About 10 years ago, a young Polish friend of mine, Tomek, met the Pope in a private audience for a small group of Polish pilgrims. At one point, Tomek shook John Paul II's hand. “Holy Father,” he said, “may I have your rosary?”
His friends threw a sudden how-dare-you look to Tomek, but there was no time to react. The Pope's answer came quick. “Of course,” he said, smiling and rather pleased about the spontaneous petition. From his pocket he took out his rosary and gave it to him. Tomek was thrilled.
The Holy Father kept looking at him. “May I have yours?” he asked the young man. “I need the rosary.”
Fortunately, Tomek had one in his pocket, too.
The Pope asking for a set of beads is a symbol of how essential the rosary has been in John Paul II's life and pontificate — much more than it seems at first sight.
On the 25th anniversary of his pontificate, we remember this Pope for the many achievements he has accomplished. We may call him “The Witness to Hope” because many things, such as the number of vocations, have changed for better in the last quarter of a century. We may call him “The Travelling Pope,” for his distinctive way of shepherding the Church's universal flock.
He is “The Theologian,” because of the inexhaustible richness of his magisterial teachings. He's “The Pope of the Family,” on account of his decisive interventions to promote the natural institution. He's “The Pope of the Youth” as a reminder of his unforgettable World Youth Days and meetings with the young people. And he is “The Pope of the Great Jubilee,” since his main mission was to lead the Church and the world into the third millennium.
No one title can sum up this pontificate. No problem. John Paul II may not like any of them.
Yet we can give the Pope a title that can reveal much of the secret of his success, a title he may be pleased with. You guessed it: “The Rosary Pope.”
Karol Wojtila was elected to the See of Peter 25 years ago in October, the month of the holy rosary. Scarcely two weeks after his election, he dedicated his Sunday talk to the Marian prayer. “The rosary is my favorite prayer,” he said.
When he declared the beginning of the Year of the Rosary last October he said, “I wanted to place the 25th year of my Pontificate within the daily rhythm of the rosary.” That first Sunday talk was indeed followed by a long chain of addresses, writings and initiaves to encourage the frequent recitation of this traditional prayer, such as the public rosaries led by the Pope himself at the Vatican every first Saturday of the month.
This chain of exhortations is like a set of beads that has linked John Paul II's activities throughout his pontificate. The chain led straight to the Year of the Rosary, which began on the anniversary of his election as Pope, Oct. 16, with the signing in St. Peter's Square of the apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary). “I wished, in this way,” said the Pontiff eleven days later, “to place the 25th year of my pontificate under the sign of this prayer.”
A personal touch. John Paul II made his silver jubilee as a Pope converge with the exaltation of the rosary. Why?
There is, first, a personal experience. “From my youthful years this prayer has held an important place in my spiritual life,” he revealed in his letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. “The rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort. … How many graces have I received in these years from the Blessed Virgin through the rosary.”
The Pope's experience, however, isn't mere sentiment. It is built on a solid theological ground. “The most important reason for strongly encouraging the practice of the rosary,” he writes in the same document, “is that it represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful that commitment to the contemplation of the Christian mystery which I have proposed in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte as a genuine ‘training in holiness’.”
That's the point.
Christ is the center of John Paul II's message throughout his pontificate. “Open wide the doors to Christ,” was his exhortation at the Mass of installation as the Successor of Peter on October 22, 1978. “Contemplate the face of Christ,” is his program for the Church entering the third millennium.
Well, the person who best contemplated Christ's face was Mary. “The rosary is a contemplative view of the face of Christ carried out, so to speak, through Mary's eyes,” said the Pope on Sept. 29, 2002. It is a prayer that makes us “set out into the deep,” into the mystery of the Son of God, into experiencing the depths of his love. “The rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer,” writes the Pope. “In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium…. To recite the rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”
But this is not all. Throughout the centuries, the rosary has deeply helped Christians to become holier and better apostles. In the quoted apostolic letter, the Holy Father presents the rosary as a fruitful way to contemplate and understand with Mary and through Mary the mysteries of her Son, a means to conform oneself with Christ, a supplication, a significant catechetical opportunity to proclaim the Lord.
“The rosary, reclaimed in its full meaning, goes to the very heart of Christian life,” he writes. “t offers a familiar yet fruitful spiritual and educational opportunity for personal contemplation, the formation of the People of God, and the New Evangelization.”
Finally, the rosary is a powerful source of abundant graces. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, Oct. 7, was established by Pope Saint Pius V, on the anniversary of the Christian victory at Lepanto, a victory attributed to the help of the Mother of God whose aid was invoked through praying the rosary.
As the Holy Father said in his letter, “the Church has always attributed particular efficacy to this prayer, entrusting to the rosary, to its choral recitation and to its constant practice, the most difficult problems.”
The Pope has entrusted to the power of this prayer the cause of peace and the cause of the family. How far away we are from inhabiting a peaceful world! What a huge challenge the preservation of the natural institution of the family and the education of our children are facing at the beginning of the 21st century! The rosary can be proved to be an efficient “weapon” of peace and a “lifeboat” for our families and our children's faith. More than once, the Pope has quoted blessed Bartolo Longo's inspiration heard in the depths of his heart: “Whoever spreads the rosary is saved!”.
If it is true that the rosary “is at the very heart of the Gospel,” as the Holy Father said last year, then it is at the very heart of his own pontificate — a set of 50 semesters that, like the 50 Hail Mary beads, begin in the crucifix and converge upon the crucifix.
If we want to understand John Paul II's pontificate on its 25th anniversary, we must rediscover the deep meaning, value and power of “the rosary of the Virgin Mary.”
We must understand why the Pope once said, “I need the rosary.”
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar