To Rome With Our Lady: Commemorating Lepanto in Song
A Pilgrimage Reflection: Ours is the God of impossible causes. It is in our weakness that he is glorified.
On Oct. 7, my family went on a pilgrimage that was thought to be impossible to celebrate a victory that was thought to be impossible, for the purpose of asking for the impossible.
The destination was the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The occasion was the 450th anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto, in which the Christian Holy League, called into being by Pope St. Pius V, defeated the navy of the Ottoman Turks against all odds and saved Christianity in Europe. Those who fought bravely on that day knew better than to take the credit. Despite the clash of more than 400 warships in the Mediterranean theater, the Holy League gave all credit to the Rosary. St. Pius V, who saw the moment of victory in a vision, soon after proclaimed Oct. 7 the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The Lepanto Foundation, headed by professor Roberto de Mattei, author of the new biography Saint Pius V, planned a Latin Mass in the chapel housing the relics of Pope St. Pius V. It would not only commemorate the victory, but call Christians to renew a “militant spirit” like that of the nobles who fought the battle. It was to be a “response to a war” that had long been declared by forces of secularism against Christianity. Who would fight for us but Our Lady, whose Immaculate Heart would triumph in the end, just as she said at Fatima.
How did we get there? My husband, Greg, approached Mattei and offered the voices of our choir to sing for the event. The Mary Immaculate Choir is a family choir, started by laymen more than two decades ago to teach our home-schooled children to sing traditional Catholic hymns. From there, we developed to include Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony and now have a repertoire that includes several polyphonic Masses, which we sing at the parish level on Sundays at the Latin Mass. We are not professionals; some of us cannot even read music.
What is it, then, that led the Lepanto Foundation to accept my husband’s offer of our humble voices? It was that we are a praying choir.
The prayer and sacrifice that are supposed to go with any pilgrimage started long before our plane ever left the ground. Over the summer, Italy announced it would require a “Green Pass” to enter the country. This meant either a vaccination or a negative COVID test or proof of recovery within six months. The Vatican followed suit soon after. Rumors of the need for expensive, repeated COVID tests, worries about what would happen should there be a false positive or a real positive, and confusion about the enforcement of quarantine on the books led several pilgrims and key individuals to cancel. In the background of it all was, of course, the Pope’s Traditionis Custodes. Would the Mass even be allowed to take place?
For two months, we heard the question, “Are you still going?” We didn’t know.
For that you should say: If the Lord will, and if we shall live, we will do this or that. — James 4:15
Nothing Is Hard for Our Lady
We were in daily contact with Virginia Nunziante, the guardian angel of the Lepanto Foundation, who never lost patience with our questions, and with Canterbury Pilgrimages, which was managing the travel for us, and with friends and associates in Rome. We sought out replacement singers, a substitute director and chaplains on the ground to assist with our spiritual needs. My husband and his fellow singer Reuben DeMaster, who are old hands at organizing impossible pilgrimages, never wavered in their commitment, but I complained about feeling like Norton the time he was trapped in the freezing apartment with Ralph with nothing to eat but celery (Honeymooners, Season 1, Episode 24).
Greg urged me to trust Our Lady. If she wanted this public act in her honor, she would assist us. Didn’t Lepanto teach us that nothing is hard for Our Lady?
Each obstacle served to test commitment and purify motives. “Are you still going?” Yes, not because it is fun or convenient or the opportunity of a lifetime, but because we gave our word. We gave it to our hosts, to our fellow pilgrims and, most of all, to Our Lady.
In the end, there were 25 of us: 15 choir members, including three replacement singers and a director, and 10 fellow pilgrims. Late on the night before we left, Father Patrick Carter, a chaplain already on the ground in Rome, agreed to accompany us and hear our confessions. The parish of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, would be our home base.
You could say we were small in number, but we represented many more who wanted to be there. Our choir director and associate pastor at home planned a special Mass to go on pilgrimage in solidarity with us, and there were hundreds of spiritual pilgrims back at home who sent contributions that made it possible for us to go. In the tradition of all pilgrimages, we carried their intentions with us every step of the way. There were friends grieving the deaths of children, others praying for the conversions of their loved ones, and others asking for the grace of perseverance in their vocations.
We arrived in Rome to a cold rain, with our body clocks at 1:30am, worn out from a cramped, masked flight in which one of our fellow pilgrims had fainted in the aisle and my husband, still weak from last winter’s double pneumonia due to COVID, could barely catch a breath. Despite being denied breakfast at the hotel until the following morning, there was a pervading sense that all was as it should be, that nothing was lacking.
