Common Misunderstanding: Since Jesus said, "Use not vain repetition as the heathen do..." (Mt. 6:7, KJV), then Catholics are behaving like heathens and should not pray the Rosary.
Response: This is a bad translation and bad advice. The text actually implies that not all repetition is vain. The KJV translation is inaccurate. Even using the KJV text one must note that Jesus forbids "vain" repetition, implying that there is repetition that is not in vain.
Not all repetition is vain. Vain repetition in the manner of the heathen is forbidden, but not useful repetition, which is not in the manner of heathen. Biblical examples of such useless words would be the repetitions used in Baal worship (I Kings 18:22-40) or in pagan cults (Acts 19:34). The ancient rabbis counseled short prayer. Charms in paganism were often repetitive and long. The Roman Seneca referred to those who “tire out the gods” (see Interpreter’s Bible, V 7, p 308).
Even Protestant scholars agree that “vain repetition” is not a good translation. The phrase means “to babble” or “to heap up empty phrases” (RSV), or “do not be saying idle things.” Alan Hugh McNeile, Thornapple Commentaries: Matthew, observes that this passage is “sometimes taken to forbid all repetitions in prayer, but Jesus himself… prayed the third time” (Mt 26:44, “So, he… prayed for the third time, saying the same words.” Also Lk 11:5-13 on persistence in prayer).
Since the Hail Mary is a prayer to Mary, most Protestants assume that it is not biblical. Wrong. Its is based on Luke 1:28 an 42. For more detail, see Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe – Setting the Record Straight, pp 77-81.
How to determine whether a particular repetitive prayer involves “vain repetition” or “empty phrases.” Jesus recommends a “fruit inspection.” What has been the result of this prayer over a long period of time? The experience of the Church indicates that very great fruit has and can come from the practice of praying the Rosary.
Isn’t the Rosary a relic of the superstitious Middle Ages when it was meant for ignorant people? Answer: The use of prayer beads dates from the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. The prayers embodied in the Rosary were composed by Christ himself in the case of the Our Father, and by the Angel Gabriel, St. Elizabeth, and the Council of Ephesus in the 5th century, in the case of the Hail Mary. (See CCC 2763-2682).
The Rosary is contemplative prayer, designed to encourage meditation on fundamental elements of the life of Jesus and his Mother. Keating summarizes:
If Catholics merely recite the prayers, whether vocally or silently, they’re missing the whole point of the Rosary. It isn’t just a recitation of prayers, but a recitation borne on meditation of the life of Christ and his mother. Critics, not knowing about the meditation part, say the Rosary seems boring, uselessly repetitious, and meaningless. Their criticism carries weight if you reduce the Rosary to such a formula. It is the meditation on the mysteries that gives the Rosary its power and its staying power.
A very helpful version of the Rosary is The Scriptural Rosary. Also, very useful is to meditate on the sorrowful mysteries and how they help us to “love our wife (husband) as Jesus loved the Church” (Eph. 5:21,25).