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What is a Rosary?

Amy Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most people have seen pictures of nuns or priests with their prayer beads hung at their waists or clasped in their hands. Occasionally, a sentence in an obituary will mention that a Rosary service will be held for the deceased. Roman Catholics are very familiar with the Rosary, but non-Catholics may not be. So, what is a Rosary? It is both an object and a set of prayers and meditations.

The Rosary as an object is a chaplet or string of beads. These beads are grouped in five sets of ten, or decades, with a large bead or other ornament separating each set. The beads culminate in a small medallion with the Virgin Mary's picture and then a small string of one bead, three beads and one bead, at the end of which is suspended a small crucifix. The chaplet may be a long string of beads, but is more commonly arranged to look like a necklace, although it is not worn as one.

The chaplet is used to pray the Rosary, a series of prayers and meditations on the life of Jesus Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Devout Roman Catholics take the Rosary very seriously and use it as a means of meditation, as well as an intercessory prayer.

The Rosary, like many things in Roman Catholic tradition, is steeped in history. It is beyond the scope of an article such as this to discuss it fully, but the origins of the Rosary date back to the third and fourth centuries. The laity wanted to imitate the monastic custom of prayers, which involved reciting the entire book of Psalms each day. Most peasants could not read or write, but they could remember short prayers. They took to praying the Lord's Prayer, or the Our Father, and keeping track of how many times they prayed it with pebbles or a knotted rope, using one knot or pebble for each prayer.

Saint Dominic popularized a form of the Rosary in the 13th century. It changed over the centuries and, by the Renaissance, it was similar to the modern form. The Virgin Mary is often associated with the rose, and the word Rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, or "crown of roses."

The Rosary prayers are counted on the chaplet's beads according to a prescribed form. Detailed instructions for praying the Rosary are widely available on the Internet and in books, but here is an abbreviated form. The Ave Maria is prayed on the sets of 10 beads. The Lord's Prayer begins every decade, on the large beads. At the end of each decade, the person recites the Gloria Patri and the prayer "Oh my Jesus." The prayers are ended with the prayer beginning "Hail Holy Queen" and another beginning, "Oh God, Whose only begotten Son " The person also meditates on particular events in the lives of Jesus and Mary while praying.

Rosary chaplets are available online, from Catholic bookstores and even from Catholic churches. Many include booklets on praying the Rosary, as well as meditations and essays concerning it. There is a wealth of information on the Web about the origin of the Rosary, its evolution and its continued significance in the life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Amy Pollick
By Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at Language & Humanities. With experience in various roles and numerous articles under her belt, she crafts compelling content that informs and engages readers across various platforms on topics of all levels of complexity.
Discussion Comments
By reckless — On Nov 23, 2011

Prayer beads, sometimes called rosary beads, are used in the practice of meditation and prayer. Prayers are repeated a number of times corresponding with the number of beads. Prayer or rosary beads have traditionally been associated with Catholicism, but the use of prayer beads is widespread with many religious traditions incorporating them.

The basic rosary is made up of 59 beads linked together in a shape that looks like a necklace. Each of the beads on the rosary is intended to have a prayer said while holding the individual bead. Of these beads, 53 of the beads are for “Hail Mary’s” to be said on them. The other six are intended for “Our Fathers.” These beads provide a physical method of keeping count of the prayers as the fingers are moved along the beads as the prayers are recited.

The history of the rosary in Christian circles has been traced back to the Crusaders. It is thought by historians that the Crusaders had adopted this practice from the Arabs, who, in turn, copied the observance of using beads from India. Recent archeological findings reveal that the ancient Ephesians made use of such beads in their worship of Diana, also known as Artemis, whose temple was one of the seven wonders of the world (Acts 19:24-41).

Prayer beads are also used by Roman Catholics to help the practitioner keep track of some 180 prayers which make up the rosary. Examples of such prayers are Our Father, Hail Mary, and Gloria. The practice of the rosary is based on the assumption that repeating these prayers over and over enables the petitioner to secure merit or favor from God in order to escape from the punishment of the fires of purgatory.