We left our bags behind and immediately hit the streets to sing and pray.
That was what we had planned: to walk from church to church, singing rounds like Magnificat on the streets, and praying decades of the Rosary. At each church we entered, we would ask permission and then open our books and sing. As soon as we were done chanting our first Kyrie in the Eastern Rite church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the sun came out. It was as if the clouds of the last two months had lifted. We had come for our Mother, and, like a mother, she showered us with surprises the rest of the way.
Presents From Our Lady
Singing with Suor: While inside Chiesa Nuova, where St. Philip Neri is buried, our guide Barbara went to look for a certain Suor Maria del Mare, whom on a previous visit she had encountered singing and ironing. Suor is part of a community called the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, whose charism it is to evangelize the culture. She not only allowed us to sing Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium but directed us to a painting of the Nativity and joined us in the alto part.
Using Palestrina’s own choir loft: We knew Rome was the place where the music of Palestrina and Victoria began, but we had no idea that both composers had worked in Sanctissima Trinita dei Pellegrini during the tenure of their holy patron, St. Philip Neri, who cared for poor pilgrims there. Wending our way through the sacristy, a maze of corridors, up and down narrow stairways to a cramped choir loft full of 400-year-old dust made us feel as if nothing stood between us.
Singing in St. Peter’s Basilica: Despite dire predictions, we got into St. Peter’s without a problem. Immediately, my husband, who is a Ukrainian Catholic, sought out the relics of St. Josaphat, the martyr whose blood was spilled for the unity of Eastern Catholics. Turns out, the area is now used for confessionals and was closed off with wooden partitions. “No!” we thought. Barbara disappeared for a moment and returned with a Vatican guard who unsmilingly opened the gate to our entire group and growled at others who tried to enter out of curiosity. “You are not with them!” Finding we had the entire area to ourselves, we grouped together, opened our backpacks and sang Palestrina’s Jesu Rex Admirabilis, followed by Victoria’s Ave Maria.
Singing with our whole hearts: We are not professionals to begin with, and especially not when our voices are tired and flat and rough from travel. Oct. 7 had been an especially rigorous morning of walking, and we worried a bit about how we would do come 4pm, when it was time to sing the anniversary Mass in St. Mary Major. Our director, Rebecca Ostermann, took the mic on the way over. She charged us not to worry about any of that but to give our gift wholeheartedly. “I would rather there be a few mistakes than if you sang it perfectly but not with your whole being. Only then can you give the gift you came to give.”
When the moment came, it felt as if Our Lady herself had drawn the beauty out, like a mother who frames her children’s artwork and hangs it up to treasure.
The faithful who were there were few in number because the Lepanto Foundation left off advertising once the motu proprio went into effect for fear of having the Mass canceled. Fellow pilgrim Nora Zimmerman and her family enjoyed our melodies. “When you sang the Salve Regina, time just stopped,” she observed, adding, “When you go to Mass at these churches, it’s the Mass they were made for.” Her dad, Richard Egloff, said, “It was something that I'll remember the rest of my life. I felt so lucky to be there in person. As I was kneeling again and again, I was thanking Jesus for letting me be there today.”
Bonding with our fellow pilgrims: On the night before we left for home, we had a hard time saying goodbye to our fellow pilgrims and Italian guides. Some were family members and friends we would see again and would repeatedly ask if it was a dream or if the pilgrimage to Rome really happened. Others were people who had started as perfect strangers who now shared a bond that could never be broken, which was that we were all brought together by the same heavenly Mother.
Just as the pilgrimage started long before we departed the U.S., it will continue long after we returned. Each of us wrote our prayer intentions inside a book, which will soon be carried by one of our fellow pilgrims, Sibel Aydemir, who, not knowing any of us, went on our pilgrimage out of a desire to honor Our Lady, who converted her and called her to give her whole life to Christ. She will bring the book with her when she enters a hermitage in December.
There were too many graces for me to tell them all here, but perhaps they could be summed up in the words of Ne Irascaris by William Byrd, a recusant Catholic from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. The text is from Isaiah: “Do not be angry with us, Lord, nor remember our sin any longer. Look upon us, for we are your people.”
That is why we continue to hope — and why we went on this pilgrimage thought to be impossible.
If Our Lady is with us, we can’t lose.
- st. mary major