Ecumenical rosary

Lutheran revises the popular Catholic devotion to have wider appeal among Protestants

Saturday, April 17, 2004



When Dennis Di Mauro's Catholic wife first introduced him to the rosary about seven years ago, he was suspicious. He is, after all, a Lutheran, and good Lutherans -- like most other Protestants -- don't pray the rosary.

But after experiencing the rosary through a prayer group for Catholic couples, Di Mauro began to reconsider the centuries-old prayer to the Virgin Mary. Fingering the beads and repeating the prayers focused his mind, and meditating on Jesus' life and death stirred his soul.

He got to thinking -- why is this so bad, after all?

"The rosary is really something special," said Di Mauro, a 39-year-old father of three. "It allows people to spend more time in prayer and meditate on what Jesus has done for us."

Still, the idea of asking for Mary's intercession through the rosary troubled Di Mauro. He wondered if there was a way to reconfigure the rosary but not "butcher it," in hopes that Protestants and Catholics might find unity in something that has often been divisive.

What resulted was Di Mauro's "Ecumenical Miracle Rosary," a set of prayers with nary a "Hail Mary." Catholic dogmas about her assumption or coronation as queen of heaven are replaced by miracles attributed to Jesus, such as raising Lazarus from the dead.

"I don't want to put down the (original) rosary," he insists. "I just want to introduce it to new people. It's really not about my aversion to the original rosary."

So, instead of 10 sets of "Hail, Mary, full of grace ... pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death," Di Mauro prays, "Oh my Lord, I know that you are always with me; help me to obey your commandments and lead me to share my faith with others, so that they may know you and love you."

Much of the traditional rosary remains intact -- the same beads, some of the same meditative mysteries. What's missing are the most overt references to Mary, whose prominence in Catholic theology has been a stumbling block for many Protestants for 500 years.


Martin Luther, who launched the 16th century Reformation, had a mixed view of Mary. Scholars say he held her in high regard as a model of faith, and even believed in her perpetual virginity, but rejected her role as a mediator or intercessor between God and man.

Even though tradition says he was buried with a rosary, and his symbol features a prominent rose -- synonymous with the Virgin Mary -- Luther deplored the church's promise of rewards in the hereafter for performing devotions like the rosary.

"The way Luther has been interpreted doesn't do justice to how positive he looked on Mary," said the Rev. Kirsi Stjerna, professor of Reformation history at the Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. "But it's safe to say that he would not have approved any kind of prayer to Mary with the hope that Mary would help us. Christ would help us."

Catholics who have seen Di Mauro's ecumenical rosary don't seem bothered by the changes. If anything, they take satisfaction that other Christians are finding meaning in repetitive prayer.

"There is a certain amount of freedom in the rosary," said the Rev. Thomas Thompson, director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton. "It's not de rigueur that one has to do it exactly the way it's written."

Changes are not unheard of in the rosary. In 2002, Pope John Paul II added a fourth set of meditations -- the Luminous Mysteries -- to accompany 500-year-old meditations on Christ's life, death and resurrection.

So far the reaction has been mostly positive, Di Mauro said. Conference calls to host group rosary prayers have included Catholics, and "no one has come to me and said, 'Boy, this is heresy.'"

In 1999, Di Mauro launched a Web site,, that now gets 250 hits a day. He has mailed out 2,500 how-to brochures to Bible study groups, prison ministries and interfaith groups.

Asked how much he has spent on the fledgling project, Di Mauro laughs. "I'd rather not say," said Di Mauro, a manager at Nortel Networks and member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Reston, Va.

Di Mauro is not alone in his rediscovery of beaded prayer. Growing numbers of Protestants are employing prayer beads and repetitive prayer as a way to merge physical sensation with spiritual transcendence.

Last year, Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, Calif., constructed 400 sets of prayer beads for Lent. Each of the 33-bead sets contains Christian symbols of a cross, fish or dove.

The church's pastor, Randall Wilburn, said initial resistance gave way to warm devotion by the 580-member church when people stopped seeing a rosary -- or any beads -- as idolatrous or superstitious.

"That's what Lutherans are trying to do, so are Anglicans -- trying to figure out a way to have a decent theology of Mary, the mother of Jesus, without the tradition of magical thinking around this object," he said.

Sue Swanson of Woodbury, Minn., has been on a similar spiritual trek. Swanson, a Methodist seminary student, stumbled on Di Mauro's Web site and found that it squared with her own use of prayer beads, a practice she has shared with recovery groups, at bead stores and at retreat centers.

"We have to remember that before the Reformation, we were all Catholic, so it's part of our tradition, too," she said. "If we can find some of those ancient traditions and revitalize them, they can bring meaning to our Christian faith."

The Rev. Kurt Pritzl, dean of the School of Philosophy at Catholic University in Washington, said Catholics and non-Catholics alike are rediscovering the rosary, both with and without Mary.

"It's not just little old ladies saying the rosary anymore," said Pritzl.