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John Paul II's Rosary: Luminous Mysteries

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The Holy Rosary

Pope John Paul II's Rosary: The Luminous Mysteries

In October 2002, many Catholics were stunned to learn that Pope John Paul II introduced new mysteries to the centuries old, heaven-sent devotion of the Rosary. The following is a discussion of the new Mysteries and the encyclical that introduced them: Rosarium Virginis Mariae.

Click link below or scroll down to view all:

What are the New ('Luminous') Mysteries?

When are the New Mysteries to be said?

Are Catholics obliged to use the New Mysteries?

Are there any other changes to the Rosary?

Why have some Catholics preferred not to include the New Mysteries?

      Divine Origins & Praise

      The Proposed Changes & Some Concerns

What are the New ('Luminous') Mysteries?

The new mysteries are:

(1) Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan

(2) Jesus' self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana

(3) Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion

(4) Jesus' Transfiguration

(5) Jesus' institution of the Eucharist, as the sacramental expression of the Paschal Mystery.

As explained in the encyclical: 

"The Baptism in the Jordan is first of all a mystery of light. Here, as Christ descends into the waters, the innocent one who became "sin" for our sake (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), the heavens open wide and the voice of the Father declares him the beloved Son (cf. Mt 3:17 and parallels), while the Spirit descends on him to invest him with the mission which he is to carry out. Another mystery of light is the first of the signs, given at Cana (cf. Jn 2:1- 12), when Christ changes water into wine and opens the hearts of the disciples to faith, thanks to the intervention of Mary, the first among believers. Another mystery of light is the preaching by which Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (cf. Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47- 48): the inauguration of that ministry of mercy which he continues to exercise until the end of the world, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he has entrusted to his Church (cf. Jn 20:22-23). The mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor. The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to "listen to him" (cf. Lk 9:35 and parallels) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit. A final mystery of light is the institution of the Eucharist, in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies "to the end" his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice." (Pope John Paul II, "Rosarium Virginis Mariae", 10/02, emphasis added)

When are the New Mysteries to be said?

If the new mysteries are said, the encyclical recommends the following cycle:

Monday - Joyful Mysteries

Tuesday - Sorrowful Mysteries

Wednesday - Glorious Mysteries

Thursday - Mysteries of Light

Friday - Sorrowful Mysteries

Saturday - Joyful Mysteries

Sunday - Glorious Mysteries

Are Catholics obliged to use the New Mysteries?

No, Catholic are not obliged to use the New Mysteries. The decision regarding whether to include them or not is "left to the freedom of individuals and communities". (See Par. 19, Rosarium Virginis Mariae)

Are there any other changes to the Rosary?

Various other changes to the Rosary have been proposed. None of the changes are mandatory. See below for more information.

Why have some Catholics preferred not to include the New Mysteries?

When His Holiness Pope John Paul II issued his Encyclical on the Rosary in October 2002, "Rosarium Virginis Mariae", Catholics applauded his proclamation of the "Year of the Rosary". Along with this proclamation, though, came a number of proposed changes to this popular devotion. These changes are not mandatory, and many Catholics have preferred to stick to the "tried and true" method they have always used. The following illustrates some of these proposed changes and why many Catholics fail to adopt them.

Divine Origins & Praise

As acknowledged in Rosarium Virginis Mariae, "Well-known are the occasions in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries on which the Mother of Christ made her presence felt and her voice heard, in order to exhort the People of God to this form of contemplative prayer." In the Encyclical, we are reminded here that Mary has asked regularly for the recitation of the Rosary. During various approved apparitions, Mary has not asked for changes to the Rosary, other than at Fatima, when she requested the addition of one prayer after each decade. This prayer, often called the "Fatima Prayer" or the "O My Jesus" prayer, seems, curiously, to be discouraged in the encyclical Rosarium Virginis Mariae:

"In current practice, the Trinitarian doxology is followed by a brief concluding prayer which varies according to local custom. Without in any way diminishing the value of such invocations, it is worthwhile to note that the contemplation of the mysteries could better express their full spiritual fruitfulness if an effort were made to conclude each mystery with a prayer for the fruits specific to that particular mystery... Such a final prayer could take on a legitimate variety of forms, as indeed it already does. In this way the Rosary can be better adapted to different spiritual traditions and different Christian communities. It is to be hoped, then, that appropriate formulas will be widely circulated, after due pastoral discernment and possibly after experimental use in centuries and shrines particularly devoted to the Rosary"

Therefore, it is perplexing why a prayer Mary personally requested in an approved apparition should be excluded in favor of a "legitimate variety" of other prayers. Also, if Mary requested that one third of a Rosary be said each day, one would say 5 decades daily of a 15 decade Rosary (the traditional amount). With the addition of five additional mysteries, a complete Rosary would contain 20 decades. Thus, one attempting to heed Mary's request would face the challenge of praying the odd number of 6.66 decades. Catholics have also noted that the Hail Mary's of the Rosary corresponds to the 150 psalms in the Psalter. With the addition of the new mysteries, however, there is a total of 200 Hail Mary's, which no longer corresponds to the Psalter.

