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.