Earlier this month Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool requested that every priest in his archdiocese invite the faithful to revive the practice of reciting the rosary on a regular, if not daily, basis.
Some priests then went so far as to dedicate homilies to explaining to congregations what the rosary was, how to pray it, and how they might benefit from partaking in this scriptural and Christocentric devotion.
Catholics could pray the rosary as they walked their dogs, for example, or waited at bus stops, one priest told his congregation; and if they did not have a set of beads to hand then they could count on their fingers instead.
Archbishop McMahon, of course, is a Dominican, an order renowned for its promotion of the rosary. Yet in north London, Auxiliary Bishop John Wilson of Westminster made a similar plea at Mass in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary at the rosary shrine in Haverstock Hill, where he told worshippers that if they were “to take away one thing today, it is this: pray the rosary often”.
As recorded in these pages previously, there is something of a rosary revival underway in Britain. This was evident in the Rosary on the Coast in April, which saw 10,000 Catholics gather in nearly 250 locations. Huge numbers also assembled earlier this month for the Rosary under the Cross, an event of prayer for life, faith and peace in the British Isles, and a further 2,000 people took part in the Rosary Crusade in London last Saturday (pictured).
All of these events indicate a resurgence of Marian piety in Britain after an ebb of more than half a century. This will come to a head in 2020 when the bishops rededicate England as the Dowry of Mary.
As with the renewal of Eucharistic Adoration, this resurgence is being actively encouraged by the hierarchy and the Pope. At the start of October, Francis not only invited Catholics to pray the rosary each day but also requested that they conclude with the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel, adding in his own way to the development of the devotion by his predecessors.
Indeed, as Cardinal Francis Arinze pointed out in his 2017 book, Marian Veneration, the rosary has been recommended throughout history by many popes, including St Pius V, a Dominican who famously urged Christians to recite it so that the Turks might be defeated at Lepanto, but also by Pius VI, Venerable Pius XII, St John XXIII and Benedict XVI, to name a few.
Pope St John Paul II proclaimed a Year of the Rosary in 2002 and added five new decades – the Luminous Mysteries – to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries that had been recited for centuries.
The newly canonised Pope St Paul VI also strongly advocated the rosary, saying in Marialis Cultus, his apostolic exhortation of 1974, that it was “one of the best and most efficacious prayers … that the Christian family is invited to recite”.
October was first consecrated as the month of the Holy Rosary by Pope Leo XIII in Supremi Apostolatus Officio, his encyclical on the rosary of 1883.
In England, just four years before the encyclical came out, Teresa Higginson, a mystic who received the stigmata, began a teaching post in Bootle, Liverpool, by asking the parish priest the name of the “worst street in the parish”. She recited an additional 15 Mysteries of the Rosary for the families of Mordan Street, and recorded how 27 people there later went to Confession and returned to the practice of their faith.
Saints have often promoted the rosary, among them St Pio of Pietrelcina and St Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort; Our Lady herself added to the rosary with the Fatima prayer given in Portugal a century ago.
The Higginson anecdote imparts a little of what the rosary is about, in that it is a prayer of petition. Yet it is also a meditative and devotional prayer, a means of contemplating Scripture with the capacity of “forming Christians according to the heart of Christ”, as St John Paul put it in Rosarium Virginis Mariae, his apostolic exhortation on the rosary of 2002.
The Bishops of England and Wales are keen to promote the rosary for surely the same reason as they called the National Eucharistic Congress: because, like Adoration, the recital of the rosary helps the faithful to know and to draw closer to Jesus, to grow in virtue and holiness and to become saints.
The context of this revival is a post-Christian society, in which, according to Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, a bestseller first published in 2012, “people who don’t personally believe will not stay” in the Church now that cultural or familial ties to Christianity are disappearing. Their faith, she said, has to be “either personally meaningful or they are gone”.
At present, many British parishes flourish only because of Catholic migrants in the pews. Immigration is the reason why Scandinavia is the only part of Europe where the Catholic Church is growing. But, as Cardinal Andreas Arborelius of Stockholm noted in a visit to Buckfast Abbey in May, such growth will prove illusory if the children of migrants reject their faith in a highly secular culture.
Pope Francis has a vision of missionary parishes. But many parishes are merely hoping for survival. It is with the rediscovery of the “priceless treasure” of the rosary that such churches can trust that their prayers may be answered.
This article first appeared in the October 19 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here