Last month, on the twenty-fourth anniversary of his election, John Paul II proclaimed a “Year of the Rosary,” issued an apostolic letter on the famous prayer-cycle, and proposed adding five new mysteries – “the luminous mysteries” or “mysteries of light” – to the traditional fifteen. One friend, a papal stalwart of unimpeachable Marian piety, e-mailed me from abroad, asking “Am I the only one who thinks that adding mysteries to the rosary is a little…odd?” I had to admit that I, too, was taken aback.
But on further thought, and after reading the Pope’s apostolic letter, I think I see his point. The rosary is intended to foster prayerful reflection on the Gospel. The traditional joyful, sorrowful, and glorious mysteries didn’t include great events in the public ministry of Christ – the moments when the light of the Lord shines forth into the world. Thus, the Pope proposes, let’s add five “luminous mysteries,” in order to deepen our meditation on the Son of Mary who is also the Son of God: Christ’s baptism; his first miracle at Cana; his proclamation of the Kingdom and call to conversion; his transfiguration; and his institution of the Eucharist, in which the Church for all time celebrates the Easter mystery.
In his letter, John Paul left the inclusion of these new mysteries to “the freedom of individuals and communities.” My hunch is that they’ll soon find wide acceptance. The night of the Pope’s anniversary, I looked into the chapel of Poland’s Black Madonna at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. And there were two dozen college students, praying the new luminous mysteries. I joined them for the last two decades and found the experience spiritually refreshing. Which is not, I don’t think, a matter of itching for novelty, but of rediscovering concretely that the rosary is, after all, a Christ-centered prayer.
Adding five mysteries to the centuries-old practice of the rosary is entirely in character for John Paul II, the man of bold innovation for whom genuine renewal always means returning to the Church’s roots and finding there the inspiration for genuinely Catholic growth and development. The new mysteries are also of a piece with Karol Wojtyla’s long-standing conviction that genuine Marian piety always points, like Mary, to Christ: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5).
In his vocational memoir, Gift and Mystery, John Paul recalls that, when he left home for Cracow and the great Jagiellonian University, he was somewhat dissatisfied with the conventional Marian piety he had imbibed in Wadowice, his hometown. “At one point,” he writes, “I began to question my devotion to Mary, believing that, if it became too great, it might end up compromising the supremacy of the worship owed to Christ.” Then, young Karol discovered the works of St. Louis de Montfort, an early eighteenth century French theologian whose major work was entitled True Devotion to Mary. Montfort showed Wojtyla that all “true devotion” to Our Lady points, like Mary herself, to Christ.
“Do whatever he tells you,” Mary instructs the waiters at Cana. And while the miracle is an astonishment, the subtle accent in Mary’s instruction is on the “he,” not the “whatever.” Mary points to her Son. Because her Son is the incarnate World of God, Mary, by pointing to him, points us into the heart of the Holy Trinity, and to the radical self-giving and reciprocity in love that are the inner life of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus all “true devotion” to Mary is always Christ-centered and Trinitarian.
Mary leads us to Christ. But as John Paul writes in Gift and Mystery, “Christ leads us to his mother” as well. In leading us to his mother, he leads us to the woman of mystery whose “be it done unto me, according to your word” makes possible the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. In leading us to his mother, Christ points out the self-giving pattern of all true discipleship: let it be done according to what you will. In pointing us to his mother, Christ points us to the heart of the Church as a communion of disciples known by their love.
“Luminous” mysteries, indeed.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.