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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Rosary as Meditative Prayer


Why Pray the Rosary?
Which Mass Does God Want?
Why Theology?
Why No Altar Calls?
Why Incense?

Why Pray the Rosary?

Q: Some of my Baptist friends have asked me questions about prayer. I replied as best I could but would be grateful for your help in this matter.

Matthew 6:7-8 says: "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Why do Catholics pray the rosary? Why not keep the prayers short and direct?

When I said that repetition can assist in meditation, they responded that meditation is not a Christian practice. They see it as a custom of non-Christian religions from the Middle East and the Far East.

A: Meditation is only for non-Christian religions founded in the East? Not so! St. Luke was clearly describing meditation when he wrote in his Gospel that Mary "kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (2:19) and that Mary "kept all these things in her heart" (2:51).

Certainly your friends realize that Christianity itself began in the Near East. Meditation is not geographically based but is humanly based. Faith in Jesus requires moments of prayerful reflection, moments to ponder what God is doing when God's ways might seem very strange.

The length of prayers is not as important as the purity of intention. Even though the Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) is longer than the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple (Luke 18:11-12), Mary's prayer is genuine because it is totally honest while the Pharisee's prayer is short but not totally honest.

The phrase "as the pagans do" may be the key to interpreting Matthew 6:7-8. The pagan prayer that Jesus condemns is an attempt to control God, a way of placing God in debt to the person praying.

The prayer that Jesus recommends does the reverse; it acknowledges an enormous debt toward God on the part of the person praying. Although this debt cannot be repaid, acknowledging it in prayer helps a person live honestly before God and in relation to all God's people.

The longer Canticle of Mary reflected that honesty; the shorter prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple did not.

Immediately after the passage your friends cited, Jesus teaches the apostles to pray the Our Father. Is that prayer to be criticized for being too long?

Neither the rosary nor the Our Father seeks to give instructions to God. Both prayers arise from the same desire: to accept God's grace into one's life and cooperate generously with it.

Over the centuries, many Catholics have found the rosary an ideal prayer, partly because it reminds them of Mary's response to the Archangel Gabriel, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). That response became Mary's characteristic response to God throughout her life.

At, if you click "English" and then search for "rosary," you will link to Pope John Paul II's October 16, 2002, apostolic letter on the rosary.

At you can find a condensed version of that letter. Simply type "rosary" in the "Search for Articles" box to find that Catholic Update and other information about the rosary.

Meditation is for everyone. The fact that non-Christian religions encourage their own type of meditation does not make meditation a non-Christian form of prayer.

Which Mass Does God Want?

Q: My 22-year-old grandson was away from the Church for a while but has now returned because he believes in the sacraments.

He has learned about the Latin Mass and believes that it is the original, true Mass and that the "New Mass" does not entirely reflect God's will.

How can I explain to him the difference between the traditional and the "New Mass"? Is one Mass as holy as the other?

A: Because the Mass is common, public worship, the Catholic Church has the right to make regulations pertaining to it.

The Mass was celebrated first in Aramaic, later in Greek or Latin.

In 1964 at the Second Vatican Council, the world's bishops, under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, decided that the Mass could be celebrated in local languages, as well as in Latin.

If your grandson sets the "Latin Mass" and the "New Mass" in opposition, then he is recognizing as legitimate only the Mass revised after the Council of Trent. It is often called the Tridentine Mass. The same authority used by Pope Pius V in 1570 when he authorized that Mass was used by Pope Paul VI in 1969 in authorizing the "New Order of the Mass."

The issue here is not really language. After 1969, Pope Paul VI frequently celebrated the "New Mass" in Latin. Pope John Paul II has done the same.

The Tridentine Mass can still be celebrated under certain conditions—one of which is that those present acknowledge the legitimacy of the "New Order of the Mass," as well as their communion with the local bishop, who is appointed by the pope.

St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians contains a section about honoring the Eucharist by not turning it into a source of divisions (11:17-34). Exalting the Tridentine Mass while denying the legitimacy of the "New Mass" ignores St. Paul's warning and does not honor God.

Why Theology?

Q: What is the role of theology in Catholic faith formation? Is it the same as faith? As catechesis? As doctrine?

A: St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), a doctor of the Church, has provided the classic definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding." Faith comes first. Theology builds on it, enabling a person to reflect on his or her life experiences in light of God's self-revelation.

Theology helps faith to grow. An eight-year-old, for example, might think of God as always preventing anything bad from happening to a good person. Once that child experiences that bad things sometimes indeed do happen to good people, the choices are now to quit believing in God, to restrict faith to that stage of development or, with the assistance of theology, take one's faith to the next level.

That child's initial faith needs to mature. A faith seeking understanding enables a person to grow in faith rather than assume that a childhood faith must be protected at all costs.

Why No Altar Calls?

Q: Who was the founder of the Catholic religion? I heard that it was St. Augustine, but I am not sure. Why don't Catholics use altar calls to bring more people to Christ?

A: Jesus Christ founded the Church, which was simply called "Catholic" or "Christian" for the first 1,000 years of its existence. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died in 107, already described the Church as catholic, meaning universal. Augustine died much later.

After the 11th century, the Church tragically split into two groups: Roman Catholic and Orthodox. In the 16th century, Protestant denominations began appearing in the West.

An altar call, such as we see at the end of a Billy Graham crusade, reflects a person's overall intention for the future, but it is made at a specific time. Both Protestants and Catholics need to reaffirm their Baptism by daily choices to accept God's grace and respond generously.

All Christians need to remember Jesus' admonition that saying, "Lord, Lord," is not enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. They must do the will of God the Father (see Matthew 7:21). Yesterday's generous response prepares for today's generous response; it cannot substitute for it.

Why Incense?

Q: At Mass today, incense was used several times. Exactly what significance does this have? Is this a custom that the Catholic Church began? I have not seen incense used at Protestant worship services that I have attended.

A: Incense was used by Jewish people before the time of Jesus as a way of symbolizing their prayers. “Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice,” says verse two of Psalm 141. In Exodus 30:1-10, God describes how the altar of incense is to be constructed in the sanctuary and calls for an incense offering in the morning, plus another in the evening.

Incense was used by pagan religions before Judaism began. Christianity simply adopted the custom, which is observed by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. In the 16th century, most Protestant groups rejected incense, along with statues and vestments.

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