In an earlier Crisis essay, I recalled the dismay at a social gathering when the host, a graduate of a Jesuit university, learned that his guest was a “bead counter.” Liberal Christians approve, and are even known to practice, the social gospel; however, they suspect a conflict between corporal works and spiritual devotions such as the prayer for the dead at the end of each Hail Mary. The word “pious” is now deployed with tongue in cheek or as a modifier before fool, fraud, and hypocrite. Pray for the dead if you like, but it would do real good for the living if you put in an hour at the food pantry. Mother Theresa might have managed both, but the rank and file really must choose.
Even funerals are so ordered to this world that the requisite eulogies portray the afterlife as a continuation of this one—without arthritis. Forget the beatific vision. The deceased is now doing in heaven what he loved to do on earth: lining up a putt with Saint Peter or mixing up a batch of his homemade barbecue sauce for the saints. (Would that this were an exaggeration for effect.)
If Catholics like my host neglect the rosary as pietistic nostalgia, it is forgivable that even well-wishing Protestants happily leave the custom to their Romish acquaintances. Less tolerant sola scriptura sects are repelled by Mary “worship” and vain repetitions. To them, the link of “roses” is an enslaving chain that will drag us into the pit—to lie howling for eternity. A cursory Google search turns up sites like semaphores, waving bead counters away from their juju charms and pagan shrines. Lourdes and Fatima are “superstitious fairy tales.” The natives of the rainforest have their fetishes, and Catholics their rosaries; both cry out for evangelization. One may lament this ignorant prejudice of the evangelicals without suspecting malice on their part and pray that Our Lady bring them to a better understanding.
Critics of historical or anthropological bent trace the chapelet’s origins to the Near or Far East. Hindus and Buddhists tallied their prayers; knights came back from the Crusades with coriander, peppercorns, and proto-rosaries. Ergo, our sacramental turns out to be just another instance of cultural appropriation. Catholics used to believe, with Saint Louis Marie de Montfort, that Saint Dominic received the rosary from Our Lady to combat the Albigensian heresies. If you still hold to this “legend,” you have the company of John Henry Newman, who was not noted for credulity.
Whatever the rosary’s provenance, we are urged by impeccable authority to persist.
It is true, as say the critics, that conforming Catholics have an exalted—but not excessive—reverence for the Mother of Our Lord. We dismiss the tooth-sucking pedantry that Mary is comparable to Babylonian earth goddesses or to any other being. She is unique, and to exalt her is justice, which is the virtue by which we accord to things or persons no more than their due. Balzac, a better encomiast than many a preacher who runs aground after she said yes, insisted that Mary “eclipse(s) in her greatness all the Hindu, Greek, or Egyptian types.” This Queen of Angels “holds in her fair white hands the key to higher worlds,” and “merits all the honors paid to her by the Catholic Church.”
I mentioned “authority” as a reason for saying the rosary. Textbooks on rhetoric warn us to be chary of this appeal—often a cover for want of logic. They have a point. The consensus of experts may be “tweaked” through mixed motives; scientists, like mere mortals, have no immunity from careerism and groupthink. But when the authority is the Mother of God, skepticism is folly—no matter how tricked out in the robes of reason. And we have aids for such faith.
We all know the history. Bernadette, while gathering firewood, is startled by a rush of wind and the apparition of a beautiful lady holding a rosary. At the Cova da Ira, three children tending their family’s sheep are affrighted, then enraptured, by “a lady dressed in white.” As at Lourdes, she holds a rosary. The children learn to say it more reverently, promote its recitation for the cause of peace, and, in doing so, save souls from hell. The modern mind balks at this. Would an immaculate loving being frighten children with such a ghastly vision as the one she shows them of hell?
