130 Years Ago, Leo XIII Prophetically Saw Our Troubled Times, and Urged Us to Pray the Rosary

In two encyclicals celebrating major anniversaries this year, Leo XIII offers the Holy Rosary as a solution to what’s troubling today’s world.

Philip de László, “Portrait of Pope Leo XIII,” 1900
Philip de László, “Portrait of Pope Leo XIII,” 1900 (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

During his 25-year reign (1878-1903), Pope Leo XIII saw major dangers arising in the world. After an alarming vision right after saying Mass — 33 years to the day of the final vision of Fatima on Oct. 13, 1917 — he gave us the Prayer to St. Michael to be recited after Masses beginning in 1886. After being sidelined a few decades ago, this prayer is making a strong comeback in some dioceses.

In several of his encyclicals, Leo XIII did not mince words about the dangers of communism, socialism, Freemasonry and their path to destruction. He also saw and warned of severe dangers to society in his 10 encyclicals on the Rosary — including Fidentem piumque animum (On the Rosary) from 1896, exactly 125 years ago, and Octobri mense (On the Rosary) in 1891, celebrating its 130th anniversary.

In Octobri mense, 130 years ago, Leo wrote for love of the Church…

…whose sufferings, far from mitigating, increase daily in number and in gravity. Universal and well-known are the evils we deplore: war made upon the sacred dogmas which the Church holds and transmits; derision cast upon the integrity of that Christian morality which she has in keeping; enmity declared, with the impudence of audacity and with criminal malice, against the very Christ, as though the Divine work of Redemption itself were to be destroyed from its foundation — that work which, indeed, no adverse power shall ever utterly abolish or destroy.

Leo suffered from what he saw happening, and as if he were seeing what was coming in even worse measure in the times to follow. He lamented:

It is indeed a cause of great sorrow that so many should be deterred and led astray by error and enmity to God; that so many should be indifferent to all forms of religion, and should finally become estranged from faith; that so many Catholics should be such in name only, and should pay to religion no honor or worship. And still sadder and more beset with anxieties grows the soul at the thought of the fruitful source of most manifold evils existing in the organization of states that allow no place to the Church, and that oppose her championship of holy virtue. This is truly a terrible manifestation of the just vengeance of God, who allows blindness of soul to darken upon the nations that forsake him.

If that does not sound like today’s daily news and what we are facing today, what does? Pope Leo said:

These are evils that cry aloud, that cry of themselves with a daily increasing voice. … It is absolutely necessary that the Catholic voice should also call to God with unwearied instance, ‘without ceasing;’ that the faithful should pray not only in their own homes, but in public, gathered together [in church, and] should beseech urgently the all-foreseeing God to deliver the Church from evil men and to bring back the troubled nations to good sense and reason, by the light and love of Christ.

Leo made clear that “Jesus foretold them [the times] to his disciples,” that the Church “may teach men the truth and may guide them to eternal salvation, she must enter upon a daily war; and throughout the course of ages she has fought, even to martyrdom.”

We don’t sit back and wring our hands as the “world goes on its laborious way, proud of its riches, of its power, of its arms, of its genius” because at the same time “the Church goes onward along the course of ages with an even step, trusting in God only, to whom, day and night, she lifts her eyes and her suppliant hands.” See where the trust lies?

Leo XIII tells us what we must act as the Church militant in this “storm of evils, in the midst of which the Church struggles so strenuously.” The Church “reveals to all her pious children the holy duty whereto they are bound to pray to God” and in the way to “give to their prayers the greater power.”

What way is that? “Faithful to the religious example of our fathers, let us have recourse to Mary, our holy sovereign,” the Pope emphasized. “Let us entreat, let us beseech, with one heart, Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, our Mother. ‘Show thyself to be a mother; cause our prayers to be accepted by him who, born for us, consented to be thy Son.’”


The Role of Our Lady

The prophetic pope affirmed the reasons why this route was necessary. He explained that “by the will of God, Mary is the intermediary through whom is distributed unto us this immense treasure of mercies gathered by God, for mercy and truth were created by Jesus Christ. Thus as no man goeth to the Father but by the Son, so no man goeth to Christ but by his Mother. How great are the goodness and mercy revealed in this design of God!”

He echoes what St. Robert Bellarmine described: “All favors, graces, and heavenly inspirations come from Christ as from the Head. All then descend to the body through Mary, since — just as in the human body — it is by the neck that the head gives life to the limbs.”

Leo calls Mary the “glorious intermediary … the mighty Mother of the Almighty … she is gentle, extreme in tenderness, of a limitless loving-kindness. As such God gave her to us. Having chosen her for the Mother of his only begotten Son, he taught her all a mother's feeling that breathes nothing but pardon and love. Such Christ desired she should be, for he consented to be subject to Mary and to obey her as a son a mother. Such he proclaimed her from the cross when he entrusted to her care and love the whole of the race of man in the person of his disciple John.” Mary is perfect in her maternal duties towards us.

The Importance of the Rosary

In these anniversary encyclicals — both given the English titles of “On the Rosary” — Leo XIII makes it perfectly clear how we must respond in combating the evils: With the Holy Rosary.

