Reflections on Rosarium Virginis Mariae - 8

Author: Mons. Marcello Bordoni


Mons. Marcello Bordoni
Secretary of the Pontifical Academy of Theology


Rosarium Virginis Mariae

From the ‘mysteries’ to the ‘Mystery of Christ’

Every authentic form of Christian prayer must always focus on the "mysteries of Christ" and must never be totally separated from its "liturgical anamnesis". Among the forms of Christian prayer, the Rosary of Mary has grown more and more important, as Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Marialis Cultus (MC) (2 February 1974)1 testifies, describing it as "Gospel prayer, centred on the mystery of the redemptive Incarnation... a prayer with a clearly Christological orientation" (MC, n. 46). In contemporary thought, the relation between the Liturgy and the Rosary is more sharply defined. Indeed, the Rosary has deep connections with liturgical prayer: "in the light of the principles of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium....Liturgical celebrations and the pious practice of the Rosary must be neither set in opposition to one another nor considered as being identical" (MC, n. 48). The Rosary, in fact, is "a practice of piety which easily harmonizes with the liturgy. In fact, like the liturgy, it is of a community nature, draws its inspiration from Sacred Scripture and is oriented towards the mystery of Christ" (ibid.).Therefore, although at different levels, the anamnesis of the liturgy and the contemplative commemoration of the Rosary treat the same saving events.

Today, with his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM),2 in pointing out the spiritual path Christianity must follow after 2,000 years of history in order not to lose the dynamism and freshness of its origins and "to announce", "to shout out" Christ to theworld3 all the more, John Paul II forcefully reminds us of the importance of the Rosary prayer. Indeed, it educates believers to an authentic and mature standard of Christian faith, nourished and breathed in a Gospel atmosphere in which beats not only a "Christological heart", but also "the rhythm of human life".4 Therefore, Christians must sit at the school of Mary so that she can lead them to contemplate the face of Christ. The Rosary is a true and proper "training in holiness": it forms believers, through contemplation, to achieve that "conformation to Christ" that enables them not only to "speak of him", but to "show him to the world". If the Liturgy, therefore, "presents anew, under the veil of signs and operative in a hidden way, the great mysteries of our redemption..., the [prayer of the Rosary]by means of devout contemplation, recalls these same mysteries to the mind of the person praying and stimulates the will to draw from them the norms of living" (MC, n. 48).5

From the 'mysteries' to the 'Mystery of Christ'

The main feature of the prayer of the Rosary as a "Gospel prayer" is that it reviews with a meditative approach the many historical mysteries of Jesus' life, which constitute a "living Rosary". As Christian history developed, already in the age of the Fathers,6 but particularly in medieval spirituality, religious devotion developed a notable Christocentric orientation that was consolidated under the influence of monasticism which placed strong emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, seen in the mysteries of his earthly life.7 It can be said that, in this orientation, passion for the humanity of Jesus is remarkable. Monasticism has made an excellent contribution to making the humanity of Jesus "the primary instrument of spiritual ascesis", considering his earthly life in particular as the revelation of God's infinite clemency regarding human weakness. Thus, contact with the humanity of Jesus becomes the path to the encounter with the hidden face of his Divinity. Hence the importance of the "imitation of Christ" in contemplating the mysteries of his life that unfold from his childhood to his passion, death and Resurrection, and Pentecost.

