Praying the Rosary with Meaning

The Rosary is one of the most popular Catholic prayers. It’s common to see a string of Rosary beads hanging from a priest’s robes. Like the Catholic Mass, the Rosary is a compound prayer. It isn’t just one small set of words like The Our Father. Rather, the Rosary is a prayer made up of other prayers. The overall goal of the Rosary is to help Catholics remember key important events from the Bible and Church history. For years I didn’t know what meditation meant. I saw the Rosary as simply a prescribed list of prayers to say. Only recently have I come to realize I was suppose to be meditating while saying all these prayers.

The Rosary is a unique prayer because it combines both a vocal and meditative part. Some of the prayers are just vocal, but most of the praying has a combination of both. Vocal prayer is spoken while meditative prayer remains in the mind. If you say the Rosary silently, the vocal prayers will be in the part of your mind that thinks in words while the meditative part of prayer will be in the part of the brain that thinks in images.

This can be challenging to do when first starting the Rosary because we don’t think of separate things at the same time in our normal life. It is a skill that can be learned though. After the prayers have been memorized, saying them becomes second nature. You can say them without really needing to think about them, much like you can drive a car or ride a bike without thinking much. That frees up your brain to do meditation. The vocal part serves a purpose in keeping your mind in a holy place while you meditate. It assists in keeping random thoughts out of your mind.

Below is the list of prayers most commonly said as part of the Rosary. For each one, I explain what to think about when saying that prayer. Hopefully after reading this, your Rosary praying will be even more meaningful than it already is!

The Rosary Prayers

Opening Prayers
The purpose of the opening prayers is to get you into a holy state of mind. As you say these prayers, you should be withdrawing from the world around you, clearing your mind, preparing for deep thought.

Sign of the Cross
This is the standard opening prayer anytime we pray. No meditation is needed.

Intention
This is an optional, but very special prayer that the Catholic can say before starting the Rosary. The Rosary can be thought of as a sacrifice to Mary and God. In return for this sacrifice, the Catholic can ask for something, called an intention. When I am worried about some upcoming hard day, I ask for calmness. When I know of someone in need, I ask for their help. My intention usually changes based on my needs, but it is perfectly fine to have the same intention for each praying of the Rosary. For example, you could simply ask for world peace.

Apostle’s Creed (crucifix)
The Apostle’s Creed starts the Rosary. No meditation is needed for this prayer. Just think of the words as you normally would while saying the prayer. This prayer is basically a profession of faith. By professing your faith, you acknowledge that you believe in it, and are ready to start thinking about your faith in detail.

Our Father (single bead)
The Our Father is the first prayer involving meditation. As you say this prayer, try to empty your mind. You will be saying (or thinking) the words of the prayer, but with practice you can say the prayer subconsciously, leaving your brain open to think about other things. This can take a lot of practice, but you will get better over time.

3 Hail Marys (3 beads)
The next three beads represent the theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (CCC 1813). Only one Hail Mary (1 bead) is devoted to each virtue, so this is a very brief meditation. You may not have time to think about all of these things. Just do your best. For the virtue of faith, think of your faith in Jesus, that he existed, was both God and man, and taught us how to live (CCC 1816).

For the next Hail Mary and virtue, think of the hope you have in heaven. Every Catholic’s goal and dream is to reach heaven and be with God (CCC 1817). Because of your faith in Jesus, you believe him, and so you believe that if you follow his teachings you will go to heaven. Yet this promise of Jesus has not been realized yet in your life, so you rely on hope to keep working towards holiness. This virtue also includes the hope that God will forgive all your sins and that even if you struggle with sin now, God will lead you away from it over time (CCC 1820-1821).

The virtue of charity is the focus of the meditation for the third Hail Mary. Charity is another word for love because if you love someone, you will make sacrifices for them (CCC 1825). Charity is sacrificing for others. This virtue completes the virtues of both faith and hope. You established that you believe in Jesus and his teachings (faith). You love Jesus, so you will sacrifice for him: charity. Charitable works in turn gives you the hope of getting to heaven because that is what Jesus taught. To simplify all of this, your faith gives you a reason to be charitable. Your charitable works give you the hope to reach heaven.

Glory Be (chain)
The theological virtues are the core of the Catholic religion. After meditating on them, you should get a sense of great joy in Jesus, God, The Holy Spirit. The natural response to that joy is thanks and praise. The Glory Be is a prayer of thanks and praise. For this short prayer, imagine God sitting on his throne with all the angels and saints singing of his glory. Imagine yourself being there in the audience, also singing of his glory. The glorious singing is already happening in heaven, and some day you will get to participate too.

Meditation Prayers
Some of the Opening Prayers above involved meditation, but the Meditation Prayers are where the real deep thinking happens. Meditation had to be quick during the Opening Prayers because you just had one bead for each subject. Now the decades start, a full ten prayers’ worth of time to meditate. Each decade is guided by one of the great Mysteries from the Bible and Church history. The Church has identified twenty Mysteries split into groups of five: Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious. The Rosary is typically prayed with just one of these groups, five decades, but you can also do all twenty Mysteries (twenty decades) in the same Rosary.

Announce the Mystery (single bead)
We start the meditation of a Mystery by announcing it. In a group, one person is usually the leader and makes this announcement with a relevant Bible passage and some thoughts to help with the meditation. You can do the same thing when alone or just announce the Mystery.

Our Father (single bead)
You already said this prayer for the Opening Prayer. It serves a similar introductory purpose here. Clear your mind of all distracting thoughts. Then imagine the scene of the mystery. If needed, you can find visual aids online or in little Rosary pamphlets. Feel free to create your own original images in your mind though. Don’t start thinking about the Mystery much. Just have that scene there.