In a nutshell, some Catholics wonder why the devotion which is believed to be a gift from above requires change after enjoying centuries of fruitfulness, has been lavished with the greatest praise from popes, countless saints, and other lay people, and has been personally requested by Our Lady, now requires improvements or an "update". Never was it known that this popular devotion was in any way lacking. Mary did not request the change in her apparitions, but rather affirmed and recommended the Rosary as it was. The "Pope of the Rosary" (Pope Leo XIII) never requested changes, and even after Vatican II, changes were not made to it, despite attempts by Liberals to alter the devotion even back then. The Rosary in its "final form" (before these changes) was generally considered "untouchable" and was greatly beloved among the clergy and laity alike. In fact, there has been so much praise for the Rosary in the old form that it is thought that no prayer (other than the Traditional Mass) even comes close to "Mary's favorite prayer".

The Proposed Changes & Some Concerns

So, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" may be heard from bewildered Catholics. It is speculated that the answer might come from the encyclical itself with the statement: "If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism!" The question still remains, however, "Should we change this most valuable of prayers to be an aid to ecumenism?" The new mysteries, except one, and the other changes, arguably put Mary in the background. The Encyclical itself actually has a section entitled "Objections to the Rosary" which counter objections that those of other faiths might have. The new changes also introduce potentially divisive practices and make the prayer less universal. Rather than add a chaplet containing these mysteries, His Holiness has chosen to recommend altering the traditional Rosary.

So what are the proposed changes? The following is a summary of some proposed changes as indicated in the encyclical:

  • Five new mysteries are introduced

  • We are now encouraged "to follow the announcement of the mystery with the proclamation of a related Biblical passage, long or short, depending on the circumstances" and are told that "In certain solemn communal celebrations, this word can be appropriately illustrated by a brief commentary"

  • During each Hail Mary in a public recitation, the Faithful are now encouraged to "[highlight] the name of Christ by the addition of a clause referring to the mystery being contemplated"

  • We are encouraged to emphasize the Gloria in each decade, including singing it

  • We are now encouraged to "to conclude each mystery with a prayer for the fruits specific to that particular mystery"

  • The pattern of the Rosary is now altered and the recommended cycle breaks up the natural sequence of the mysteries

  • Children are encouraged to become more creative in praying the Rosary

Concerns about the changes include:

  • The increased amount of time needed to complete the Rosary with the addition of five scripture readings and five commentaries, a sung Gloria, and other changes

  • The changes complicate the Rosary and introduce distractions

  • Some of the new mysteries are more abstract and are more difficult to reflect on

  • The omission of the prayer requested by Our Lady

  • Fear that the new precedent of change may make the Rosary subject to further change as people become "bored" with the new changes and the quest for novelty begins

  • The negative effects of non-universality or disunity of the various regional adaptations; This disunity is now built in by design

  • Experimentation is now encouraged

  • As admitted in the encyclical, it is more likely that with the new mysteries many people will not be able to recite the full Rosary each day

  • The increased focus on the formula of the Rosary may reduce contemplation (since we must remember new words and phrases for each mystery, which are likely to vary among individuals and groups)

  • The divisiveness of changing a well beloved devotion (not just among families, but even among communities)

  • Confusion may occur as the faithful recite the Rosary with different groups, each with its own practices and prayers

  • Rather than praying the Rosary in "one voice" throughout the world, the faithful will now be saying different prayers, reflecting on different mysteries, etc.

  • The cycle of meditation is changed to an unnatural succession (i.e. the Joyful Mysteries occur immediately after the Sorrowful, the Glorious occur immediately after the Joyful) and the "triple" mysteries corresponding to the liturgical season will no longer occur

  • The "high degree of imprecision" especially associated with one of the New Mysteries ["Another mystery of light is the preaching by which Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (cf. Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47- 48)"] may make meditation difficult. When a mystery doesn't concern one specific event, it is harder to picture in one's mind.

  • Various concerns over readings and commentary are now introduced into the Rosary (who determines the readings?, who determines the content or length of the commentary?, who is qualified to comment?, what about issues of orthodoxy?, etc.)

