Is praying the rosary ‘vain repetition’?

While the "Hail Mary" forms the "background music" of the rosary, the focus of this intensely biblical prayer is very much on the life of Christ, just like music at a graduation ceremony complements - rather than distract from - the accomplishments of the graduates. Eric Thayer | CNS Photo

While the “Hail Mary” forms the “background music” of the rosary, the focus of this intensely biblical prayer is very much on the life of Christ, just like music at a graduation ceremony complements – rather than distract from – the accomplishments of the graduates.
Eric Thayer | CNS Photo

A new Catholic convert who was struggling with some things in the faith asked me about the rosary some years ago:

“Mary is most often mentioned in its entirety. I find it difficult meditating on Christ when Mary is so prevalent. Why is Mary so heavily infused into the prayer?”

First, one must understand the nature of the rosary and the purpose of the repetition. Most of the words of the “Hail Mary” are, it should be noted, straight from the Bible. And it’s incorrect to say that because the word “Mary” may be repeated more than any other in the rosary, that, therefore, she is considered more important than Jesus, who is the focal point of the rosary meditation.

The intent of the repetitions of the “Hail Mary” prayer is to form a sort of “background music,” so to speak, to the meditations on (mostly) the life of Jesus.

It reminds me a bit of an analogy from my past as a trombone player in my high school band and orchestra. Every year at graduations, we had to play (much to my chagrin) the famous Pomp and Circumstance, by Edward Elgar. Now, was the purpose of the commencement ceremony to hear Pomp and Circumstance 71 times? No, of course not. It was to honor the graduates for their accomplishment in achieving a high school diploma. The music was the background, just as a soundtrack to a movie is.

It’s not a perfect analogy (few are), but the “Hail Marys” in the rosary are, at least in part, a sort of rhythmic background to the meditations. It’s a way (rather ingenious, when fully understood) to move forward in the prayer, and to avoid distraction: something we are all very familiar with when we try to pray.

Some say it is difficult to meditate on Christ while repeating the “Hail Marys.” This is, I would venture to guess, probably mostly a function of unfamiliarity with the rosary. It’s very different from much of Protestant piety, just as things like penance and purgatory and prayers for the dead or asking saints to pray for us are quite foreign at first to the typical Protestant mind. It’s a “learned art,” to a large extent. This experience is common to many converts.

We find in the Bible a similar sort of repetitious, chant-like form. Take, for example, Psalm 136, where the same phrase: “for his steadfast love endures forever” (RSV) is repeated for 26 straight verses! The “Hail Marys” in the rosary are somewhat like that. But they are not “vain repetitions” (Mt 6:7 in KJV; cf. “heap up empty phrases” in RSV; also, Sirach 7:14: “Do not … repeat yourself in your prayer.”)

Protestants who argue that all formal prayers that repeat phrases are “empty” or “vain” manage to overlook the entire deeper meaning and import of this biblical narrative, in context. Jesus is recommending and exhorting His hearers to a genuine, humble piety of the heart, as opposed to an empty, shell-like, merely external piety, intended to be seen by men in a spiritually prideful sense.

This theme of authentic vs. sham piety is prevalent in the Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 6:1-6, 16; cf. 7:20-23; 15:9). The same general idea is also observed in Mark (12:38-40) and Luke (20:46-47). It’s not that all long prayers are condemned, any more than repetitious prayers are, but that prayers made with a pretentious, prideful spirit (showing off in front of men; making people think one is “super-pious”) are condemned.

Also, in Matthew 6:7, Jesus qualifies what He is opposing in prayer, with, “as the Gentiles do.” He’s not talking about the Hebrew tradition of prayer (which quite obviously included much repetition, such as in the Psalms and priestly chants and prayers). He’s not even talking about (His frequent target) the Pharisees, but rather, the “pagan” or “heathen” (according to various translations) Romans and Greeks: people who followed a different and ultimately false religion. That element and the aspect of interior piety indicate that the passage is far more than merely a discussion of repetition: let alone all repetition, as if God is condemning that.

Jesus Himself used repetition in prayer: “he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (Mt 26:44; cf. Mk 14:39). Worship in heaven is extremely repetitious:

Revelation 4:8 “… day and night they never cease to sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”

We should recall all these things the next time we hear repetitious or formal prayer itself condemned as “vain repetition” or impious.

Lastly, some claim that the rosary is centered on Mary rather than Jesus Christ. But it’s a meditation on the life of Christ. Of the 20 mysteries, only two are primarily about Mary (her Assumption and Coronation).

The Apostle’s Creed merely mentions the Virgin Birth (which is more about Christ than Mary). The “Our Father” [or, Lord’s Prayer], “Glory Be,” and “Fatima Prayer” never mention Mary. The “Hail Mary” is three-quarters explicitly biblical (direct quotation):

“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. [Luke 1:28, spoken by the angel Gabriel] Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. [Luke 1:42, spoken by Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist]”

“Full of grace” is a permissible translation of the Greek kecharitomene.

The “Hail, Holy Queen” is directed toward Mary (who prays for us to God), but even it ends (i.e., in the usual follow-up prayer in a rosary) on a Christocentric note:

“O God whose only begotten Son by his life, death, and Resurrection has purchased for us the rewards of eternal life; grant we beseech thee, that … we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Thus, the rosary is quite Christocentric, as all Marian devotions and doctrines, rightly understood, are.

Dave Armstrong is a full-time Catholic apologist. He lives in Allen Park, grew up in Detroit, and has attended St. Joseph Church near downtown since 1991. He’s been happily married to his wife Judy since 1984, and they have three sons and a daughter. Dave has written 49 books on apologetics, including six for Sophia Institute Press, with several bestsellers in the field. He blogs daily at the Patheos super-site. Information for purchase of his books is available there.