VATICAN CITY -- Putting his personal stamp on a Roman Catholic tradition virtually untouched in 500 years, Pope John Paul II added a new set of meditations to the church’s beloved rosary Wednesday -- a move that will alter the way many of the world’s estimated 1 billion Catholics reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.
In terms of official Catholic doctrine, the pope’s additions to the rosary prayers hold little significance because they change no official church teaching. But John Paul’s move resonates deeply among faithful who were taught from an early age to use the spiritual discipline of the rosary to grow closer to God through prayer.
“This is going to be of interest to a lot of Catholics,” said Lawrence Cunningham, theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “There’s no doubt about the fact that if you think about the popular culture of Catholicism, rosaries are highly symbolic.”
In an apostolic letter released on the 24th anniversary of his pontificate, John Paul also proclaimed the next 12 months as “The Year of the Rosary.” Both moves are intended to reinvigorate the practice among Catholics.
In Use Since 1569
The rosary used today was standardized by Pope Pius V in 1569 to give Catholics a uniform interpretation of the life of Christ in response to the Reformation. It is a form of meditation that uses a string of beads and repetitive “Hail Mary” prayers to encourage the faithful to contemplate significant moments, known as mysteries, in the life of Christ. The suggested additions -- which John Paul has not made mandatory -- are five meditations on the public ministry of Jesus, starting with his baptism in the Jordan River and ending with the Last Supper.
“We must rediscover the profound mysticism contained in the simplicity of this prayer, dear to popular tradition,” the 82-year-old pontiff told pilgrims and tourists during his weekly audience at St. Peter’s Square.
In his letter, he wrote, “This addition of these new mysteries, without prejudice to any essential aspect of the prayer’s traditional format, is meant to give it fresh life and to enkindle renewed interest in the rosary’s place within Christian spirituality.”
Initial reaction to John Paul’s tweaking of the rosary ranged from delight to skepticism to yawns.
“I’ve often heard people say, ‘Why don’t they include some of these [other moments in Christ’s life]?’ ” said Father Paul A. Duffner, a Portland, Ore.-based provincial director of the Rosary Confraternity, a worldwide movement that promotes the prayer. “The church is rather concerned about deviations that are not sanctified by the church. I can see the fruitfulness of what [the pope] has done.”
Vivian Gendernalik, who runs a Florida-based Web site called customrosaries.com, said she’s not sure adding new meditations to the rosary, which is already often misunderstood, is the best way to boost interest.
“Adding more work doesn’t excite people,” said Gendernalik, who ships two booklets on how to pray the rosary with every order. “It’s a noble idea ... [but] it’s burdening a public that doesn’t know how to pray the 15 mysteries that already exist. This is going to pass over most people’s heads.”
Academics and others point out that individual Catholics already have their own customized versions of the rosary that include meditations on Christ’s public ministry. “If you were to rate papal [actions] on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important, this is a 1.5 at most,” Cunningham said.
Before the pontiff’s announcement, Catholics had been taught to reflect daily on one of three sets of scenes from the Gospels. “The Joyful Mysteries” focus on the birth of Jesus. “The Sorrowful Mysteries” center on the crucifixion. And “The Glorious Mysteries” reflect on the resurrection.
John Paul added the “Mysteries of Light” to fill in key scenes of Christ’s public ministry between his birth and death. In addition to his baptism and the Last Supper, the new meditations center on his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, where the Gospel says he turned water into wine; his proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God; and his transfiguration, when he changes to his divine self before his disciples and shows them what he will be like in the kingdom to come.
In his apostolic letter, John Paul said he was making the changes “to counter a certain crisis of the rosary,” which risks being “wrongly devalued, and therefore no longer taught to the younger generation.”
“At the start of a millennium which began with the terrifying attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a millennium which witnesses every day in numerous parts of the world fresh scenes of bloodshed and violence, to rediscover the rosary means to immerse oneself in contemplation of the mystery of Christ,” John Paul said in the letter.
Ela Kasprzycka of The Times’ Warsaw Bureau contributed to this report.