The Story of Prince Scanderbeg and Our Lady of Good Counsel
(from the book: “The Mother of Good Counsel of Genazzano” by João S. Clá Dias)
SCUTARI is a small city set on a steep hill in Albania. At the foot of the hill, two murmuring rivers meet. the Drin, rising in the mountains, and the Bojana, born of a lake of the same name as the city.
From this city came the first news about the image that later would be venerated throughout the entire Catholic world under the invocation Mater Boni Consilii.
The country was evangelized by Saints Paul and Andrew. The faith flourished in Albania in those early days, albeit confronting numerous hardships: coastal attacks by the Goths, Bulgars, and Normans, and land attacks by Slavs from the East. Later, in 1204, Albania was invaded and divided up by Naples, Greece, and Serbia. Power was distributed among the most important noble families. A century later, the Turks, who had already spread their empire over nearly the whole of the Balkan Peninsula, carried the miasma of Islam to the borders of Albania. In 1361, they invaded the important city of Kroia. It was the first blow in the long agony of the nation.
The Turks began to make successive incursions into the country. In 1423, the followers of Mohammed demanded the four sons of Prince John Castriota, head of one of the noble families of Albania, as hostages.
The Mohammedan generals knew from bitter experience that their religion and depraved customs were incapable of producing fighters as courageous as the Christian warriors. So, they formed an elite corps, the janizaries, comprised of Christians perverted to Mohammedanism in their childhood or youth, educated to hate their parents and the true Religion, and kept under an iron discipline far from the corrupted life of the Turkish court.
The Turkish chiefs now wanted the young Albanian princes as members of this praetorian guard since they were convinced that they could extirpate the true Faith from their souls by cajolery and threats. So, the four sons of the prince of Kroia, Repos, Stanitza, Constantine, and George, were taken to Adrianapolis, whence Sultan Amurath II governed the Ottoman Empire.
The Shrine of Scutari
Like all Albanians, the young princes knew that in Scutari, one of the most important cities in the states ruled by their father, an image of Our Lady with soft, attractive, and maternal features was venerated. It had appeared two hundred years previously, during the same period in which several Albanian provinces were converted to the Faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The author of the painting was unknown. Tradition held that the image was brought from the East, by angelic hands, on the same occasion that the house of the Holy Family was miraculously translated from Nazareth to Loreto, Italy.
The beautiful image, whose shrine became the main centre of pilgrimages in the small country, poured out abundant graces over the population.
Certainly the four princes had already prayed at the foot of the image which depicted the Patroness of their lands. However, the few records of the time that were saved from the Moslem rampage are silent about this. One thing is certain: devotion to the Patroness of Albania gave the four princes perseverance in the true Faith and made of George, the youngest of the four brothers, a true Catholic warrior, invincible in the fight against the followers of the Crescent.
A Prisoner in the Court at Adrianapolis
As soon as they appeared before the sultan, the three older brothers were put in chains. Their moral uprightness and the contempt they showed for serving Islam broke any illusions their tormenters had about them.
George was but nine years old. His captors, considering him to be still without personality, circumcised him with the intention of integrating him into the Mohammedan sect. George’s natural qualities soon standing out among the intended janissaries, the sultan decided to provide him the best education possible, along with that of his own sons. Meanwhile, his brothers were languishing in prison, being slowly poisoned to death.
The young prince learned to speak Italian, Arabic, Turkish, and Slavic. He was educated in the art of war and won the trust of Amurath II both for his courage and governmental talents. For this and for his princely birth, they gave him the name Alexander the Prince, or “Iskender Bey” in Turkish. Thus he came to be known among the Albanians as Scanderbeg.
As a general of the Ottoman armies, Scanderbeg more than once devastated enemy troops that attacked the Turkish Empire. Thus, the sultan dreamed of making Scanderbeg a frightful renegade who would extinguish the remorse of his apostasy by shedding the blood of Christians.