10 Hail Marys (10 beads)
The meditation happens here. In saying the Hail Mary prayers, you are basically asking Mary to aid you in the meditation. Every Mystery contains many different things you can choose to think about. You could imagine yourself as a bystander of the scene looking on as the scene plays out or embody one of the participants of the scene and imagine taking the actions yourself. What would you do if you were there? You could think about the morality of the actions each participant made. You could bring that morality into your own life. Are you living your life like the holy people in the scene, or do you still need to work on something? Getting to the name itself, these are Mysteries. Almost all of them involve a miracle of some sort, so what is the miracle? For the few that don’t have a miracle, what is mysterious about this particular Mystery? The possibilities for meditation really are endless.

Below I provide the scene, roles, and miracles to meditate on for each Mystery below. I also give more specific examples of things to meditate on. Many of them also include questions for yourself in case you want to evaluate your own actions in relation to the Mysteries. It will probably be too hard to meditate on everything in a Mystery. Just pick one thing and focus on it. You can aid your meditation by speeding up or slowing down how fast you say the vocal prayers. If you need more time for meditation, say them slowly. If you find your mind wandering before you’ve finished your 10 Hail Marys, say them faster.

Using the Rosary for Discernment

The Rosary is a special meditative prayer in which five mysteries are examined in detail and reflected on (CCC 2708, definition of Rosary p. 897). The hope is that after the prayer the person will understand the mysteries just a little more, gain new appreciation for all the good things Jesus and the saints did, and see a few things they need to improve in their life. Examining the mysteries is really just discernment. When we meditate on the mysteries, we are asking God to enlighten us on something about the mysteries. We hope to learn something new after the prayer. This discernment can be directed toward anything we wonder about though. By following the same form of the Rosary, we can ask God for help in discerning other things besides the significance of the mysteries.

The Rosary form has three parts: the opening, the meditation, and the closing. The opening prayers focus us on God, get us into the prayer mood. When our mind is in the right place, we are ready to meditate. After the meditation, we say a few closing prayers to Mary and God to help the meditation bear fruit in our lives. Below is a short list of the prayers for each part:

The Opening Prayers
Sign of the Cross
Apostle’s Creed
Our Father
3 Hail Marys
Glory Be

The Meditation Prayers
Repeat for each mystery (5 times):
Our Father
10 Hail Marys
Glory Be
Fatima Prayer

The Closing Prayers
Hail, Holy Queen
Prayer to God for our meditation to bear fruit (O God, whose Only Begotten Son…)

While keeping this overall structure intact, the Rosary can be made into a meditation for discernment with just a few changes. No changes are needed for the opening prayers. They are a reiteration of our Catholic beliefs and get us in the spiritual mood to meditate. The closing prayers need to be changed to ask God and Mary for help with whatever information we seek or decision we need to make. This is the end result of discernment, to enlighten us as to what would be best for us. While specific prayers can be written down, it is easy enough to make up the prayers as you go. The only structure you have to maintain at the end is to say a prayer to Mary and then to God. To change the meditation part, split up the overall discernment question into a few parts.

Instead of meditating on a mystery, each decade of the Rosary can be used to meditate on one option in a choice or question you have. The Rosary has five decades, but you can change that to any number depending on what you want to pray about. Discernment is most popularly used for choosing a vocation: priesthood, consecrated life, or marriage. In this case, you would reduce the Rosary from five decades to three decades. During the meditation you would imagine yourself in each vocation, examining what you would like and dislike about each one. For the closing prayers, you would ask for guidance from Mary and God. Discernment is not restricted to vocations though. It can be used for any major decision, such as choosing which job offer to accept.

Sometimes you might want to meditate about just one thing. In that case, you can split the one thing into a few parts. Continuing with the idea of vocations, say you discerned that you had a calling for consecrated life. You could then meditate on a few different religious orders that seem to be the best fit. Each decade of the prayer you would meditate on one of the possible religious orders. After some dedication to this praying, you would be able to whittle down the list of possible religious orders to just one or two. So the Rosary structure is great for discerning a vocation*, but you can discern other things too.

The Rosary meditation can be used to aid an examination of conscience. In this case, you would look at all your recurring sins and think about each one in detail, the when, where, and how you committed those sins. This would help during a later Sacrament of Penance but also might give you some clues as to what changes you need to make in your life to avoid future sins. You could go even deeper with this practice by focusing on just a single sin you struggle with. Maybe there are certain occasions you usually commit sins during. You could then meditate (one decade) on each of those occasions with the goal to improve your actions when those occasions happen again. You would not simply be thinking about what you should do. Instead, you would invite God, with Mary’s intercessions, to help make these decisions.

The Rosary can be used as part of thanksgiving for all the good things God has done for you on a particular day. Meditate on all good things that happened before, during, and after work. Those were the blessings God gave you that day. This is discernment too. You are discerning how God helped you in your life. The closing prayers would be of thanksgiving towards Mary for her prayers on your behalf, to God directly for what he has done for you.

The possibilities are really endless. Anything you can think of where discernment might help can be thought about deeply in meditation with God and Mary’s help using the structure of the Rosary. The Rosary isn’t required for discernment, of course, but I have found it an easy, prayerful way to help me think deeply about my life and decide on any changes I need to make. During my normal prayer, my mind tends to get bombarded by outside thoughts. The Rosary is one of the few prayers that keeps my mind on track most of the time.

*Note: Discerning a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life involves more than just your own personal prayer. Please contact the vocations director in your diocese if you feel called to one of these vocations. You want to get all the support you can before making such an important decision.

May God bless you with his abundant grace,
Jared