THE ROSARY LETTER AND ITS CRITICS Fr Thomas Carleton Feast of the Holy Rosary, 2005
Like a delicate and beautiful garland weaved to Our Lady, Pope John Paul's Letter is urging, not only Catholics, but all Christians to take up the Rosary; for the Pope knows and trusts the hidden power of the Rosarian cord of secretly working in the hearts of Adam's race to "draw them" back *with the bonds of love* to the one Church of Christ.
"I shall draw them with the cords of Adam, with the bands of love" (Os. 11, 4)
On the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13th, 1981, in Saint Peter's square Rome, Pope John Paul II was shot. The Holy Father, though severely wounded, survived the assassination attempt. The following year on the anniversary, the Pope made a pilgrimage to Fatima to thank Our Lady for saving his life: "one had fired", the Pope explained, "and another hand guided the bullet".
The question that we should ask, is: "Did Our Lady of the Rosary, as the Blessed Mother called herself at Fatima, save the Roman Pontiff's life so that he could go on to "overthrow" the traditional Rosary? According to the normal manner in which such religious signs are interpreted, we would say that Our Lady had a special mission reserved for the Holy Father. In fact, twenty years later, the Pope issued the Apostolic Letter: ROSARIUM VIRGINIS MARIAE, regarding the Catholic world's most beloved devotion.
Unlike the "new Mass" which was intended as a substitute for the "old Mass", the Pope left completely intact the traditional form of the Holy Rosary, adding, however, for those who might wish to profit by them, another cycle of decades which he termed: "the Luminous Mysteries" or the "Mysteries of Light". These new Mysteries commemorate five additional events in the life of Our Blessed Lord. Many devoted to the practice of the Rosary and familiar with the series of mysteries had at times felt the desire to meditate as well on Mysteries in the public teaching life of Our Blessed Lord. In one sense, it was a very logical step that this Pope had the privileged destiny to take. These new Mysteries include a commemoration of four of the Church's Sacraments, whose Scriptural word, "Sacramentum", means, in fact, "mystery": Baptism, Holy Matrimony, the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Orders, not to pass over the Church's most precious treasure: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. By adding these mysteries, which, as the Holy Father delicately specified, were "left to the freedom of individuals and communities", the Pope no more changed the traditional Rosary than Pope Leo XIII changed the traditional Mass when he added the Saint Michael prayer to the end of the "Low Mass", a change, incidentally, which, being considered an obligatory addition, was not "left to the freedom" of anybody.
"In psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God" (Col. 3, 18).
The form of the Rosary, including an identifying of the Mysteries, has been shaped over the centuries in various ways by a number of Popes.
The Franciscans even have their own popular enumeration of the mysteries called "The Seven Joys", thus adding two more "Joyful Mysteries".
Yes, the Luminous Mysteries add 50 more voluntary "Hail Marys" to the traditional Rosary form, but then again there are beautiful hymns and spiritual canticles outside the Psaltery, including the Canticles of the Virgin Mary, Zachary, Simeon, Anna, Job, Tobias and many others: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you abundantly, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing in grace in your hearts to God" (Col. 3, 18). These new Mysteries of the Rosary in the "breviary of the faithful" might well be seen as representing those Biblical canticles not numbered in the 150 Psalms, but nevertheless forming a part of the Church's breviary.
Some critics of the Apostolic Letter have unfairly attacked it for what, in their opinion, it "does not say", attempting to compare it unfavorably with what Pope Leo XIII wrote in his first Rosarian encyclical, "Supremi Apostolatus Officio", and yet in the very introduction to "Rosarium Virginis Mariae", the Pope specifically appropriates for himself all that is taught in that encyclical:
"Numerous predecessors of mine attributed great importance to this prayer. Worthy of special note in this regard is Pope Leo XIII who on 1 September 1883 promulgated the Encyclical Supremi Apostolatus Officio, a document of great worth, the first of his many statements about this prayer, in which he proposed the Rosary as an effective spiritual weapon against the evils afflicting society."
This is a common approach in Papal documents. Pope Pius XII, for example, in his encyclical on Scripture studies does not repeat all the former teachings given by his predecessors, but merely recommends these encyclicals as required instructions.
The Pope's Rosary Letter is criticized for not mentioning Saint Pius V's sixteenth century Apostolic Letter which helped to fix the present form of the Rosary. The traditional form of the Rosary, however, had already undergone changes since Pope Pius V and even since Pope Leo XIII, including one requested by Our Lady of Fatima herself in the form of the "decade prayer", recited at the end of each decade:
"Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins,
Save us from the fires of hell,
and led all souls to heaven,
who have no one to pray for them".
Without questioning Pope Paul VI's disinclination to change the form of the Rosary, we do believe that the main force of "Marialis Cultus" was directed at the "dump the Rosary" crowd that was particularly vociferous at that time. The Letter expressed the desire that two Marian devotions in particular be fostered: the Angelus and the Rosary.
"Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, is like a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old" (Mt. 13, 52).
Pope Leo XIII, indeed, has left us an epochal patrimony on the Holy Rosary, one that for preaching the Rosary is truly "profitable to teach, reprove, correct, instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work" (2Tim. 3, 16-17), but that does not mean that each vicar of Christ does not have his own particular gift or contribution to make: "Every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven, is like a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old" (Mt. 13, 52).
The attempt, however, to set one Pope against another, one papal teaching against another, serves no purpose but to undermine the authority of all papal teaching, and no where does this self-destructive and ultimately imploding approach to Papal teaching do more damage than in the understanding of the Papal Magisterium held by devout Catholics. Each of the Popes, as equally in his turn, the vicar of Christ on earth and visible shepherd of the flock, has a valuable magisterium and guidance to offer.
"I shall draw them with the cords of Adam, with the bands of love" (Os. 11, 4).
The Pope's Letter has been attacked for "the mysterious suppression of the words 'Catholic' and 'Catholics'". Actually there is nothing "mysterious" here, there is no conspiracy. Yes, the Holy Father knows that the Church is "Catholic", but he also knows that it is "Apostolic" and that results in him often trying to reach the broadest audience possible. It means the daunting task of trying to preach to more than "just the choir". Saint Dominic went to preach the Rosary not to practicing Catholics but to people who drifted from the faith. When dealing with heresy, you can employ one of two approaches: either you can hammer people over the head denouncing their errors or you can just get them praying the Rosary. From the very beginning, as explicitly understood by Saint Dominic, the unusual force of the Rosary was its ability to bring about a return to true faith and good morals - the easy way! This is an essential point because it forms the heart of the Rosary story: Saint Dominic was not having success in his mission to those who had fallen away and asked Our Lady what he should do. Our Lady then revealed to him the power of the Rosary to win souls and by that means he succeeded in bring the fallen away back to the Faith. This power of the Rosary was also understood by Saint Charles Borromeo in dealing with lapse convents and monasteries; it was understood as well, in his preaching and writing, by Saint Louis de Montfort.
It is in other words a misunderstanding of the power and purpose of the Rosary to say that the Pope "tampers with the Rosary while doing nothing to root out the pandemic corruption and heresy afflicting the Church today", when in fact the surest way to prevent heresy and corruption is precisely to return to a faithful devotion of Our Lady's Rosary.
The third promise of Our Lady to "Christians" who recite the Rosary states:
"The Rosary shall be a powerful armour against hell, it will destroy vice,
decrease sin, and defeat heresies".
From the promises of Our Lady and the long experience of the Church we have ever reason to believe that this return to good morals and true faith by means of the Marian Rosary is the plan of God: "I shall draw them with the cords of Adam, with the bands of love: and I shall be to them as one that taketh off the yoke on their jaws" (Os. 11, 4). The Holy Father has understood the plan and his Letter on the Rosary clearly reflects that plan.
Not all the critics of the Letter have understood the Plan:
"The 'ecumenical' avoidance of that which is too explicitly Catholic is
the very reason RVM does not even suggest that the Rosary ought to
be prayed for the deliverance of the Catholic Church from her enemies
and the conversion of non-Catholics to the one true religion. But those
intentions are the very reason the Mother of God bequeathed the
Rosary to Her Church as 'a powerful warlike weapon' and 'the means
of putting the enemy to flight, and of confounding their audacity and
mad impiety' (Leo XIII)."
Like a delicate and beautiful garland weaved to Our Lady, Pope John Paul's Letter is urging, not only Catholics, but all Christians to take up the Rosary; for the Pope knows and trusts the hidden power of the Rosarian cord of secretly working in the hearts of Adam's race to "draw them" back "with the bonds of love" to the one Church of Christ.
Yes, the Church has enemies, but this specific Letter was not meant to be "a declaration of war", it was meant, if anything, to be a declaration of love: a call to the filial love that we all must have toward our heavenly Mother. What is wrong with that? If, as the beloved Disciple assures us, that "God is Love" (1Jn. 4, 8), why cannot the Pope write a letter of love, especially when that letter concerns Our Blessed Mother?
"The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom" (Ps. 36.30)
Perhaps the Marian Psaltery of the Rosary is alluded to way back in the Shepherd David's Psalm where we read: "The mouth of the just shall meditate wisdom" (Ps. 36. 30). Notice that it does not say "the mind of the just", but rather the "mouth of the just". The Rosary is a unique uniting of vocal and mental prayer. No papal document on the Rosary develops the meditative aspect of this prayer as much as John Paul's Rosary Letter, and yet even this has come under criticism: "RVM states that: 'In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation.'" In this attention to meditation the Holy Father is following the example of Our Lady of Fatima who in her First Saturday devotion requires a meditation on the Mysteries of the Rosary also outside the recitation of that prayer. On a spiritual level, it is clear that most of us have difficulty especially with the contemplative part of the Rosary and the Pope's pastoral attempt to explain to the faithful this often times mystifying requirement as "simply" as possible, is indeed very helpful.