By 1443, the Albanian prince had been held captive for twenty years. In that year, the sultan, having decided to invade Hungary, and after having already given Scanderbeg significant signs of confidence, appointed him to the high military office of bey generalissimo. This made it necessary for Scanderbeg to face the courageous Catholic Magyar Janos Hunyadi (c. 1387-1456).
Freedom at the Battle of Nish
The Moslem army was comprised of Greek and Slavic soldiers and as many other peoples as the sultan could enslave, all under forced regimentation. Many were Catholics who but awaited the right moment to free themselves from the Ottoman claws. These latter found themselves disheartened with fear in the painful exigency of having to fight against their brothers in the Faith.
Scanderbeg hated the infidels’ yoke more than anyone else. In the proposed invasion of Hungary, he saw the providential moment to free himself and all those who wished to follow him. Thus, with some three hundred Catholic Albanians who were to be thrown into the fight against the troops of Hunyadi, he set about making a plan that would free them all.
Eighty thousand soldiers under the command of Schahim Pasha advanced against the Magyars. Schahim Pasha was a bully who boasted with the arrogance and haughtiness proper to infidels: “My sword is a cloud that pours blood instead of water.” Hunyadi’s Catholic troops numbered just twenty thousand.
On a cold November night, near Nish, the Hungarian vanguard caught sight of the heterogeneous Turkish horde. The warriors of the Cross silently eyed their enemy until the moment Constable Hunyadi joined them and gave the order to attack. Great shouts of enthusiasm resounded on the battlefield as the crusaders’ cavalry hurtled forward in a furious charge. Clouds of arrows filled the sky. Taking advantage of the confusion of the first clash, Scanderbeg and his followers passed over to the side of the followers of the Cross of Christ.
The first outcries of the Turks wounded by the Hungarians were joined by furious curses of hatred when they saw, to their amazement, that their own bey generalissimo was fighting side by side with Hunyadi.
A tremendous confusion ensued. The Hungarians, fighting with increased strength, won the battle. Thirty thousand Moslems lay dead on the field and four thousand were taken prisoner.
Among the captives was Amurath’s secretary of state with his retinue. When he was discovered among the prisoners, Scanderbeg forced him to write and sign a firman. This document ordered, in the sultan’s name, the Turkish governor of Albania to hand over the government to the person presenting the document. With the document in hand, Scanderbeg had the secretary and his attendants put to the sword, thus rewarding them with the same fate that had befallen his brothers and servants some twenty years before.
Scanderbeg Enters Kroia
Invoking the protection of the Blessed Virgin, Scanderbeg and his Albanians rode seven days and nights to reach Kroia. The seventh night was already extending its mantle of stars over the sky when they entered the city.
Once in the city, Scanderbeg secretly met with the most important Albanian residents, who promised to help him. As dawn broke, he entered the castle of the Turkish governor. Upon reading the document signed by the sultan’s secretary, the governor surrendered the stronghold without suspecting anything amiss. The following evening, Scanderbeg and his Albanians entered the fortress and killed all the Mohammedans.
Scanderbeg thus regained control of the territories that were his legitimate inheritance. He was ready to avenge the anti-Catholic despotism of the Islamics: their deceits, assassinations, abduction of Albanian women to serve in Turkish harems and of Catholic youth to pervert and force into service as janizaries, unbearable taxes, and forced conscription of troops for the sultan’s armies.
On November 13, 1443, after two decades of silence, church bells rang out. Catholic Albania, freed from the infidel’s yoke through the protection of Our Lady of Scutari, today known as the Mother of Good Counsel, rejoiced.
Revenge of the Sultan for the Audacity of Scanderberg
The news of Scanderbeg’s successful strategy reached the court in Adrianapolis, inciting Amurath’s anger and offending the pride of his people. It was deemed necessary to conquer the Albanians again and enchain George Castriota, that insolent man who had dared to “outrage” the previously undefeated Turkish armies.
