Why it is OK to say the Rosary during Mass

Our Lady of the Rosary

When I was in hospital a few years ago after having a heart attack, a kindly physiotherapist came to assess how fit I was for further treatment. She wanted to see whether I could walk along the corridor and up a couple of steps without gasping for breath or having palpitations. She rightly erred on the side of caution; once content that I would not react in such an extreme way, she gave me a little bottle of liquid with instructions to spray it under my tongue in the event that I were to have sudden severe chest pains.

You need to have one of these on hand to give to a modern type of liturgist if you ask him whether it is all right to say the Rosary during Mass. Perish the thought! You should be answering the responses, singing the hymns, reading the readings and anything else that is nowadays considered to be the only possible way for you to do that most essential thing of participating. You might find a more discerning liturgist, perhaps a knowledgeable Benedictine, who will tell you that you shouldn’t really read along with the reader, you should be listening to the words as they are proclaimed. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that you will be handed a copy of the text as you enter the Church, with the implied suggestion that you should find the page and follow on.

What do the Popes say?

If you want to dig deeper and take a positivistic papal position, you could cite Pope Leo XIII who, in Supremi Apostolatus (1883) n.8 encouraged the celebration of the Mass while people were saying the Rosary, Pope Pius XII who allowed (Mediator Dei (1947) n.108) that the people might lovingly meditate on the mysteries. On the other hand, there is Pope Paul VI who took a different view 24 years later, saying that it was a mistake to recite the Rosary during Mass. (Marialis Cultus (1974) n.48)

It is amusing then, to recall the story told to me with glee around the turn of the millennium by a group of students at the English College in Rome. Each year there is an Academic Mass, celebrated for all those who are studying at the Pontifical Universities. It is held at the Church of San Ignazio, opposite the site of the old Roman College. The students went to assist at the Mass which in that year could not be celebrated by St John Paul II because he had become ill with Parkinson’s and could no longer manage such lengthy functions. What the students noticed was that St John Paul was participating in the Holy Mass, presumably doing so devoutly, actively, attentively, and consciously, while saying the Rosary which was visible and moving in his hand. Perhaps papal policy on saying the Rosary at Mass is destined to flip every twenty years or so?

Our participation at the Mass

At the Holy Mass, in union with the whole Church, we offer to the heavenly Father the sacrifice which Our Lord offered on the cross. We do this in union with the four ends for which Our Lord offered Himself to the Father: in adoration, thanksgiving, propitiation and impetration. Our active participation in these actions of Christ is to adore, give thanks to the Father, offer sorrow for our sins and beg for the graces and blessings that we need.

The celebrant at the Mass must also participate in this way as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. In his case though, he must also, as the celebrating priest, be active in a different way. He offers the sacrifice in the person of Christ and as an ordained priest, he differs from those who are assisting at the Mass. It would be quite wrong for the priest to be saying the Rosary while he is celebrating Mass, but for those who are assisting, their participation can take different forms because they are not the celebrating priest.

The one form that seems to be thought compulsory and indispensable for those assisting at Mass, is to read the antiphons, prayers, and readings in a book or listen to them as they are read out to us in the vernacular, as though they are compelled somehow to ape the priest and his assisting ministers in as much of their activities as possible. Yet for three-quarters of the history of the Church at least, books have been far too expensive for ordinary people to possess. For most of that time, they needed to be copied out by hand and it took some time even after the invention of movable type for books to go mainstream.

We can recognise that it is a welcome development for people to be able to study the liturgical texts in advance, to follow them in a book or leaflet when they are read, and perhaps ponder them prayerfully in thanksgiving for Mass. That does not mean that reading a text is the only way of participating. Nor does a different way of participating at Mass have to be simply an alternative for those who have difficulties with reading. Fundamentally, the people who are assisting at Mass are not offering it in the same way as the ministerial priest who is celebrating and they have the liberty of the sons and daughters of God, to participate spiritually, consciously and actively in some other way such as meditating on the mysteries of Our Lord's life, death and resurrection.

The particular state of a person’s spiritual life might mean that a meditative participation in the Mass is just the right thing here and now – while for somebody else, it might be exactly the moment to discover, or re-discover the texts of the sacred Liturgy. As a priest, I would not want to rule out either possibility for anyone who was genuinely trying to live the Christian life, keep the commandments and grow in their love for God.

St Francis de Sales method for hearing Holy Mass

St Francis de Sales set out a method for his spiritual daughter to participate at Holy Mass. I cannot accept the idea that this kind of thinking and the spiritual guidance that flows from it, was simply abolished by the Liturgical Movement, Vatican II, or the New Order of Mass. The advice of St Francis de Sales can be found in the Introduction to the Devout Life, in the chapter on “Holy Communion, and How to Join in It” (2.14)
1. From the beginning until the priest goes up to the altar, make the preparation with him, which consists in placing yourself in the presence of God, acknowledging your unworthiness and asking pardon for your faults,

2. From the time when the priest goes up to the altar to the Gospel, consider with a simple and general consideration the coming and the life of Our Lord in this world.

3. From the Gospel to the Credo, consider the preaching of our Saviour; protest that you wish to live and die in the faith and obedience of his holy word and in union with the holy Catholic Church.

4. From the Credo to the Pater noster apply your heart to the mysteries of the death and passion of our Redeemer, which are actually and essentially represented in this holy Sacrifice, which, together with the priest and the rest of the people, you will offer to God the Father for his honour and for your salvation.

5. From the Pater noster to the Communion strive to excite a thousand desires of your heart, ardently wishing to be for ever joined and united to your Saviour by everlasting love. From the Communion to the end, thank his divine Majesty for his Incarnation, for his life, for his death, for his passion, and for the love which he shows to us in the holy Sacrifice, conjuring him through it to be ever propitious to you, to your relations, to your friends, and to the whole Church; and humbling yourself with your whole heart, received devoutly the divine blessing which our Lord gives you by the ministry of his priest.
Another way to participate at the Mass, of course, is to meditate upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as is done in the recitation of the most holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

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