“[I]t is in many ways most pleasing to her in whose honor it is employed, and most advantageous to those who properly use it,” he said in Fidentem piumque. It has “the sweetness of roses and the charm of a garland … most fitting for a method of venerating the Virgin, who is rightly styled the Mystical Rose of Paradise, and who, as Queen of the universe, shines therein with a crown of stars.”

He quoted Our Lord’s explanation (Matthew 18:19-20):

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

“Both of these qualities are conspicuous in the Rosary,” Leo XIII said, clarifying that “repeating the same prayers we strenuously implore from Our Heavenly Father the Kingdom of his grace and glory; we again and again beseech the Virgin Mother to aid us sinners by her prayers, both during our whole life and especially at that last moment which is the stepping-stone to eternity.”

He added another fruit. As every day our divine faith is exposed to loads of dangers and attacks, from this prayer Christians derive nourishment and strength for their faith. Now Christ stands forth clearly in the Rosary.

In Octobri mense he again makes the strong case that while there are several ways and rites to pay honor to Our Blessed Mother, “some are to be preferred, inasmuch as we know them to be most powerful and most pleasing to our Mother; and for this reason we specially mention by name and recommend the Rosary.” He explained:

We may well believe that the Queen of Heaven herself has granted an especial efficacy to this mode of supplication, for it was by her command and counsel that the devotion was begun and spread abroad by the holy Patriarch Dominic as a most potent weapon against the enemies of the faith at an epoch not, indeed, unlike our own, of great danger to our holy religion.

Like our own age, St. Dominic’s time was an age of great heresy:

“There seemed to be no human hope of opposing this fanatical and most pernicious sect [then timely aid] came from on high through the instrument of Mary's Rosary. Thus under the favor of the powerful Virgin, the glorious vanquisher of all heresies, the forces of the wicked were destroyed and dispersed, and faith issued forth unharmed and more shining than before.

The Pope reminded of other recorded instances when the Rosary came to the rescue, furnishing “remarkable proofs” of nations saved from dangers and winning blessings through the Rosary. It’s a prayer anyone can pray and “from the very moment of its institution it was immediately encouraged and put into most frequent practice by all classes of society … for there has seemed to be no better means of conducting sacred solemnities, or of obtaining protection and favors.”

We can see results and a turnaround seeing what happened in the past when people turned to the Rosary. He said that “piety and devotion have again flourished and become vigorous in a most marvelous manner, when, either through the grave situation of the commonwealth or through some pressing public necessity, general recourse has been had more to this than to even other means of obtaining help — to the Rosary.”


Cultivate Fervor and Beware of Discouragement

Leo XIII encouraged one response (zeal) and warned of the other (discouragement).

“In these times” so troubling for the Church and so heartrending for himself as Holy Father, he had admiration for…

…the great zeal and fervor with which Mary's Rosary is honored and recited in every place and nation of the Catholic world. And this circumstance, which assuredly is to be attributed to the Divine action and direction upon men, rather than to the wisdom and efforts of individuals, strengthens and consoles our heart, filling us with great hope for the ultimate and most glorious triumph of the Church under the auspices of Mary.

This month has so far seen great Rosary gathering and crusades to fight and overcome the evil attacking the world.

But he also warned of an opposite response — discouragement. He said that some people…

…because troubles seem to augment, have ceased to pray with diligence and fervor, in a fit of discouragement. Let these look into themselves and labor that the prayers they address to God may be made in a proper spirit, according to the precept of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if there be such, let them reflect how unworthy and how wrong it is to wish to assign to Almighty God the time and the manner of giving his assistance, since he owes nothing to us, and when he hearkens to our supplications and crowns our merits, he only crowns his own innumerable benefits; and when he complies least with our wishes it is as a good father towards his children, having pity on their childishness and consulting their advantage. But as regards the prayers which we join to the suffrages of the heavenly citizens, and offer humbly to God to obtain his mercy for the Church, they are always favorably received and heard, and either obtain for the Church great and imperishable benefits, or their influence is temporarily withheld for a time of greater need.”

In other words: Don’t be disheartened, and remember that God answers as a good Father, and on his timing. We may fail to grasp God’s designs at the moment…

…but the time will come when, through the goodness of God, causes and effects will be made clear, and the marvelous power and utility of prayer will be shown forth. Then it will be seen how many in the midst of a corrupt age have kept themselves pure and inviolate from all concupiscence of the flesh and the spirit, working out their sanctification in the fear of God; how others, when exposed to the danger of temptation, have without delay restrained themselves gaining new strength for virtue from the peril itself; how others, having fallen, have been seized with the ardent desire to be restored to the embraces of a compassionate God.

Therefore, Leo XIII beseeches “all again and again not to yield to the deceits of the old enemy, nor for any cause whatsoever to cease from the duty of prayer. Let their prayers be persevering, let them pray without intermission; let their first care be to supplicate for the sovereign good — the eternal salvation of the whole world, and the safety of the Church.”

Finally, turning to Our Lady, Pope Leo prayed that “the nations plunged in error may return to the Christian teaching and precepts, in which is the foundation of the public safety and the source of peace and true happiness. Through her may they steadfastly endeavor for that most desirable of all blessings, the restoration of the liberty of our Mother, the Church, and the tranquil possession of her rights.”