In today’s Gospel, before giving us the “Our Father” as the model of Christian prayer, Our Lord says, “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them” (Mt. 6:7-8). Sometimes this passage is cited by Protestants to assert that Catholics engage in “vain repetition” in prayer, especially when it comes to the Rosary. Is there any validity to that assertion?
At the outset, we should note that the expression “vain repetition” refers to the translation of Our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:7 found in the King James Version (KJV) and other older Protestant Bibles: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetition, as the heathens do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (KJV).
Catholic translations (just as in today’s Gospel) as well as modern Protestant translations use expressions such as “babble” or “empty phrases” instead of “vain repetition.” The Greek word translated as “repetition” in the KJV more precisely means to prattle or chatter incessantly. So it’s fair to suggest that Christ never really instructed us to avoid “vain repetition” in prayer.
But even accepting this translation, the Rosary does not entail “vain repetition.” Our Lord is not condemning any and all “repetition” in prayer, but vain repetition–in other words, praying like the pagans or Gentiles (cf. Mt. 6:7), who “pray to gods that cannot save” (Is. 45:20). Pagans at that time would recite long prayers in order to be heard. Such practices indeed were empty and manifested a lack of faith.
However, the teaching and example of Jesus reflect the truth that repetition in prayer itself is not a problem, but rather such prayer can be fruitful and intimate. Just a few examples:
–Two verses later Jesus teaches His disciples to pray the Our Father (Mt. 6:9-13), which presumably would be repeated many times throughout the Christian’s life.
–During the account of the Agony in the Garden, we read that Jesus “went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words” (Mt. 26:44).
–In one of Jesus’ parables, the tax collector who humbly repeated the prayer “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” went home justified (Lk. 18:13).
–Even the angels and saints pray the same words over and over again: “Holy, holy, holy . . .” (Rev. 4:8). Clearly the heavenly liturgy doesn’t involve “vain repetition”!
For more biblical teaching on the Rosary, I recommend Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God, which I co-edited with Scott Hahn.