Indeed, since 1300, when the first hordes commanded by the sinister Ortogrul started to attack the Byzantine Empire, the Turks had never suffered any important defeat. Like dense sulphurous lava, they poured into Asia Minor, crossed the Dardanelles, besieged Gallipoli and Koiridicastron, established their capital at Adrianapolis on the European continent, and proceeded to invade the Balkan Peninsula, spreading across Albania, Serbia, and Wallachia.
The Ottomans had not demolished Constantinople only because for some fifty years they had fended off the armies of Tamerlane, founder of the second Mongolian empire, in the Asian regions of Turkey. Now, Scanderbeg, heir to small Albania, had the audacity to rise up against the Crescent empire.
The irritated sultan, full of self-love, sent 40,000 of his best cavalry under the command of a skilled general to recapture Scanderbeg. Scanderbeg, however, enjoyed the protection of Our Lady of Scutari, the Mother of Good Counsel.
Albania had not had an army for over twenty years. Even though the return of George Castriota was a cause for rejoicing among the rough mountaineers and an inspiration for them to dedicate themselves to their lord, this was not enough to so quickly prepare an army. Scanderbeg gathered only 15,000 warriors.
On the Borders of Dibra, Our Lady Protects Scanderbeg
The clash that ensued in the Dibra was violent. The battle lasted the whole day. The brave Albanian mountaineers demonstrated exceptional courage fighting under Scanderbeg’s command. Such is the capacity of good example, especially when permeated with true devotion to the Virgin Mary.
The setting sun bathed the final skirmishes with its dying reddish rays. Innumerable flags of the Crescent, torn and muddied, and smashed and scattered weapons lay among wounded knights and the bodies of foot soldiers. The moans of the dying hung in the twilight air. The Christians found abundant cause for thanking their Lady of Scutari.
It was indeed a memorable victory. There was, however, no time for resting or feasting. The exhausted cavalry of the defeated Turks had barely returned to Adrianapolis when two new armies of similar might were en route to Albania. One was commanded by Firuz Pasha and the other by Mustafa Pasha. That they had suffered such a humiliation was indeed unbearable for the Turks.
History does not tell of the sultan’s threats to his soldiers should they return defeated; nor does it describe the countless graces poured out upon the few combative Albanians. It records only that after the last attack, when all the spears were broken and the quivers of the archers were empty, the soldiers of Scanderbeg engaged in hand-to-hand combat with all that remained of the numerous Ottoman army, a mere seventy-two Islamics, who subsequently surrendered before the Cross of Christ.
A Providential Man
According to his contemporaries, Scanderbeg was tall and slender with a prominent chest, wide shoulders, long neck, and high forehead. He had black hair, fiery eyes, and a powerful voice. So warlike was his nature that he truly needed to wage battle from time to time. He killed more than two thousand Turks with his own hands. He was a master of all weapons, swift and ingenious, a general with a quick and certain gaze, audacious and resolute. Naturally possessed of a fiery temper, anger would go to his head quickly and set his eyes ablaze. But he would dominate his anger, biting his lips until they bled. His courage in battle stemmed from this struggle over his evil passions. All in all, his customs were pure, his manner noble and elevated. Mary was his strength and inspiration. Under her protection he immediately began rebuilding Albania and preparing it for the new wars that were sure to come.
For one who has Faith, his life is a glorious epic of a devotee of Mary.
In Prince Scanderbeg the people had found courage in battle with certainty of victory; he was the man of Providence, the defender of the country, the protégé of Our Lady. Monsignor Dillon writes: “He loved the sanctuary of Mary with a devoted, enthusiastic love; and Mary in return, not only made him a model of Christian perfection, but also gave him an invincible power, which preserved not only Albania but also Christendom during his reign.”
All Christendom Rejoices in Scanderbeg’s Victories
All Christendom was encouraged and filled with joy by Scanderbeg’s victories. Previous defeats had induced the frightened Serbians and Hungarians to consider a ten-year armistice with the Turks. Now, a new flame of enthusiasm was enkindled. When Julian Cardinal Cesarini, the Papal Legate, preached a new crusade, Janos Hunyadi gathered 15,000 Hungarians. Venice, Genoa, Aragon, and Burgundy sent galleys. Christian troops, eager to defeat the sultan again, flocked from all corners. Scanderbeg intended to join them with his Albanians.
Unfortunately, however, it seems that among the majority of the new crusaders the fervour that had inflamed the hearts in Clermont when Blessed Urban II convoked the First Crusade was lacking.
Amurath, fearing another defeat at the hands of the Christian army, led 100,000 men to the battle. The Catholics numbered only 25,000 troops, because Scanderbeg was unable to arrive in time, detained by a treacherous ruse set up by the king of Serbia with the purpose of gaining the sultan’s favour.
The battle took place on a cold December morning close to the city of Varna in Bulgaria. The crusaders suffered an astonishing defeat. Neither the courage of the Polish cavalry in successive charges against the janizaries, nor the swiftness of the Hungarians who attacked the very tents of the sultan, could obtain victory from heaven. King Ladislas of Hungary was beheaded by a janizary. Cardinal Cesarini was killed in the confusion. All the survivors were stabbed to death by order of Amurath. Discouragement once again swept over a mollified Europe.
“Champion and Shield of Christendom”
In 1449, Turkey resolved its unceasing internal rebellions. With his own borders quiet, the sultan assembled an army 200,000 strong that he personally wanted to lead against the little Albanian nation.
The followers of Mohammed blanketed and devastated Albania like clouds of locusts. One fortress after another, even the best defended, fell before him. The few survivors retreated to Kroia to fight the enemy to the end under the protection of Scanderbeg.
The siege lasted a whole year. The heroic Catholic resistance of the Virgin’s devotees is described by a historian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Genazzano, Italy:
“With matchless strategy he [Scanderbeg] contrived to keep the myriads of his opponents from the walls. With energy almost superhuman, he swept unexpectedly, now here and now there, by night and by day, into the midst of the foe; every swordsman of his band hewed down scores, and his own blade flashed as the lightning and caused Moslem heads to fall like snowflakes where he passed. Thousands of the bravest warriors of Amurath were thus swept away continuously. His hosts were diminishing to the point of danger to his very person. And so, the fierce conqueror of so many nations had to withdraw the remnant of his armies in sorrow and shame from the walls of Croja, pursued with terrific slaughter by the Christians.”
The proud Ottoman sultan was terrified at this defeat. His spirit broken, he died of sadness, rancour, and humiliation shortly after returning to Adrianapolis. All of Albania desired to kneel at the feet of Our Lady in Scutari to thank her for such a victory. Scanderbeg was first in acts of praise and thankfulness to his Patroness. He was a hero formed in the same school as all those who derive their strength from their devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Like a new Saint Ferdinand, King of Castile, Scanderbeg was, under the guidance of Mary, “as gentle in peace, as he was terrible in war.” “The good Christian prince was often seen at her feet to beg the protection of his Lady in his greatest afflictions.”
When the Holy Father, Nicholas V, heard of this warrior’s courage and victories, he sent him a special blessing, calling him the “champion and shield of Christendom.” Since time was of the essence, the Pope sent him, in addition to the promises of divine protection, what material resources he could gather so that Scanderbeg could continue his fight against the Mohammedans.
All the Christian princes rejoiced at Scanderbeg’s feats and sent him congratulations and aid. Hunyadi, in Hungary, still regretted the absence of the Albanian prince in the battle of Varna. Together under the protection of Mary Most Holy they would have defeated the infidel Turks. From her shrine in Scutari, she protected Scanderbeg, granted him innumerable victories, but gave him no respite from the struggles of this life.
