a Christian fleet defeated a massed invasion fleet at the battle of Lepanto, freeing 15,000 Christian galley-slaves and securing the safety of Europe. Pope Pius V (who was later canonized) had called on all Christians to join in praying the Rosary as Don John of Austria led the ships of the Holy League into battle.

It is said that at the moment of victory, the pope, back in Rome, had a sudden vision of it, and was able to report it to the people with whom he was having a meeting in his small study. The official news only reached Rome — communications being slower in those days — two weeks later. There was much thanksgiving, and the feast of Our Lady of Victories on October 7 was inaugurated, which in turn gave rise to the tradition that the whole month of October was to be dedicated to the Rosary.

The Rosary as we know it today has developed over the centuries. Saint Anselm, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, put together a prayer he called “Our Lady’s Psalter”, which was based on the psalms, with 150 verses, divided into three sections, each beginning with an Ave Maria. When Eton College was founded, the school rule laid down that the boys were to say “the complete psalter of the Blessed Virgin consisting of a credo, fifteen Paters and one hundred and fifty Ave Marias”.

In our own era, Pope John Paul II, with his strong devotion to Mary, re-ignited an interest in the Rosary at a time when some were beginning to see it as old-fashioned and out-of-date. He added a whole new set of Mysteries — the Mysteries of Light — and the extraordinary events of his own life, especially his recovery from an assassination attempt made on May 13, the day of the Fatima apparitions, made people look afresh at the significance and power of the Rosary prayer. In Poland, when workers from the Gdansk shipyard held their meeting with Communist rulers in a chain of events that was eventually to lead to the collapse of Communism, their leader, Lech Walesa, held in one hand his small wooden rosary.

When Pope Benedict XVI was elected, he told the world that he was a simple “laborer in the vineyard of the Lord” and that he felt overwhelmed by the task ahead, but that “Mary is by our side”. Recently a video clip was made showing a typical day in the life of the pope. At midday he takes a walk through the Vatican gardens with companions — all of them saying the Rosary together. When TV cameras caught him on film during his summer break in the mountains, again he was walking along saying his rosary.

Perhaps we all like the Rosary because it is somehow a working prayer: you have something in your hands while you are saying it, there is a sense of something achieved, not unlike the satisfaction of working quietly in a garden.

The story told by the Rosary
Is the story of primitive beauty
True as the burden of folk-songs
It is a song piped on the hills
By a shepherd calling his sheep.
— Caryll Houselander

A note on WFF’s anniversary:

In the 1980s what had begun as some women raising useful questions about the differing roles of men and women, the true message of the Church on love, marriage, and so on, had become a hubbub of angry feminists, in which the voice of the Church was not only unsought but silenced.

It was with great joy and delight, therefore, that we in Britain heard that a group in America had gathered to establish Women for Faith & Family to give a voice to faithful Catholics. We loved the clear and forthright message, the staunch adherence to the authentic teachings of the Church, the support for marriage and the sanctity of human life, the goodwill and the good humor and the sense of prayer and devotion that permeated the movement. WFF in the USA helped to bring to birth our own organization — the Association of Catholic Women — here in Britain, which celebrates its 20th birthday this year!

It’s been immensely enjoyable working with the WFF team all these years. Things have “moved on” a bit since the 1980s, but the damage inflicted is all too visible; for example the image of a divided Church in which abortion as a legitimate “choice” has seeped into public consciousness. But thanks to WFF there has also been fresh, wholesome growth and hope for the future — youngsters taught, books written, the Gospel cherished by prayer and quiet useful action, truth defended.… As Catholics we work to uphold the truth in a confused world. Thank God for WFF!

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio. Another version of the Rosary essay appeared in Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral.

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