Glad You Asked: Who invented the rosary?

On this episode of the podcast, guest Damian Costello talks about the origins of the rosary, both the physical item and the prayers Catholics use.

The rosary is probably the most well-known of all Catholic prayer practices. Many Catholics grew up praying it as part of their family or community devotions. And the physical rosary itself, a string of beads or knots with a crucifix attached and sometimes a medal, is immediately recognizable as a Catholic object. Catholics might carry rosaries, wear them, drape them over statues, or dangle them on their rearview mirrors. In films and television, a rosary immediately signals “Catholic,” and popular artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga have used rosaries in their music videos, to the consternation of some of the pious. 

But where did the tradition of the rosary, and those prayers associated with it, come from? On this episode of the podcast, guest Damian Costello talks about the origins of the rosary, both the physical item and the prayers Catholics use.

Costello is the director of postgraduate studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community and the author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism. He has written extensively about Catholic devotional practices and the intersection of Catholic theology with indigenous spiritual traditions. 

You can learn more about this topic and read some of Costello’s work in these links.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Emily Sanna: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: And I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss one of the most well-known Catholic prayer practices: the rosary.

Emily: The physical rosary, a string of beads or knots with a crucifix attached, and sometimes a medal as well, is immediately recognizable as a Catholic item. Catholics carry them, wear them, drape them over statues, and dangle them on their rearview mirrors as a sign or reminder of faith. 

Rebecca: The rosary is a recognizable object in popular culture as well. In films and television a physical rosary signals “Catholic.” Artists such as Madonna and Lady Gaga have used rosaries in their music videos, to the consternation of some of the pious. 

Emily: And most Catholics are familiar with the prayers associated with the rosary. But where did this tradition and those prayers come from?

Rebecca: Today’s guest on the podcast is going to talk about the origin of the rosary—both the prayer, and the object. Damian Costello is the director of postgraduate studies at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, and the author of Black Elk: Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism.

Emily: He has written extensively about Catholic devotional practices, and the intersection of Catholic theology with indigenous spiritual traditions, and has been a guest on the Glad You Asked podcast several times before.

Emily: Damian, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast again.

Damian Costello: Great to be back, thank you.

Rebecca: So the rosary is about as stereotypically Catholic as it gets, but it seems like a lot of people don’t have a very deep popular understanding of its origins or its theology.

Damian: Yeah, I would count myself among that until relatively recently. I grew up with a rosary and it was something that in the context of sort of, I don’t know, very sort of bland 80s Catholicism, there were people who really wanted to hold onto the rosary and really needed to say the rosary and we would say it as a group. But I didn’t really know what it meant. And I had always had this feeling like that it had this meaning but we didn’t have the ability to really express it. Like the world behind it that had given birth to it didn’t quite exist in the same way. And so that it wasn’t so much that the rosary was empty, but our world had changed so much.

Emily: So what was your experience with the rosary growing up, and when did you kind of develop this interest in understanding it more deeply?

Damian: Well, the old ladies in church always said it, I remember. And I think my mother got very interested in Medjugorje. And there was a sort of big revival of the rosary surrounding that. And so I think that kind of infused our family and we said it as a family. And then I started saying it privately. And so I had enough of a taste of it. Well, it’s sort of this bifurcated experience, right? At times it felt like, wow, this is so strange, nobody does anything like this. I don’t encounter anybody praying like this. It felt very rote at times, like we’re just repeating things over and over. And is there any depth here? And at the same time, I would have some very powerful, deep experiences sprinkled into that. And so that stuck with me, both this relic of maybe what felt like a passing world, but also something that I didn’t fully understand. And it wasn’t really until I dug into the history. And then it was really inspired from other cultures who used the rosary and experienced it that opened my eyes.

Rebecca: So could you talk a bit about that history, the set of prayers we understand as the rosary, how that changed and developed over the centuries and what contributed to the tradition?