No one is obliged to believe these private revelations, no matter how overpowering the evidence. At Fatima, 70,000 peasants—but also scoffers and journalists—saw and reported the same phenomena. At Lourdes, miraculous cures caused almost all witnesses to acknowledge celestial intervention in human affairs. Emile Zola was one of the few deniers. He twice visited Lourdes to “investigate,” witnessed two instantaneous healings from last-stage tuberculosis, and suppressed the evidence. His materialist contortions rejecting his own sense data were themselves a sort of miracle defying reason. As William Blake put it: “He who Doubts from what he sees/ Will ne’er Believe, do what you please.”
What of the jibe that bead counters are automatons, hardly conscious of what they are mumbling? Yes, the rosary does become a habit over time, sometimes without affective reward. It becomes “automatic,” like brushing your teeth, bathing, and putting the garbage on the curb. It is, if you will, a sort of hygiene, something you do every day in order to keep clean.
When you feel that you are just slogging along, are you a vain and repetitious bead counter, a pharisee lengthening his tassels? Not if vanity entails an expectation to be seen and admired of men because that, emphatically, won’t happen. The likelier temptation today is to muffle your soul in terror of the condescending smile. Exposing a rosary in public is the religious equivalent of donning a MAGA cap in the faculty lounge. You won’t be chased or beaten, just fixed in a formulated phrase.
The first eight years of my education was under the tutelage of the Sacred Heart nuns, so I am vulnerable to the diagnosis of childhood conditioning. The formative years—that explains it! If this is true, I thank the sisters for the inoculation. The stupidest period of my life began around age 16 when, almost overnight, I woke up with a splotch of acne and a tremendous sense of my own probity. Shaking off the conditioning of light opened the gates to a darker materialist education—a conditioning of itself that can last a lifetime. I am forever grateful to the nuns, and to the Blessed Mother, that it wasn’t terminal.
One of the attractions of the rosary, as many popes have said, is its simplicity. “Little” nuns like St. Theresa of the Child Jesus recited it daily, as did learned theologians. Pope John Paul II believed that Our Lady of the Rosary saved him from an assassin’s bullet. Pope Benedict XVI praised the rosary for being a form of meditation and contemplation, and also for its helping one gain freedom from a tense self-consciousness. We’re not always up to a sacra conversazione.
A few years ago, I was bit by a brown recluse. Sepsis set in. Lying on a hospital bed for nine nights—I had a single room—I chose to be free from the tyranny of the screens. When the TV is on, nurses may feel that they are interrupting Dr. Phil, Beat the Clock, or the final inning, whereas praying silently, you can readily attend the nurses who are attending you. The rosary is, in these straits, a solace for patients intermittently aware of mystery and for those who are semi-conscious. Sometimes I’d fall asleep before finishing the five decades. When that happens, a priest told me, your guardian angel will finish it for you. It’s nice to think so.
Let me conclude with some of my notes from a talk by a Father Fernando, a missionary to Sri Lanka. The title of his 1988 address in Saint Louis was “Half Past the Eleventh Hour.” This priest said he was not an easy traveler or speaker. His quiet, hesitant voice, and the urgency of his message, made up for his imagined weakness:
I never know what I’m going to say. You’ll have to look after me. But I’ll do anything for Fatima. I’m only alive because Our Lady wishes. We need the shaking up.
There are people who ask, is there a God? At Fatima, his mother answered.
Sister Lucia said to me, “Father, modern people live as if there is no heaven or hell. I have a holy fear….”
In 1917 it was bad. Well, what of today? At Fatima, Our Lady warned. We did not listen. Disaster. World wars. And maybe worse to come. Do leaders of this world think the Blessed Mother makes things up?
When I talked of that vision, a priest objected. The Blessed Mother would not frighten children with hell. Well, yes. And they became better and better.
Now what are we waiting for? Annihilation? Something worse than war is going on—legions of devils.
Talk is nice, but you must do something. Pick a time, day or night, to say the rosary. But don’t fail!
After the apparitions at Fatima, the recitation of the rosary took on a renewed popularity and sense of urgency—for the conversion of Russia. In our present crisis, perhaps we should say it for the conversion of America. More than ever, we need “the shaking up.”
(Photo credit: Joaquín Peiró Pérez / CNA)