Is it acceptable to wear a rosary?

Many of us of European stock (by extension, including those of us in the New World) would say that a rosary is for praying, not for wearing.  It was something you could get away with briefly as a three-year old but not as an older child, teen or adult.  The nuns also found this practice unacceptable, but they rarely saw it because our parents brought us up in Western traditions, so it was a non-starter.

I make that distinction because in some Latin American, South American and African countries, Catholics don’t see it as a problem. Some use it as a sign of their Christianity when they cannot afford to buy gold or silver crucifixes to wear. Some Africans find it necessary to wear rosaries in order to send a message to Muslims that they are Christians

Bad Vestments recently leapt into this topic with a post called ‘Themes to Avoid’.  I’m on the side of Bad Vestments, but that was how my friends and I were raised. I guess the lady in their picture thinks it’s okay, but it will bother some.  I should mention that I also find a red rosary particularly offensive and have never seen one until Bad Vestments‘ photograph.  The colour red is associated with the Holy Spirit and martyrdom, which is one thing, but I have not seen it used for a rosary. Red is also used in the secular world to symbolise sex and vice. Maybe it’s a cultural thing though, so please don’t come piling in.   

Do I personally think it’s right where it is not historically part of our culture and Christianity?  No.  Here’s why: 

– Wearing a rosary or draping it around a rearview mirror may hold a syncretic meaning for some, e.g. like a ‘lucky’ rabbit’s foot

– Those wearing the rosary must be acting reverently at all times in order to show it the respect it deserves as a sacramental — so, no gyrating, cursing or ungodly behaviour

– Wearing a rosary is becoming commonplace amongst gang members and drug dealers, people who are engaging in criminal behaviour

– Those who wear it may sweat on or stain it — not appropriate for a sacramental, which should be treated reverently, like a Bible or a prayerbook

– Rosaries should be blessed, therefore, it would not seem appropriate  to wear them like jewelry

– The more people treat a rosary the way they wish to treat it, the higher the risk that it becomes a pagan symbol — devoid of Christian meaning

Some religious orders wear 15-decade rosaries draped around their belts, which is different.  They are keeping them to the side for when they pray and as a sign of their faith.  They have also taken religious vows, including obedience to our Lord in their personal thoughts and deeds.

Laypeople in the West generally keep rosaries in a discreet place on their person or in a handbag where they are there for prayer.  This means that they do not finger them casually or get them dirty, e.g. place them next to money or food crumbs.  Would you keep your pocket-sized New Testament in a pocket with unsightly residue or next to loose change?  A rosary is no different.

Similarly, smaller one-decade rosaries should not be worn as bracelets.  They, too, are sacramentals and should ideally be blessed by a priest.  They are for travel or for times when it may be inappropriate to use a five-decade rosary. 

What does the Catholic Church say?  Here it becomes less clear-cut:

Pope Innocent XI, 1679: To those who openly wear the rosary out of devotion and to set a good example: a hundred days’ indulgence — confirmed by our Holy Father Pope Innocent XI on 31st July 1679, and received and made public by the Archbishop of Paris on 25th September of the same year.

Canon Law: ‘Sacred objects, set aside for divine worship by dedication or blessing, are to be treated with reverence. They are not to be made over to secular or inappropriate use, even though they may belong to private persons.’

Catholic Answers: Essentially, sacramentals such as rosaries must be treated with respect, particularly if they have been blessed. Reverence is the attitude of awe or respect that is most often given to sacred things. By its very definition, it is an interior disposition that usually cannot be determined by onlookers by appearances alone. A person may be wearing a rosary as a statement of faith, to keep it handy for praying throughout the day, or to avoid losing it. Those reasons would be indicative of reverence and would not interfere with the canon’s directive that sacramentals must be treated reverently.

Ordinarily speaking, then, if someone is spotted wearing a rosary, he should be charitably presumed to be wearing it for just reasons. Only if the rosary is being put to an objectively sordid use (e.g., a rock star is using it as a prop in a music video, obscenely contrasting the symbolic purity of the rosary with the immodest or immoral actions of the performers) can we be sure that the rosary is being treated irreverently.

Bottom line — if you’re going to wear a rosary, please demonstrate the demeanour of a monk or a nun at all times.  And please don’t be upset if people find wearing one offensive.

More about the Rosary tomorrow