The rosary: Meditation… oh, and prayers to Mary.

Why you won’t see a lot of Protestants pray rosaries.

A reader asked me about rosaries. I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of experience with ’em, ’cause it’s a Roman Catholic tradition—and I grew up Fundamentalist, and Fundies are hugely anti-Catholic. Many Evangelical Protestants are wary of Catholics too; either way they don’t do rosaries.

A rosary is a super-long series of rote prayers. How you keep track of which prayer you’re on, is usually with a strand of rosary beads. (People tend to refer to the beads as the rosary, but that’s not quite accurate.) Anyway, you pray a different prayer, or sequence of prayers, for each bead.

The reason Protestants aren’t so familiar with rosaries, is because the bulk of the prayers are to Jesus’s mother, Mary the Nazarene. The most frequent prayer in a rosary, prayed from 50 to 150 times, is the Ave Maria/“Hail Mary.” Goes like so.

Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Lk 1.28
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Lk 1.42
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Whereas few Protestants pray to saints. Yeah okay, some of us talk to dead loved ones, and hope God passes our messages along to them. But to Jesus’s family members and first apostles? Or the church’s official saints, whether ancient, medieval, or recent? Well, some Protestants are okay with it. The bulk of us chafe at the idea.

There are different rosaries, meaning different sequences of rote prayers. Here’s a common rosary:

  • First the Paternoster/“Our Father,” a.ka. the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Then the Gloria/“Glory Be.”
  • Then 10 Ave Marias.
  • Repeat 15 times.

And some Catholics won’t just pray one rosary in a stretch. They’ll pray two. Or five.

Why on earth are they praying hundreds of prayers in one sitting? Meditation. You don’t just recite the prayers while your mind remains unfruitful; you think about Jesus. Think about the scriptures. Pray silently with your mind, like you do when you’re praying in tongues.

If you’ve heard of “the mysteries of the rosary,” no they’re not weird secrets about how rosaries work, nor weird revelations you get when you recite ’em. The mysteries are simply things you meditate on while you’re going through a rosary. Like Jesus’s annunciation, or when Mary visited Elizabeth, or Jesus’s birth—these are called “joyful mysteries” because they’re about Jesus’s first coming. The “sorrowful mysteries” are stories about Jesus’s death, the “luminous mysteries” are teachings about Jesus being the world’s light, and the “glorious mysteries” are about Jesus’s ascension and establishing his kingdom (and yes, about Mary going to heaven too). It’s all good stuff to meditate on.

As you might notice, the prayers to Mary are a huge roadblock to Protestants. That’s why the rosary remains largely a Catholic practice. Other Christians also use prayer beads or prayer ropes, meditate, and pray decades of rote prayers… but not to Mary. They’ll pray the Jesus prayer, the Lord’s prayer, or some other rote prayer that’s addressed to God. Not a saint. Not even the very best saint, like Mary.

Roman Catholics and Mary.

It’s largely because of rosaries that Catholics have a special place in their hearts for Mary. After all, if rosaries are your primary prayer practice—10 prayers to Mary for every two prayers to the Father—you’re naturally gonna get the idea she’s super important.

And she is. She’s an outstanding example of faith and devotion in the bible. She’s many Christians’ favorite saint. A lot of Protestants may claim we like Paul more, or we’re fond of how Jesus interacted with Simon Peter in the gospels. But we don’t put statues of Paul or Peter on our front lawns every Christmas. Nor get weepy about any apostles in the same way we do when we contemplate how Mary experienced Jesus’s birth… and was later there to watch her beloved son die.

But Protestants have really different ideas about Mary’s role in God’s kingdom than do Roman Catholics. Entirely different traditions. (Largely ’cause many of the Catholic traditions about Mary didn’t become official till the Protestant/Catholic schism in the 1500s.) The biggest difference comes from our differing views about the afterlife.

