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Is The Rosary A Prayer Of “Vain Repetitions”?

November 5, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


When I allowed two Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW for short) in my house one Saturday afternoon, I had the opportunity to practice a bit of Catholic Apologetics. This is how it went:
The older man noticed a rosary on the coffee table and said, “Roman Catholic. You are actually a Roman Catholic!” he repeated with a triumphant smile, as though he had discovered my darkest secret. He went on, “Surely you know that that object you’ve got there is used for vain repetitions, which Jesus condemned in the Bible.”
“Is that so?” I asked, “Could you please show me where in the Bible Jesus condemned praying the rosary?”
His Bible was already in his hands. Two or three flicks of well-used pages and he showed me a text, neatly highlighted in red: “But when praying, do not say the same thing over and over again, just as the peoples of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words” (JW’s translation of the Bible).
“Now, sir,” he said condescendingly, “this is the Gospel of Matthew, 6:7. Wasn’t this type of prayer condemned by Jesus in the Gospel when He said that when we pray we should not say the same thing over and over again, or use vain repetitions? Now, in the rosary you say the prayers over and over again, don’t you? Now, that is what is called repetition! How can you pray the rosary and still claim to follow Jesus?” His smile was triumphant.
“Not really,” I replied. “You have taken a passage out of context and used it as a pretext. May I show you?” The poor fellow could hardly say no; after all, he was in my house, sitting on my furniture. The least he could do was listen to me.
“So,” I went on, “the first thing to see here is that the verse you quoted is actually a mistranslation in your Bible. To read, ‘do not say the same thing over and over again,’ is to stretch the meaning. If your Bible had been correctly translated it would read, ‘Speak not much, as the heathens,’ or, ‘Do not multiply words.’ What the Gentiles or heathens of that time did in their prayers was to improvise their speech and babble away, trying to persuade their ‘gods’ to hear them. This is quite different from saying the same prayer over and over again. We must first ask ourselves these questions: Did Jesus condemn all repetitive prayer as ‘vain’? Or did He condemn only those repetitions that were actually vain? Or is every prayer of repetition vain per se?”
Without giving him a chance to change the subject, I opened my Catholic Bible and read: “And when you are praying, speak not much, as the heathens; for they think that in their speaking much they may be heard. Be not therefore like to them; for your Father knows what is needful for you before you ask. Thus therefore shall you pray: Our Father, Who art in Heaven. . . .” (cf. Matt. 6:7-14).
“What did Jesus condemn here?” I asked. “Manifestly not the repetition of a given prayer, but the outpouring of words as the pagans did. And why? He Himself explains, ‘They think that in their speaking much they may be heard’.”
It seemed they really knew nothing about the subject. I did not waste time. “Those poor heathens had made gods for themselves, and became imprisoned by the gods they had concocted. Their gods were like themselves, having all the defects and passions of heathenism, gods of pride, lust and envy, treason and hate. To please this type of ‘god,’ they had to do a lot of talking, hoping that somewhere along the line they might catch their ‘gods’ in a good mood.
“The true God is not like that. He is our heavenly Father, who knows what we need before we ask Him. So Jesus says that we should not multiply words like the heathens, but as He, Jesus, tells us. Then He teaches us how to pray: ‘Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. . . .’
“So,” I concluded, “Jesus right then and there gives us a prayer to repeat! Pray thus. Pray like this.”
My JW guests had never thought about this. I pressed the point home: “Surely Jesus would not contradict Himself by telling us not to repeat prayer and then immediately thereafter give us a prayer to repeat! That would be a contradiction, and in Him there is no contradiction.”
“Yes, but. . . .” said the younger JW, “but the Roman Catholic Church invented the rosary.”
I did not wish to tell him about our Lady appearing to St. Dominic and giving him the rosary, because that would have opened a whole new topic. I simply stated that it was not the rosary as such we were talking about, but the prayer of repetition per se. I’d tackle the rosary itself, the object, later.
“But, Jesus did not say that we should repeat prayer, but just say it,” interjected the quicker one, “Roman Catholics overdo it, which is not good because. . . .”
I interjected: “No, my friend, the context suggests that Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us a prayer to repeat, saying, ‘When you pray, pray thus.’ How often do you pray? That’s the number of times you ought to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Otherwise, how many times should you say that prayer? Once a day? Once every Sabbath day? Once a month or once a year? Once in your life?”
While they were trying to figure out how many times one should say the prayer to fit in with the requirements of the Watchtower Bible, I went on: “This method can’t work. In the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 11, after teaching His disciples the Our Father, our Lord told them a parable about a man who knocked at his friend’s door late at night, when everybody was in bed, asking for bread.
“And his friend said he could not help him, everybody being asleep and what not. But the first man insisted; he repeated his knocking and his request so many times that his friend decided to give in just to be rid of him. That’s how Jesus summed it all up: ‘I say to you, although he will not get up and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him all he needs. And I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.’ So, my friends, the words ‘do not say the same thing over and over again’ in your Bible are not scriptural at all. They are an inaccuracy, a poor translation at best.”
“But we prefer to speak from the heart, freely, as Jehovah wants us to pray, and we believe this is much better.”
I would not let him off the hook. “Be careful here, for nobody can presume that his improvised prayers are better than those that Jesus Himself commanded.”
“So, are you saying that your rosary is inspired in the Bible?” asked the more silent fellow.

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(Next Week — The Biblical Inspiration Of The Rosary.)

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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; an EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI]; president of the Sacred Heart Institute, and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is

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