Paternosters as gifts
"It's that time of year again, Christmas, and I was thinking of making a
Paternoster for a friend of mine. But I just wanted to check if they would
still be used by modern Catholics?"
The short answer is "Yes." [grin]
The longer answer is still yes, but it comes in two parts: can a modern Catholic use the older styles of beads to pray the rosary, and can a modern Catholic use the older style of beads to pray an older style of prayers.
First, what the Roman Catholic Church prescribes for the modern rosary is a particular set of meditations and prayers, not beads. You can recite these prayers on an official set of "rosary beads," or while moving pebbles from one pile to another, or for that matter you can recite them counting on your fingers. Any method you choose for keeping track of the prayers is fine.
(Digression: It is my personal belief that the idea of reciting "round numbers" of prayers -- 10, 50, 100 -- is a human idea anyway. Humans are the ones who love to play with neat mathematical patterns; God, IMHO, cares in this instance mostly about the heart, and couldn't care less if there were 99 or 37 or 106 prayers instead of some exact number. One hundred is only an "exact" number if you are counting in base 10, anyway.)
So any string of beads that makes it easy to keep track of five groups of 10 Hail Marys, with an Our Father between each group, would be perfectly fine to use as a modern rosary. The person praying will have to remember to stick in a few prayers at the beginning that wouldn't have corresponding beads, but that's no big deal. I would recommend for this purpose that you make either a loop or a straight paternoster/rosary with that "five tens" type of construction (i.e. 50 small beads and 5 larger ones).
By the way, while getting one's beads blessed by a priest is very important to some Catholics, I would encourage users of medieval or other "nonstandard" sets NOT to worry about some priest or other refusing to bless a set that wasn't what they were used to seeing. Go right ahead and ask. In all probability, they won't bat an eye, and if they do, all the owner of the beads has to say is, "It's a medieval form," and I'm sure that would take care of it. In fact, the priest would probably be intrigued; most of them don't know any more about the history of the rosary than they learned in seminary, and some of that's likely to be out of date (the St. Dominic myth, for instance).
Second question: also yes, you can pray any sequence of prayers you happen to like on whatever beads you choose. There are already hundreds, if not thousands, of such devotions, both historical and modern, of which the conventional rosary is just one. If the string of beads used is not a standard rosary, it's called a "chaplet" instead.
As for origins, some of these "chaplet" devotions are spread by devotees who believe they were instructed by God or Mary in a vision to use a certain type of prayers, and perhaps a specific form of beads. The chaplet of "Our Lady's Tears" comes to mind: if I'm remembering correctly, the woman who originated it says that Mary specified in her vision that the beads should be white.
Other such devotions were frankly just made up by someone -- often a revered leader or teacher. Someone might just have the idea that it would be a good devotional exercise to say, for instance, 33 repetitions of some prayer to commemorate the 33 years Jesus is said to have lived on earth. They may then start encouraging others to do so, writing leaflets about it, and turning out sets of 33 beads for people to use: presto, a new chaplet!
So if you think your modern Catholic recipient would be interested, you can certainly give them a different form of beads and tell them how they were historically used.
For instance, I rather like my green jasper paternoster , which is a simple loop of fifty 12mm beads with a large silver terminal bead and a silk tassel. The beads are all sorts of lovely shades of green and mauve and gray and I can imagine a lot of people would be pleased to have such a gift. This is the sort of beads that might have been used in the 13th or 14th century to recite 50 or 150 Our Fathers.
A man or any other busy person (historically it's a Guy Thing, but modernly, who cares) might like a simple string of ten beads with a ring at one end and a cross at the other, like my "Zehner."
Historically, this could have been used to simply say a set number of Our Fathers, or it could have been used to say a number of Hail Marys, or of Our Fathers each of which is followed by a Hail Mary and a "Gloria" ... there are lots of possibilities.
If you need them, class-tested instructions for a variety of paternosters and "finishes" are here.