To many Protestants, Jesus is the only living human being in heaven. Well, other than Enoch ben Jared, who probably got raptured; Ge 5.24 and Elijah the Tišbite, who definitely got raptured. 2Ki 2.11 And, according to Christian myths, Mary was raptured too.

Some of the stories say Mary was taken to heaven right before she would’ve died. Others say she was resurrected right after she died, and went directly to heaven. Since they’re myths, we have no idea whether there’s any truth to them. I won’t rule ’em out, ’cause God can do whatever he wants, and can reward Mary however he wants. If Jesus wanted his mom with him, what business do I have telling him no?

If you never grew up hearing these stories, and most Protestants haven’t, you’d just assume Mary died, same as everyone. Meaning she’s waiting for resurrection, same as everyone, in the afterlife—in “heaven,” but it’s the third heaven, 2Co 12.2 not the tenth. Rv 4 It’s the place of the dead, not the Almighty—and we’re not to pray to the dead. Moses himself forbade it. Dt 18.11 We don’t petition the spirits of the deceased. We only petition God.

But to Catholics, the saints aren’t dead! They figure after Christians die (unless we first need some time in purgatory), we get resurrected in heaven. ’Cause God, as Jesus put it, is “not of the dead, but of the living; for to him everyone is alive.” Lk 20.38 NJB So to Catholics every dead Christian is alive, in God’s presence, in heaven. And there’s nothing at all wrong with talking to living human beings. Why wouldn’t we wanna talk with them? They know God way better than we.

Predominant among the living saints in heaven is Mary, whom the angel Gabriel straight-up called the greatest of all women. Lk 1.28 Therefore she gets a particular position of honor. I mean, if Jesus is our king, it technically makes Mary the queen mother. So Catholics treat her as queen mother, call her “queen of heaven,” and petition her about as often as they do our Lord. Some of ’em even more.

And yeah, this weirds out Evangelicals to no end.

Most of us figure prayer isn’t merely talking to God; it’s a form of worship. We’re praising the one we pray to. We’re petitioning him because he knows best, and because he’s far, far mightier than we. That’s frequently the way we teach about prayer.

Therefore praying to saints, Mary among them, is equivalent in our minds to worship. And like the angel pointed out to John in Revelation, we don’t worship fellow servants; we’re to worship God alone. Rv 22.9 To many an Evangelical, praying to Mary is a form of Mary-worship, or Mariolatry. You might recall idolatry’s a serious no-no, but it looks to them like Catholics are neck-deep in it. (And didn’t the ancient Hebrews once worship some pagan goddess called “the queen of heaven”? Jr 7.18, 44.17-19, 44.25 That doesn’t look good.)

Catholics insist this is not worship; they don’t idolize Mary. They simply venerate her. They’re massive fans. She’s awesome.

I can’t disagree that she’s awesome. Mary’s totally deserving of every Christian’s profound respect. But I agree with my fellow Evangelicals there’s a really fine line between veneration and idolatry. We see it all the time with people who are huge fans of musicians or actors, who prioritize their money above all else, or who love their country a little too much. Some of the “veneration” we see among Catholics plays serious hopscotch with that line. To many, Mary’s their heavenly Mother—and they love her way more than their heavenly Father.

Mary’s a saint, not a god. Since Jesus is God, it’s totally valid to say she’s God’s mother—weird as that may sound to Protestant ears—but it still doesn’t make her a god. She gave birth to and raised our Savior, but he did the saving, so it doesn’t make her a co-savior or co-redeemer or co-anything. And if she is indeed alive to hear prayers, all she can really do with ’em is the same as any Christian: Forward ’em to the Almighty, who absolutely can answer them.

I know; various Catholics teach otherwise. That’s their tradition. They didn’t get it from the scriptures; they got it from their teachers and prophets. When our teachers and prophets teach none of this stuff—when none of us come close to emphasizing Mary to the level Catholics do—it stands to reason it sounds alien. But considering the rosary, you can see why they go there.