  • Concern about the "Protestantizing" of a traditional Catholic devotion

  • At a time when people are less devout, less pious, and less unified, why should the Rosary be made longer, more complicated, and possibly divisive?

  • Concern over changing a devotion with a divine origin that has been approved by Mary

  • Concern about the lost symbolism in the number of groupings (Trinity/threefold grouping of mysteries vs. the new division into four groupings)

  • Concern over changing the number of Hail Mary's in a full Rosary from 153 to 203. The number 153 corresponds both to the number of fish in Holy Scripture (Jn. 21:11), and to the number of days in between the Blessed Virgin's apparitions at Fatima (5/13-10/13 = 153 days), where she requested the Rosary be said by the faithful

  • Concern that traditional indulgences would no longer be possible [Note that 1/3 of Rosary is common for traditional indulgences (see Raccolta #'s 395, 397, 398); with a full 15 decade Rosary, this is, conveniently, a 5 decade Rrosary, with 20 decades of the Rosary, this becomes the unusual number of 6.66 decades]

  • At Fatima, Mary asked us to meditate on the 15 mysteries of the Rosary. She said nothing about any other mysteries. In fact, a Basilica was built there with 15 altars corresponding to the fifteen mysteries. Is this basilica now "obsolete"? What about the complete rosaries made with 15 decades? Rosary groups with 15 members? Precious works of art depicting the 15 mysteries? Numerous books, writings, etc. discussing the 15 mysteries (some written by popes and saints)? Will there be more changes to make these items "obsolete" again?

  • Concern that the Rosary, the "Psalter of Mary" no longer corresponds to the 150 psalms in the Psalter. Now the "Psalter of Mary" would have more than the Psalter itself (200 vs. 150).

  • Concern over loss of the symbolism regarding 15 mysteries (e.g. corresponds to the 15 gradual psalms, the 15 temple steps, and even the 15 fifteen promises of the Rosary)

  • Concern that the depth of new mysteries differs from that of the existing mysteries. It has been argued that these new mysteries don't fit in as well and that each of the new mysteries is already contained in some way within the existing mysteries. For example:

    • Baptism in the Jordan - prefigured in Joyful mysteries (presentation in the temple, circumcision)

    • Self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana - contained in Joyful mysteries (Jesus manifested himself in the Temple at age 12 as well as in the other Joyful Mysteries - Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Presentation at Temple)

    • Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion - contained in Joyful mysteries (all Joyful Mysteries proclaim the Kingdom of God)

    • Transfiguration - contained in some form in the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries (each set of mysteries clearly demonstrate that he is God and Man and include signs to demonstrate this fact)

    • Institution of the Eucharist as the sacramental expression of the Paschal Mystery - foretold in the Joyful Mysteries and contained in Sorrowful Mysteries (the entire, actual paschal mystery is contained in the sorrowful mysteries and was foretold at the presentation at the Temple)

  • Concern that the changes are more likely to cause division than give "fresh life" and "enkindle renewed interest" in the Rosary

  • Concern over trying to increase interest in a devotion by complicating it. Increased length and complexity seems unlikely to prompt those who don't pray the Rosary to begin praying it. The changes may also discourage to those who do pray the Rosary. For example, those who previously made time for a full Rosary (15 decades) may be discouraged to suddenly have a full Rosary become 20 decades. If they are now unable to complete a 'full Rosary' of 20 decades, they may omit the devotion all together or pray a simple 5 decade Rosary instead.

Despite the many beautiful expressions in the encyclical, some Catholics have expressed concerns about certain elements of the encyclical, including:

  • The inference that the depth of the Gospel message is contained in the Rosary in its entirety, but now needs updating

  • We are told that with the Rosary we sit at the school of Mary and "see through the eyes of Mary" and that there is a "Marian foundation" to the new mysteries, but Mary was only ostensibly present for one of the new mysteries

  • We are told that the Rosary needs to reclaim its "full meaning" without being told what meaning that is or when it was lost

  • It seems to imply that the Rosary was merely "developed" over time rather than being a supernatural gift

  • The focus of the Rosary is directed to mere earthly concerns ("Consequently, one cannot recite the Rosary without feeling caught up in a clear commitment to advancing peace, especially in the land of Jesus, still so sorely afflicted and so close to the heart of every Christian", "How could one possibly contemplate the mystery of the Child of Bethlehem, in the joyful mysteries, without experiencing the desire to welcome, defend and promote life, and to shoulder the burdens of suffering children all over the world... Finally, how could one possibly gaze upon the glory of the Risen Christ or of Mary Queen of Heaven, without yearning to make this world more beautiful, more just, more closely conformed to God's plan?")

