“Isn’t That Just Vain Repetition?” A Former Evangelical Learns to Love the Rosary

Photography by Andy Coan

Photography © by Andy Coan

I was brought up in a devout Protestant, Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. We weren’t exactly anti-Catholic, but we thought Catholics needed to “get saved.” After college in South Carolina, I moved to England and became an Anglican priest. It was my habit to make my annual retreat at the Benedictine Abbey of Quarr on the Isle of Wight. Just as I was about to leave for retreat, a parishioner gave me a rosary. She had just come back from a pilgrimage to the great Marian shrine of Walshingham, and she had felt led to buy me this gift. I had never used the rosary, and was prejudiced against it.

My first instinct was to reject this “Catholic superstition.” However, one of my guiding principles was a little saying I had discovered while a student. It is, “A person is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.” So I looked at the rosary and asked myself why I was denying something used by millions of fellow Christians. Who was more likely to be right—me or the millions? So I went to the Abbey bookshop and found a little book of instruction and started to learn my way around that “chain of prayer that binds us to God.”

What happened next was terrible. Within weeks my life started to come apart at the seams. I was a young priest who thought he had everything together. Suddenly I began to see great fault lines in my life. I started to receive Christian counseling and God began the long process of sorting me out, and before He could start to put me together He had to take me apart. It wasn’t easy, but in the midst of it a gentle priest said to me, “Our Lady’s prayers have done you so much good haven’t they?” Only then did I realise that the healing process I was going through had started once I began using the rosary.

Since then I have used the rosary regularly in my life. The journey of Christian healing is never over; and the rosary has been my link back to that same power that constantly seeks to draw me back to Christ. I am also convinced that praying with the rosary has been one of the great magnets that finally drew me into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Evangelicals have great difficulties understanding the Catholic view of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At worst they think we worship Mary instead of God. At the least, they think our worship of Jesus Christ is distorted by our devotion to Mary. They have trouble accepting the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Our Lady. I had thought these things through, but it was the rosary that brought me to understand them with the heart, not just with the head.

Before I was a Catholic I prayed the rosary, but I changed the glorious mysteries. I could not yet accept the Assumption and Coronation of the Blessed Virgin. So I substituted other glorious mysteries that I thought were more based in Scripture: the Transfiguration and the Second Coming of Christ. I also wished that the rosary had included more of the gospel events of Christ’s ministry – not just the events of his birth, passion and triumph.

That is why I was delighted when, in 2002, Pope John Paul II published his great encyclical on the rosary – Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In the pastoral letter he introduces a new set of five mysteries. The new “Mysteries of Light” or “Luminous Mysteries” take us into his earthly ministry. Now ten years later most of us are used to these “new” mysteries of

  1. Our Lord’s Baptism,
  2. Our Lord’s First Miracle at the Wedding in Cana,
  3. Our Lord’s Teaching on the Kingdom and the need for Repentance,
  4. The Transfiguration and
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist.

I’m delighted with this renewal of the rosary not only for my own life, but because of my friendship with Evangelicals. I correspond regularly with many evangelical friends. I have to admit that most are not really interested in the Catholic Church. But some are interested and a few are attracted to the Catholic faith. However, they still have problems with our devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By introducing more mysteries linked with the ministry of Christ the Holy Father John Paul answered some of their concerns.

HIs encyclical is worth re-reading. It can be found here. John Paul’s letter helps them understand that the rosary is not a form of “vain repetition.” Instead, when properly prayed, it is a way of meditating deeply on the redemptive work of Christ. The rosary is a tool. The Pope taught, “It serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself.”

Evangelicals sometimes complain that the rosary ignores Scripture. The Pope taught us to renew again our interest in Scripture and use passages of Scripture to help us meditate through the rosary. Protestants also complain that the rosary focuses on Mary too much. The Pope has reminded all of us that the centre of the rosary is Christ not Mary.

One of the best things about Evangelicals is their emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus”. Often that means they regard Christ as a friend and brother. That is good, but Jesus Christ is also our Lord and God. Because of this, our relationship with him should also be one of adoration and love. My evangelical friends admit that they are not strong on this aspect of worship. They shouldn’t be afraid of the rosary. It provides a way for all Christians to enter into a closer relationship with Christ. To contemplate is to spend time in Christ’s loving presence, and the rosary is an excellent way to do this. As the Pope reminds us, “To recite the rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”



Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and the author of many articles and books on the Catholic faith, including, Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing. 

