In Charlotte, N.C., Craig Lewis and his family joined the army shortly after his daughter went looking for a seventh-grade service project for their parish. In Atlanta, Ga., Maria Johnson and her children also enlisted. Living the motto Make Them, Pray Them, Give Them Away, they all became loyal soldiers in the Rosary Army.
Since Greg and Jennifer Willits founded the Rosary Army in 2003, they’ve given away tens of thousands of handmade, all-twine, knotted rosaries throughout all 50 states and many countries. They’re free to anyone requesting one. The Willitses include instructions on how to pray the Rosary and how to make one. (Simple online or DVD lessons are available, too.) Soon many recipients joined the legion of soldiers who keep the Rosary Army supplied with rosaries ready for immediate distribution.
The Willitses launched the work after Greg saw a priest holding a knotted-twine rosary. Greg, who recently rediscovered the Rosary and the Catholic faith, especially the Eucharist, wanted to make a twine rosary himself.
“I wanted to keep the rosary for myself but had a strong inclination to give it away,” he recalls. He did. Again and again. “It always got to be funny with the Holy Spirit at work. Every time I turned around, someone needed a rosary.”
Next he gave a talk on Pope John Paul and the Rosary at a teen retreat held the month before John Paul declared Year of the Rosary in 2002. (That was also when he introduced the luminous mysteries.)
To Greg, the timing seemed providential. “I had the realization I am in an army,” he recalls, thinking back to when he taught those teens how to make the twine rosary. “When they finished, they also said, ‘Look, I’m in the Army!’”
Knot What You Know
Within a week, from home in Conyers, Ga., the Willitses deployed RosaryArmy.com on the web. But already Maria Johnson’s daughter Vicky had come home from that teen retreat thrilled to show the rosary she made — and teach her mom.
“I got hooked,” says Maria. “You pray them, give them away, and people get excited to receive them.” She averages 15 rosaries a month, sometimes as many as 40, but many never reach the Willitses because she gives them to folks watching her make them in public.
The Rosary Army has distributed countless sets of beads — make that knots — and the figure, whatever it is, only grows exponentially as “soldiers” give loads away before they reach headquarters. That’s the Willitses’ general plan: Giive one free rosary away and also teach people to make them for others.
Katie Lewis, now 15, decided to make rosaries for 160 Confirmation candidates at her parish. She searched and found RosaryArmy.com’s easy directions, then completed them with her mother Kathleen’s help. Next, dad Craig joined up. He continuously makes rosaries, including two during an hourlong TV show. The family averages 50 a month for the Rosary Army.
“It’s all been a constant renewal for me to pray,” says Craig. “I can say a Rosary while I make one, and I do that often.”
Speaking of inspiring prayer, Jennifer well remembers last year’s Eucharistic Congress in Atlanta, where 10-year-old son Sam went to help promote the apostolate. A boy his age wanted an orange rosary. Sam searched for the single orange one they had, then later looked for the boy — who promptly went to pray.
“His father tracked us down and told us he had never seen his son do that, and how much a difference it made to see his little boy pray the Rosary on his own,” says Jennifer. “These are little precious moments that make my heart sing.”
Father John Shramko, chaplain at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, describes how making the rosaries becomes an “incarnational” way of praying. As for the “military” dimension of the work, he points to St. Paul’s “armor of God” references in Ephesians 6.
Greg estimates 50% of those who learn of the Rosary Army do so while listening to the Willitses’ Rosary Army Catholic Podcast featured on Star Quest Production Network (SQPN.com), which they co-founded in America with Father Roderick Vonhogen of the Netherlands, the original podcasting priest.
Greg and Jennifer’s atypical talk shows, spiced with lively humor, deal with the Rosary, the faith and myriad family issues, down to buying groceries. Billed as the first Catholic reality show, it also aims for people who have no interest in religion, says Greg. “We’re going to people where they are, like Jesus did.”
Meanwhile, just last year, the Willitses launched “That Catholic Show,” a popular video series (online at ThatCatholicShow.com) with scripted episodes. Downloaded 25,000 times per episode, the show has garnered praise from top Catholic bloggers. RCIA teachers have requested them on DVD. The four Willits boys, ages 4 to 10, are excited to have small parts in some.
“I live daily so blessed because I know people are growing closer to Jesus because of this work,” reflects Greg.
Jennifer agrees. “We are everyday, ordinary people, but we said Yes to something we were called to do. When you say Yes to God, anything is possible. You can reach out to the world right from your very own door.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.