It’s happened three times, now, in the last 2-3 months. I get postcards (always hand printed and always unsigned) explaining where and why Catholics are “disobeying the Saviour [sic]…” The postcard is of an adobe village in New Mexico; the card is postmarked Amarillo, TX. This time it’s about the Rosary. The author of this message insists that the Rosary is a violation of Jesus’ injunction (Matthew 6:7) that disciples should “…use not vain repetitions as the heathen do…” So what might I respond, if the person writing the card had the strength of character and confidence of correctness actually to sign his/her name?
I guess I would first state that Catholics believe in the “principle of the whole canon,” which means we do not take single verses (especially out of full context) to use as metaphorical baseball bats against the kneecaps of “unbelievers.” What needs to be explored, then, is the intention of Jesus in this context.
Insofar as the “heathen” pray “vain repetitions,” it is a reference to the idea that the proper number (and proper combination) of words can force the hand of the deity, making the god grant what the person is asking. It’s a matter of intention. Christians certainly pray, wanting to receive what they ask for. But there is a significant difference between hoping for what one asks and expecting to receive it because of the use of the proper manipulation.
In any event, Jesus encourages “repetitions,” and He does not conclude that they are automatically “vain.” Let’s consider another reference (also in the “Sermon on the Mount,” just to be consistent): Matthew 7:7-11. There, Jesus tells His disciples to “Ask, seek, knock.” Jesus has other words of encouragement for insistent (“vain repetitions”?) prayer, as we can read in Luke 11:5-8 (the insistent friend at midnight), and 18:15 (the persistent widow v the unjust judge). St Paul advised the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17). And finally, Jesus Himself prayed the same prayer three times in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-41). If Jesus could use the same “repetitions” in prayer, why can’t we?
Let’s return to the issue of motive and intention. For most of us, the Rosary is not an instrument of manipulation but a vehicle that allows us to enter more deeply into “proper prayer,” by meditation on the mysteries. The individual prayers are simply a way of becoming “prayerful,” in the fullest and most proper way possible. Finally, though: aren’t all “set prayers” (even the Lord’s Prayer) finally repeated over and over (even if over a span of days/months)? If we have good words, let’s use them. And let’s remember, too, whether we pray the Rosary or the “Jesus Prayer” or multitudes of Lord’s Prayers, in the long run our final prayer is always “Thy will be done.”