Familiarity with the earthly Jesus gave tender and emotional tones to piety in medieval monasticism. This is demonstrated in expressions that reveal deep love for the very name of Jesus: "Lord Jesus",6 "Most human Lord, most devout Jesus" ,9 "our treasure, love, desire, sweetness, salvation and life".Thus, his name is the heart of a remarkably spiritual orientation: "Jesus, Jesus... a sweet name, a beloved name, a name that comforts the sinner and gives rise to blessed hope". This devotion lingers by the manger in Bethlehem where sighs and tears, a sign of tenderness rather than power,10 are a cause of trust for our conversion, so that we may gradually move on to the other events of his earthly life until we come to the suffering of the passion that strengthens "preferential love". We should not think that this spirituality commits sins of sentimentalism or is a vain search for tangible emotions: it is well nourished with biblical knowledge and has a "strong Christological content", as can be noted in Ruperto of Deutz (1129), a defender of the Benedictine tradition. Thus, the affectus dilectionis (preferential love) warms Cistercian piety with St Bernard and William of Saint-Thierry, whereas Franciscan spirituality focuses on the tradition of the crib and contemplation of the passion. Dominican piety, with St Albert the Great and St Catherine of Siena, like St Francis sees the Crucified Christ as the centre of religious devotion. Particularly important in this spiritual context of the "mysteries of the flesh" is the development and theological examination offered by the thought of St Thomas Aquinas,11 which gives solid Christological and soteriological support to the devotion to the holy humanity of Jesus in the Middle Ages and later: in him, one might say, the "imitation of Christ" is far more than a mere ascetic commitment: it is a true and proper communion of life with the mysteries of the Saviour's earthly life, since the curriculum of the Christian's life is born and sustained in a mystical simultaneity due to the saving virtue of the Divinity working in these mysteries, for which he becomes universally present in history (Comp. Theol. 239).12 If "the mysteries of the earthly life" of Jesus of Nazareth have their own, unique efficacy, because of the divine (pneumatic) virtue that is active in them, it is, however, especially through contemplation13 that this virtue becomes effective in souls. Through it, the remembrance of the events in the history of Jesus of Nazareth enables us to penetrate, even in the obscurity of earthly flesh, into the "dazzling beauty and glory" that shines forth from the countenance of Christ (Lk 9:29), revealing in it the Mystery which surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:19): the mystery of the Word made flesh in which "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col 2:9). For this reason, if "everything in Jesus' life was a sign of hismystery",14"his humanity appeared as 'sacrament', that is, the sign and instrument of his divinity and of the salvation he brings: what was visible in his earthly life leads to the invisible mystery of his divine sonship and redemptive mission" (ibid.). Thus, meditation on the mysteries of Christ is indispensable for the spiritual nourishment and growth of the Christian.

The mysteries of Christ in the 'way of Mary'

This meditation on the mysteries of Christ which transforms and transfigures the spirit of the believer is effectively fostered by the "prayer of the Rosary", through its reference to the aspect of Christian meditation which finds an "incomparable model" in "the way of Mary". To her, "in a unique way, the face of the Son belongs" (RVM, n. 10). No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary. Her gaze, which never left him, was penetrating because of her experience of faith that could perceive in the intimacy of the mysteries of the flesh the "Mystery" of her Jesus. Thus, she jealously guarded the memories of his childhood in her heart (Lk 2:19, 51), to the point that from the very outset of his public ministry (Jn 2:5) she could discern his hidden sentiments and foresee his decisions. She followed him as a mother, to the point of identification with him, with her look of sorrow,full of faith and love offered at the foot of the Cross (19:26-27), to contemplate him later with a radiant gaze, illuminated by his glory in the Resurrection, and finally, in her gaze afire with the out pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14) (RVM, n. 10). On this "Way of Mary" the Church has understood and understands ever better her original role in God's design, her role of "motherly mediation" in unfolding to believers the path of the purest contemplation of God's glory, mirrored in the events of the glorious and earthly life of his incarnate Son. From this knowledge the Church also draws the experience of her identity as the Mother and Bride of Christ.

