In the traditional calendar, today August 4, is the feast of St. Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221), the founder of the great Order of Preachers. In honor of the day, this post supports the tradition that Our Lady gave the Rosary to St. Dominic to use in his fight against the Albigensian heresy of the Cathars.
In his book The Secret of the Rosary, St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) gives some background and then tells the story of St. Dominic's vision:
"Since the Rosary is composed, principally and in substance, of the prayer of Christ and the Angelic Salutation, that is, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, it was without doubt the first prayer and the principal devotion of the faithful and has been in use all through the centuries, from the time of the apostles and disciples down to the present.This tradition is questioned, however, because the event is not mentioned in any of the writings of St. Dominic or his contemporaries.
"It was only in the year 1214, however, that the Church received the Rosary in its present form and according to the method we use today. It was given to the Church by St. Dominic, who had received it from the Blessed Virgin as a means of converting the Albigensians and other sinners.
"I will tell you the story of how he received it, which is found in the very well-known book De Dignitate Psalterii, by Blessed Alan de la Roche [1428-1475]. Saint Dominic, seeing that the gravity of people's sins was hindering the conversion of the Albigensians, withdrew into a forest near Toulouse, where he prayed continuously for three days and three nights. During this time he did nothing but weep and do harsh penances in order to appease the anger of God. He used his discipline so much that his body was lacerated, and finally he fell into a coma.
"At this point our Lady appeared to him, accompanied by three angels, and she said, 'Dear Dominic, do you know which weapon the Blessed Trinity wants to use to reform the world?'
"'Oh, my Lady,' answered Saint Dominic, 'you know far better than I do, because next to your Son Jesus Christ you have always been the chief instrument of our salvation.'
"Then Our Lady replied, 'I want you to know that, in this kind of warfare, the principal weapon has always been the Angelic Psalter, which is the foundation-stone of the New Testament. Therefore, if you want to reach these hardened souls and win them over to God, preach my Psalter."
It is well known that the Holy Rosary or Our Lady's Psalter grew out of the monastic practice of reciting the 150 Psalms. That is, the desert monks recited all 150 Psalms daily. In turn, St. Benedict had his monks recite the 150 Psalms over the course of a week.
In imitation of this practice, the laity developed a practice of reciting 150 Aves to equal the number of the Psalms. The devotion became known as "Our Lady's Psalter" and later as a "Rosarium" (rose garden or rose garland), a metaphor used to describe collections of various sorts -- not just of prayers.
Thus, Our Lady's Psalter, the Rosary, was already around in some form at the time of St. Dominic's vision. That does not, however, conflict with the belief that Our Lady instructed St. Dominic to preach her Psalter or with the belief that by giving the Psalter her blessing it took on a definition that it did not have previously. It also seems quite possible that if St. Dominic was busy preaching her Psalter he might not have taken the time to write about it.
The best defense of the belief that Our Lady did in fact instruct St. Dominic to use her Psalter as a weapon to fight heresy despite the absence of a contemporary written record is found in an article by Fr. Paul Duffner, "In Defense of a Tradition," from Light and Life, Vol. 49, No. 5, Sep. Oct 1996.
Here is part of what Fr. Duffner had to say:
"Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) was a renowned scholar and a promoter of historical studies and research. When he was an official of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, he was asked about the tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary. The following is his response . . . :
'You ask whether St. Dominic was the first institutor of the Rosary, and show that you yourselves are bewildered and entangled in doubts on the matter. Now, what value do you attach to the testimony of so many Popes, such as Leo X (1521), Pius V (1572), Gregory XIII (1585), Sixtus V (1590), Clement VIII (1605), Alexander VII (1667), Bl. Innocent XI (1689), Clement XI (1721), Innocent XIII (1724) and others who unanimously attribute the institution of the Rosary to St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, an apostolic man who might be compared to the apostles themselves and who, undoubtedly due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became the designer, the author, promoter, and most illustrious preacher of this admirable and truly heavenly instrument, the Rosary.'
. . .
"To the above list of Popes accepting the tradition of St. Dominic and the Rosary could be added many more coming after the time of Benedict XIV. But this is not the main argument supporting the tradition. It is the coming together of many pieces of a puzzle pertaining to the essentials of the tradition as handed down. For example:
"given the fact that the members of the Militia of Jesus Christ founded by St. Dominic, or by a Dominican of his day, prayed the 150 Hail Marys daily. . . .Fr. Duffner's article in its entirety is available online. Anyone interested in the matter would be well advised to read it.
"given the fact of St. Dominic’s devotion to Mary and his ardent prayer in combatting the great heresy of his day. . .along with the testimony of ALAN DE RUPE that St. Dominic did receive some communication from the Mother of God as to how to combat the errors of his time. . . . (If Our Lady at Fatima gave us a remedy in this century for overcoming Communism and attaining peace - which remedy included the Rosary - does it not seem probable that she would have intervened in the 13th century offering a means of combatting the devastating heresy of Albigensianism - as tradition assures us she did.)
"given the fact that, as some of his biographers explain, a common manner of preaching of Dominic was the frequent alternating of his instruction on the mysteries of our faith with prayer. . . .
"given the fact that the first beginning of this devotion in the time of Dominic was vastly different from its present structure, that then there was no set sequence of the mysteries, and that even the name (Rosary) had not yet been established. . . .
"given the fact that many convents with their libraries were destroyed in the religious persecutions that followed the 13th century. . . .
"In the light of the above, it seems to me that the negative argument (the absence of documents) is outweighed by the presence of the essential components that constitute the heart of what the Rosary is. It seems to me, not merely possible, but very probable, that the Mother of God (as Alan de Rupe testified) did use St. Dominic in some way to give this devotion to the Church."
Anonymous painting of St. Dominic receiving the Rosary, from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.