Did Jesus Condemn Formula Prayers Like the Rosary?

October is a month in the Catholic Church dedicated to the Holy Rosary and while it is a beloved prayer by many Catholics, it is often criticized by others as being "unbiblical." Additionally, those new to prayer can be tempted to view the rosary as "repetitive nonsense" that is not as heartfelt as spontaneous prayer.

One passage from the Gospels appears at first glance to confirm suspicions: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

In this passage, one could conclude that Jesus believes anyone who “babbles” on and on saying the same words during prayer are “pagans.” Is that true? Should Christians avoid repeating the same prayers over and over again? Let’s look closer at that passage.

In context, before this passage Jesus is speaking about many different facets of life in his “Sermon on the Mount.” After offering his words on almsgiving, Jesus turns his thoughts to prayer and seeks to teach His disciples the proper way to pray to God. Interestingly enough, immediately following Jesus’ admonition against pagan prayers, he says this:

“Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This is how you are to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name,
     your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
        on earth as in heaven.
     Give us today our daily bread;
    and forgive us our debts,
        as we forgive our debtors;
     and do not subject us to the final test,
        but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:8-13)

So Jesus teaches His disciples a “formula prayer” that they must pray in direct contrast to the pagans. Didn't Jesus condemn formula prayers?

Digging a little deeper, we find that the exact practice Jesus was condemning was the pagan way of addressing their gods. In one Bible commentary we read:

“Pagans would recite long litanies of divine names to gain the attention of gods. This was meant to ensure that the deity was addressed properly. Jesus considers this practice empty–i.e., devoid of faith and of love for the deity.”

Catholic Answers confirms this and adds to it:

“Jesus said 'do not heap up "empty phrases" (Gr. –battalagesete,  which means to stammer, babble, prate, or to repeat the same things over and over mindlessly) as the Gentiles do...We have to remember that the main idea of prayer and sacrifice among the pagans was to appease the gods so that you could go on with your own life. You had to be careful to 'take care of' all of the gods by mentioning them, and saying all the right words, lest you bring a curse upon yourself.”

The pagans would “cover all their bases” by reciting lengthy lists of pagan deities to make sure the various gods did not “smite” them. Their rituals were about “appeasement” and not in any way directed toward love.

Which brings up the rosary and other repetitive prayers. The reason why these prayers are different is because they are born out of love for God and who would say that we shouldn’t tell God how much we love Him?

Think of it this way, would your husband or wife be mad if you told them how much you loved them? Would they get annoyed if you said it every day, multiple times throughout the day?

I tell my wife that I love her dozens of times (if not more) throughout the day. Is that bad? Should I refrain from saying I love her and reduce it to only once a day? Or once a month? Once a year?

The origin of the word “rosary” comes from that Latin “rosarium,” meaning a “crown of roses” or a “garland of roses.” Praying the rosary is like giving Our Blessed Mother a “crown of roses,” telling her how much we love her and her Son. It is wrong to give someone we love a “garland of roses?”

Above all things, Jesus condemns “empty phrases” in prayer. We should not pray in order to “appease” a vengeful and wrathful God. Nor should we pray the rosary because we believe that Mary will calm God’s temper. Our prayers should be born out of love of God and that is the secret to the power of the rosary and other formula prayers.

In the end, we must pray from the heart. If we do that, praying the rosary will not be an occasion to sin, but a pathway to a new life in Christ.