For 500 years, devout Roman Catholics have recited the rosary, a mantra-like series of Our Fathers and Hail Marys designed to stimulate meditation on 15 key events or "mysteries" in the lives of Jesus and his mother. In its traditional form, the rosary is said in three cycles: the five Joyful Mysteries, which begin with the annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child; the five Sorrowful Mysteries, which recall Jesus' suffering and death, and the five Glorious Mysteries, which rejoice in his resurrection and ascension into heaven.
Last week Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter adding a fourth cycle to the rosary. The additional prayers invite meditation on five "mysteries of light" taken from the public ministry of Jesus: his baptism by Saint John; his first miracle (changing water into wine); his proclamation of the coming kingdom of God; his transfiguration, and the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
The pope's aim is to revive interest in his "favorite" form of prayer, which has declined in popularity since Vatican Council II. Prior to the council, some Catholics would recite the rosary during mass because they could not follow the Latin of the liturgy. Other popes have issued edicts advocating recitation of the rosary, but John Paul is the first to expand its scope. According to pious legend, the rosary was given to Saint Dominic in a vision of the Virgin Mary in the 13th century. But scholars have traced its origins back to the earlier monastic practice of reading the Psalms in three cycles of 50 each.
The main effect of the pope's action is to give this uniquely Catholic devotion a stronger emphasis on Christ in relation to Mary, the figure most identified with the rosary. It also encourages the habit of meditation among Catholics at a time, the pope noted, when Christianity is being influenced by the meditative traditions of Eastern religions. Having already left his mark on church doctrine, this pope seems determined to leave his fingerprints on popular piety as well.