The Rosary and Apostolic Life

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Madonna of the Rosary - by LOTTO, Lorenzo - from Church of San Nicolo, Cingoli . . . .
The saints at the left side are Dominic, Magdalene, Thomas Aquinas; at the right Clare, Peter the Martyr, Esperance.
The 15 tondos in the background represent mysteries of the life of Christ, they are (from the bottom left) the Annunciation,
Visitation, Nativity, Circumcision, Jesus among the Doctors, Agony in the Garden, Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns,
Road to Calvary, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Assumption, Coronation of the Virgin.

 

The Rosary and Apostolic Life

by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

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We have seen in the last issue of Light and Life how our Christian calling summons us to deep union with Jesus in prayer, and how persevering use of the Rosary leads to a profound familiarity with Him, thanks to the guidance of His Blessed Mother.

But the full appreciation of the Rosary would not be complete without some understanding of its apostolic dimension. Through the Rosary the apostle is put in contact with the Divine Word without Whom his apostolate bears no fruit. Through the Rosary he unites himself to the powerful intercession of the Mother of God to bring about the conversion of sinners, united and loving families, and a peaceful society.

 

The Apostolic Vocation

What cannot be forgotten by every Christian is that he has been entrusted with the mission of spreading the Gospel. For the layman this will involve a particular form of spreading the Gospel through interaction with the world. For the priest and religious this work is one of prayer and service to a large degree set apart from the world.

But whatever shape this apostolic mission takes, there can be no doubt about what Our Blessed Lord expects of His followers, which He reveals in a passage from Matthew’s Gospel. There He defines their very being as Christians, not in terms of keeping His divine gifts to themselves and avoiding exposure to others, but of letting loose those gifts as an outpouring of light: "You are the light of the world . . . No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house" (Matthew 5:14-15). Once a person has been given through Baptism the brilliant light of the Divine Presence, he has acquired a new and supreme purpose in life. He has become through God's initiative a source of light in the midst of this world's darkness. He is given the exalted baptismal gifts not only for himself, but also for others. Enlightenment by Christ in Baptism always carries with it a mandate to make that light shine before men.

How absurd it would be to carry a flashlight into a dark room, accompanying a group of people, but use the light for guiding only one's own steps. This is the Christian in the world who does not let his faith shine in word and action. Whether he realizes it or not, he is abandoning others to stumble in darkness; and in doing so, it must be stressed, he fails to fulfill his own calling. As has been wisely and pointedly observed, if people at work are unaware that you are Christian, then you probably are not a "light in the darkness".

 

Today's Crisis of Faith

The vocation of the layman to spread the Gospel takes on a special role in today's world. In the past fifty years, countries where Catholicism or Protestant Christianity were once dominant have seen tragic declines in the numbers of faithful. Among our own families and friends there are too many sad examples of the great crisis of faith that has taken place worldwide. A new generation is coming to adulthood with little or no knowledge of our Blessed Lord and His Gospel.

In this new "post-Christian" culture, there is a great need for the faithful to resist the temptation to think that the world has been given its one and only chance to accept Christ. There must be no slipping into inactivity with the excuse that since our culture has chosen to abandon God's teaching, essentially our task is no more than waiting for Christ to come. What Pope John Paul’s statements in the past few years reveal is that this mentality is far from the spirit of the Gospels. In his recent Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, "At the beginning of the new millennium," he has directed us not to a passive waiting for the end-of-times (which may not necessarily be any time soon), but all the more to go out to our world with the fullness of Catholic truth. He uses the command that Jesus gave the apostles while in a boat on the lake of Tiberius: "Duc in altum!" "Set out into the deep!" Take the Gospel out into this post-Christian world and prepare yourselves for a great catch of souls.

Clearly the apostolic vocation of the Church on earth can never end. As long as we are in the world, we have a duty to evangelize the world.

 

Lay Apostles

For this task the laity has a vocation especially suited to the communication of the Gospel in the midst of the world. Far more so than clergy and religious, God has put lay people in a position to make the Christian faith known in the context of the family, the workplace, and the halls of government. As the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium puts it, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will . . . It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer (898).

Thus, the laity are the main instruments the Church has for breathing the spirit of the Gospel into our culture. And, as a vital part of the Church's outreach to society, there should be no doubt about their identity with the Church and their being fully a part of her mission. As Pope Pius XII stated in a quote cited in the Catechism:

Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church (899).

Without holy, knowledgeable, and zealous lay people, the Church's task of transforming society would be impossible. Broad-based cultural influence is simply not the divinely-designed role of clergy and religious. Here the laity must shine.

 

The Vine and the Branches

vine.jpg (57349 bytes)Yet, whether the apostle be the layman, the religious, or the priest, an ever-deepening union with Christ cannot be missing from his life. Our Blessed Lord is the divine font from which the apostle's activity ultimately flows. His words at the end of John's Gospel are clear and leave no doubt: "I am the Vine you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit. If a man does not abide in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned" (John 15:5-6). The apostle has no effectiveness on his own. There will be no true and lasting spiritual fruit in an apostle separated from Christ.

Nor is a minimalistic attitude at all appropriate. A priest, letting his spiritual life fall into mediocrity, is sure to have the power of Christ at work in the Sacraments. But in this sense he is little more than a piece of sacramental machinery in the hand of Christ, hardly what Our Lord has in mind in calling men to the priesthood. Likewise a lay apostle with a lukewarm spiritual life, only turning minimalistically to prayer, will be able to repeat what he has studied in the Catechism. But it will hardly be in a way that conveys the deep love and wisdom of Christ. For any apostolic vocation not lived in deep union with Christ, faults and imperfections will multiply, charity will grow cold, and whatever reveals Christ in speech will be drastically hampered, perhaps even completely overshadowed, by un-Christ-like behavior.

