Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Victory, or Both?

While the Rosary is the Catholic devotional par excellence, it’s worth remembering why so many Catholics were praying it during the Battle of Lepanto: they were praying for victory.

Juan de Toledo y Mateo Gilarte, “The Battle of Lepanto,” ca. 1663-1665
Juan de Toledo y Mateo Gilarte, “The Battle of Lepanto,” ca. 1663-1665 (photo: Public Domain)

Today is the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary — the day commemorating the victory of the vastly outnumbered Christian naval forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Since Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572), as the battle between Muslim and Christian navies raged, urged all Catholics — himself leading the prayers — to pray the Holy Rosary for victory. A very respectable book-length treatment of the subject is Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World.

A few rather obvious observations: first, it’s no good trying to retroject some facile Muslim-Christian dialogue-turned-disagreement into this historical fact. This was flat-out Holy (read: Catholic) League versus the Ottoman Empire warfare — in fact, it was up till that time one of the largest naval battles ever. And, from the Christian point of view, it was a defensive war in that the Catholic League — composed of everyone from Venetians to Spaniards to Tuscans — were trying to stop the western invasion by the Ottomans. Not easily completely deterred, the Ottomans had tried to invade the West by land in the autumn of 1529 at the failed Siege of Vienna (which John Stoye got down quite well in his 2000 book The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial Between Cross and Crescent). Further, according to older Missals, the feast also presaged the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade in 1716.

The second takeaway: this praying-for-victory actually worked. The prayers of the Christians were heard, the Muslim forces were defeated (again), and victory went to the bearers of the cross. Due to this victory, and the fact that it is often attributed to the recitation of the Rosary, Ven. Nelson Baker (1842-1936) dedicated all his many works of charity to Our Lady of Victory and composed a Litany of Our Lady of Victory. These works included a hospital, an orphanage, a home for boys (often simply called “Victoriaville” in Lackawana, New York, just south of Buffalo), and an open-crib policy that any woman could walk into his “homes of charity” and place an infant in a crib and leave — no questions asked. At the time, Father Baker was given unending amounts of grief for this “no-questions-asked” policy, but he was desperately trying to stop the number of abortions and to save as many babies and children as possible.

Finally, in the midst of roaring twenties — which quickly tumbled into the Great Depression — Msgr. Baker built one of the largest churches in America and named it after Our Lady of Victory. It became only the second American minor basilica and was so enormous that its dome was second in size only to that of the U.S. Capitol. (More on the basilica here.)

This begs a question: why didn’t Father Baker simply call his many foundations “Our Lady of the Rosary” (which is, after all, the official title of today’s feast)? First, Father Baker had been deeply impressed when, as a younger priest, he had visited the Church of Our Lady in Victory in France, and he quickly developed a devotion to the Blessed Mother under that title.

Second, Father Baker saw in Our Lady of Victory a victory not only over the Muslim invaders, but a victory over sin, Satan, addiction, bad habits and seemingly insoluble problems, whether they be social (Father Baker was one of the first to establish a confraternity for African-American Catholics) or simply, and literally, keeping the lights on. (His drilling for gas in South Buffalo was laughed off by everyone from geologists to speculators who thought that, since Father Baker hadn’t hit gas yet, he should quit. Father Baker had faith in God and our Lady of Victory — and did hit gas, nearly three times as deep as the “experts” had told him to expect.

Father Baker’s devotion to Our Lady of Victory really amounts to the same thing as devotion to Our Lady of the Rosary, of course. However, while the Rosary is the Catholic devotional par excellence and Pope St. John Paul II’s “favorite prayer,” it’s worth remembering why so many Catholics were praying it at the same time: they were praying for victory.

We often talk of “inclusivity” today as virtue and bellwether of how civilized we are. Today’s feast recalls that, against a monolithic Muslim juggernaut, a “league” of Catholics that normally up to this point had been bickering, if not fighting interminable internecine battles, put aside their Tower of Babel disaster-area and fought together not merely against a common foe, but under the banner of the Cross and the protection of their collective mother Mary. It’s hard to imagine today since we forget that Venice, Genoa, Sardinia and Sicily were not all part of one united Italy (which didn’t become a “unified” country until 1861) but discrete, independent kingdoms (or strangely, part of Spain, which had its own empire to administer). And then there were the Papal States, which were under the temporal power of the pope himself. If there was ever a time Catholicism became inclusive, the Battle of Lepanto, which we commemorate today under Our Lady of the Rosary, might be the place to look to for that virtue — and for victory.

Jan Peeters painting of the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, with Pope Pius V kneeling in prayer

A Saint and a Sea Battle: How the Rosary Saved Christian Europe

It is said that crew members throughout the Holy League fleet spiritually joined Christians across Europe by praying the Rosary as the battle drew near. Pius V knew that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary and devotion to her through the Rosary that had given new hope to Christendom.