Envy and Betrayal in Scanderbeg’s Ranks
The new Turkish sultan, Mohammed II, sent several contingents against Scanderbeg. In 1452, twelve thousand men entered the country through the Albanian mountains. Seven thousand of them were killed in the first battle.
The following year, another general, Ibrahimbeg, leading even more soldiers, tried to avenge the Turkish defeats. Not one, not even Ibrahimbeg, was left alive to relate what happened.
Defeated by the heroism of the Catholic armies, the sultan then attempted to bribe the commanders and their relatives, promising them riches and honours to betray the Prince of Kroia. If there was a Judas even among the Apostles, surely these could be found close to Scanderbeg.
One so inclined was Moses Gobatos. Bowing before Mohammed II in Constantinople, he offered him Scanderbeg’s head if the sultan, in turn, would promise him the crown of Albania. The Ottoman potentate agreed to the shameful offer and placed twenty thousand men at the disposal of the traitor. However, Our Lady of Scutari guarded her faithful devotee and the treachery failed. More than ten thousand Mohammedans died on the battlefield. The traitor fled, receiving as payment only the sultan’s disdain. Later, tormented by remorse, Moses returned to Albania to implore his lord’s pardon, which was generously granted. As we shall see, he subsequently died bravely fighting against the Turks.
Another traitor who allowed himself to be seduced by thirty pieces of silver was Scanderbeg’s nephew Hamsa. Going to Constantinople, he renounced the Catholic religion and was appointed vizier. In the summer of 1457, he entered Albania at the head of 50,000 Islamic troops under the Crescent flag. Scanderbeg had only twelve to fifteen thousand mountaineers to face this new attack.
The traitor planned to incite the populace against the legitimate prince. The would-be usurper, well-versed in his country’s topography, avoided any dangerous valleys or unsafe areas as he gained ground. Occupation of the whole country seemed inevitable. Then, during one of their final advances, the Turks stopped to rest in the Tomorniza. It was here that Mary Most Holy prepared to defeat them.
With the suddenness of a lightning bolt, Scanderbeg appeared, spreading terror among the enemies of the Cross. Thirty thousand Turks died on the battlefield. Their encampment was seized and fifteen hundred of their comrades-in-arms were taken prisoner, including the renegade Hamsa. Scanderbeg, benevolently sparing his nephew’s life, sent Hamsa back in utter defeat to the sultan. The latter, not so magnanimous, repaid the renegade with poison.
Since not even treason could vanquish Scanderbeg, the sultan, fearing new disasters, temporarily suspended hostilities.
Mohammed II, the Conqueror of Constantinople, Declares Scanderbeg Victorious
Mohammed II was so frightened by the “champion of Christendom” that, despite having recently conquered Constantinople, he sent him a letter in a vain attempt to disarm the devotee of the Virgin Most Powerful.
“When I recall the sweet joys of our youth,” writes Mohammed (stirring up memories of Castriota’s shameful captivity under Amurath, in which he was even obliged to follow the Moslem rites), “it seems that I have an imperious duty to love you and demonstrate this love. My troops,” he cynically continues, “devastated your country without my order. Your victories filled me with joy.” Mohammed asked, as proof of his correspondence to this love, that Scanderbeg repeat John Castriota’s act of submission, and send him his son as a hostage.
The response to this contemptible proposition was not long in coming. George Castriota rejected the ignoble solicitation of the brazen Mohammed, signing himself “Scanderbeg, Prince of the Epirotes and Albanians and soldier of Jesus Christ.”
The sultan, finally seeing that he could expect nothing from Scanderbeg, resolved to cease his attacks on Albania. Thus, the most powerful enemy of Christendom acknowledged his defeat before the soldier of Jesus Christ.
Pilgrimage to Rome
George Castriota’s renown spread throughout a Europe then steeped in pagan Renaissance humanism. Pope Callistus III praised this hero, this devotee of Mary Most Holy, as one who “in an excellent way surpassed in the Faith and in the Christian Religion, all other Catholic princes.”