Damian: I think like a lot of things in the church, we maybe have this impression it just sort of fell from the sky. There’s this one thing that was given from above and it’s never changed and the only thing that can happen is that it sort of deteriorates or becomes less than it was. But very clearly with the rosary developed almost over the entire life of the church, it really started with monasticism. And it’s really a form of prayer that seeks to mimic what monks, cloistered people, do, but for lay people. And so the origin was people praying all 150 Psalms. At times they prayed them all in one day or over the week or over the course of four weeks. And lay people couldn’t follow along with that. If you’re not living in a monastery, books were very rare, people didn’t read, they didn’t have time for that. But they could say 150 prayers. And so when you say three rosaries, you are saying 150 prayers, which imitates the psalm. So it’s a way of bringing that spirituality out into the world. And I should also say that it developed, I think primarily first in the Eastern context and the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Saint Anthony the Great had what was called a prayer rope. And that’s a tradition that continues on in the Eastern church where the Jesus Prayer is prayed on knots, like as many as 300 knots within a rope. So this continued to develop. It was originally with Our Fathers. It was St. Peter Damian who brought the Hail Mary to the rosary. And the most common form, which we’re all familiar with today, or most of us, wasn’t really finalized until the Council of Trent, so relatively late in the history of the church. One interesting detail is the term rosary, the popular understanding is that each prayer is a rose. And as you pray it, you add that rose to a crown, and at the end it’s a crown that you give to Mary.

Emily: So there’s a popular story that Mary gave Saint Dominic the rosary and that that’s kind of how we got it. Can you talk a little bit more about that story and then how you make sense of that in light of the history you just mentioned?

Damian: Sure. So Saint Dominic, a very colorful character. And this is a very dramatic story, right? People tell this story sort of in a way that gives you the impression that, yes, the rosary came straight down from heaven as a one package and it never changed. And we know that’s not true, but I still have real affection for the story. So the story is that Saint Dominic, he wanted to go convert the heretics, the Albigensians, and he was known for being this wonderful preacher, very persuasive. So he went to France, southern France, and he preached, I think it was for three years, and had no effect. And he was dumbfounded by this. He didn’t understand. And so he, in defeat, went on a retreat in the wilderness, in the woods, and I think it was for three days. And he fasted from food and water, and he prayed that whole time. At the end of this, the story goes, is that the Virgin Mary appeared to him and gave him the rosary as this new spiritual weapon. And this was the means by which Saint Dominic converted or brought back into the Orthodox fold, the Albigensians. So one reason I really love this story is that for us, it’s interesting, it’s cute, but only makes full sense when you go into a different cultural context. I talked about how important that was for me.

I studied Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, and Lakota Catholicism. And in their tradition, they have what’s called the vision quest. And that was before Christianity, that’s the traditional way. And what you did as a young person is you went off into the wilderness for anywhere from one to four days, you fasted from food and water, and you cried, literally cried to the spirits who took pity on you and often heard you, appeared to you in a vision and gave you a gift, a spiritual gift of power that you would bring back to your people. And so this is almost the same exact template that the Lakota people used to understand their spiritual life as told in this story. So did it exactly happen this way? Was the rosary dropped from heaven? Maybe not quite, but I think there’s some real spiritual truth that we can see that’s unlocked here by listening to Indigenous people.

Rebecca: You’ve mentioned before about how different Indigenous groups have used the rosary, prayed the rosary—the Lakota people, or the Kingdom of Congo. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Damian: I think why it’s so important to look at what we would call more Indigenous cultures, ones that have lived in the same place, on the same land, and their traditions have grown up in partnership with that land over centuries and perhaps millennia, is that the rosary sort of comes out of that way of knowing. And so in non-literate cultures, that’s sort of a negative way of putting it from our very advanced Western technological society.

But in cultures that are primarily oral, that is all our knowledge is told through stories and remembered in song, there are different techniques you use to help you remember and live in the stories. And so in these different contexts, they’re used to these different sorts of cultural practices where you tell stories and you remember them and you often have physical objects that reinforce it.

And so when they encountered the rosary, they picked it right up and said, this is how we do things. This is how we remember and pass along stories. And so if you think about that, what you do in the rosary is you have a set number of prayers, but what you’re doing is you’re meditating on mysteries. Each rosary you say has five different mysteries. And so you imaginatively and spiritually enter into these worlds. So the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, you are dwelling there and remembering and learning that world and being formed by it. That’s a very Indigenous way of praying and passing on knowledge. And so there’s all kinds of little details in the Lakota context about how important the rosary became. It became a healing prayer. It was often associated with something you would do with the sick. Families would gather or the spiritual leaders would come and say the rosary. There was sort of communal events like memorials for the dead. They would gather as a group in the cemetery and pray the rosary. And some of them aren’t that different, but it was done, but just are very unexpected. So like the Kingdom of Congo, I think more and more people are becoming aware of this, but probably a lot of listeners don’t know that in 1491, a year before Columbus came to the Americas, the entire Kingdom of Congo accepted Catholicism, but not because it was forcibly converted by European conquerors, they successfully resisted Portuguese attempts to take over, but embraced the faith. And the rosary became one of the most important devotions within Congolese Catholicism. And this is in the context of, often there weren’t many priests in rural communities. What the local communities would do is on Saturday evening would gather and say the rosary in front of the statue of Mary as a community. And Marian spirituality and devotion became one of the markers of Congolese spirituality. And this is way beyond what we’re talking about here. But Marian spirituality was a key ingredient for things like the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina and the Haitian Revolution, where enslaved Congolese people formed the core of these communities that rose up against enslavement.

