The Rosary Has Changed History, and It Can Happen Again
The Mother of God is the Queen of Heaven, and her prayers are more powerful than the perils we face
Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; Vita, dulcedo et spes nostra salve.
It was night. Throughout the Italian peninsula the monks, friars and nuns were kneeling in the monasteries, friaries, convents and abbeys in which they’d lived. They were surrounded by candles emitting circles of light which looked much like the haloes they’d seen in countless images of the saints and angels in Heaven.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” they said in chorus, as their fingers rhythmically gripped onto the next bead of the rosaries in their hands, “the Lord is with thee.”
His Holiness, Pope Pius V, had urged Europe’s faithful to pray the Rosary.
Yonder east, in the Ionian Sea, on this very night, and at this very hour, Don Juan of Austria was kneeling on the deck of the fleet’s flagship. He was the commander of the Holy League. The relic of the True Cross, given to him by the Holy Father, hung around his neck. The soldiers and sailors aboard the Real were kneeling along with him, holding rosaries they were given, praying in chorus: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
The men aboard each and every vessel of the Holy League were praying the Rosary this very hour. A great battle was looming on this night of Oct. 6, 1571.
Weeks, and months, of preparation had been made for battle. The 212 ships of the Holy League had been examined, and battle plans had been drawn before they departed from Messina the previous week. Don Juan would give yet another order later on that very night: to cut off the spars in the galleys’ prows so that they wouldn’t hinder the cannons at front.
The convicted criminals who’d been conscripted to row the galleys had been motivated by the prospect of their freedom.
But Don Juan had assured that the men would be prepared, spiritually, for the task ahead. He’d forbidden women from boarding any of the galleys and galleasses. He’d threatened to have any man who spoke blasphemy executed. He himself led them on a three-day fast. He made sure that a rosary was given to each of them.
Sister moon, and the countless stars in the firmament, silently witnessed. The Star of the Sea herself watched along with them.
The men aboard the Real finished praying and looked at their commander.
“There is no paradise for cowards,” he told them.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
The sun was ascending the azure sky on the morning of Oct. 7.
A crowd followed the man wearing the miter on the cobbled streets of the Eternal City like children being led along by a piper. The Holy Father, Pius V, gripped the rosary between his frail fingers.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” the crowd said in chorus, “pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.”
He felt weak. A true ascetic, having spent most of his life as a Dominican monk, he’d been fasting routinely in recent months. This very Rosary procession, which he would lead all the day long, was yet another on the lengthy list of penitential acts performed throughout his life. He’d considered his own health to be of nominal concern.
The lands of Christendom had been pressed, and seized, for nearly a thousand years. The Crusades of the past, intended to reverse the aggressive gains of their enemy, had all ended in short-lived victories, if not outright failures. The menace’s thirst for wealth and power had never been quenched when Constantinople fell, over a century ago.
Cyprus was under siege earlier that year. It was in March, during the siege, that the Holy Father had proposed an alliance. A band of reluctant allies, nations and city-states agreeing to combine their naval fleets, was formed: the Holy League.
Venice, initially hesitant to join due to economic considerations, finally joined in May. She provided more than half of the combined fleet’s ships. Mighty Spain, having interests spanning the globe, was willing to lend only a portion of her own vast fleet. Hers was still the next largest contingent. The balance of ships came from the Papal States and the rest. France, unfortunately, had declined to join altogether.
Pope Pius V had offered a plenary indulgence to the Holy League’s sailors and soldiers, as his predecessors had done for the Crusaders.
Cyprus fell to the Turks in August, thus bringing the Turkish fleet ever closer to Rome. News of a most cruel fate dealt to Marco Antonio Bragadin, along with his fellow Venetian commanders, strengthened the Holy League’s resolve to fight.
From the towers in Rome, the procession moving forward looked more and more like an army of ants marching. Common folks were abandoning their daily tasks to pray the Rosary. The Vicar of Christ saw then what so many learned men assured him was lost in Christendom: zeal.
The Queen of Heaven saw it as well.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle.
The Turkish van had been sighted at dawn.
The war council gathered. They agreed that the Gulf of Patras had hardly any strategic interests, but that they would offer battle anyway.
Jesuit priests offered Mass aboard the Spanish vessels. Capuchins offered Mass aboard the ships belonging to the Papal States. Dominicans, Franciscans and Theatines offered Mass aboard those ships belonging to the rest: Venice, Genoa, Tuscany and the Knights Hospitaller. The priests listened to the confessions of those men who came to them, absolving them of their sins.
The wind had been favoring the oncoming enemy fleet all throughout the morning. Nearly 300 enemy vessels were rowing toward them fast, and with ease, in the formation of a crescent. The silk banner over the Sultana¸ the Turkish flagship at the center, was getting ever clearer. It bore the image of a double-edged sword. The name of Allah had been stitched all over it in gold. The drums and cries, gongs and cymbals, of the oncoming fleet grew ever louder.
