Reinventing the Rosary: Innovation and Catholic Prayer
For centuries Catholics have prayed the rosary as part of their daily routines, and have taken up the beads in times of personal and collective distress. Popes have celebrated the rosary as an exquisite meditative and contemplative prayer and a badge of Christian identity, and have consistently promoted its use to fight everything from communism to the coronavirus. This seemingly simple and iconic Catholic object made of beads on a chain or string and a hanging crucifix has been a fixture in Catholic life. Despite its status as a traditional Catholic prayer tool, the rosary is not a stable material object.
Reinventing the Rosary: Innovation and Catholic Prayer reveals how the rosary has been reinvented, redesigned, and patented throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It tells the story of the many devotees, inventors, and marketers who remade the rosary as both a novelty and coveted consumer object, one that was technologically and spiritually advanced to fit into the lives of modern consumers. This technological and sensory history of the rosary reveals how American values of efficiency, convenience, productivity, and entertainment came to shape the very objects and sensory experiences of prayer. This project explores how mass media—from radio, television, and film—and technological transformations—in plastics, microchips, virtual reality, and app development—transformed the experience and potentialities of prayer in the US.
The material history of this iconic Catholic object is a window into the anxieties and desires of Catholics in different eras of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—anxieties about consumerism and work/life balance, desire to access far-away lands and sacred things, and the desire for a playful, youthful, transmissible faith. The surprising history of a familiar object speaks to one of the central tensions of religious life: how the desire and need for contemporary relevance must inevitably coexist with appeals and loyalty to tradition. Reinventing the Rosary is a story of innovation being put to work to uphold, rather than disrupt, tradition.