The Compendium of the Gospel

St. John Paul II said his favorite prayer was the Rosary, and in 2002 dedicated an Apostolic Letter to this prayer titled Rosarium Virginis Mariae. He urged the faithful to pray the Rosary as “a way of contemplating the face of Christ seeing him – we may say – with the eyes of Mary.”

Such contemplation is essential for attaining genuine holiness, and he therefore urged Catholics to pray the rosary daily, if possible. Like others devoted to this prayer, St. John Paul II saw the rosary as a compendium of the Gospel, because “it conveys the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety,” through the contemplation of the key Christian mysteries.

“To bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary,” St. John Paul added to the three traditional Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries a fourth set of decades, called the Luminous Mysteries or the mysteries of light, in which “we contemplate important aspects of the person of Christ as the definitive revelation of God.”

Shortly after his ascension to the papacy, St. John Paul described his favorite prayer in this way:

Against the background of the words Ave Maria the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul. They take shape in the complete series of the joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries, and they put us in living communion with Jesus through – we might say – the heart of his Mother. At the same time our heart can embrace in the decades of the Rosary all the events that make up the lives of individuals, families, nations, the Church, and all mankind. Our personal concerns and those of our neighbour, especially those who are closest to us, who are dearest to us. Thus the simple prayer of the Rosary marks the rhythm of human life.

The Joyful Mysteries “are marked by the joy radiating from the event of the Incarnation,” St. John Paul explains, “To meditate upon the ‘joyful’ mysteries, then, is to enter into the ultimate causes and the deepest meaning of Christian joy.”

Next follow St. John Paul’s selected Mysteries of Light: Our Lord’s Baptism by John in the Jordan, the wedding feast at Cana, the preaching of the kingdom, the Transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In St. John Paul’s words, “Each of these mysteries is a revelation of the Kingdom now present in the very person of Jesus.

The next set of Mysteries, the Sorrowful center upon the events from the Agony in the Garden to the Crucifixion, and so enable us to accompany Mary in her sorrowful and loving participation in her Son’s suffering and death.

Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500 [National Gallery, London]
Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500 [National Gallery, London]
Finally, the Glorious Mysteries “lead the faithful to greater hope for the eschatological goal towards which they journey as members of the pilgrim People of God in history. This can only impel them to bear courageous witness to that ‘good news’ which gives meaning to their entire existence.”

We contemplate the Risen One, watch him ascend into the heavens from which he promises to descend again on the Last Day, see the powerful effect of the Holy Spirit’s coming, watch in awe and hope Our Lady’s Assumption into heaven, body and soul, and see her victorious Son crowning her queen of heaven and earth.

St. John Paul takes pains to explain that the methodology of the Rosary – the repeated recitation of sets of Hail Marys punctuated by an introductory Our Father and concluding Glory Be – rather than being an instance of the “vain repetition,” condemned in the Gospel, is “an outpouring of that love which tirelessly returns to the person loved with expressions similar in their content but ever fresh in terms of the feeling pervading them . . . .[A]lthough the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her.”

To better direct our attention to each decade’s mystery and “supply a Biblical foundation and greater depth to our meditation, it is helpful to follow the announcement of the mystery with the proclamation of a related Biblical passage.” For example, for the Annunciation we could recall the words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”

Each decade of the Rosary begins with an Our Father as we lift the mind towards the First Person of the Trinity, since “Jesus always leads us to the Father, for as he rests in the Father’s bosom (cf. Jn 1:18).”

The Hail Marys are the main elements of the Rosary, which not only recall the words of the Annunciation and the and Visitation, but have as “the hinge as it were which joins its two parts. . .the name of Jesus.

The Gloria appears because “Trinitarian doxology is the goal of all Christian contemplation. For Christ is the way that leads us to the Father in the Spirit.”

St. John Paul II, like many who are devoted to the Rosary, emphasized the benefits of the family praying the Rosary together as well as the Rosary’s value as a prayer for peace, both on a large and small scale. After all, “When prayed well in a truly meditative way, the Rosary leads to an encounter with Christ in his mysteries and so cannot fail to draw attention to the face of Christ in others.”

St. John Paul concluded his Apostolic letter on the Rosary by urging everyone to “confidently take up the Rosary once again,” and concluded with the prayer of Blessed Bartolo Longo: “O Blessed Rosary of Mary, sweet chain which unites us to God, bond of love which unites us to the angels, tower of salvation against the assaults of Hell, safe port in our universal shipwreck, we will never abandon you.”

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.