Is It Appropriate for Catholics to Wear a Rosary Around the Neck?
Many Catholics as well as non-Catholics have recently taken to wearing a rosary or rosary-like beads as a necklace. Hip-hop stars such as Lil Wayne and Jay-Z have been seen wearing them around their necks in public. The practice has also been in the news recently because of public elementary school administrators determining that they were being used as “gang symbols” and banning the display of rosaries on school grounds.
Practicing Catholics have also begun wearing them as a way to demonstrate their faith, show devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary and as a way to show their support for the Catholic Church in the political battles the Church faces in the United States over the issues of abortion and the HHS mandate for health care plans that fund contraceptives and abortifacients.
However, Catholics have expressed concern that using a rosary as jewelry or wearing a rosary at all may be against church canon law. Some Catholics believe wearing a rosary around your neck publicly to be an appropriate display of and reminder of their faith. Others believe a rosary necklace to be inappropriate or even sacrilegious.
What is a Rosary? Why Use Rosary Jewelry?
A rosary is a Roman Catholic sacramental which is used as a Marian devotion to prayer. The word “rosary” itself comes from the Latin “rosarium” which translates as 'garland of roses' or 'rose garden.' Most rosaries and rosary jewelry have five 'decades' of ten beads each in a circle with a set of beads and crucifix extending from the circle. The five decades are used to track prayers of “Hail Mary's” which are prayed while meditating on one of the “mysteries” of Jesus' life and ministry. As such, it is considered by Catholics to be a Christocentric prayer and meditation through the request for the intervention on the devotee's behalf by the Virgin Mary.
Roman Catholics are encouraged throughout tradition and currently by the Church and its organizations such as the Knights of Columbus to pray the rosary as frequently as possible. Part of the practice of carrying the rosary on your person is to have it always available to remind them to pray it. The Knights of Columbus Catholic men's organization provides rosaries to its new members and often will do 'Rosary Checks' at meetings to ensure members are indeed carrying the rosary with them often. Rosary bead bags that fit in one's pocket or purse are frequently used to keep it safe from tangling with other items. The circular nature of the rosary makes it easy to wear as a necklace. Although having it around one's neck, some argue, makes it difficult to use for prayer.
When Did Rosary Necklaces Become Popular?
The ease of using a rosary as a necklace and its appearance as a 'beaded crucifix necklace' when worn has led some non-Catholics to wear it as a 'blingy' alternative to traditional cross necklaces. They are also sometimes modified to have 13-bead 'decades' instead of ten in order to represent gang symbology around the number 13. Law enforcement experts on gangs do not know for sure which gang started using rosaries for gang identification.
Catholics in certain cultures have worn rosaries as necklaces to obtain indulgences, show their faith and to remind themselves to pray. There is historical evidence for this being an acceptable practice. Saint de Montfort's writings encourage “wearing” the rosary. Many portraits of saints, popes and priests show the rosary worn around the neck. There is no specific canon law against wearing the rosary visibly.
Is Wearing a Rosary as a Necklace Sinful?
The anti-rosary as a necklace folks point to Canon Law 1171: “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.” Rosaries for use in prayer clearly are included as blessed sacramentals, and this canon law indicates that those should not be used as decoration or as jewelry for ornamental sake. One can usually assume that a rosary necklace worn by a gang member or a hip hop artist probably hasn't been blessed and therefore is not truly a sacramental rosary, despite how offensive the outward display may be to Catholics.
Priests and Catholic apologists have been struggling with the net effect on Catholic faithful who wish to have their rosary on their person to be closer to Mary and their faith. While all indicate that carrying your rosary safely in your pocket is encouraged, some such as Father McNamara of the Regina Apostolorum university say “while a Catholic may wear a rosary around the neck for good purpose, he or she should consider if the practice will be positively understood in the cultural context.”
Charitable View Towards Rosary Jewelry
In modern United States urban culture, therefore, while it is canonically 'okay' for a practicing Catholic to wear a rosary around their neck as a statement of faith or reminder to pray, it is likely to encourage the causing of scandal against Mary's devotion than a benefit. However, it is best to assume with a view towards the principle of charity that a person wearing or displaying a rosary is doing so correctly, or at least with appropriate intention. Unless it is clearly being misused, it's probably best to not rebuke others but to use it as a reminder to yourself to pray the rosary as frequently as possible.