In a letter written in Rome fifteen days after the battle of the Tomorniza (1457), the Holy Father affirmed: “Beloved son, continue to defend the Catholic Faith; God, for whom you fight, will not abandon His cause. He will, I am confident, grant success against the Turks and other unbelievers to you and the rest of the Christians with great glory and honour.” Three months later he appointed Scanderbeg Pontifical Captain-General against the Turks.
Pope Pius II, successor to Pope Callistus, had the joy of seeing the invincible warrior in Rome. Scanderbeg had crossed the Adriatic to come to the aid of his ally, the king of Naples, who, some years before, had sent fifteen hundred soldiers to fight in Albania. The Albanian prince did not fail to see Pius II to receive his blessing. The Pontiff offered him not only graces and promises of eternal life, but material resources as well for the struggle against the Ottomans. Pius II, seeing in him the sword raised up by Divine Providence to save Europe, began to make plans against the Islamics.
Pope Pius II Attempts to Organize a Crusade
In 1459, Pope Pius II, encouraged by Scanderbeg’s victories, invited the Catholic princes to a meeting in the city of Mantua. The pontiff perhaps hoped that by convoking a crusade the graces of Clermont, when messed Urban II preached the first crusade, would be revived.
The response of the Christian princes to the Pope’s appeal was pitiful and weak. The great majority of them delighted in the atmosphere of the pagan Renaissance then spreading across Europe in an invasion more devastating than the Islamic one. The voice of Peter did not echo in their hearts. Few even sent ambassadors to hear the words of the Vicar of Christ.
When the meeting at Mantua opened, Pius II could only sadly state: “We came full of hope; but we are forced to consider it in vain. We are ashamed that the lukewarmness of Christendom is so great. Some run after their pleasures, others are enchained by avarice. The Turks are ready to face death for their doctrine, but we tolerate neither the least expense nor the most insignificant discomforts for the Cause of the Holy Gospel.”
It was the Pontiff’s intention that all the Catholic princes would take up arms against the Islamics. The military command would be given to Scanderbeg and the Pope would personally accompany the crusade until the final defeat of the infidels.
Learning of these plans, Scanderbeg quickly organized an army of his warlike mountain men. Taking the initiative, he invaded Turkish territory, anticipating the assistance of Western troops. Meanwhile, the sultan, infuriated by the attack, ordered his general, Scheremetbeg, to invade Albania. This he did in August, 1464. The Moslems suffered yet another defeat, leaving ten thousand dead on the field.
Despite the dearth of assistance, Pius II left Rome, assembled some ships in Ancona and made ready to embark and join Scanderbeg. He was prepared to die, if necessary, at the side of this brave warrior to bring about the success of the crusade. Before the Pope could set sail, however, God called him to His just and merciful tribunal. The Pope’s health had been undermined by a persistent fever and, above all, by the procrastination of Venice, which would not release the ships needed to transport the crusaders across the Adriatic. He expired on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, as the Venetian ships were finally entering Ancona harbour.
Scanderbeg was obliged to recast the feasts for the reception of that warrior Pope into ceremonies of mourning.
Renewed Attacks by the Sultan and a Second Trip to Rome
Once again Albania found itself facing the sultan’s wrath unaided. Baladam of Badera, yet another Judas, was chosen by Mohammed II to renew his attacks. Cold and calculating, this Baladam assumed command of the Islamic armies.
Although the renegade’s first battle was a disaster, eight of Albania’s best warriors fell into his hands. The wretch, in revenge for his defeat, had them skinned alive. They, wavering neither as Catholics nor as indomitable soldiers, boldly proclaimed their Faith, refusing to seek any pardon from the apostate. Moses Gobatos, the repentant former traitor, now washed away his old perfidy with his blood, dying like a hero of the Faith alongside the other martyrs.
