Several years before becoming Catholic, a friend of mine mentioned an incident concerning praying the rosary – specifically, whether or not it was “biblical.” At the time I did not even know what exactly the rosary was, so I looked it up and recorded my initial thoughts as a Protestant. These are presented below with some additional material I have discovered since its initial writing.
The Prayers of the Rosary
Rosary prayers are not extemporaneous. Rather, praying the rosary consists of a series of prayers (81 in total), usually counted using beads on a necklace (interactive example). The series is broken into an 8 prayer Introduction, five Decades of “Hail Marys” (10 prayers each), and a 3 prayer Conclusion. These can be augmented by adding optional prayers.
Sign of the Cross
Here is the series of prayers: First, the “Sign of the Cross” – this is preparatory to most Roman Catholic prayers.
“IN THE NAME of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The Apostle’s Creed
Then the “Apostles Creed” is said. It is the earliest baptismal profession and is still common to most Christian denominations.
“I BELIEVE IN GOD, the Father almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty. He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
Then the “Our Father” (aka the “Lord’s Prayer”) from Jesus’ words in the gospels of Matthew (6:9-13) and Luke (11:1-4). This is repeated on the big beads of the rosary.
“OUR FATHER, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”
Then 3 “Hail Marys” are said (one for every small bead on the rosary). It is made up of:
- Scripture quotes: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women . . .” (Lk 1:28 and 42),
- Biblical teaching: “Holy Mary” corresponds to Mary’s being “full of grace” from the Vulgate translation of Lk. 1:28), as well as the fact that she is in Heaven now and so fully glorified.
- Orthodox Christian doctrine: “Mother of God” is a title that, although rarely used in Protestant circles, is an orthodox phrase approved at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 to respond to those who denied Jesus’ deity.
- Intercessory prayer: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death” (more on this below).
“HAIL MARY, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
After each decade of “Hail Marys” the “Glory Be” is said. It is not a biblical quote, but is a biblical, trinitarian prayer / doxology used in many Christian traditions.
“GLORY BE to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Commonly said after the “Glory Be” is the optional “Fatima Prayer.” This prayer was said to be revealed to some children by “Our Lady of Fatima” (Mary) in 1917 and approved by the Catholic Church in 1930.
O MY JESUS, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell; lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.
Salve Regina (Hail, Holy Queen)
At the end of the last decade and other prayers, the Rosary can be finished up with the “Salve Regina” (aka, “Hail, Holy Queen”):
HAIL HOLY QUEEN, mother of mercy; our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us. And after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.
Technically this is the last prayer of the rosary, but . . .
Let Us Pray
There are lots of additional prayers that can be added to the ones above, but a very common one (which I have seen labelled “Let Us Pray”) is this one which is said after the Salve Regina to complete the rosary:
O GOD, WHOSE only-begotten Son by His life, death and resurrection, has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life; grant, we beseech Thee, that by meditating upon these mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Mysteries of the Rosary
Interspersed amongst the prayers are the announcements of the twenty mysteries that are announced at the beginning of each decade. These mysteries (revelations) are s is said in order to meditate on it during the following section of prayers. The Mysteries are almost all directly taken from biblical narratives, some are only related to them by interpretation (e.g., Mary’s assumption and coronation). These 20 mysteries are broken down into sets of five and are said depending on the day:
(Monday & Saturday)
(Tuesday & Friday)
(Wednesday & Sunday)
Problems for Protestants
There are three problematic areas for Protestants: (1) praying to the “dead”, (2) vain repetition, and (3) beliefs concerning Mary.
“Prayers to the Dead”
First, it should be noted that technically intercessory requests should not be prayers to Mary in the way worship is a prayer to God. Now, in older English usage, the word “prayer” simply meant “to ask.” So “praying to” means the same thing as “asking of” – we simply do not use this form of speech very often these days, so it sounds weird. It may be more precise to say that one is asking for prayer from Mary. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that,
The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. . . Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world. (Catechism, 2683)
The very fact that the Hail Marry is a request for prayer from one who is no longer alive on earth is often the most difficult part for Protestants to accept (obviously there is no problem with asking live people for prayer!). It might sound like necromancy – communication with the dead. However, necromancy involves more than that (otherwise, Jesus talking to Moses or Elijah during the Transfiguration would be necromancy!). Illicit requests for knowledge from the spirits of the dead seem to be more in view biblically (e.g., Dt.18:10, 11 and 1 Sam. 28:8). Further, after Jesus set the captives free, the saved in heaven are not really dead anyway (Mk. 12:27). The saints now form the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). Finally, prayers to Mary have been discovered dating back to approximately AD 250. These arguments may not be convincing to all Protestants, but they do use biblical and historical evidence for support.
