THE PROTESTANT CHALLENGE: How can the Catholic Church teach that the rosary is a legitimate prayer when the Bible forbids repetitious prayer?
The rosary is a popular Catholic devotion that the Catechism endorses as a “form of piety” that expresses the “religious sense of the Christian people” (1674). [It is a prayer form that developed for the illiterate, ordinary people as only clerics were taught to read and write. Those same clerics were required to recite the Liturgy of the Hours, which is a formalized way of singing the Psalm twenty-four hours a day, praising God for time, which is a holy gift from God. Since ordinary people could not read the books for this form of prayer, the rosary developed, so they could say the simple prayers they had memorized in imitation.] But for many Protestants, the rosary, with its repetition of the Hail Mary (Lk 1:46-55) prayer, contradicts Jesus’ command to “Use no vain repetitions as the heathens do” (Matt. 6:7; KJV). It would seem that the Catholic practice of praying the rosary is a direct violation of Jesus’ command.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
1. Jesus wasn’t condemning prayers that involve repetition, but rather the idea that the quantity of prayer determines its efficacy.
The Greek word translated “vain repetition” is battalogeō, which can mean to speak in a stammering way, saying the same words over and over again without thinking. But it can also mean “to use many words, to speak for a long time.” So it can connote either mindless repetition or quantity.
Which meaning does Jesus have in mind?
The context reveals that Jesus has the quantity of prayers in mind. For example, Jesus says in verse 7, “For they [the Gentiles] think that they will be heard for their many words,” as if their many words could wear down the gods in order to get what they wanted. This is the mentality of prayer that Jesus is telling his disciples to avoid—the mentality that sheer volume of words ensures that God hears us.
This explains why Jesus says in verse 8, “Don’t be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” The implication is that it’s futile to think a bunch of words is needed for God to hear a prayer, because he already knows it.
So, Jesus is not concerned with repetition simply. He’s concerned with the idea that simply multiplying words makes prayers efficacious.
2. The rosary is not meant to gain favors from God due to the amount of prayers repeated.
According to the Catechism, the rosary is an “epitome of the whole gospel” (971). It is meant to focus our hearts and minds on the mysteries of Christ’s life, mysteries such as his conception in Mary’s womb at the Annunciation, his birth in Bethlehem, his baptism and preaching ministry, his glorious resurrection, and his ascension into heaven.
Meditating on these mysteries is meant to give us a deeper knowledge of Christ and draw us into a deeper communion with him, so that we can be more conformed to him. And we include Mary in that meditation because her soul “magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). The rosary, therefore, is a way to meditate on Christ in order to foster a greater love for him. The repetition of prayers serves that meditation—and that’s a biblical thing.
3. The Bible affirms prayers that involve repetition.
We can start with Jesus Himself. Notice that right after Jesus condemns the “vain repetitions” of the Gentiles, he commands the apostles, “Pray like this…Our Father who art in heaven.” Does Jesus intend for us to only say it once? Are we forbidden to repeat the Lord’s Prayer? Most Protestants have said it many times; perhaps they say it more than once a day.
Another example is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father…remove this cup…not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Mark tells us that Jesus prayed this multiple times: “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words” (14:39). Surely, Jesus wouldn’t be violating his own command not to pray with “vain repetitions.”
We also have an example from the “four living creatures” (angels) that John sees in heaven: “Day and night they never cease to sing, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 4:8). If any prayer involves repetition, it’s this one!
The Psalms even give us forms of prayer that involve repetition. Consider, for example, Psalm 136. Its refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever,” occurs twenty-six times. Must we say that the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) who inspired the Psalmist to write this, is at odds with Jesus (the second person of the Trinity)?
Since the Bible affirms prayers that involve repetition, we can conclude that the repetition in the rosary does not violate Christ’s words.
COUNTER-CHALLENGE: Why should we think that a condemnation of useless repetition is a condemnation of any repetition? Couldn’t there be repetitious prayer that is heartfelt and helps us love God more?
[Editor: Ps 51:1]
AFTERTHOUGHT: One of the benefits of praying the rosary is that it protects us from focusing our prayer too much on what we want and need. Praying for our needs is a good thing, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we pray about. The rosary helps us to focus on what should be the first object of prayer: Jesus.