The use of prayer beads is not scriptural. Jesus Himself chastised the religious leaders of His time for repeating their prayers over and over. In fact, He told His disciples not to emulate them by using “vain repetitions as the heathen do, for they think they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayers are not to be merely recited or repeated mindlessly as though they are automatic formulas. Many who use prayer beads today claim that the rosary helps them take the focus off themselves and onto Christ, but the question is really one of the efficacy of repeating the same phrases over and over in a mantra-like manner.

Prayer is an incredible privilege for the Christian, as we are invited by the Creator of the universe to come “boldly” into His presence (Hebrews 4:16) and communicate with Him. Prayer is the means by which we praise Him, adore Him, give thanks to Him, submit to Him, and bring before Him petitions for ourselves and intercessions for others. It’s hard to see how that intimate communion with Him is enhanced by repeating simple prayers over and over again via prayer beads.

By reckless — On Nov 23, 2011

@laluna: The holy trinity is composed of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Father is God, Jesus is God, and Holy Spirit is God as well, however, Father is not Jesus, nor is the Holy Spirit Jesus; the said status cannot be exchanged. So, it would be incorrect for you to say that Mary is the mother of God, as she isn't God's Mother. She's the mother of the human part of Jesus. That's it. Remember that Mary isn't holy nor was she sinless from the moment she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. In the bible, Mary herself says that she was in need of Jesus as well. Bible is the word of God and God never pulls his own words nor does he change them. Mary was a human, who happened to conceive our Lord and Savior by the Holy Spirit.

If you only mean to honor her, then why build up statues of her, make fancy garments such as rosaries, and etc.? Idolatry stems from such things and this is a strong case of the said term, which is currently being denied by many Catholics.

By reckless — On Nov 23, 2011

@anon109730: The bible, as anon133990 puts it, is given by the inspiration of God. With that having said, I think you'd want to know my reasons for opposing your view points. First of all, Deuteronomy 18:11 tells us that anyone who “consults with the dead” is “detestable to the Lord.” The story of Saul consulting a medium to bring up the spirit of the dead Samuel resulted in his death “because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance” (1 Samuel 28:1-25; 1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Clearly, God has declared that such things are not to be done.

“And the person who turns after mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.” (Leviticus 20:6) Notice that God uses the word “prostitute” as an analogy. You are prostituting yourself against God when you start seeking supernatural help or guidance from any one else but Him! Even though a dead saint or Mary is up in heaven – this person still has no power on his own to make anything happen for you. What the Catholic teachings are feeding you are most likely bullish words to keep you in line and to keep their human traditions to get their religious place in the word brighter. Therefore, rosary is just a fancy garment, nothing more nothing less.

By anon133990 — On Dec 13, 2010

@Anon109730: Here's your answer.

"But as for you,continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of,knowing from whom you have learned them,and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God,

and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction,for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.-2 Timothy 3:14-17

By anon109730 — On Sep 08, 2010

Dear anon, where in the bible does it say that the bible is the sole authority? If it doesn't say that anywhere in the bible, why do you subscribe to that belief?

By anon109182 — On Sep 06, 2010

Is any of this given in he Bible, either by command or example? And if it's not in the Bible, if it was not a part of the practice of the first church established by Christ, then why would one do it? Shouldn't the Bible be our sole authority on all religious matters? Just curious.

By anon88016 — On Jun 02, 2010

The internet has interesting sections on the history and origin of the Rosary. There are also detailed instructions on how to pray the Rosary plus meditations for all twenty rosary mysteries.

By laluna — On May 24, 2008

There are also twenty mysteries as part of the Rosary prayer. They are divided into four groups of five mysteries, and they are: Joyful, Sorrowful, Luminous and Glorious mysteries.

Those mysteries are said on specific days of the week. So for instance Joyful mysteries are said on Monday and Saturday, Glorious mysteries are said on Wednesday and Sunday (with some exceptions), Sorrowful mysteries are said on Tuesday and Friday, and Luminous mysteries are said on Thursday.

To Catholics Rosary is a beautiful prayer, honoring Mary, Mother of God.

Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick
Amy Pollick, a talented content writer and editor, brings her diverse writing background to her work at Language &...
Learn more
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