Reflection for the May edition of the Catholic People Cardiff Diocesan Newspaper.
For the first thousand years of Christianity, not a single Catholic prayed the Hail Mary, let alone a rosary. The prayer simply hadn’t been composed, at least as we know it today. But we do know that from the earliest times, Christians asked the Mother of God to pray for them. The most ancient surviving text comes from the 3rd Century, and says: “Beneath your compassion, we take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.”
As the Christian Faith became well established across Europe, monasteries were established everywhere – the Cistercians were a particularly strong presence in medieval Wales. Lay brothers, who had never learned to read, could not join in with reading the 150 Psalms. Instead they offered the Lord’s Prayer 150 times, using a string of beads to keep count. By the 12th Century, it had become common to pray the Hail Mary on the beads, and we know that English hermits had a rule breaking the prayers into five groups of 10. Lay men and women adopted the practice too.
At that time, the Hail Mary simply consisted of the words of the Angel Gabriel – “Hail Mary, full of grace…” and the words of St Elizabeth – “Blessed are you among women…”. By the end of the 15th Century, it had become customary to add: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
Legend has it that Our Lady appeared to St Dominic and taught him the rosary, but the first written claim of this appeared 250 years after St Dominic lived. What we are more sure of is that, in Lourdes in 1858, Our Lady was carrying a rosary when she appeared to St Bernadette, and at Fatima in 1917, she asked that many people pray the rosary daily for the intention of peace in the world.
In 2008 a young Spanish film producer, Belomásan (Santiago Requejo) decided to promote the rosary. He asked 50 of his friends – all young adults – to state a reason why they prayed the rosary and filmed them saying so. This video went viral, so the following year he produced another with the fifty young people in T-shirts proclaiming “I Pray the Rosary!” coming together. Each year since he has released an annual May video, each with a different focus – praying for the world, remembering the Pope, praying for priests, asking forgiveness – and by the time this newspaper goes to press, “May Feelings 9” will likely be revealed to the world. You can see these on YouTube by searching for “May Feelings”. More recently he established a social network to share prayer requests: www.mayfeelings.com
Anyone can be a Catholic in good standing and never pray a Hail Mary. It’s not part of the official Missal, though in the UK we do have a custom of including it in the bidding prayers at Mass. There are things we do because God commanded us to do so – praying the Our Father and celebrating Mass. But the best acts of love flow from the human heart as a freely given offering. Praying a Hail Mary or a rosary is such a gift of love. We don’t have to – but we can. So call your mother – she’d love to hear from you!