Our Lord's command, Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), refers to the totality of the person being filled with grace and reaching a state of divine perfection. An apostle is no mere marionette, administering the Sacraments or teaching the faith by rote. Rather, he is truly, and the priest especially, an alter-Christus, another Christ. He gives over his entire mind, heart, feelings, and physical presence as a fully conscious and willing instrument in the hands of God. The actions he performs and words he speaks are coming from a mind and heart that are freely and generously cooperating with the Divine Master.

 

"Showing" Christ

Growing in witness to Christ that involves the entire person, must be the concern of every apostle. Pope John Paul in Novo Millennio Ineunte has emphasized this especially for reaching the people of today's world:

"We wish to see Jesus" (John 12:21). This request, addressed to the Apostle Philip by some Greeks who had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, echoes spiritually in our ears too during this Jubilee Year. Like those pilgrims of two thousand years ago, the men and women of our own day - often perhaps unconsciously - ask believers not only to "speak" of Christ, but in a certain sense to "show" him to them (16).

Thus our communication of Christ is not just a matter of presenting information about Jesus. Giving a description of what He is like is not the same thing as revealing Him in His very Person. The more the apostle can do to unite to Christ all that is in him, mind and heart, body and soul, the more he will be moving beyond a mere "speaking" of Christ, to truly bringing the presence of Our Lord to unbelievers. At least this should be the goal of our witness to Him, to be so filled with the goodness and wisdom of Christ that those whom we encounter will be left with the conviction that "this is what Jesus must be like," indeed that somehow He has just come to them in the person of the apostle.

 

Meeting Christ in the Rosary

In Rosarium Virginis Mariae, the Holy Father is clearly placing the Rosary among the greatest means available in the Church for achieving this identity with Our Lord. There he speaks of the Rosary's remarkable capacity to bring the Christian into intimate contact with the mystery of Christ presented in the Gospels:

Every individual event in the life of Christ, as narrated by the Evangelists, is resplendent with the Mystery that surpasses all understanding (cf. Ephesians 3:19): the Mystery of the Word made flesh . . . The "duc in altum" of the Church of the third millennium will be determined by the ability of Christians to enter into the "perfect knowledge of God’s mystery, of Christ, in Whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Colossians 2:2-3) (Rosarium Virginis Mariae 24).

And then he goes on to say:

The Rosary is at the service of this ideal; it offers the "secret" which leads easily to a profound and inward knowledge of Christ. We might call it Mary’s way. It is the way of the example of the Virgin of Nazareth, a woman of faith, of silence, of attentive listening (24).

Of course, any form of meditation on the mystery of Christ present in the Gospels is going to lead to this same "profound and inward knowledge" of Our Lord, if it is done with regularity and perseverance. But the Holy Father is pointing to an added and supremely valuable dimension of our meditation when it is done in the context of the Rosary. At this point the Mother of God intervenes, allowing us to see our Blessed Lord through her eyes. "Mary constantly sets before the faithful the ‘mysteries’ of her Son . . . In the recitation of the Rosary, the Christian community enters into contact with the memories and the contemplative gaze of Mary" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae 11). Mary becomes active in our meditations in a way that, if we are disposed to her activity, her intimate knowledge of her Son will become our knowledge. The Rosary in this way becomes a school of prayer wherein "one learns to contemplate the face of the Lord, to assimilate His sentiments and accept His values with generous consistency" (General Audience of 24 September 2003).

This is not to say that the Rosary should replace frequent reading and meditation on the Holy Scriptures. The apostle’s knowledge of Christ must be constantly fed by scriptural study and reflection. Prayerful meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary would itself diminish in a certain clarity and intensity were scriptural reading not a regular part of one's Christian life. But going to the Rosary with the Gospel accounts vivid in our minds brings Our Lady’s own influence into play, allowing us to plumb depths of these accounts. Our knowledge and union with the Lord will deepen, not all at once but over the years, in a way that would not be possible without her help.

 

The Apostle's Spiritual Weapon

But the great value of the Rosary is found not only in sustaining the apostle in his work. It is also, as Pope John Paul explains, a potent spiritual weapon in transforming the world. As a prayer which Our Lady in various apparitions has said is especially pleasing to her, the Rosary invokes her powerful aid. For obtaining conversions, for seeking peace in our troubled times, for bringing unity to families, for all the concerns of the apostolate, we have this magnificent prayer made available to us by Divine Providence, a great spiritual force for doing good.

And the special place of Mary in God’s plan is, of course, at the root of the Rosary's efficacy. As our Holy Father writes, "Insistent prayer to the Mother of God is based on confidence that her maternal intercession can obtain all things from the heart of her Son. two_small_hearts.gif (9223 bytes)She is ‘all-powerful by grace,’ to use the bold expression, which needs to be properly understood, of Blessed Bartolo Longo in his Supplication to Our Lady" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae 16). Mary's prayers are made effective through God's will that she be joined to Him in a preeminent way, interceding for the Church and dispensing divine favors. He is the sole Mediator and Redeemer of the Church. As our Catechism states: "the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it." Yet it has been Our Lord’s wonderful plan for the movement of supplications from the faithful to the "heart" of God, that this take place especially through the mediation of the Mother of God, she who among all His creatures is most dear to His Divine Heart.