The prayer of the Rosary refers to this meditative awareness, mindful of the life of Christ which is acquired on the "Way of Mary" and which, from her personal experience, spreads in the Church from the experience of the new born apostolic community, in its communion of prayer with her in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). One can imagine that this prayer, mentioned in the Acts, is a deepening, with her, of meditation on her memories of the life of the Son (Lk 2:19, 51). In the Rosary this prayer continues, in the Christocentric-Trinitarian formation of the believer's spiritual life, at the school of Mary, Teacher of life. From her, the Church has been granted to learn not only the "things" that Jesus taught us, but especially, to "learn him" (RVM, n. 14). That is, we are granted to learn the mystery of the Trinitarian God that shines in him and to learn him as the "Mystery" par excellence, the "mystery of the Word made flesh", who suffered on the Cross and rose for our justification (Rom 4:25). In fact, this contemplative prayer, through Mary's gaze, teaches us, with her way of looking, to make the memory of the mysteries of Jesus come alive, to contemplate them and to follow in his footsteps. Thus, in this contemplation, the believer's soul is open to penetration by that "Sign" of "divine hidden glory" which accompanied his earthly life already as an anticipation of his glory, and enabled his disciples to believe in him (Jn 2:11).

From the mystery of Christ to the 'mystery of man'

In his Apostolic Letter, the subject of these thoughts, the Holy Father not only stresses, like his Predecessors, the importance of the "Christological heart" that pulsates in the prayer of the Rosary, but also gives importance to recalling words he had already spoken that in the "simple prayer of the Rosary 'beats the rhythm of human life'".15 This anthropological implication makes us understand how in praying the Rosary of Mary, the believer is led to understand, in the light of the mysteries of Christ and of his "Mystery", the deepest meaning of that "mystery" which is the very life of man and which can only be attained through contemplation of the mystery of Christ. Indeed, the Rosary enables the believer to accompany Jesus Christ on his journey through life, full of love, a spirit of service, of dedication to others (pro vobis), up until death on the Cross, and then to recognize him as risen, a pilgrim on the paths of the world, continuing with him the experience of Emmaus. But this prayer also enables the believer to discern that man'spath is as it were recapitulated,16 revealed and redeemed in the path of Christ (RVM, n. 25). In this time of confusion, the human being, who has made great advances in scientific knowledge of his own situation and of the world, seems to have lost the meaning of his own deepest "truth", the "meaning" and "ultimate purpose" of his "life". Consequently, his travelling on the "path" of the historical events of faith, in the company of the mysterious pilgrim on the difficult paths of the world, is the only way to rediscover the light of the "mystery" he carries with him. Then one can truly say that each mystery of the Rosary, properly meditated upon, "sheds light on the mystery of man" (RVM, ibid.).


1 Paul VI, Marialis Cultus (MC), AAS,66 (1974), 113-168.

2 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 16 October 2002.

3 Proclaiming Christ as "the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization" was the message of hope of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n. 45.

4John Paul II, Angelus, 29 October 1978; ORE, 9 November 1978, p. 2.

5Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, n. 48.

6 F. Bertrand, Mystique de Jésus chez Origène, Aubier, Paris 1951. Ilarino da Milano, La spiritualità cristologica dei Padri apostolici agli inizi del monachesimo, in "Problemi di storia della Chiesa", Milan 1970, pp. 359-507.

7 A. Grillmeier, I misteri di Cristo nella pietà del medioevo latino e dell’epoca moderna, in "Mysterium Salutis", t.VI, Queriniana, Brescia 1971, pp. 27ff.

8 Isacco Della Stella, Sermo 2; PL 212, 757 A.

9Helinandus, Ep. ad Galterum, PL 212, 757 A.

10 Bernard, SermoI in Nativitate, 3 PL 183, 116.

11 Inos Biffi, IMisteri di Cristo in Tommaso d'Aquino, I, Jaca Book, Milan 1994.

12Ibid., p. 258; in particular p. 266 concerning the work of the "virtus Christi".

13Vincenzo Battaglia, Cristologia e contemplazione, EDB, Bologna, 1996.

14Catechism of the Catholic Church,n. 515.

15Angelus, 9 October 1978; ORE, 9 November 1978, p. 2.

16 Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III, 18, 1: PG 7, 932.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7 May 2003, page 10

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