The Pope, the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto
On Oct. 7, Catholics remember Our Lady of the Rosary.
The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was actually instituted under another name: In 1571 Pope Pius V instituted “Our Lady of Victory” as an annual feast in thanksgiving for Mary’s patronage in the victory of the Holy League over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto. Two years later, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the title of this feast day to “Feast of the Holy Rosary.” And in 1716, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, inserting it into the Catholic calendar of saints, and assigning it to the first Sunday in October. In 1913, Pope Pius X changed the date to October 7, as part of his effort to restore celebration of the liturgy of the Sundays.
The Battle of Lepanto
On Oct. 7, 1571, a patchwork fleet of Catholic ships primarily from Spain, Venice and Genoa, under the command of Don Juan of Austria, was at a distinct disadvantage. The much larger fleet of the Ottoman Empire — a force with 12,000 to 15,000 Christian slaves as rowers — was extending toward Europe.
However, St. Pope Pius V, realizing that the Muslim Turks had a decided material advantage, called upon all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. Christians gathered in villages and towns to pray as the sea battle raged; and at the hour of victory the Pope — who was hundreds of miles away at the Vatican — is said to have gotten up from a meeting, walked over to an open window exclaiming “The Christian fleet is victorious!” and shed tears of joy and thanksgiving to God.
The toll of the sea battle was great: The Holy League lost 50 of its galleys and suffered some 13,000 casualties. The Turks, however, lost much more: Their leader Ali Pasha was killed, along with 25,000 of his sailors. The Ottoman fleet lost 210 of its 250 ships, of which 130 were captured by the Holy League. Coming at what was seen as a crisis point for Christianity, the victory at Lepanto stemmed Ottoman incursion into the Mediterranean and prevented their influence from spreading through Europe. Through the intervention of Our Lady, the Hand of God prevented the Muslims of the East from overcoming the Christian West.
The epic victory has been commemorated in literature: Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish soldier wounded in the battle, recovered to become a novelist, poet and playwright; and he was so inspired by this battle that he incorporated elements of it in his own acclaimed novel, Don Quixote. And philosopher/writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton retold the story in his 1915 ballad, Lepanto. Here is an excerpt from that great narrative poem:
The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumèd lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
You can read Lepanto in its entirety at the website of the Poetry Foundation.