(RNS) — After a series of health crises and the loss of her father, religion teacher Arlene Sanchez-Walsh found herself in need of prayer.
So she downloaded what she called “a modern, millennial Catholic app” for her smartphone, thinking it might help her.
This was not the case.
What she needed was a ritual that was tangible and tied to the past, both from the Catholic Church and from her own Mexican Catholic family. She therefore began to recite the Rosary, as her great-grandmother had done.
“I needed something because my life was kinda off the rails, and I needed to find something to temper the chaos,” Sanchez-Walsh said. “The rhythms of prayer brought me great relief.”
Long a staple of Catholic life, the rosary is back in the spotlight with the election of Joe Biden, who will become the nation’s second Catholic president when he takes office in January. The elected president often wears a rosary that belonged to his son Beau, who died in 2015.
“That’s my connection to him,” Biden told the Today Show in fall 2017.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said that in the midst of a pandemic — when many churches cannot meet in person and much religious practice has shifted to line – the rosary can be a concrete sign of faith.
“Faith is really a way of life that needs to be more concrete,” said Groome, co-author of Catholic Spiritual Practices: Treasures Old and New, which includes a chapter on praying the rosary.
“The rosary is one of the ways we take it out of our heads and put it into our lives.”
According to a guide from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the rosary is a “scriptural prayer” that begins with the sign of the cross, followed by the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer (also known as the name of “Our Father”), the Glory Be and the repeated Ave Maria prayers and meditations on a series of “mysteries” – joyful, luminous, sorrowful, glorious – drawn from the life of Jesus in the Gospels and Catholic teaching.
Those praying the Rosary will focus on a different mystery each day of the week, on a set schedule. The beads act as a kind of guide or roadmap to help people keep their place.
“Repetition in the Rosary is intended to lead to restful, contemplative prayer related to each Mystery,” according to the USCCB guide. “The gentle repetition of the words helps us to enter into the silence of our hearts, where the spirit of Christ dwells. The Rosary can be recited privately or in a group.
Groome said the Luminous Mysteries are a fairly recent addition, introduced by Pope John Paul II to place more emphasis on the life and words of Jesus.
They help Catholics focus on the teaching of Jesus, he said, especially in the commandments to love your neighbor and the proclamation of the good news to the poor – and remind them of the need to put this teaching in practice.
For Alexandra Zermeno, a 33-year-old teacher from suburban Chicago, the rosary has been a way to get her prayer life back on track. Zermeno, who has five children under the age of six, said between work and family life, it’s hard to find time to pray.
She said a prayer if something came to mind in the middle of the day or started to pray at night, only to fall asleep, but found this approach to prayer unsatisfying.
So this fall, she began to recite the Rosary regularly.
“I want to be more intentional in my prayers,” she said. “And I love Mary, and I really love the rosary, and I really want to get to know Jesus on a more personal level and develop a friendship with him. And I think Mary is one of the best ways to do that.
She also started posting prayer information on Instagram and asking people if she can pray for them. It helps keep her motivated, she said, because she doesn’t want to disappoint the people she has promised to pray for.
“I just keep kind of a running count of the people I’m praying for,” she said. “And I want to pray the Rosary even more because I also want to pray for these people.”
Tom Vogel of Spring Hill, Tennessee also uses the rosary as a way to pray for others. He also finds there a source of hope at a very trying time in American culture.
Vogel said he learned to say the rosary as a child in Catholic school and never lost the habit. At first, he admitted, he prayed when he was in trouble or when his grades needed improvement. Eventually it became something much deeper.
The 77-year-old said he believed prayer could help resolve disputes between neighbours. He said the country needed more of that and less argument and controversy.
“I love the rosary,” he says. “To me, this is the only salvation left in the world in this crazy time we live in.”
Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an Anglican priest and scholar-in-residence at Little Trinity Church in Toronto, said praying the rosary helps bring a sense of order and discipline to his prayer life.
Wigg-Stevenson said she grew up in a “post-Christian family”, with no religious identity. He had a conversion experience after college and ended up visiting the website of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, where he got his first rosary. He realized he needed concrete tools to help his faith grow and develop and thought the rosary could do that, even though he was not Catholic.
He ended up making his own rosaries for his friends, including the standard five-decade Catholic rosaries, some Anglican rosaries, as well as Orthodox rosaries with a series of tied knots, which are used to say the Jesus Prayer.
Wigg-Stevenson said a rosary made it easy for her to set aside time for prayer without using a smartphone app or another type of timer. And that helps him to keep praying, even if he doesn’t feel like it.
“I know I’m not going to cut corners,” he said.
Sanchez-Walsh said that for her, the rhythms of the Rosary have been more meaningful than other expressions of faith, such as going to Mass. The practice has also been a way to reconnect with family roots. She said her great-grandmother was unable to attend mass towards the end of her life because of her health. But she sat outside and prayed the Rosary, and that comforted her.
During her struggles, Sanchez-Walsh said praying the Sorrowful Mysteries — which chronicle Jesus’ suffering from the Garden of Gethsemane to the crucifixion — was particularly meaningful. They remind us that although there is heartache and suffering in life, God is always present.
She thinks that may be another reason the rosary is so important to President-elect Biden, whose first wife and baby daughter died in a car crash just before Christmas in 1972, followed four decades later. later by the death of his son.
“You pray the Sorrowful Mysteries twice a week,” Sanchez-Walsh said. “You have to remember that there is only sorrow in this life and God takes care of you no matter what.”