Rosary's converts won't let its power slip through fingers

May 05, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

My 8-year-old daughter makes her first Holy Communion in the Catholic church soon, and I bought her the white dress and the halo of tiny flowers that make all those little girls, cheeks pink from the heat of the church in May, look like angels.

I also bought her a rosary. How do I explain that it isn't jewelry?

Medieval rosaries were just knots in a rope. Today, they are made of silver and pearls or of pretty colored beads. How do I get her to understand that this isn't an accessory, like a cross necklace?

Any Catholic born or educated since the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 might have a tough time explaining the rosary to his children. Then, the Catholic church stopped saying Mass only in Latin, turned the altar around toward the congregation and invited the laity to take part.

Before that time, Catholics fingered the beads on their rosaries and prayed during Mass while the priests did things they couldn't see or said things they couldn't understand.

A friend spent 16 years in Catholic education and never learned the rosary. His first association with it was typically scary. "I remember this old Polish woman sitting in her bed all day, praying the rosary and asking God to take her home."

As parishioners moved from city neighborhoods to the suburbs, the rosary was lost in the rush of young Catholics to blend in, to lose the ethnic identity that cherished devotions like the rosary.

"But it is making a comeback," says Monsignor Jerry Kenney, senior staff member to Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler. "Now, we have a pope who speaks and writes so well of his devotion to Mary and who has this connection with young people. Everyone who meets him is handed a rosary by one of his assistants."

The rosary dates to the Middle Ages, when, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Dominic and gave him a rosary. Each bead represents a prayer, and as the prayers are said, the faithful call to mind scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary.

I still associate the rosary with people of my parents' generation. (My sister's mother-in-law prays the rosary every night so her son will find a job. He's been a self-employed lawyer for 23 years, but she thinks that means he is out of work.)

And so I have been surprised to hear of people my age who have turned to the rosary and found everything from peace to power.

From her childhood, a friend recalls her sainted Puerto Rican aunts and their rosaries, but she never prayed it. Two were sent to her when one aunt died. "It was like she sent me her spirit, her faith, her strength. So I started.

"There is a promise there," she says of her prayers. "It makes me feel like I am doing something more than fretting."

A Gallup poll done for Life magazine's recent cover story on prayer revealed that nine out of 10 Americans pray earnestly and often. And almost all say God has answered their prayers.

A rosary is part of a Catholic's acknowledgment of the power of that prayer. That is part of the legend of the rosary, that Mary, to whom it is devoted, has never turned anyone away.

There is a gift, too, in the giving of the rosary. "My brother gave me his rosary, and it became a treasure," says another friend. "And I will someday pass it on to someone else in a special moment." She slips her hand under her pillow at night and finds it there, fingering the beads and praying until she falls asleep.

But the rosary is not just a woman's meditation. My great surprise has come at the number of men I know who pray it faithfully.

One returned to the Catholic church with his children and was surprised to find Mass a comfort. One day when he was wearing the rosary around his neck -- like love beads, like jewelry -- he was cornered by a woman who asked if he prayed the rosary and who told him it had changed her life.

"I felt embarrassed," he confesses. He picked up a pamphlet on how to pray the rosary, and now he does it each morning while looking out his kitchen window, while the coffee perks.

"At first, it was stiff, like playing scales on a piano. Now, it is my preferred vehicle for pondering the mysteries of life."

I will sit with Jessie soon and teach her the rosary prayers. I will tell her that it isn't jewelry or a lucky charm. I will try to explain that the rosary isn't a thing, so much as it is a place you come to.

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