Preached on Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, on Sunday, October 7, 1973 in the church of the Santa Maria del Rosario (popularly called I Gesuati) in Venice:
What would happen if, during a meeting of Catholics, I invited the ladies and the men to show what they had in their bags or pockets? No doubt I would see a number of combs, mirrors, lipsticks, purses, lighters and other small objects more or less useful. But how many rosaries? Several years ago, I would have seen more.
In Manzoni’s house, in Milan, one can still today see his rosary hanging from his bed head: he used to say it habitually, and in his novel The Betrothed, his Lucy takes her rosary out and recites it at the most dramatic moments (chap. 20-21).
Windthorst, the German statesman, was once asked by his non-practising friends to show them his rosary. It was a setup; they had previously removed it from his left pocket. Not finding it in his left pocket, Windthorst rummaged around in that of his right and displayed his evident relief. He always had a backup rosary!
Christopher Gluck, the famous musician, during the receptions given at the Court of Vienna, used to take himself off for a few minutes so that he could say his Rosary. Blessed Contardo Ferrini, professor at the University of Pavia, when he visited his friends, would invite them to say it with him.
Saint Bernadette declared that when the Blessed Virgin appeared to her, She would always be carrying a rosary in Her arms, would ask her whether she also had one and invite her to say it with Her. The same was true for the three little shepherds, to whom the Virgin recommended the recitation of the Rosary.
Why have I begun with this string of examples? Because the Rosary is today being contested by certain people. They say: «It is an infantile prayer, superstitious and unworthy of adult Christians.» Or else: «It is a prayer that is robotic, one that ultimately comes down to a cold, monotonous and boring repetition of Ave Marias.» Or else again: «It is a custom from a bygone age. Today we can do better: reading the Bible, for example, which is to the Rosary what fine flour is to bran!»
But allow me to tell you, in this regard, my impressions as a pastor of souls.
1. First impression: The crisis of the Rosary is not the main issue. What takes precedence today is the crisis of prayer in general. People are wholly taken up by their material interests, they think very little of their souls. Noise has gradually invaded our existence. Well might Macbeth repeat: “I have murdered sleep, I have murdered silence!” For the interior life and the dulcis sermocinatio or gentle conversation with God, people have difficulty finding a free moment. What a tragedy. Donoso Cortes said: «The world is in a bad way today because there is more fighting than prayer.» Community liturgies are developing, which is certainly a great blessing, but it is not enough: we also need our personal conversation with God.
2. Second impression: When people say that we must pray like “adult Christians”, they often go too far. Personally speaking, when I talk to God and the Blessed Virgin alone, I prefer to feel like a child rather than an adult. The miter, the skullcap, the ring disappear; I send the adult off for a walk and even the bishop with all his grave and ponderous dignity, so that I might abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness of a child with his papa and his mama. When I am with God, even if it be for a short half hour, I prefer to be what I am in reality, with all my wretchedness and any merits I might have. To feel the child I once was being reborn from the depths of my being, the child who wants to laugh, chatter, to love the Lord, who sometimes feels the need to cry so that he may obtain forgiveness – all this helps me to pray. The Rosary, a simple and easy prayer, also helps me to become a child again, and I am not ashamed of it.
3. Third impression: I have no wish to speak ill of anyone, nor should I do so, but I confess that I have often been tempted to judge such or such a person who believed they were adults simply because they pontificated or criticized from on high. I had a strong desire to say to them: «How grown up you are! But as for prayer, you are like a disillusioned and rebellious adolescent having a crisis, who has still not got over the aggressiveness of an ungrateful age!» May God forgive me for such a reckless judgment!
But I now come to other objections. Is the Rosary a prayer of repetition? Father de Foucauld said: «Love is expressed in few words, always the same and often repeated.»
I once saw a woman on a train who had put her child to sleep in the luggage nets. When the little one woke up, he saw from high up in his net his mama sitting opposite him and watching him. «Mama», he said. «My treasure!» she replied. And for a long part of the journey the dialogue between the two was the same. From above, «Mama!» And from below: «My treasure!» There was no need to say any more.
Shouldn’t the Bible be enough? Certainly it is a quid summum, but not everyone is prepared to read it, or else they do not have the time. And even for those who read it, it would be profitable at other moments, perhaps on a journey, or on the road, or at difficult times, to talk to the Blessed Virgin, if they believe that She is our Mother and our Sister. If the reading of the Bible is often only seen as nothing more than study, the mysteries of the Rosary, meditated on and savoured, are the Bible explored in depth, made spiritual sap and blood.
Is it a boring prayer? It depends. It can, on the contrary, be a prayer full of joy and elation. If one knows how, the Rosary becomes a gazing upon Mary that grows in intensity, little by little, as one says it. It can also be a ritornello springing from the heart, and which, by dint of repetition, sweetens the soul like a song.
Is the Rosary a poor prayer? So what would be a “rich prayer” then? The Rosary is a series of Paters, the prayer taught by Jesus, and of Aves, God’s salutation to the Virgin through the Angel, and of Glorias, the praise of the Holy Trinity. Would you prefer, instead of these, some profound theological reflections? Such would not suit the poor, the elderly, the humble and the simple. The Rosary expresses the faith without false complications, without evasion, without circumlocution; it helps us to abandon ourselves to God, to accept suffering with generosity. God also makes use of theologians, but, in order to distribute His graces, He uses above all the littleness of the humble and those who abandon themselves to His Will.
I have still one more remark to make to you: the family should be the first school of devotion and religious spirituality for children. The pedagogico-religious activity of parents – Paul VI recently said – is delicate, legitimate and irreplaceable. Delicate because of the climate of permissiveness and secularism all around us; legitimate because it forms part of the mission that God has entrusted to parents; irreplaceable because it is at this most tender age that one acquires the inclination and habit of religious prayer. The Rosary recited in the evening by parents and children gathered together, even if simplified or adapted, is a form of family liturgy. The writer Louis Veuillot confessed that the origin of his conversion lay in seeing the Rosary recited with faith by a Roman family.
With these convictions at heart, it was a comfort for me to learn of the initiative taken to make these ceremonies a reality. The Dominican Fathers, so zealous for the propagation of the Rosary in our city, and the Gesuati, the parish of the Rosary par excellence, suggested that I should revive this pious and great practice. With every confidence that their work will be blessed by God, I have come to this liturgy as to a joyous religious feast.
Unfortunately, this joy is gravely troubled by reports of a deadly and senseless war that broke out yesterday in the Near East. When will men cease hating each other? When will they be ready to sacrifice their petty dreams of an unstable national supremacy for the supreme and durable blessing of peace? When will we at last see an international organization equipped with real powers so that such catastrophes can be avoided in future? It is impossible at such a moment not to think, and with profound consternation, of the calamities suffered by individuals, families and entire nations, of the anguish of so many our brothers who, powerless, undergo the consequences of decisions taken by their countries’ leaders. The Near East has become a powder keg. We must pray to the Lord asking that the war – already, alas, unleashed – may not only remain limited, but may be speedily contained and halted. At the end of the Rosary it is our custom to invoke the Blessed Virgin under the title “Queen of Peace”. Let us therefore say with fervour: Regina pacis, ora pro nobis! (Opera omnia, vol. 6, p. 199-202)