Does the rosary violate Jesus’s command to avoid vain repetition in prayer (Mt. 6:7)? Several considerations indicate that it does not. First, the qualification “vain” is often missed here. Equating just any kind of repetition with vain repetition is like equating the command to “avoid pornographic movies” with “avoid all movies.” The issue is the vain nature of the repetition, not just the repetition. With any good thing, some repetition is certainly appreciated (I have yet to tire of anyone in my family saying “I love you” to me).
Second, most Christians I know are quite repetitious with the prayers they say at meals or during church. Even when Christians “pray from the heart” they seem to hit on the same repetitive phrases (how many times must people say, “And Lord we just . . . ” during a single prayer?). Angels, too, pray repeatedly (e.g., Rev. 4) – and they are in very presence of God.
Third, Jesus himself repeated prayers at times (Mt. 26:44, cf. Mk. 14:39), and gave us a prayer to repeat in the Lord’s Prayer. Moreover, Jesus commands us to use this prayer two verses after the vain repetition warning!
So what is the issue in Mt. 6:7? It is the use of repeated heathen prayers. The pagans had a magical perception of prayer – literally “babbling” (=”vain” in the original Greek) to their gods in order to get a response (e.g., 1 Kgs. 18:26). This kind of prayer is to be avoided (cf. taking God’s name in vain ). So while meaningless and vain babble is to be avoided, this does not discount meaningful heartfelt repetition.
Mariology: Assumption and Coronation
Most of the “Hail Mary” is either taken from Scripture or reflects theology based upon it.
The Protestant issues surrounding Mary’s assumption and crowning (as the “Queen of Heaven”) are more theological rather than factual issues – neither is an unbiblical teaching per se.
First, Mary would not be the first person to be “assumed” bodily into heaven without dying (e.g., Enoch and Elijah), and of course there are plenty of events in the lives of biblical people that are not recorded in Scripture (e.g., Paul’s release from prison and subsequent missionary journey).There is also historical support for Mary’s assumption in the fact that unlike virtually every important person to die in Christian history, her grave has never been identified or venerated. This might seem to indicate that she does not have one. Thus, it could be an illegitimate argument from silence to call the teaching “unbiblical.”
Second, both Mary’s assumption and crowning are said to be based on a common interpretation of Rev. 12 that sees The Woman as Mary (being Jesus’ mother – 12:5). This interpretation is one that Protestants can find acceptable, and also helps explain Mary’s title “Queen of Heaven.” In Hebrew tradition, it is the mother of a king that is considered queen (e.g., 1 kgs. 1:19) – and Jesus is both the King of Israel and of the Universe.
The wording of the “Salve Regina” might also cause some consternation. Calling Mary “our life” or “our hope” might seem like language that should be saved for God alone. However, people refer to their spouses or children as their life without raising this worry (even if it is a bit much) – it’s obviously hyperbole for importance. Another thing to remember about the special place of Mary in catholicism is that it is all about Jesus (that’s why in her icons she always appears with him). She is the chosen one, the “second Eve” through whom Jesus incarnated as savior – thus, whatever God the Father gave us through Jesus the Son, was given (indirectly, but importantly) through Mary the mother. The Bible says all generations will call her blessed (Lk. 1:48), and the reason why is Jesus. The love Catholics express toward her is a reflection of their love for her son, and for her example for life.
If by “biblical” one simply means “not in conflict with Scriptural assertions,” then the Rosary is on pretty solid ground. But if “biblical” is taken to mean that individual prooftexts can be produced to back every single item up, then the Rosary does not do as well. However, the same charge can be levied at so many Christian “traditions” (church buildings, youth pastors, candles, pews, special garments, choirs, altar calls, nurseries, children’s programs, revival meetings, etc.) the issue is hardly decisive. Further, prayers to Mary have been discovered dating back to approximately AD 250.
As an interesting historical note, the unqualified rejection of the rosary by Protestants is actually contrary to Martin Luther their founder’s (and other Protestant luminary’s) thoughts.
“Our prayer should include the Mother of God . . . What the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen!” You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor . . . We can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her.” (Martin Luther, Personal Prayer Book, 1522).