Visit his blog and website at www.dwightlongenecker.com and like his FACEBOOK page: http://www.facebook.com/FrDwightLongenecker.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

Visit Fr. Longenecker on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/frlongenecker.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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8 Comments

  1. I have a few problems with the Luminous Mysteries:
    1) It seems to me that the Rosary is a prayer that seeks Christ through His Blessed Mother. The Mysteries should, therefore, be centered on her participation in the life of Christ.
    2) The Rosary has always been a sort of substitute for the psalter (150 Psalms versus 150 Hail Marys.)

    The Luminous Mysteries seem to be outside of this symbolism, both because some of these mysteries do not involve the Blessed Virgin, and because the symbolism of 150 is lost.

  2. Tragos,

    Certainly the Rosary is a devotion in which we seek the aid of Mary to direct us to her Son. But, I do not think your observation holds up. The 5 Luminous Mysteries are no less centered on her participation than are the five Sorrowful Mysteries and the first three Glorious Mysteries.

    Regarding the 150 psalms, the added benefit of the Luminous Mysteries as an aid to our meditation far outweighs the symbolism. Think of Lent… it symbolizes the 40 days in the desert, but at various times in Church history it has been 40 days long, less than and more than. The symbolism remains even if the strict number does not.

    So, be at peace and meditate, while in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on these key events in the life of Christ.

    Deacon Mike

  3. Deacon Mike Bickerstaff says:
    November 11, 2012 at 9:40 am
    Tragos,
    Certainly the Rosary is a devotion in which we seek the aid of Mary to direct us to her Son. But, I do not think your observation holds up. The 5 Luminous Mysteries are no less centered on her participation than are the five Sorrowful Mysteries and the first three Glorious Mysteries.
    Regarding the 150 psalms, the added benefit of the Luminous Mysteries as an aid to our meditation far outweighs the symbolism. Think of Lent… it symbolizes the 40 days in the desert, but at various times in Church history it has been 40 days long, less than and more than. The symbolism remains even if the strict number does not.
    So, be at peace and meditate, while in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on these key events in the life of Christ.
    Deacon Mike
    ———————————-
    Deacon Mike,
    Thank you for your efforts to answer my problems with the Luminous Mysteries. I am still unsatisfied, however, and this must be because I was not clear and specific enough in formulating these problems. I will try again.
    The rosary in its pre-J.P. II form has a long history, including an appearance of Our Lady to St. Dominic. It is a Marian devotion, and I understand this to mean that this prayer is centered on Mary’s life in relation to that of her Divine Son. It starts with her acceptance of God’s plan, and ends with her coronation as Queen of heaven and earth. All of these mysteries are supposed to be meditations on key events in her life—not on events in the life of Jesus considered solely in relation to Him or to others.
    There are three groups of mysteries, involving her joy at the events surrounding her Son’s birth and youth, her sorrow in His suffering and death, and her glorification along with that of her Son. There is a marked absence of events in the public life of Jesus, and I think there is a reason for this. Jesus’ public life was about bringing the message of salvation to the world. Mary already had this message. This can be seen in the rare references to her, as when Jesus was told that His mother and brethren were outside, and when a woman declared blessed the womb that had given birth to Him and the breasts that had nourished Him. His response in both cases was similar: those are blessed who do the will of God. Now, who most of all did that apply to? Well, to His mother. She did not require the karygma, and she did not directly participate in His public ministry, until the Passion.
    Then there is the question of the relation of the rosary to the Psalter, and the number of Hail Marys. I think you are going a bit fast here. The psalms are divided into three groups of 50, for a total of 150. I think that this is important. The rosary of J.P. II is divided into four parts and has 200 Hail Marys. The correspondence to the psalms is completely lost.
    Your argument based on the 40 days of Lent really has no relevance here. First of all, I concede that Lent did not always have 40 days, if we mean simply the period of penance before Easter, but then again, it was not called Quadragesima (Latin for 40). In the first centuries, there were many discussions and practices about what penances should be done before Easter, and for what period of time, but when once fixed at 40 days, I believe it stayed that way.
    Further, I think you are seriously underestimating the importance of certain symbols and certain n umbers, but that would involve us in a quite different discussion.
    I have no problem meditating, “while in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on these key events in the life of Christ”, but not while saying the rosary.
    I am sorry, my brother in Christ, that we cannot be in agreement on this question. Pax!

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