Baladam invaded Albania again with two new armies. Both were destroyed in two memorable and spectacular victories of the Catholic prince Scanderbeg. Baladam himself almost perished, saving his life only by fleeing at full gallop from the last combat.
Mohammed II, resolving to definitively crush Albania, incorporated two hundred thousand men into his army of janizaries. Scanderbeg, seeing the imminent danger, hurried to Rome and threw himself at the feet of Pope Paul II, imploring his help.
Entering the resplendent papal court as a simple soldier, devoid of any pomp or circumstance, Scanderbeg spoke the following succinct but glorious words: “After twenty-three years of unceasing war, I present myself here together with the warriors that remain. Ours is a state exhausted by so many battles; Albania is a body of which no member remains unwounded; only a few drops of its blood remain to be shed for the Christian world. Alas, come to our aid, otherwise the last champion of Jesus Christ will soon disappear from the other side of the Adriatic!”
No one in Rome wanted to be a crusader. The money that the Pope gave Scanderbeg was insufficient for even his necessities. Returning to his land unprotected, his one hope for assistance was the invincible Virgin of Scutari. Kneeling at her feet, he implored her that most assuaging and decisive succour that had comforted him so often throughout his life.
Kroia Besieged Again
In the spring of 1466, Mohammed II besieged Kroia for the second time. The whole region around the city was occupied by some two hundred thousand Islamics. Mohammed pitched his tents on the crest of a hill so as to have a better view of the fall of the city. The siege, lasting for six months, was relentless, but the resistance was heroic. Neither the burning heat, nor the nearly constant breathing of air filled with the smoke of the gunpowder, nor the deafening cries of the combatants could dampen the courage of the Albanians.
Scanderbeg did not limit himself merely to a defence of his capital. He and a handful of brave souls camped outside the city walls to unceasingly harass the Moslems.
With the onset of autumn, the sultan was deeply depressed. So, he decided to return to Constantinople. However, the renegade Baladam remained with eighty thousand men to continue the siege. Scanderbeg, with but 13,400 warriors, attacked him so successfully that the bloody traitor lost his life and the terrified Turks fell into retreat.
Once more, Our Lady of Scutari gave the victory to Scanderbeg, her fervent devotee.
A Strong King Strengthens a Weak People
This prince and unvanquished warrior, whose strength of soul gave his compatriots fortitude to throw off their lethargy, courage to raise up against the oppressive infidels, daring to despise death and thus expel them from their country, moved his subjects not only by example but also by his unbreakable faith, his ardent charity, and his unshakable hope. Paraphrasing Camoes, the great chronicler of Portugal, one could say that a strong king strengthens a weak people.
Scanderbeg was God’s sword against the enemies of the holy Catholic Faith, the impregnable defensive wall protecting his realm. The eyes of all Albanians turned toward him.
The people saw the virtues of the nation shine with noble splendour in Scanderbeg. Admiring its prince, Albania rose to the glowing heights of its ideal.*
* The communion of saints is the sublime and divine communicant vessel that makes grace grow in all souls, without emptying one to fill another. It is, rather, the contrary. In this way, an ardent devotee of Mary Most Holy attracts graces so that others become devoted to her. A tireless soldier of the Faith obtains graces from heaven for other Catholics to also be combative.
A great Dominican of this century, Marie Michel Philipon, explains this sublime truth: “By the communion of saints . . . a soul that elevates itself carries the whole world with it. A soul that debases itself lowers the whole universe. Men work together either to elevate or lower the spiritual level of mankind. Who could measure the incalculable repercussions of a single human act? The fiat pronounced by Mary contained the salvation of the whole world in a seed. The redeeming action of Christ on the Cross was the ransom for all mankind. The most insignificant human act echoes, for good or for bad, in the whole Church” (M. M. Philipon, O.P, Los dones del Espirtu Santo [Madrid: Ediciones Palabra, 1983), p.109).
