What is the rosary? Why a set of beads and prayers are central to Catholic faith

It’s one of the most famous moments in modern Catholicism: the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima. The Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to three Portuguese children in 1917, when much of the world was engulfed in World War I. Over a series of six appearances, Mary emphasized to these young shepherds that to bring peace, they should pray the rosary every day.

Devotion to the rosary already had a centuries-old history, and the Marian apparition at Fatima only deepened it. So what is a rosary, and why is it so important to many Catholics?

Centuries of meaning

As an archivist and associate professor for the University of Dayton’s Marian Library, I curate a collection of artifacts that illustrate many forms of popular devotion to the Virgin Mary, including nearly 900 unique rosaries. Each one tells a story of the people who owned them and how rosaries have evolved.

The word “rosary” refers to a set of prayers in the Catholic Church as well as a physical object. While praying the rosary, Catholics use a set of beads or knots to count and keep track of the prayers. Prayer beads as physical counting tools are quite common in several religions, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The exact origins of the rosary are debated. Many theologians believe it was at least popularized by St. Dominic de Guzman, a Spanish mystic and priest who allegedly received a vision in 1208 of the Virgin Mary in which she presented him with the rosary.

The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary on Oct. 7 each year – previously known as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate a Christian victory in a naval battle in 1571. Soon after, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the holy day, and now the entire month of October is dedicated to the rosary.