  • Seems to imply that we need to "bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary". Was Christ's being made incarnate, suffering and dying, and resurrection not fully "Christological"?

  • Claims that the traditional Rosary already "has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium", but then suggests that it should be "broadened"

  • How can one compare certain events in Jesus' life with the most outstanding events of all - His incarnation, death, and resurrection? Yet, we are told that "this truth emerges in a special way during the years of his public life"

  • These new mysteries have been called "difficulty worded and hard to grasp". Also, they seem to focus only on the "positive". 

  • Catholic means "universal" - yet the changes alter a universal prayer and leave it up to the "freedom of individuals and communities"

  • The encyclical praises contemplation and the rhythm, but seems to make contemplation more difficult and imposes a different rhythm

  • The changes are to be "without prejudice" to any essential aspect of the prayer's traditional format", but how can this be? It interrupts the sequence, it changes the structure of it, it changes prayers, etc.

  • The changes have already "unleashed creativity" and have invited "spoofs", such as the "dark mysteries" which might focus on the announcement of eternal punishments and other "negative" Gospel themes

  • Rather than a supernatural emphasis, man-centeredness is introduced. It seems to say that we are supposed to meditate on the Rosary to learn about man, rather than learn about God. For example, this man-centeredness is apparent in the following passage of the encyclical: "I said then that 'the simple prayer of the Rosary marks the rhythm of human life'...In the light of what has been said so far on the mysteries of Christ, it is not difficult to go deeper into this anthropological significance of the Rosary, which is far deeper than may appear at first sight. Anyone who contemplates Christ through the various stages of his life cannot fail to perceive in him the truth about man... Following in the path of Christ, in whom man's path is "recapitulated", revealed and redeemed, believers come face to face with the image of the true man. Contemplating Christ's birth, they learn of the sanctity of life; seeing the household of Nazareth, they learn the original truth of the family according to God's plan; listening to the Master in the mysteries of his public ministry, they find the light which leads them to enter the Kingdom of God; and following him on the way to Calvary, they learn the meaning of salvific suffering. Finally, contemplating Christ and his Blessed Mother in glory, they see the goal towards which each of us is called, if we allow ourselves to be healed and transformed by the Holy Spirit. It could be said that each mystery of the Rosary, carefully meditated, sheds light on the mystery of man."

  • Compare the highest praise of the Rosary from popes and saints (click here for a sampling) with the encyclical's comment that the Rosary is "situated within this broad gamut of religious phenomena" and "simply a method of contemplation"

  • It is often asserted in the encyclical that the Rosary has a Marian focus, but such sentiments are often countered with comments such as "One thing is clear: although the repeated Hail Mary is addressed directly to Mary, it is to Jesus that the act of love is ultimately directed, with her and through her", leaving Catholics to wonder if the act of love is not ultimately directed to Mary. Given that we are asking Mary for her prayers and repeating the greetings of the angel and of Elizabeth are we not directing it ultimately to her as they were?

  • Paragraphs such as the following leave some faithful Catholics with questions...

"In effect, the Rosary is simply a method of contemplation. As a method, it serves as a means to an end and cannot become an end in itself. All the same, as the fruit of centuries of experience, this method should not be undervalued. In its favor one could cite the experience of countless Saints. This is not to say, however, that the method cannot be improved. Such is the intent of the addition of the new series of mysteria lucis to the overall cycle of mysteries and of the few suggestions which I am proposing in this Letter regarding its manner of recitation. These suggestions, while respecting the well-established structure of this prayer, are intended to help the faithful to understand it in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life. Otherwise there is a risk that the Rosary would not only fail to produce the intended spiritual effects, but even that the beads, with which it is usually said, could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function."

How are these changes "intended to help the faithful to understand it in the richness of its symbolism and in harmony with the demands of daily life"? This is important to know because "Otherwise there is a risk that the Rosary would not only fail to produce the intended spiritual effects, but even that the beads, with which it is usually said, could come to be regarded as some kind of amulet or magic object, thereby radically distorting their meaning and function". How specifically would this happen if the Rosary wasn't changed? And, how do these changes reduce this "risk"? And, if there is such a risk, why has it not been a problem before or even so much as hinted at before?

In summary, many Catholics may not embrace the new methods and new mysteries for a variety of reasons. Let us hope that all such concerns prove to be groundless. In any event, the proposed changes are not mandatory or binding on the faithful; Catholics are free to continue praying the Rosary in the traditional manner, the same manner praised so highly by numerous popes and saints - and even by the Blessed Virgin herself.

Also see: The Holy Rosary (Reflections)

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