Emily: So can you talk a little bit more about how different marginalized communities adapted the rosary and kind of connected them to their pre-existing faiths or practices?

Damian: There’s one snapshot I love. There’s a lot you could say, but the figure of Black Elk, Nicholas Black Elk, who is considered a Servant of God, is on the path for canonization. He was a traditional holy person, subject of the book Black Elk Speaks, but became a Catholic catechist, sort of in the middle of his life, and is credited with bringing over 400 people into the church. And so he was one of those catechists. They’re called sort of like modern day deacons, just without the same sacramental power, who would lead communal prayer in the rosary, particularly praying with the sick. And there’s this one story that the community remembers about him as he became an elder, and was no longer active in his ministry. He and a friend used to walk to church, and they would say the rosary together. And this was a couple miles. And he used to tell the distance by the number of rosaries he would say. Like that was his, he didn’t say two miles or 25 minutes to get there. Well, it’s three and a half rosaries. And part of his spirituality, so if you pick up his other book, The Sacred Pipe, he talks about each step that you take on Mother Earth is a prayer. And so that there’s a way of prayerfully walking on the earth in the old Lakota ways. And so you see in this the life of this Indigenous holy person, the culture holy person, who sort of brought these two different traditions together that as we can see, they map very easily in a lot of ways. He’s praying the rosary with his friend in one way and then walking on the earth in the sacred way that he had learned from his ancestors at the same time with no distinction. And so I think that there’s a lot of different examples in which the rosary just became of various cultures and that you can still see today.

Rebecca: A lot of Protestants view this approach to prayer with recitations and repetitions, like what we see in the rosary, as something that’s kind of soulless or robotic. What’s the point of praying in this way?

Damian: Well, I can certainly understand why some people say that at times, because I felt that way at times. I’m sure some of you listeners out there have been in contexts where you got to say the rosary and then everybody sits down, they’re saying as fast as they can, it’s almost like you’re trying to race to get done and you wonder, is there any sort of energy or spirit that’s being put into this? Are we just doing this to check a box? So I understand that critique. But I think that also comes out of a sort of real impoverishment of our understanding of prayer, particularly in the Protestant context. And Catholics, it bleeds over into us. So we’re always in this context of, is it works or grace, right? What saves us? We’re always trying to figure out what’s going to get us into heaven. That’s a valid question. I mean, that’s ultimately where we all want to go. But to reduce everything about the spiritual life to that question means that we don’t make sense of a lot of the practices we have. It’s kind of like in a sports context, well, I’m not gonna win the Super Bowl this year, so why even bother playing? Well, there’s a whole range of reasons why people engage in athletic activity. Health, wellbeing, community, the list goes on and on. It’s a full spectrum spiritual, emotional, mental wellbeing that goes into a practice like that. And so that’s the case with something like the rosary if you’re doing it correctly. And I think what is really helpful to help us think about this is that the rosary is actually very common in other religious traditions. The Buddhist tradition, Hindu tradition, I think probably most people would encounter a Buddhist who used the rosary. They call it the mala. But if you’re in an English context, they’re going to often call it a rosary. And it’s a little bit different. But the idea is the same. It’s repetitive prayer.

And this comes out of the mantra tradition, where you’re repeating something over and over and over again. And the teaching behind it is that by repeating the same teaching, you sink into it. It focuses your whole body and mind on one single idea and it quiets the mind. Now I’m not a scientist and I wish I had cited teachings, you know, that I have read about how this actually works. But there’s some legitimate science to repetition, really sort of turning off the parts of your brain that want to be active all the time and allowing you to be in a spiritual state. And so I think it’s really important to understand the rosary in the context of training. All right, we think prayers are something, words that we say that God or the saints are going to hear and respond to, which is not wrong. But prayer in so many different ways is listening and is responsive and is going into the deepest part of yourself, of who you are. And training is required to do that well. And practice allows you to do it better. And so why do we pray this way in the context of the rosary? Because it’s training us to be deeper, better people who inhabit these stories more fully.

Emily: Well, Damian, thanks so much for being our guest on Glad You Asked today.

Damian: Great, thanks for having me back.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.