The 3 Cardinal Mysteries of the Rosary

A meditation on the transitions between the four sets of mysteries

Guillaume Descamps (1779-1858), “St. Dominic Receives the Rosary”
Guillaume Descamps (1779-1858), “St. Dominic Receives the Rosary” (photo: Public Domain)

There are four “cardinal virtues” lauded by the Catholic Church, based upon Greek ethical philosophy. They are described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1805 through 1809): prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. They are called the cardinal virtues to distinguish them from the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

The adjective cardinal comes to us from Latin (cardo) and applied to these virtues it means that not only are they essential, but that something hinges on them and depends on them. Josef Pieper wrote an excellent study of the four cardinal virtues and how they “can enable man to attain the furthest potentialities of his nature.” Our moral and spiritual life depends on developing these cardinal virtues.

I’m borrowing the term cardinal to describe three mysteries that appear between the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, the Luminous and Sorrowful mysteries, and the Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. Thinking about these cardinal mysteries has renewed my experience of the Rosary when I needed that revival most.

When my mother died in October 2017, I started to pray the Rosary as I took our dogs on morning walks—two separate walks for two different paces. Sometimes I pray and meditate on two, three or all four of the sets of mysteries. Although my meditation or contemplation of the mysteries is not complete—I am walking dogs after all—I began to notice the transitions between the four sets of mysteries. They are like hinges, leading me to meditate on the Gospels as they reveal the mystery of the Incarnation.


The 1st Cardinal Mystery (From Joyful to Luminous: The Childhood of Jesus)

In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II introduced the Luminous Mysteries, filling the gap in the life of Jesus that had always existed between the Joyful and the Sorrowful by meditating on the events of his public ministry, from the Baptism in the Jordan to the Institution of the Holy Eucharist. On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I always pray the Joyful and the Luminous Mysteries. The hinge between these two sets of mysteries is the hidden life of Jesus, after the Finding in the Temple and before His Baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. What happened in Nazareth between His 12th year and his 30th?

The Gospel according to St. Luke is the source of my meditation on this Cardinal Mystery. The pious traditions that I grew up with taught that Jesus worked with Joseph as a carpenter, that St. Joseph died before Jesus began His public ministry, and that the Holy Family is the ideal for all Catholic families. In his Gospel St. Luke does not reveal the kind of details contained in the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas during Our Lord’s infancy and childhood; he highlights Mary’s meditations on certain events in her Son’s early life, from the Annunciation to the Finding in the Temple.

Luke’s Gospel mentions twice that Mary pondered the events of Jesus’s birth and childhood: after the visit of the shepherds (Luke 2:19: “But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart”) and after she and Joseph have found Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:51-52: “And he went down them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.”)

She has much to think about: at the Annunciation, Mary was told that her miraculously conceived son will be “great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” that Jesus would inherit “the throne of his father David” and that He would “reign over the house of Jacob forever” and that His kingdom will never end (Luke 1:32-33).

The shepherds told her what the angel of the Lord had told them: that “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11) has been born in Bethlehem. The Presentation in the Temple (the fourth Joyful mystery) also offered Mary something to ponder. Simeon’s prophecy held both promise and threat:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that the thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)

When she and Joseph found Jesus in Temple, they did not understand what He meant when “he said to them, ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Luke 2:49)

In his 2002 Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul reflected on Mary’s meditations:

The memories of Jesus, impressed upon her heart, were always with her, leading her to reflect on the various moments of her life at her Son's side. In a way those memories were to be the “rosary” which she recited uninterruptedly throughout her earthly life. (paragraph 11)

When Mary pondered all these things between Jesus’s 12th and 30th years, she must have been wondering how all these promises and hints of her Son’s mission in life would be fulfilled.

The Baptism in the Jordan is the beginning of that fulfillment. Meditating with her on the transitions from Jerusalem to Nazareth to the Jordan River is another way “to focus on the realism of the mystery of the Incarnation and on the obscure foreshadowing of the mystery of the saving Passion” as Saint John Paul says of the Joyful Mysteries (paragraph 20). Mary’s Rosary becomes our Rosary as we contemplate the divine and human natures of the Incarnate God.


The 2nd Cardinal Mystery (From Luminous to Sorrowful: Holy Thursday)

The next Cardinal Mystery, the hinge between the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Agony in the Garden, leads me to meditate on Holy Thursday.

Thinking about the time in between the Lord’s Supper and the Agony in the Garden reminds me how the apostles responded to the great gift he had just given them in his Body and Blood.   Before they’ve even left the Upper Room, Jesus has prophesied Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial and the apostles have quarreled about who is the greatest among them (in Luke’s Gospel).

As Jesus begins His last discourse in the Gospel of St. John, three of the apostles pose disappointing comments and questions to Him: Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). Philip’s request, “Lord, show us the Father and we shall be satisfied,” (14:8) seems to hurt the most as Jesus responds with the plaintive “Have I been with you so long, and yet you don’t know me?” (14:9) Even the question from Judas (not Judas Iscariot) seems to demonstrate that the Apostles haven’t learned much from being with Him so long, “Lord, how it is that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” (14:8)

This adds to the sorrow I feel for Jesus as he heads off to the Garden of Gethsemane, to his Agony and betrayal: without any support or understanding from those he’d been leading and living with for three years. We know they would fail Him during the Agony and abandon, betray, and deny Him during the Passion—and yet we also know they (11 of them, at least) would finally “get it” when the Holy Spirit inspired them and fulfilled Jesus’s promises at Pentecost.

That’s some consolation for all the sorrow and contrition I feel after sinning and failing God again and again.


The 3rd Cardinal Mystery (From Sorrowful to Glorious: Holy Saturday)

The third Cardinal Mystery is that amazing, awful time between the death of Jesus on the cross on Calvary and his glorious Resurrection. Every Holy Week we experience this time in our churches: the altars are stripped, the tabernacles are empty and the sanctuary is dark. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, we watch one hour with Jesus at the Altar of Repose. On Good Friday, we remember the horror of the Passion, the torture, the humiliation, the Cross and the Crucifixion, with the reading of St. John’s Gospel, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion of the Pre-Sanctified.

Then we wait.

When I meditate on this hinge between the mysteries, I remember the ancient homily for Holy Saturday describing the Harrowing of Hell:

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise. . . .

The great Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs comes to my mind’s eye: the broken gates of Hell at His feet, death or Satan in chains beneath those gates, the almond-shaped Mandorla around Him.

While we wait, He has already triumphed over sin and death. Mary must have known that death would have no hold on Him, even after the sword had pierced her Immaculate Heart. As Pope St. John Paul wrote in his 2002 Apostolic Letter, this meditation has helped me to “to enter with [Mary] into the depths of God's love for man and to experience all its life-giving power.”

The Rosary, the Bible, and the Liturgy

I’m a middle-aged cradle Catholic and have been praying the Rosary, reading the Bible and attending Mass since I was a child. At my age, I can draw on all that I’ve been taught by the Church to enrich this devotional prayer. Meditating on these Cardinal Mysteries has helped me see the beauty and truth of John Paul’s statement that the Rosary “represents a most effective means of fostering among the faithful … a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer.”