Britain’s great rosary revival


The total currently stands at 247, but every few hours it increases. By next week, as many as 300 locations could be preparing to host the Rosary on the Coast, which takes place on Sunday April 29. At 2.30pm, Catholics will gather at St Ninian’s Isle in the Shetlands, at Hugh Town on the Isles of Scilly, and all around the coast of England, Scotland and Wales to say the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, along with a selection of prayers and hymns.

“New locations are coming thick and fast every day,” says one of the organisers, John Mallon, who adds that they have been “very strict” about what they put on the map, so there will probably be many more groups. Some sites have 20 attending; some over 100. The minimum overall attendance is estimated at 10,000, “but that’s very, very conservative,” Mr Mallon says.

This is a grassroots movement, but it has the hierarchy’s support. Pope Francis has sent his blessing, via the nuncio Archbishop Edward Adams; Cardinal Nichols has offered his prayers and good wishes. At least nine bishops will be attending.

For long-term watchers of English Catholicism, it is quite a turnaround. Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, author of the forthcoming Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, notes: “The decline of the rosary – indeed, of Marian piety in general – over the past 50 or 60 years has been truly remarkable.”

In 1952, Wembley Stadium was filled with 83,000 Catholics praying the rosary. And that was just a small portion of the million or so British Catholics who took part in an open-air “rosary crusade” in parks and football stadiums. The July issue of Picture Post featured a photograph of a Durham miner leading his family in prayer. As the historian Alana Harris records in Faith in the Family, a kind of fervour for the rosary swept the Catholic population, with reports of an increasing number of boys not ashamed to be seen in school with their beads.

The scenes of 1952 would have been “unthinkable” even 20 years later, Bullivant says. But Marian devotion has now returned in force. Last year Westminster Cathedral was packed for the consecration of England and Wales to the Immaculate Heart, and also for the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The shrine at Walsingham continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.

Not that the rosary ever went away: since 1984, for instance, the Rosary Crusade of Reparation has taken place in the streets of London. “Unlike a great many other devotions,” Bullivant says, “the rosary never completely disappeared.” But there seemed to be a new energy: “Its rediscovery in recent years, especially among younger Catholics who were never brought up with it, is an encouraging sign. It is particularly pleasing to see so many of our Successors of the Apostles ‘leading from the front’,” he says.

Last year’s consecration of Scotland to the Immaculate Heart showed how Catholics in the pews could make their voices heard. There were “continual letters” demanding the consecration, which encouraged bishops to carry it out. Mr Mallon said that while devotion to the rosary had always been strong in Scotland, “social media has generated a real buzz among Catholics of all ages”, which had helped to boost the rosary event.

Another reason, he suggested, was the “real lack of hope in society. The economic crash, the scandals affecting almost every public institution, the looming prospect of war, populism on the rise across the globe have led to Catholics seeking spiritual solutions to the ills of the world.”

The symbolism of thousands of Catholics looking out to sea, and imploring Mary’s protection and help, will no doubt be an encouragement to many to take up their rosaries. As Bishop Brian McGee of Argyll and the Isles observes in the Rosary on the Coast booklet: “The Good News of God’s love literally came to our diocese via the coast. One-and-a-half thousand years ago our forefathers were blessed with the arrival of Irish missionaries spreading the joy of the Gospel.”

A renewal of interest in the rosary will be a good preparation for 2020, when England will be re-dedicated under its ancient title as the Dowry of Mary. Even the Catholics of 1952 didn’t manage that.

This article first appeared in the April 20th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here