St Dominic and the Rosary

Today we reflect on our Dominican tradition of devotion to the Holy Rosary and we quote from a letter (September 1985) by Fr Damian Byrne OP when he was Master of the Order.

The Dominican legend of the Rosary – “The barren land”

The order was born into a barren land: dichotomized humanity, with flesh warring against the spirit, with woman downgraded and life itself despised, was unable to accept the reality of the Word made flesh, dwelling in the midst of us. There was only one answer, and it was summed up in the simple words: “Hail… the Lord is with you… you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son…” (Luke 1: 28-31).

Whatever critical historians may have to say about the Legend of the Rosary, it bears witness to the charismatic gift entrusted by the Church to the Order of Preachers, a gift which we must exercise by reason of profession, by our legislation and by the constant exhortation of the See of Rome.

The Legend, as such, is worth recalling in these days of renewed insistence on our preaching ministry: After much fruitless labour, tradition has it that the Mother of God appeared to Dominic in the forest of Bouconnenear Toulouse: “Wonder not that until now you have had such little fruit from your labours. You have spent them on a barren soil, not yet watered with the dew of divine grace. When God willed to renew the face of the earth he began by sending down the fertilizing dew of the Angelic Salutation. Preach my Rosary composed of one hundred and fifty Aves, and you will obtain an abundant harvest.”

True devotion to Mary

It places Mary in her true ecclesial context – waiting herself in the barren land with the broken, the wounded and the little people of God. The heavenly Ave comes first on her, for in truth the Hail Mary is not so much an ascending prayer as a downward divine blessing poured out on all flesh. Mary stands in the desert on behalf of all humanity, so that it may blossom once more like the rose. The word addressed to Mary is addressed to all: “Rejoice, the Lord is with you.” Here, we all draw waters from the springs of salvation, as the fertilizing rain of the Ave renews our land.

A school of prayer

There is a healthy plurality about the Prayer of the Rosary, for its long and varied history has produced many approaches: it has its rich Marian tradition, as witnessed at thousands of Marian shrines, in processions and in rituals where Mary is crowned as Queen. It has too, its Christological orientation as a “compendium of the Scriptures;” it is a powerful vocal prayer and it is a many levelled way of contemplative prayer. It can be prayed in a group or alone. In a word, the Rosary is a School of prayer, providing for body, soul and spirit.

A method of preaching

St. Dominic is above all the “Man of the Book.” Art may show him without the beads, but never without the Scriptures. The well known fresco of “Christ mocked” in San Marco is a classic illustration. It contains the main elements of Rosary preaching:

1.The Central theme of the Lordship of Jesus, the subject of our contemplation and of our preaching. This is the suffering, yet triumphant Jesus of “now”, with power still going out from his glorious wounds to heal his people.

2. Mary, the first and supreme contemplative who is already exquisitely occupied in pondering these things in her heart and at the same time inviting Dominic to keep her company.

3. St. Dominic, standing for ourselves, pondering the word in the Scriptures and preparing to preach it to others. Fra Angelico portrays him exactly as Our Lady requested five hundred years later at Fatima when she said: “Keep me company meditating on these mysteries of the Rosary.”

An instrument of healing

Early preachers of the Rosary were concerned not merely with preaching a devotional

exercise. They were mindful of the Acts of the Apostles: “Grant to your servants to speak your word with boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4: 29, 30). Among the classic texts of their preaching was the story of the woman with the issue of blood. She touched the Lord and experienced power go out from him. Healing was a very real part of the Rosary apostolate of former times. The Preacher would hold up the beads, and invite his hearers to touch the Lord in faith, as they reverently called on the name of Jesus in each Ave. “The beads”, they would say, “are like the tassel of his robe. Reach out and clutch them in faith and you will be made well.”

The Spanish apostle of New Granada, St. Louis Bertrand, gives a graphic account of the miracles performed through his own use of the beads which he was accustomed to place around the neck of the sick person. After his return to Valencia he gave a Rosary to a friend and told him to preserve it with reverence, “because in the Indies, this Rosary cured the sick, converted sinners, and I think, also raised the dead to life.”

In these days of the new flourishing of the ministry of healing, it would be remiss of us Dominicans to fail in the healing dimension of the Rosary which is an integral part of our tradition.

It may be timely to recall a remarkable letter addressed to a former Master of the Order by Pope Pius XI. On 7th March, 1934, he wrote: “It may justly be said that the Rosary of Mary is, as it were, the principle and foundation on which the very Order of St. Dominic rests for the perfecting of the lives of its members, and obtaining the salvation of others.”