For many Protestants the Rosary encapsulates everything that is wrong with Roman Catholicism – an excessive (and perhaps idolatrous) focus on Mary, rote mechanical prayers, and legalism. But is this a fair characterization? And might the Rosary have something to offer Protestants?
The “Praying to Mary” Objection: Since the Rosary consists largely of “Hail Mary”s many Protestants see this as one more instance of Catholic Mariolarty. But Catholics will tell you that these are not prayers to Mary in the sense that one would pray to God the Father or to Jesus, but are requests asking for Mary’s intercession. There seems to be no good argument that it’s wrong in principle to ask for the prayers of the Mother of God, if we allow, as we surely must, that it’s okay to ask for the prayers of other living Christians and that death doesn’t sever us from the Communion of the Saints (this is essentially Robert Jenson’s argument).
The “Vain Repetition” Objection: Do the Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s of the Rosary constitute “vain repetition” as condemned in the Bible? Well, most Protestants pray the Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) as well as other pre-written prayers (the Psalms, etc.) so the objection can’t be to written prayers per se. Moreover, it seems that what Jesus is condemning in, e.g. Matthew 6:7 is a kind of prayer that seeks to cajole the deity into doing what you want by means of repitition. By contrast, the Rosary is intended to be a prayer wherein one meditates on the Mysteries of Christ’s life. The movement of the fingers and the lips are supposed to help avoid distractions and allow the mind and spirit to enter into a deeper contemplative state. This isn’t to say that the Rosary can’t become a mechanical or self-centered prayer, but so can any other prayer, including the ones we come up with ourselves.
I’m not arguing that Protestants should pray the Rosary. I, for one, never have, and I admit to finding that devotions with a strong Marian element don’t come naturally to me. Nevertheless, it’s a form of prayer that’s nourished countless Christians for hundreds of years (and it predates the Reformation), so I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand.