Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. The Catholic Church is known for being fond of feasts and celebrations, so what is so particular about this feast that I should decide to write about it? What is there about today that is so different from, say, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross or the feast of the Immaculate Conception? The main difference lies in how this feast originated.
Usually feast days come into being when certain devotions become sufficiently important – and popular – that the ecclesiastical authorities consider them worthy of celebration in the universal Church. Other feasts come into existence when the Church authoritatively declares some teaching to be dogmatic. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, however, has a different origin. It is an origin that might not suit the modern mind as politically correct, but that only means that I rejoice in it even more. The celebration has its origin in an armed conflict, one between Christianity and Islam, and it is based on the belief that the rosary is not only a prayer, but a weapon, and a powerful one at that.
Many religious see their rosaries as their weapon; in fact, many carry a rosary on their side in the same way people used to carry a sword. To a lot of us this might seem to have an almost childish quality to it, and religious with their rosaries might appear to us like nothing more than children running around with a wooden sword. Of course, we excuse this behavior in children, and with religious we are tempted to accept it condescendingly as well, not because we agree with their view, but because we see them as “children at heart,” as nice but naïve people who do not know the truth of life in the “world” or of how things really are. The beauty of this feast is that it shows that it is those that cling to their rosary as one would cling to a sword that see reality as it truly is.
The fact of the matter is that the rosary has proven to be a weapon like no other, not only in a metaphorical or “spiritual” sense, but in a very real way. The proof of this statement lies in the origin of the feast we celebrate today. In order to describe how it came to be, we need to brush up on our history because the origin of this feast is bound to a historical event of the utmost importance. That event was the battle of Lepanto, one of the most important naval battles in the history of mankind and one that allowed the Western world to live another day.
To understand fully why the universal Church would instate a feast commemorating a battle, we need to put things into perspective, to put them in their proper context. In 1571 — the year the battle of Lepanto took place — the world was a very different place from what it is today. The breaking up of Christendom was still a relatively recent thing (only a few decades had passed since Luther’s rebellion) and many were still confident that it was not that big an issue. The Western world was still unaware of the gravity of its internal division. Furthermore, the real threat — or so it seemed — lurked not inside of Christendom, but outside. The vast Ottoman Empire had risen out of the East, conquered Constantinople, and destroyed what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was strong, stronger than most of the European powers. It was strong enough to overrun Europe and, in the sixteenth century, it was beginning to take over the birthplace of the Western World: the Mediterranean Sea.
What people today need to understand is that once upon a time, Islam was actually strong. When people today are afraid of radical Islam, they are afraid of what is only a shadow of a former power. When people today think that the threat of Islamic extremists is new, they only show an absolute ignorance of history. Ever since it was born in the blazing deserts of Arabia, there have been radicals who have sought to impose the rule of Allah upon the entire world. The hordes of barbaric desert-men that overran Northern Africa and annihilated the culture which men such as Saint Augustine had created; the armies of Moors that crossed the strait of Gibraltar, nearly eradicating all Christian culture from the Iberian Peninsula; the troops of Saracens that invaded the most holy shrines of Christianity in Palestine were only the beginning of what seemed a successful, and almost total, defeat of the cross. Let us not forget that there was a day when Muslim soldiers crossed the Pyrenees into France, and at another time they stood at the very gates of Vienna. Had it not been for what to many at the time seemed a miracle (and indeed it was), our Christian civilization would have been crushed long ago.
It is in that kind of world that we must place ourselves. A world in which Christendom was at a real risk of being destroyed by external forces. And in 1571, it seemed like the final blow was about to be delivered. Pope Pius V was informed of a Turkish fleet assembling in the Mediterranean. One by one the strongholds of Christendom had been falling into Ottoman hands. News had arrived that the Venetian outpost at Famagusta had fallen and that all its defenders, despite Turkish promises to spare their lives, had been brutally murdered. The Turks were now in a position to strike at the very heart of Christendom, that is, they were coming close to an attack upon Rome. The Pope dispatched messengers to all the Christian kingdoms of Europe, hoping that they could set aside their differences to unite against the common enemy. Much to his dismay, his plea was largely ignored. Elizabeth I of England could not care less about the Pope of Rome, the German princes were too busy profiting from Luther’s uprising, and the French king had secret dealings with the Turks. Of all the kings of Europe, only king Phillip II of Spain responded. His half-brother, Don Juan de Austria, was sent to command an allied force (known as the Holy League), and with him came some Spanish ships, ten thousand Spanish infantrymen, and a couple thousand mercenaries. The small republics of Venice and Genoa also answered the Pope’s request, as did the Knights of Malta. And so, a Christian fleet of little more than two hundred ships was hastily deployed to confront the numerically superior Turkish fleet. More important to our discussion, however, is the fact that every soldier in the Christian fleet was given a rosary to carry into battle and that the Pope’s request was not only for military support but, above all, for all the faithful to support the cause by praying the rosary. Furthermore, King Phillip II gave Andrea Doria, the Genoese commander, a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe brought from Mexico City where it had touched the tilma of Saint Juan Diego (containing the original image). This image was kept in his room during the battle.
And so, on the morning of October 7th, the two fleets met a few miles away from the Greek city of Lepanto. Don Juan of Austria ordered his ships to engage the enemy and a naval battle like none that mankind had seen ensued. Turkish ships tried to flank the Christian fleet and in doing so drew the Christian side toward them, breaking the formation. A part of the Ottoman fleet took advantage of this and came in to attack the central division. The Christian center did not give in and, instead, pushed forward. Soon the captain ships of both fleets were face to face. Spanish forces tried to board the Ottoman ship once but failed with heavy losses. A second attempt failed as well. However, in opposition to the lonely god of Islam stood the Trinitarian God of the Christians, and a third attack was launched. Soon Spanish soldiers were on board the Sultana and before long they had captured and decapitated Ali Pasha, the Ottoman commander. Turkish morale came crashing down as they saw the head of their leader displayed on a pike. At four in the afternoon, the Christian victory was complete. Five hours of intense combat had come to an end. The Ottomans lost two hundred and ten ships, while the Holy League lost fifty. Fifteen thousand Turks lay dead, either in what was left of their ships or at the bottom of the sea, while more than three thousand were now captive. Over seven thousand Christian slaves were freed, enough to make up for the Christian casualties. The powerful Turkish fleet was destroyed. Christ had triumphed over Mohammed. Never again would the Ottoman Empire threaten Europe in the Mediterranean.
Pope Pius was at a meeting. He suddenly got up, walked to the window and, looking out, said, “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” Soon thereafter, when official news of the victory reached Rome, he declared October 7th the feast of Our Lady of Victory because it was due to her intercession that the Christians had triumphed over their enemies. Two years later, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of the feast to that of Our Lady of the Rosary because it was the recitation of the rosary that had gained the Virgin Mary’s favor. It was in such a way that the feast we celebrate today came into being.
Today, five centuries after the heroic and divinely ordered victory of the cross, the Western world stands in great peril once more. Even though the West is materially more powerful than ever, it is also a spiritual wreck. The seed of division that was sowed in the time of the battle of Lepanto is fully grown. The breakdown of Western civilization has become almost complete not because of the strength of external forces but because of internal weakness. Superior military forces and more advanced weapons will be of no avail when its enemies (whoever they are and wherever they come from) decide to attack once more. The only weapon that can and will save the West, as religious men and women across the world show us, is the rosary.
Slider by webdesign