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Ask a Marian
How did we get the rosary?

with Fr. Joe Roesch, MIC

Q. Can you trace the history of the rosary?

A. First, let me give you a little background. The complete rosary consists of 15 decades of Hail Marys, with an Our Father at the beginning and a Glory Be at the end of each one. Each decade focuses on a mystery of our salvation, such as the joyful mystery of the birth of Jesus. Most of us are used to only praying a third of the rosary (one set of five decades) at a time -- either the joyful, the sorrowful, or the glorious mysteries.

The history of this wonderful prayer to Our Lady is very complex, though. In the eighth century, the Irish monks gave penances that consisted of the entire psalter (all 150 psalms), a third of the psalter (50 psalms), or only ten psalms. Those who didn't know the psalms could substitute Our Fathers. Cords of knots were also created to count the prayers. Then, the practice of repeating ten Hail Marys for each decade spread in the Western Church in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Carthusian monks began using the word "rosarium" for collections of scriptural phrases for meditation while praying the Hail Marys.

In the later Middle Ages, the rosary was popularized among the laity by the Dominicans. In Holland and Germany, the Dominicans promoted confraternities of the rosary. Many Dominican Friars would preach on the rosary.

The history of the rosary is a bit complicated, but we can appreciate it as a powerful prayer to Our Lady. Sister Lucia of Fatima has said that there is no problem that cannot be solved by praying the rosary. And the Holy Father says that the rosary is his favorite prayer.

Q. Over the last couple of years, Pope John Paul II has spoken a lot about the need for reconciliation and forgiveness. Why aren't more people responding to this call?

A. For one thing, it isn't easy. The day after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, after the numbness had worn off, I found myself crying during the evening news. We had been degraded and dragged down. We faced the temptation of giving in to despair. Our quite righteous anger could easily become unrighteous as we forgot the human dignity of the perpetrators and just began to stereotype and hate.

Our Holy Father recently pointed out why it so hard for us to forgive and reconcile in just such circumstances. He stated that dialogue between cultures is often difficult because people have vivid memories of the wars, the conflicts, and the violence handed down from generation to generation.

Some people would argue that in the face of such a history of hate, forgiveness is impossible. But, as Christians, we know that the road to true peace will come only as we reconcile and forgive. Our Holy Father tells us that we ought to gaze at a crucifix and recall Jesus' words about those who had crucified Him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).

Q. How did the Marians get involved in spreading the message of Divine Mercy?

A. Under nearly impossible conditions during World War II, Fr. Joseph Jarzebowski, MIC, brought the Divine Mercy message to the Marians in America, who then began to spread it in this country and around the world. This Polish Marian -- who had learned of the message from St. Faustina's spiritual director -- "miraculously" escaped to America in 1941, via Siberia and Japan. He was being hunted by Nazi death squads and carried with him a manuscript on Divine Mercy.

Arriving in Washington, DC, on May 24, 1941, Fr. Joseph attributed his escape to The Divine Mercy and began to share the message with the Marians there. Among them was the late Fr. Walter Pelczynski, MIC, who would later become the founder of the Association of Marian Helpers.

Soon, Fr. Walter and other Marians in America began to distribute materials on Divine Mercy with the help of the Felician Sisters in Enfield, CT. By 1953, our Marian Apostolate -- which was then in Stockbridge, MA -- had become the international center for Divine Mercy. We were distributing more than 25 million pieces of mercy literature per year.

In 1964, Fr. Joseph died at the age of only 66. He left us quite a legacy.

Fr. Joe Roesch, MIC, welcomes your questions. Send them to: Ask a Marian, Editorial, Eden Hill, Stockbridge, MA 01263, or

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