Scanderbeg fully embodied the ideal of the Catholic hero, of the strong and just man who lives by faith: “My just man liveth by faith” (Heb. 10:38).
Last Pilgrimage to Scutari, Last Battle, and Crowning Victory
In January of 1467 Scanderbeg felt his strength waning. He visited his beloved shrine for the last time, kneeling at the feet of the Virgin Most Merciful, his constant protectress in battle. She had reconquered his kingdom; he returned it to her hands.
Scanderbeg saw that his son lacked the necessary energy to continue the struggle and to increase the fruits of his victories. He also knew that his warriors would not be so courageous without his presence. Perhaps understanding that their devotion to Mary Most Holy was not sufficiently deep and enthusiastic, he decided to place the shrine and the city under the protection of Venice in a final hope of saving the holy image from Turkish vandalism.
Exhausted, but trusting in divine mercy, he retired to the city of Lesh. With his penetrating gaze, he read the faces of his soldiers and painfully foresaw the impending fall of Albania. He urged his son to be a worthy ruler and insisted with his nobles to avoid internal conflicts and to fight only against the Turks.
His last hour came quickly. On his deathbed, he confessed for the last time and received Holy Viaticum. The sweat of agony bathed the warrior’s face.
The glacial air of a January morning was pierced by terrible cries, cries not of mourning from the palace where the prince was agonizing but cries of warning from the walls: “The Turks! The Turks! The Turks are here!”
Mohammed II, informed about the general distress of the entire country and taking advantage of its unpreparedness, had sent his hosts against the city of Lesh. A surprise lay in store for him.
Hearing the shouts, the dying man’s eyes opened. Colour returned to his cheeks. The perspiration of agony disappeared. Scanderbeg pushed death aside and carried it instead to the enemies of Christendom. He ordered his horse and weapons brought to him. Then, a great battle ensued at the gates of Lesh.
The clash was as bloody as that first battle, which he won under Mary’s protection. The Moslems, seeing Scanderbeg’s eyes blazing with holy wrath, fled in terror. After the battle, the brave warrior had sufficient strength to return to the palace.
Scanderbeg, as in all victories, again gave thanks to the Blessed Virgin for her protection. On that same day, January 17, 1467, before sunset, he slept the sleep of the just.
One of the Albanian generals went throughout the city in a state of distress, weeping and shouting: “Today the walls of Albania fell and its fortresses were demolished! All our strength has vanished and our power is lying on the ground! All our hope is extinguished with this one man!” Thus this warrior of the Virgin of Scutari died at age 53. The sultan, upon hearing the news, exclaimed: “Woe to Christendom! It has lost its sword and shield!”
Eight years later, when the Mohammedans conquered Lesh, they carried away the hero’s bones. Dividing them into small pieces, they covered the bones with gold and silver to use as amulets in battle. Such was the renown of Scanderbeg. His helmet, kept in Vienna, is inscribed in Arabic: “God’s hero, Iskander Bey.”
In Scutari, the holy image became saddened. There were no longer any devotees in all of Albania equal to so generous a Mother. It didn’t take long for the ardour of the Faith, the spirit of combativeness to wane and the purity of morals to decay. A black mantle of desolation covered the country, and a premonition of defeat by some future Turkish aggression overcame the people.
One spring night the Holy Virgin of Scutari manifested herself to two of Scanderbeg’s soldiers who, fearing for the future of Albania, were weeping over the death of their general. These two soldiers, De Sclavis and Georgio, both dreamed that they were to accompany the holy image of the Virgin to a distant land. The next day they both hurried to pray before the image of the Virgin in her chapel in Scutari. Before their eyes the holy image of Our Lady miraculously detached itself from the walls of the chapel, and they followed it: the image miraculously floated in the air over the Adriatic Sea, and they, just as miraculously walked on the water, for 190 miles, until on April 25, 1467, the image came to rest in the Italian town of Genezzano, where it is to be found to this day, in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel.