End Notes: Breathe an Ave There For Me

Orson Welles once told the possibly apocryphal story of getting a pass for Citizen Kane from the Legion of Decency by ostentatiously spilling a rosary onto the floor while taking something from his pocket. The ultimate prop.

But even boy geniuses would be better advised to see the rosary as a means to get past heavenly, not earthly, censors (see “Beads of Power” on page 49). Still, it would be interesting to know and I am not suggesting this as a doctoral dissertation—how the rosary has figured in Hollywood movies. Perhaps for many viewers the string of beads would be the ultimate symbol of Catholic superstition.

Liturgical reformers made much of the image of Grandma praying the rosary at Mass when she should have been paying attention to what was going on at the altar. This led, unfortunately and unintentionally, to making private devotions seem somehow self-indulgent. It would be a poor retort to the liturgists to argue that no one’s mind is fully engaged when telling his beads, so Grandma, too, could probably be said to have been “actively participating” in the Mass as they demand. But would concentrating on the rosary really have been an inappropriate distraction?

One of the charming episodes during Mary’s apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, was the time she told the children that when they prayed the rosary, she didn’t want them to cheat and just say, “Hail Mary, Hail Mary, Hail Mary.” She wanted them to say the whole prayer.

 

Of course, the rosary is already an abbreviation. The towering Italian poet and novelist Allesandro Manzoni called it the breviary of the simple. This was not condescension. In Manzoni’s house in Milan, in the room where he died in 1873, his rosary is pinned to the pillow of his deathbed. The simplicity that makes the rosary an effective prayer is certainly not a matter of class or education.

The mysteries of the rosary are a summa of the faith. In the joyful mysteries, we recall the angel’s appearance to Mary that elicits the Magnificat; her visit to Elizabeth, whose greeting to Mary together with the earlier salutation provides the first part of the Hail Mary; the first Christmas; the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, with the Song of Simeon; and then the finding of Jesus in the Temple after days of searching. The joyful mysteries keep fresh the beginnings of the story of salvation.

The sorrowful mysteries concentrate on the last hours of our Lord’s life: His agony in the garden, the terrible scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the way of the cross, the crucifixion.

The stations of the cross, 14 reminders of Christ’s passion, are another beautiful private devotion. There is also a devotion to the seven dolors of Mary, involving a special chaplet with 49 beads, seven beads for each of her seven sorrows. The prophecy of Simeon in the Temple is the first, followed by the flight into Egypt and the loss of Jesus in the Temple and the anxious search for Him. The final four all involve the passion: Mary’s meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary, His crucifixion, the taking of His body down from the cross (calling to mind the Pieta), and His burial.

Finally, the glorious mysteries of the rosary concentrate on Easter—the resurrection, the ascension, the descent of the Holy Spirt—and end with the assumption of Mary and her crowning as Queen of Heaven.

Like the catechism, like the creed, the rosary floods the mind with the great events in the one history that truly matters. But of course the role of Mary as our mother and advocate is what makes the rosary what it is. And makes it quintessentially Catholic. Repeatedly asking Mary to pray for us, now and at the hour of our death, concentrates the mind. Seeing one’s life in the light of the great moments of salvation history is the aim, together with the confidence that Mary, our mother, is at our side.

Apparitions of the Blessed Mother proliferate around the world. Many have received the approval of the Church. In all the officially recognized apparitions, such as at Fatima, Mary urges us to say the rosary. This is not just a diversion from liturgical prayer, though of course it is not a substitute for it either. The net effect of devotion to the rosary is captured in the title of one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems: “The Blessed Virgin Mary Compared to the Air We Breathe.”

In the hour of his death, Citizen Kane whispered, “Rosebud.” Let us hope that in the hour of our death, invoking Mary will come naturally.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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