On October 16, 2002, Pope St. John Paul II added a new group of Mysteries—the “Luminous Mysteries”—to the Rosary. Hitherto there had been three groups: the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. These three together totaled 150 Hail Marys: originally meant to correspond to the 150 Psalms.
An objection, among traditional-minded folks, to a new set of mysteries was that it would undermine this connection. John Vennari at Seattle Catholic, imagining the objections the pope’s predecessors might have had (as though he himself spoke for the dead), explained:
Thus, if one could go back in time and ask any of the pre-Vatican II Popes why they never added “new mysteries” to the Rosary, the answer is easy to presume. “Because,” the pre-conciliar Pope would say, “if I add 5 new mysteries, I will have to add 5 new decades. If I add five new decades, then the Rosary can no longer be called ‘Our Lady’s Psalter’. Now Catholic tradition, my holy predecessors and Our Blessed Mother referred to the Rosary as Her ‘Psalter’, because the 150 Hail Mary’s of the 15-decade Rosary correspond to the 150 Psalms of David. It would be audacious of me to add 5 decades. This would be the decimation of the entire concept of Mary’s ‘Psalter’, a term hallowed by centuries of usage, a term that explains the origin and essence of the Rosary, a term used by the Queen of Heaven Herself. Further, if I make this radical change to the Rosary, then what is to prevent more radical changes in the future?”
So an entirely optional addition—not to doctrine or dogma, but to tradition—constitutes a change so radical it might presage even more radical changes!
And yet Vennari does not explain why “Mary’s Psalter” must always have just as many “psalms” as David’s. Nor, even with 150 Aves over three mysteries, does Mary’s Psalter contain 150 different Aves: only a single Ave repeated 150 times.
Originally, as Fisheaters explains, the poor who could not afford a copy of the Bible in order to pray the Psalms would simply substitute 150 Aves. And so the Rosary also became known as “the poor man’s Psalter.”
But this is not a difficulty in much of the world today–lack of access to the Scriptures (admittedly it is in some places)–and thus there is less need to think of the Rosary as merely a substitute for the inability to pray the Psalms. (As though, for those who can pray the Psalms, the Rosary is not needed!)
Nor does anything prevent a person from continuing to pray the Rosary as it had always been prayed. In Rosarium Virginis Mariae, where John Paul II proposed the additional Luminous Mysteries, he was at pains to point out that their inclusion was optional. No one is required to pray them, just as no one is required to pray the Rosary at all. It is a devotion, not a dogma.
At the back of objections such as these is an attachment to tradition in excess of its status as doctrine. There is no doctrine of the three mysteries of the Rosary.
Eight years after the Luminous Mysteries were added, Christopher Ferrara at The Remnant argued that they should be scrapped, and among his objections to them was the curious one that the New York Times approved of them, so they must be bad! Case closed!
“For most Catholics,” Ferrara wrote, “the luminous mysteries are nebulous mysteries.”
I would hope he does not really mean this, since three of them are directly related to Sacraments of the Church–baptism, marriage, and the Eucharist. Am I to believe the sacraments are “nebulous”? The baptism of Christ is hazy? No one knows what the wedding feast at Cana was all about? The institution of the Eucharist makes Catholics draw a complete blank?
Indeed it is the very fact that the Luminous Mysteries invite us to meditate on these sacraments—which of the other mysteries involve a sacrament?—that makes them worth praying. And indeed, what could be more Marian than to meditate upon the Wedding Feast of Cana, where Christ, prompted by his mother, performed his first public miracle, and where Mary instructed us to “do whatever He tells you”? Everything we learn from Our Lady comes back to this: Do whatever he tells you. That is worth meditating upon in the Rosary.
In addition—and John Paul II pointed this out in his apostolic letter—none of the other Mysteries of the Rosary involve Christ’s ministry itself. The Joyful Mysteries cover Christ’s conception to his twelfth year; the Sorrowful Mysteries cover Christ’s Passion; the Glorious Mysteries cover events subsequent to Christ’s death. Only in the Luminous Mysteries are we invited to meditate upon Christ’s earthly ministry.
But if—as again John Paul II pointed out—the Rosary is the Gospel, it seems to be a strange oversight that Christ’s earthly ministry should be left out. Is that not the Gospel too?
It may seem strange to suggest that the Rosary was lacking for so many years, and that the Luminous Mysteries alone completes it. Was the Rosary not perfect before? In fact, a similar objection could be raised to Paul’s words: “I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” What does Paul mean? What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ?
Yet Paul meant that Christ’s sufferings were supposed to be shared in by Christians. And in the same way, Christ’s incarnation, and Christ’s passion, and Christ’s resurrection, while lacking in nothing, were meant to be “completed,” as it were, by what he did here. He was baptized, he performed miracles, he sanctified marriage, he was transfigured, he brought us the Kingdom of God, and he gave us himself as food. Without these things, the rest of the story would have been for naught. Christ did no insignificant thing.
And that is why it is well to pray the Luminous Mysteries.