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The Sacraments and the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary

The Apostolic Letter of the Pope

Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (The Rosary of the Virgin Mary), proposes to the Church five new mysteries to be added to the Rosary. These mysteries are based on events within the Divine Ministry of Jesus Christ.

"I believe, however, that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ's public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion."84

The five Mysteries of Light (or Luminous Mysteries) proposed by the Pope follow events in Christ's Ministry, from the start of His Ministry at His Baptism by John in the Jordan, to the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, just before His Passion and Crucifixion.

"In proposing to the Christian community five significant moments - 'luminous' mysteries - during this phase of Christ's life, I think that the following can be fittingly singled out: (1) his Baptism in the Jordan, (2) his self-manifestation at the wedding of Cana, (3) his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with his call to conversion, (4) his Transfiguration, and finally, (5) his institution of the Eucharist, as the sacramental expression of the Paschal Mystery."85

These five new mysteries of the Rosary were derived by the Pope from the work of Saint George Preca of Malta. He and his followers have prayed a similar form of the rosary for many years.

Saint George Preca and the Society of Christian Doctrine

In devising these five new mysteries of the Rosary, Pope John Paul II drew upon the work of Saint George Preca, who founded the Society of Christian Doctrine in 1907. Fr. George Preca was beatified by Pope John Paul II in May of 2001, and was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2007.

In 1957, Saint George Preca proposed to the members of the SDC the following five mysteries of light:

"The first mystery is when Our Lord was baptized at the Jordan; the second consists in meditating the events of Christ's miracles; the third, when Jesus Christ taught the Beatitudes; The fourth about Our Lord's transfiguration; and the fifth is about the Last Supper."86

Notice that the Pope changed some of the mysteries from those practiced by Saint George and his Society. The first, fourth, and fifth mysteries are nearly the same. The Pope changed the second mystery from a meditation on Christ's miracles in general to the particular miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And the third mystery was changed from the teaching of the Beatitudes to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, with an emphasis on the call to repentance and conversion, which is essential to an acceptance of that proclamation.

The Guidance of the Holy Spirit

This change is no mere difference of opinion, nor an arbitrary choice. The Pope was guided by the Holy Spirit when he chose the five Mysteries of Light for the Rosary. The Pope proposed these five mysteries, based to some extent on the work of Saint George Preca and his Society of Christian Doctrine. But the work of the Holy Spirit both permeates and exceeds the work done by the Pope and by Saint George in choosing these five mysteries. Neither the Pope nor Saint George realized the overall meaning of the five Luminous Mysteries intended by the Spirit.

These mysteries are not merely five important events during Christ's Ministry. The five Luminous Mysteries have meaning as individual events in Christ's Life. But they also have a special meaning when taken as a whole. The five Luminous Mysteries, with the changes instituted by the Pope, now comprise the Seven Sacraments established by Christ during His Ministry on earth. Neither Saint George, nor Pope John Paul II, understood this true and fundamental meaning of the Mysteries of Light.

The Spirit guided Saint George Preca in laying the foundation for these new Mysteries. And the Spirit guided the Pope in making some wise changes to the choice of the five events from Christ's Ministry. The Holy Spirit's plan is to strengthen the prayer life of the Church by adding to the Rosary a mediation on the mystery of the Seven Sacraments established by Christ and enlivened by the Spirit.

First Luminous Mystery: the Sacrament of Baptism

"The Baptism in the Jordan is first of all a mystery of light. Here, as Christ descends into the waters, the innocent one who became "sin" for our sake (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), the heavens open wide and the voice of the Father declares him the beloved Son (cf. Mt 3:17 and parallels), while the Spirit descends on him to invest him with the mission which he is to carry out."87

The first Mystery of Light is about the Sacrament of Baptism. Christ received this Sacrament when He was baptized by John in the river Jordan. John's baptism, in general, was a sign of repentance. Any particular individual received grace when they were baptized by John only in so far as each one was cooperating with God's grace. However, John's baptism of Jesus was the first true Sacrament of Baptism. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, making John's baptism of repentance into the true and full Sacrament of Baptism. The Holy Spirit gave to the human nature of Christ the charism of Baptism.

Jesus did not need Baptism in order to receive sanctifying grace in his human nature, because he was not conceived with original sin. He had the fullness of sanctifying grace from conception. Nevertheless, it was fitting for him to receive the Sacrament of Baptism, as a way for Baptism to enter into the human race as a formal Sacrament. Jesus was fittingly baptized because the Sacraments can only come to the world through him, and because Baptism is the foundation of the other Sacraments.

In meditating on the first Mystery of Light, we should think about Christ's baptism, our own baptism, and how the gift of baptism has begun to transform the Church and the world to become more like Christ. We should also consider the spiritual needs of those persons who have not yet received the Sacrament of Baptism.

Second Luminous Mystery: the Sacrament of Marriage

"Another mystery of light is the first of the signs, given at Cana (cf. Jn 2:1- 12), when Christ changes water into wine and opens the hearts of the disciples to faith, thanks to the intervention of Mary, the first among believers."88

Why did Christ change water into wine? Truly, Christ did not perform this miracle in order to provide wine for drinking at a wedding. And the true miracle at the wedding at Cana was not the changing of water into wine, for that visible miracle was merely a sign of a far greater invisible miracle. At the wedding at Cana, Jesus changed the water of the Old Testament marriage into the wine of the New Testament Sacrament of Marriage. The Old Testament marriage is a natural marriage, but the New Testament marriage is supernatural. The wedding at Cana was the beginning of the first true Sacrament of Marriage.

