I read the Sermon on the Mount often as a child—mainly because I thought it was cool that it was the biggest stretch of red letters I could find in the New Testament. But Jesus’ teaching there is so simple and powerful that, despite my inane motivation, Jesus’ famous sermon made a deep impression on me.
One of the instructions Jesus gives quite clearly (I recently enjoyed writing a lesson on it for seventh graders) is that kingdom citizens should not pray with 1) meaningless repetition or 2) many words.
When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matt 6:7-8).
So I can’t help but read the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s statement about the rosary with some puzzlement:
It is tolerably obvious that whenever any prayer has to be repeated a large number of times recourse is likely to be had to some mechanical apparatus less troublesome than counting upon the fingers.
In one sentence we have a very clear violation of at least one of Jesus’ instructions: don’t think that many words will get you a hearing. We also have a system which appears almost designed to lead people to violate Jesus’ other instruction, the one against vain repetition. How many of us can keep repeating the same words hundreds of times without thinking about serifs—or okra, or industrial air conditioning design? Given that you started saying the Pledge of Allegiance as a kindergartener when you couldn’t understand it anyway, how many times in your whole life did you repeat it with any understanding? It is an act of extreme faith, worship, and mental toughness for me just to recite the BJU creed in daily chapel services without my mind wandering seven times around the globe. When my wife-to-be was just my girlfriend and was standing within my vision in chapel, reciting the creed without my mind wandering was manly impossible (I didn’t say humanly because maybe girls can do it; I don’t know).
I checked the Catholic Catechism. It speaks approvingly of the rosary, though it does not say much about it.
Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.
The rosary—like the other practices just named in that paragraph from the Catechism—is an accretion. It is at best a temptation to disobey Jesus and, more often, a direct violation of His clear commands. I am a sola scriptura Protestant in part because Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are straightforward and I cannot in good conscience evade them.
I don’t deny that evangelical Protestants have their own accretions, but we at least in principle have a way of recognizing them for the temptations and violations that they can be—instead of institutionalizing them and purposefully perpetuating them by investing tradition with divine authority.