Earlier this year as I was returning to the friary from my summer assignment I found a package in my mailbox from Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC. It was a signed copy of his new book, Champions of the Rosary: The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon. In a couple of days I would be taking a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery and was in need of some spiritual reading, so the unexpected book could not have come at a better time.
To be honest, so many books have been written about the rosary, that when I first saw this one – although grateful for the gift – I was not expecting to encounter anything special. Was I ever wrong!
Fr. Don Calloway’s book on the rosary is probably the best book written on the topic since St. Louis de Montfort’s classic The Secrets of the Rosary, and – I say this without hesitation – surpasses even de Montfort’s work. It will quickly take its place – a special place – as the greatest book written on the rosary to date. Fr. Calloway should be proud of this achievement.
When one reads his book it becomes evident that a labor of love went into it, finding a beautiful balance between a fascinating and thorough history of the rosary and being a work that captures the spiritual dynamism of this devotion with the saints, mystics, and martyrs who, throughout Church history, have been its greatest advocates.
The subtitle of the book – “The History and Heroes of a Spiritual Weapon” – points to a profound reality, one that perhaps too often in our cultural thinking (which falls into secular norms of understanding) we tend to neglect – the reality that life is a battle between two kingdoms: between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of hell, between God and the devil, between light and darkness. And, what is most urgent not to neglect, is the reality that we are all born into this war and thus called to be soldiers on the battlefield.
Fr. Calloway understands well – as many saints and holy men and women throughout history have known – that in the rosary we have been given a powerful spiritual weapon, a sword in the battle against evil. “The first key is to understand the rosary as a spiritual sword made by God, the Divine Craftsman. This key unlocks the mystery of what the rosary is, why it has so much power, and why the devil constantly seeks to destroy it.”
The first half of the book is probably the most thorough history of the rosary ever written in the English language, including a history of popes, miracles, military battles, Marian confraternities, and various developments in Church history that has led to the promotion (and, at times, suppression) of the most popular devotion in Catholicism. It is so well-researched, and yet beautifully written, that Fr. Calloway admits it took him years to work on.
The second half of Fr. Calloway’s book pertains to 26 holy men and women – saints, blesseds, popes, Servants of God – who had an incredible Marian devotion and were great advocates of the rosary. This section constitutes the spiritual dynamite of the book, giving the stories and Marian spirituality of men and women whose holiness and devotion is contagious. Reading about these souls we are strengthened, edified, and encouraged by their radical witness to become holier, to pick up the rosary each day, and go deeper into prayer and intimacy with Jesus and Mary.
We see a nice combination of very well-known names like Maximilian Kolbe, Padre Pio Josemaria Escriva, John Paul II, Fatima visionary Lucia dos Santos, and lesser-known (but equally important) names like Blessed Bartolo Longo and Servant of God Dolindo Ruotolo.
The work is so well-researched that often we discover new facts about known lives. For example, there is a section dedicated to St. Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975), the founder of Opus Dei, and his dynamic Marian spirituality. I did not know that, as a child, St. Josemaria was on the verge of death but experienced a miraculous healing saving his life. Fr. Calloway explains:
“At the age of two, St. Josemaria suffered from an unknown illness (most likely epilepsy) and was expected to die. His devout mother took him to the Marian shrine of Torreciudad in Aragon, Spain, and earnestly prayed for him before a statue of Our Lady of the Angels that dates from the 11th century. Miraculously, he recovered. His mother attributed his healing to Our Lady. This event helped to form in him a strong, life-long Marian devotion.” St. Josemaria would encourage members of Opus Dei to make frequent Marian pilgrimages
The less-known names are also spiritual giants to discover. In this sense, the Servant of God Dolindo Ruotolo (1882-1970), someone who Fr. Calloway remarks as being “born in Naples and is almost unknown outside of Italy,” has been a real discovery for me.
“A devout priest and an avid scholar, Dolindo has been called the ‘Scribe of the Holy Spirit.’ He penned a 33-volume commentary on Holy Scripture, as well as many other theological works. He wanted people to read good books on theology and devotion, and so he founded the Apostolato Stampa press in order to publish orthodox theological works. He was an extraordinary musician, a Third Order Franciscan, and slept less than three hours a night due to his intense prayer life.”
This was a 20th century priest. When pilgrims traveled to San Giovanni Rotondo to visit Padre Pio, he pointed to Fr. Dolindo, asking why were people visiting him (Padre Pio) when there is a saint in Naples. Fr. Dolindo, with a deeply contemplative prayer life, “regretted that Modernis had reduced the prominence of the rosary in the lives of many Catholics, and emphatically preached that the rosary was not a tedious prayer of repetition, but a method for contemplating the saving mysteries of the life of Christ.”
Fr. Calloway further explains: “Dolindo lived through World War I and World War II. He saw the rosary as a weapon in the spiritual life, referring to the rosary as a sword and a machine gun in our spiritual arsenal. In his homilies, he often informed his listeners that every Hail Mary was a shot fired at Satan and the forces of darkness.”
In Fr. Dolindo’s own words: “The rosary is a powerful prayer against Satan and against the assaults of evil. Our Church brought, and continues to bring, great triumphs because of this prayer. The decades of the rosary, from this point of view, are like the belt of a machine gun: every bead is a shot, every affection of the soul is an explosion of faith that frightens off Satan, and Mary once more crushes his head.”
In such spiritual gems, we see a much deeper understanding behind the reality of the rosary as a central weapon of combat for spiritual warfare.
Fr. Calloway’s book accomplishes a tremendous task, one that is threefold. It is probably the most thorough history of the rosary ever written. It captures the spiritual dynamism of Marian devotion and spirituality, especially conveyed through the lives of the men and women who reached heights of holiness through their Marian spirituality. And it also provides beautiful artwork about the Madonna and the rosary—many depictions of St. Dominic receiving the rosary, and of other saints with the Virgin. These artworks span from classics by baroque artists like Caravaggio to contemporary art commissioned by Fr. Calloway for the theme of the book, capturing a Madonna that is a mighty Queen with the rosary in one hand and a sword binding the devil in the other, surrounded by her army of saints.
The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, where it is explained that the Woman would stump on the head of the serpent, and finishes with the Book of Revelation, where the Woman with a crown of twelve stars with her child would do battle against the dragon and his angels. Meaning, throughout salvation history, from the beginning to the end, Our Lady’s has been given a pivotal role—even being prefigured—in destroying the works of the devil, leading souls to a deeper intimacy with her divine son Jesus: being chosen by God for a singularly unique mission in salvation history. It is the Queen of Heaven who is leading the armies of light against the kingdom of darkness.
Fr. Calloway explains: “I have written Champions of the Rosary to recap and pick up where St. Louis de Montfort left off. Three centuries have gone by since St. Louis de Montfort penned his monumental work, and many things have taken place. Many miracles, victories, conversions, developments, discoveries, and champions of the rosary need to be added to the story of the sword for the people of our times. Trust me: I know firsthand how the rosary can help a soul convert.”
Fr. Calloway, being someone who was saved from a life of sin and ruin as an adolescent—including addiction, crime, and promiscuity—through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, knows very well what it means to be saved from the grip of the enemy by the spiritual sword of the rosary. He has written a book in return that is a gift to the Church, speaking to a multifaceted and rich history of miracles, conversions, military victories, Marian apparitions, and holy lives who owe so much to the Virgin Mary’s intercession. The greatest compliment that a book by a Christian author can receive is that it’s a work that will lead readers to experience God and lead to lives of deeper devotion and conversion. Fr. Calloway’s book, an anointed work, possesses this rare capacity: it is a book informed not only by knowledge but also by the life of prayer.