The Virgin Mary noticed that the wedding had water, but no wine. By the grace of God, Mary then understood that the marriage of the Old Testament was like water, and that it could become like wine, if the presence of Christ was brought within the marriage union. When the Virgin said to Christ, "They have no wine," she was speaking symbolically. She meant that the Old Testament marriage was lacking in Sacramental grace from God. Christ's grace inspired the Virgin Mary to understand this truth and to ask for Christ's help. And then Christ responded by making this wedding the first true Sacrament of Marriage and by signifying that invisible miracle with the visible and symbolic miracle of changing water into wine.

Third Luminous Mystery: the Sacrament of Confession and the Sacrament of Last Rites (Anointing of the Sick)

"Another mystery of light is the preaching by which Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God, calls to conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) and forgives the sins of all who draw near to him in humble trust (cf. Mk 2:3-13; Lk 7:47- 48): the inauguration of that ministry of mercy which he continues to exercise until the end of the world, particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which he has entrusted to his Church (cf. Jn 20:22-23)."89

The meaning of the third Mystery of Light is found within the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In that Sacrament, the Mercy of God gives us the grace of repentance, conversion, and forgiveness. Christ's preaching would be useless to us if we did not have grace for repentance and conversion, and the grace of forgiveness from our sins. The effectiveness of Christ's preaching is seen in our conversion to become more like Christ. Since we are sinners, we can only become more like Christ through the repentance and forgiveness which comes from God.

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is also called Last Rites. It is often administered to persons who are close to death. And it is particularly important for those close to death. This Sacrament offers to us healing, not only for the body, but also for the soul. Since the soul is more important than the body, this Sacrament is primarily aimed at healing the soul. The soul is healed through repentance, conversion, and forgiveness. This Sacrament, like all the Sacraments, has the power to forgive venial sins. And, under some conditions, it can even be effective in forgiving mortal sins. Last Rites is sometimes a person's last chance to experience repentance, conversion, and forgiveness.

The third Luminous Mystery is about the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Last Rites because both of these Sacraments are based on Christ's call to repentance, conversion, and forgiveness. The preaching of Christ and the call to accept the kingdom of God requires us to change by repenting, converting, and being forgiven.

Fourth Luminous Mystery: the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Sacrament of Holy Orders

"The mystery of light par excellence is the Transfiguration, traditionally believed to have taken place on Mount Tabor. The glory of the Godhead shines forth from the face of Christ as the Father commands the astonished Apostles to 'listen to him' (cf. Lk 9:35 and parallels) and to prepare to experience with him the agony of the Passion, so as to come with him to the joy of the Resurrection and a life transfigured by the Holy Spirit."90

In the above quote, the Pope first discusses the actual event of Christ's transfiguration. Next, he points out its true meaning: to invite us to experience Christ's agony and joy, so that we can live a life transfigured by the Spirit. Which Sacraments transfigure us in this way?

Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, each Christian is offered the gifts of the Spirit needed to participate more fully in Christ's suffering and glory. Confirmation offers us a life transfigured by the Spirit. Christ's transfiguration on the mountain was a foreshadowing of the transfiguration of each of his disciples through the Sacramental life of the Church.

In addition, some men are called by the Holy Spirit to join Christ in His agony and His glory in a special way, by receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. More so than the other Sacraments does this Sacrament offer a transfiguration in the Spirit to those chosen by God. Those who receive Holy Orders are called to become as much like Christ as they can be, to leave behind the world and themselves, and to be transfigured in the Spirit, just as Christ was transfigured on the mountain.

Fifth Luminous Mystery: the Blessed Sacrament

"A final mystery of light is the institution of the Eucharist, in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies 'to the end' his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice."91

The fifth Luminous Mystery is a meditation on the first consecration of the Eucharist and the establishment of this Blessed Sacrament within the spiritual life of the Church. The Eucharist is nothing other than Christ under the appearance of bread or wine. Christ is the light of the world and the light of the Church. The Blessed Sacrament is a mystery of light because it is a mystery of Christ.

At the Last Supper, Christ consecrated the holy Eucharist once for all Time and Place. All other consecrations of the Eucharist, by priests and Bishops at holy Mass, are effective only because Christ Himself consecrated the Eucharist, everywhere and every-when, all at once, in one Divine act, at that first Eucharist.

In summary, the five Luminous Mysteries are a meditation on the Seven Sacraments established by Christ during His Ministry on earth. These Mysteries of Light teach us about the Sacramental Life of the Church. Whoever prays this chaplet of the Rosary should understand that the Luminous Mysteries are closely related to the Seven Sacraments. The Sacraments bring the true light of Christ to His holy Church.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
The above article is chapter 5 of my book: New Insights into the Deposit of Faith

[Endnotes are numbered, n. 84 to n. 91, according to the numbering in the book.]

[84] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Oct 16, 2002, n. 19.

[85] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

[86] Society of Christian Doctrine, M.U.S.E.U.M., "Mysteries of Light," Official Web site, Malta, The site references an article from the organization's newsletter: Angelo Xuereb, "Saint George Preca and The Virgin Mary," Preca Calling, Issue 51, no. 3, (November 2001);

[87] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

[88] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

[89] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

[90] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

[91] Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, n. 21.

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