"Put on the new man" (Ep. 2, 15)
Among the criticisms of the document we find this:
"RVM informs us that the Rosary "marks the rhythm of human life";
that "anyone who contemplates Christ through the various stages of
his (sic) life cannot fail to perceive the truth about man" (emphasis in
original); that "it could be said that each mystery of the Rosary, carefully
meditated, sheds light on the mystery of man" and that by contemplating
the life of Christ in the Rosary "believers come face to face with the
image of the true man." Of what spiritual significance is this
anthropocentric view of the Rosary? RVM does not explain. But
whatever it means, Catholics never heard any such thing before the
Protagoras in the 6th century BC maintained that "Man is the measure of all things", a theme enthusiastically revived, often in a pagan way, by many Renaissance thinkers. If the only "man" that is known or referred to is sinful man, then that idea cannot lead to a sound Philosophy. With the Incarnation, however, we have "a perfect man" and so understood in its Christocentric meaning (the sense clearly given by the Pope), the ancient Protagorean adage can become an accurate and fruitful basis of theological and philosophical truth. As Our Blessed Lord had said: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Therefore the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath also" (Mk. 2, 27-28). Saint Paul spoke of "the new man" (Ep. 2, 15). In his Epistles he explains this: "The first man was of the earth, earthly: the second man, from heaven, heavenly (1 Cor. 15, 47); "The gift, by the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto man" (Rm. 5, 15); and so the Apostle exhorts us to: "Put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth" (Ep. 4, 24).
Saint Augustine often spoke of the implications of the Incarnation: "God was made man, that He Who might be seen by man, and Whom man might follow, might be shown to man" (Ser. xxii de Temp.). He wrote of Christ becoming: "A partner with us of human nature?" (De Trin. xiii); and further: "God has proved to us how high a place human nature holds amongst creatures, inasmuch as He appeared to men as a true man" (De Vera Relig. xvi).
Pope Leo as well says in a Christmas sermon : "Learn, O Christian, thy worth; and being made a partner of the Divine nature, refuse to return by evil deeds to your former worthlessness" and again: "Unless (Christ) was man, He would not have set an example" (Ser. xxi). Pope Paul VI, before John Paul II, had also written similar thoughts.
But wait a minute. Why am I doing this? Is anyone insinuating that the Holy Father is teaching questionable spirituality, apt to listen to me?
"Hail, full of Grace" (Lk. 1, 28).
The Pope is even blamed for making "no mention of Mary's status as the Mediatrix of all graces. . . a teaching RVM utterly ignores". On the contrary, however, the Holy Father writes: "The Rosary is both meditation and supplication. Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son. She is 'all-powerful by grace'". Here the Pope quotes from the famous "Supplica", recited twice a year in all the churches of Italy, of Blessed Bartolo Longo, the Italian layman who founded the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei.
"We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have mourned, and you have not wept"( Lk. 7, 32)
Among the "post Vatican II novelties", one that strikes me as being particularly novel, is the easy with which seemingly sincere Catholics now attack the Pope. This is an attitude which very much goes against the "sensus catholicus" and, in former times, was usually more associated with schismatics and heretics. Criticism from traditional circles of a Papal document promoting the Rosary is especially sad: "We have piped to you, and you have not danced; we have mourned, and you have not wept" (Lk. 7, 32).
"But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only" (Jam. 1, 22).
"But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only" (Jam. 1, 22). From Pope John XXIII we have a particularly compelling papal witness: ". . .the holy Rosary which we never fail to recite in its entirety each day of the year: act of marian piety that above all we desire to fulfill with particular fervor in the month of October" (Grata Recordatio). Three times a day Bishop Angelo Roncalli, and later also as Pope John, would recite the Rosary in his chapel with the members of his household. To my recollection he is the only Pope to have given such a personal, precious and powerful testimony of reciting daily the whole Rosary.
"Cometh to the light" (Jn. 3, 21).
Some Catholic circles have always evaluated the Pope in terms of church politics, labeling his every action as either "liberal" or "conservative". We shall leave to others and "to history", as they say, to judge the strengths and weaknesses of the Wojtyla papacy. What is sure is that those special and saintly souls, like Mother Teresa, of which God has never deprived the Church, have always recognized in the Pope John Paul II a deeply spiritual man and we can't help but note that so many chosen souls, divorced from any suspicion of partisan interest, have received the new "Mysteries of Light" not with merely a dutiful respect, but with real spiritual joy. Can we not say here that they "cometh to the light" (Jn. 3, 21).
When it comes to spreading the Holy Rosary, there is no time to lose. "The Rosary", as Pope Leo XIII has said, "is the remedy for all our evils, the root of all our blessings".
Father Thomas Carleton
Feast of the Holy Rosary, 2005