The Holy League was outnumbered, rowing against the elements, and rowing against the tide of a thousand years of history. Don Juan knelt on the prow of the Real. He said a final prayer before giving the order to raise the banner.
The men of the Holy League cheered as the Real’s blue banner, bearing the image of Christ Crucified, and given to Don Juan by the pope himself, was raised.
The rest of the ships followed, raising their own banners. Giovanni Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral, had been given a banner by the king of Spain, which had been given to him by the archbishop of Mexico. That banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, standing upon the crescent moon, had touched the original tilma.
Don Juan’s eyes fixed upon the Sultana as the Holy League’s ships scrambled against the whims of the wind to make their lines of formation.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
The course of the wind suddenly changed.
The Holy League, in proper formation, drove forward with ease. The squadron on the north flank, commanded by Agostino Barbarigo, maneuvered to meet the Turkish fleet first. The center flank thrust forward, piercing the Turkish formation.
The roaring of cannons, and blasting of muskets, echoed in the air. The rhythmic pulse of the sea could no longer be heard amid the cries and howls of the men at war. The scent of the sea was drowned out by the stench of gunpowder.
Splinters flew in every direction as the cannons on the broadsides and centerlines of the galleasses ripped through the hulls of Ottoman galleys with violent might.
Soldiers crossed the planks in waves and stormed the boats against arrows flying toward, and often into, them. They fought on the decks. Many of the waves of men were turned back, to be followed by greater waves. The sea was turning red and filled with the bodies of the fallen, Christian and Muslim.
Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish soldier, was among the wounded. His right hand would later pen Don Quixote for us. His left hand became useless on this day.
Soldiers fought on, through the decks, descending into the ships, finding the rowers of the Turkish galleys. Those rowers were slaves. Most were Christian slaves. And so their chains were broken. Arms were given out to the newly-freed that they may wildly join in the fight against their former captors.
The commanders on both sides did what they could to keep a semblance of order. Barbarigo remarkably pivoted his squadron counterclockwise, pinning the Turkish right flank, before he’d taken the fatal arrow in his eye. The ships commanded by Doria had been outmaneuvered, and outmanned shortly after, and the reserve squadron came to the rescue of the southern flank.
The flagships Real and Sultana directly engaged. Spanish marines fought against the famed Janissaries, hand-to-hand, on the decks. Don Juan himself was wounded during the third charge aboard the Sultana’s bloodied deck. Müezzinzade Ali Pasha, commander of the Turkish fleet, was killed along with his crew. The Sultana’s banner was seized, for all the surviving Turkish men to watch.
The proud Janissaries were resolved to fight to the last. They fought on, and on, as Ottoman ships were being sunk or captured all around them. Some later claimed that they’d even resorted to pelting fruit at their enemies as they grew desperate.
Five hours had elapsed until it was all over.
Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
Long ago, St. Dominic had been invited to take residence at the Basilica of Santa Sabina. The Dominicans have cared for this basilica ever since. Within the walls of this ancient structure, Pope Pius V was consulting with his cardinals.
The Holy Father, as exhausted as he was after the day’s procession, attentively listened while the cardinals deliberated. He suddenly looked out the window. He rose from his seat and walked to the window and the voices of his cardinals faded away to background noise.
The cardinal who was speaking suddenly stopped mid-sentence. He and the rest each silently wondered to themselves what it was that the Vicar of Christ was staring at.
He could see a vision in the sky, of victory.
The Pope’s eyes were filled with tears of thanksgiving. "Let us set aside business and fall on our knees in thanksgiving to God,” he said, looking back at his cardinals, “for he has given our fleet a great victory."
He knew that what he’d seen was a blessing from Our Lady.
Confirmation of the Battle of Lepanto’s outcome finally reached Rome some weeks later. The Holy League had suffered enormous casualties on that day. The Ottomans had suffered far greater casualties, and most of her vast fleet had been either captured or destroyed. Roughly 12,000 Christian slaves were freed on that day.
New Turkish ships could be built, quickly enough, to replace the annihilated fleet. But the experience of their men lying at the bottom of the sea proved irreplaceable. The threat the Ottoman fleet once posed on Christendom was vanquished.
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.
Pope St. Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of Victory before his death on May 1, 1572. It has since been renamed the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, as we know it today.
“Here is your mother,” Our Lord had said on the cross. We know that he spoke to St. John, and that he was likewise speaking to all of us. The Mother of God was promised to us as our very own mother. She is the Queen of Heaven, and her prayers are far more powerful than any of the obstacles we must face, She still prays for us to this very day.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!