Mary and the DC Sniper Attacks: My Rosary Story

How I learned to love the Rosary, and what I’ve learned from praying it daily

Simone Cantarini (1612-1648), “Madonna of the Rosary”
Simone Cantarini (1612-1648), “Madonna of the Rosary” (photo: Public Domain)

When Suz and I first began to talk about becoming Catholic, one of the first things she wanted to know was: “If I become Catholic, will I have to pray the Rosary?”

“No,” I assured her. “Catholics are not obliged to pray the Rosary.” She also wanted to know if we would have to have statues in our house, and I told her that this too was not a requirement.

Today our house is filled with statues and sacred images — and lots of rosaries — and our family has prayed a daily Rosary for many years. There was no bait and switch; learning to love the Rosary was a growing experience for both of us.

When we started our daily Rosary, it was seven days a week. After many years we began using another prayer on weekends, a chaplet based on the Jesus Prayer, opening with the Divine Praises and closing with the Trisagion.

More recently we’ve started praying the Divine Mercy chaplet on Fridays. (Sometime soon I’ll blog about why adding the Divine Mercy chaplet to our devotions was important to me.)

Now we pray the Rosary four days a week, Monday through Thursday. This enables us to pray the three traditional sets of mysteries plus the Luminous Mysteries, in the chronological sequence of Christ’s life, without skipping around.

How did I get started with the Rosary? Here’s my story: a short story in three acts, each about a decade apart.

Act 1: 360 truncated Hail Marys

In my middle school years, from 1980 to 1982, my siblings and I attended Catholic school. We weren’t Catholic, of course, but my mother thought the experience would be academically good for us. (I think my father, a Calvinist minister, figured that a little exposure to Catholicism would act as an inoculation and help keep us good and Protestant. He wasn’t wrong about the effect, though it wasn’t enough — but that’s another story.)

Each morning, class started with the Pledge of Allegiance, an Our Father and a Hail Mary. I don’t know about my siblings, but every day I recited the words of the Pledge, prayed the Our Father, said the first half of the Hail Mary (the bits from Gabriel and Elizabeth in Luke 1: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”) — and then, good little Protestant that I was, stood in mute protest during the second, non-scriptural half (“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray of us sinners now and at the hour of our death”).

This went unnoticed by anyone, so far as I know. (Many years later I told this story to a priest who was a school principal, and he told me that if any of his students refused to say a prayer, they would be expelled. Now I really want to know what would have happened if one of my teachers had noticed, because I’m sure I wouldn’t have backed down.)

Act 2: Arriving at Amen

(Apologies to Leah Libresco.)

Ten years later, from 1990 to 1992, I lived in Charlotte, where Suzanne and I got married and then became Catholic. During this time, at first as a young Evangelical, I started attending daily Mass at St. Ann’s. (At that time St. Ann’s was a rather dismal place to worship, but it’s a lovely church today.)

Before daily Mass some parishioners would pray the Rosary, and I began self-consciously, hesitantly joining in. I found considerable irony in the fact that I was now saying the second half of the Hail Mary over and over and over — in effect doing penance for all those omitted pleas for holy Marys prayers at the hour of my death!

I still remember the first time I prayed the entire Hail Mary. It was around 3 AM, and I walked the half mile or so from my apartment to St. Ann’s, because I wanted to pray it in front of the church’s statue of Mary. I don’t know why I expected the church to be unlocked, but, as Mary would have it, it was.

In 1992, shortly after being received into the Church, Suz and I moved to Philadelphia, where I participated each month in a prayer vigil outside a local abortion clinic sponsored by a group called the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.

By this point I was very comfortable with the Rosary, but it still wasn’t part of my daily prayer life.

Act 3: The DC sniper attacks

Ten years later, in 2002, the DC sniper attacks began. (Most people with whom I’ve shared my story don’t see this coming.)

Even in these days of school shootings and other mass shootings, it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced anything like the level of public anxiety caused by these terrifying, random shootings. Media coverage was constant. It had been less than a year since 9/11.

I found it hard to cope with. I desperately wanted the culprit(s) to be caught. I prayed about it a lot.

Around this time I had begun to suspect that perhaps Mary wanted me to pray a daily Rosary. So, when I felt I couldn’t endure even one more shooting death, I did something I don’t recommend: I made a conditional promise to heaven.

If the sniper(s) were caught immediately before anyone else was killed, I told Mary, I would pray the Rosary every weekday for a year.

I understood, and understand, the dangers of superstition, magical thinking, and trying to bargain with heaven. At the time I felt I wasn’t trying to bargain: I was just making a promise about what I would do if it happened that the sniper(s) were caught and no one else died.

At any rate, there were no more shootings after that. The culprits were caught.

So I started on my year of praying the Rosary every weekday.

I did it on my lunch break, walking the streets around my office. Most days I prayed all three traditional sets of mysteries. A few days I only managed one or two.

Eventually, after sticking to it for months, there were a few days, alas, when I missed entirely. To make up for those missed days, I continued praying the Rosary daily long after the year was up, even expanding to seven days a week. I did this for many years.

At this point Suz had started separately praying a daily Rosary with the kids — first with our eldest, Sarah, who wanted to pray it but at that point found it difficult to do so alone. I joined in with them, and eventually the whole clan was included, right up till the present.

So our kids have grown up praying the Rosary. It’s a part of their lifelong religious foundations in a way it could never be for me, and that gives me great joy.

What have I learned from praying the Rosary daily?

After praying the Rosary for years, I’ve learned that, as with prayer in general, I’m still a beginner. But I have come to a few simple insights I think may be worth sharing.

I’ve learned the wisdom of the aphorism that we become what we think about. It’s not enough to know and believe in the realities of Christ’s life. It’s important to meditate on them, regularly, at length, if we want them to soak down into our bones and transform us.

I’ve learned that the mysteries are endlessly fruitful and there are innumerable ways of praying and meditating on them.

That first year I experimented with many approaches: Some days I focused on applying the mysteries to my own life; other days I focused on simply being grateful for the truths of salvation; still other days I simply pondered the mysteries in themselves with no further application or focus.

I’ve learned, finally, that Mary is an incomparable guide to the mysteries of her Son’s life.

Praying the Rosary has two sides or dimensions, talking to Mary and meditating on Christ. I’ve found that if I start with meditating on Christ and then try to add talking to Mary, it doesn’t work. However, if I begin by approaching Mary and then proceed to meditating on Christ, as if Mary were bringing me to her Son, contemplating his mysteries alongside me, showing me what I need to see — that’s when the glories of the Rosary are opened to me.

Do you have a Rosary story? Feel free to share it in the comments.