Monday, January 26, 2009

New rosaries

I'm a bit behind the calendar here, but Catholics in many places in the last week or two were holding events to commemorate the Roe vs. Wade court decision on January 22nd, 1973. Many of these used the "Pro-life rosary" as their theme.

Whatever your opinion on this issue(and I'm not going to get into that at all), I find it interesting that "pro-life rosaries" have appeared. One of the things I've said repeatedly about rosaries is that there is not, and never in its history has been, only one "true" rosary. In the 1200s to mid-1400s (and perhaps earlier), there were many devotions that used beads, and out of those many (which I think of as the "primordial soup" ;) a very few of the variations (and one especially) arose, became popular, were endorsed by the Church, and have endured. Many other "rosaries" have been invented since, some using the same five decades as the common rosary of today and some not.

The best-known of the Pro-life-themed rosaries originated with an idea that came to a nursing student in Louisiana at the end of 1992. In basic form, it's a modern five-decade rosary, but it's quite easy to recognize when you see one because it uses a special pattern of colors in its beads. The crucifix can be any type, but the three Hail Mary beads between the loop and the crucifix are purple. The five decades are each made up of alternating colored and white beads: the first decade aqua and white; the second red and white; the third black and white; the fourth has three colors (red, white and blue); and the fifth, green and white. The marker beads (or Our Father beads) usually seem to be white or clear. These rosaries are still being made and distributed on a fairly large scale from the Office of Pro-Life Issues in the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. (Hmm. I should add one to my teaching collection.) And as far as I know, anyone is welcome to make rosaries according to this pattern: most of the rosaries given out from Lafayette are made by volunteers and donated.


The basic prayers of this rosary are the same as the common rosary of the 20th century: the Apostles' Creed, fifty Hail Marys, five Our Fathers and Glorias. The themes of each decade in the Pro-life rosary, on the other hand, may or may not be the usual Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious or Luminous "Mysteries." At least three different sets of special themes and meditations have been written for each decade of the Pro-life rosary, usually with an additional prayer on that theme to be said at the end of the decade. The ones I've found online are here, here, and here.

This is an excellent example of a "new rosary." Like most of the recent ones whose history is clear, it began as one person's idea, was endorsed by local Church authorities (the local bishop in this case), and became popular. (The common 20th century rosary came about in the mid-1400s in a similar way, as a local idea that spread. An amazing 100,000 people from all over Europe joined rosary guilds in just the seven years from 1475 to 1481.)

Another interesting thing is that both the common rosary and this one have benefited greatly from widespread literacy. Of course, once you have memorized three prayers and fifteen mystery titles, reciting the common rosary does not require a book -- that's one of its attractions for 15th century lay people. But from the very beginning, many rosary leaflets and handbooks have been published to encourage its use. Probably the most popular of the early rosary manuals was Unser Lieben Frauen Psalter (Our Dear Lady’s Psalter), attributed to Alanus de Rupe. Revised and reprinted many times by his followers, it went through seven editions between 1483 and 1502. In a similar way, the Pro-life rosary has spread through printed prayer cards and the Internet, as well as by word of mouth, public events, newspaper stories, and gifts of a Pro-life rosary from one friend to another.

A lot of people -- including some Catholics -- have an image of Roman Catholicism as an entirely "top-down" organization. But the constant invention and spread of new rosaries, I think, demonstrates that "grassroots" Catholicism is alive and thriving.

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