The Victory of Lepanto and the Most Holy Rosary
by Rev. J.A. Rooney, O.P., 1892
Let us listen to the Angels of the Rosary. What do they say to us? “Take into your hands on this singular feast the joy-inspiring harp of the Rosary; play upon this harp to your Mother a new canticle; extol her power on earth and in Heaven, and repeat again and again the wonders of your loving helper (Responsory of the First lesson of the Rosary Office).” But why are the Angels of the Rosary so eager that we should play on the harp of Mary on this particular feast? Because this feast commemorates one of the grandest victories ever given by Heaven to the Church, and emphatically declares that it was achieved by the great Captain of God’s armies, Mary the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary. We do not intend to give a detailed account of the battle of Lepanto; we shall content ourselves with the bare narration of the main facts that called into existence this glorious feast of the Destroyer of all heresies, Mary the Mother of God.
For about a century before the battle of Lepanto the Turks had been spreading dismay all over Christendom, and the year 1571 seemed to them to be the most opportune time to deal out death to Christianity. At that time most of the Christian nations were divided by conflicting interests and weakened by protestantism, whose motto was “the Turks in preference to the Papists.” Yes, protestantism, the greatest curse of modern times, the drag-chain on the wheels of Christian progress, did much to embolden the Turks to menace Christendom with indescribable woes.
Pope St. Pius V., a worthy son of the Order of the Rosary, made a public appeal to Heaven and to earth in behalf of the Church and Society. He called upon all the faithful, but especially upon the members of the various Rosary Confraternities of the world to invoke unceasingly with him the aid of the Virgin of the Rosary. For two years previous to the battle of Lepanto all the faithful, but especially Rosarians, earnestly pleaded in behalf of the Church with Mary the Mother of Jesus through the prayer which is so dear to her. In the meantime, the Holy Father succeeded in arousing Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Pontifical States to enter into a holy League against the sworn enemy of Christianity. Humanly speaking, from such an insignificant league there could be but little hope of success for the Christians opposed by such fearful odds. But the Pope, whose prayers the Sultan Soliman II. feared, as he himself declared, far more than the arms of the Christian forces, trusted entirely in the assistance of the Mother of Mercy.
On the 7th of October, 1571, on the Gulf of Lepanto was raised aloft by the Christian fleet the standard of hope–it was the image of the Blessed Virgin, surmounted by a Cross and a Rosary. The soldiers knelt before it for the purpose of venerating the emblem of our salvation and the Image of Mary, and pledged themselves to fight to death for the cause in which they were engaged, God and holy Church. Then the signal for attack was given by the Christian admiral.
Victory was violently disputed and long remained undecided. But the death of Ali-Pasha, the admiral of the Mussulman fleet, spread terror among his soldiers and became the signal of their defeat. The Turkish losses were immense; two hundred vessels were captured by the Christians or sunk beneath the angry waves of Lepanto; twenty-five thousand soldiers were killed; eighteen thousand prisoners were taken and fifteen thousand Christian slaves were liberated from their ignominious bondage; three hundred and seventy-five pieces of cannon and a great number of Standards and other spoils “became the property of the victors. The triumph of the Cross over the Crescent through the power of the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary drove Islamism into Asia, saved forever Christendom from any successful invasion on the part of the Turks, left the seas that had hitherto been infested by Mussulman pirates free, and caused the Christian name to be dreaded by hordes who had until then considered themselves invincible. Michael Cervantes thus writes of the victory: “Ages gone by have seen nothing like unto the battle of Lepanto, nor has our age witnessed anything to compare with it, and in all probability ages to come will never record a more beautiful or glorious triumph for the Church.”
But what share had the Rosary in this magnificent triumph? For two years before the battle, we have said, all the Rosary Confraternities of the world and the rest of the faithful were at the feet of Mary asking her assistance through the prayer so dear to her and her Son, the Rosary. The battle took place on the 7th of October, which in 1571 was the first Sunday of the month, the very day on which all the Rosary Confraternities of the Church were making their solemn processions and addressing solemn supplications to Heaven in behalf of the Christian cause.
Whilst the battle was raging, S. Pius V. was treating with the Cardinals assembled at the Vatican on some grave business matters. All of a sudden he withdraws from the meeting, moves towards a window, remains there for some time, his eyes fixed in the direction of Lepanto, and then exclaimed with the accent and look of inspiration: “Let us kneel; let us cease speaking of business matters and think only of rendering thanks to God for the victory He has just given us.” The happy news was in due time confirmed, and was received everywhere among Christians with transports of delight, and with a conviction the most intense that the victory was due to the all-powerful intevention of our Lady of the Rosary. From Rome this conviction passed to Venice. The Senate of the City, in letters addressed to the States that had taken part in the Crusade, did not hesitate to express itself in these terms filled with faith and piety: “It was not Generals, nor battalions, nor arms that brought us victory; but it was our Lady of the Rosary.” Yes, says a modern historian, the defeat of the Turks was so complete and decisive that the whole Christian world spontaneously attributed it to the Blessed Mother of God, whose Rosary all the faithful were reciting whilst the battle was in progress.
The Holy Pope Pius V. in order to perpetuate the memory of so great an event, instituted under the title of Our Lady of Victory a feast which received later on the appellation which is at present so popular and far more significative, viz. that of Our Lady of the Rosary; and, for the purpose of encouraging the faithful to celebrate it with piety and fruit, he opened in their behalf the treasury of the Church, and drew from it the celebrated indulgence which is at one time called the Toties quoties (a plenary indulgence each time the conditions are complied with), at another time the “Great Pardon of the Rosary” and often the “Dominican Portiuncula.” It was then, too, that he added to the Litany of Loretto the invocation “Help of Christians, pray for us.”
Notwithstanding the complete discomfiture of the Turks, they, still profiting by the divisions created by that monster of modern times, protestantism, endeavored again and again to crush out the Christian Religion, but the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary showed on every occasion her determination not to allow the infidels to gain the least advantage over the Church. The victories at Corfu, Vienna, Temeswar and Belgrade under the captaincy of Mary were only a prolonged echo of the glorious triumph of the Christians at Lepanto.
But if the Church has nothing now to fear from the Turks, it has other enemies still more powerful, formidable and tyrannical to contend against. Just now the Catholic Religion is much more free along the shores of the Bosphorus than it is on the banks of Seine, Spree or Tiber, where it groans under the oppression of children who have disowned their Mother and have sworn to bring about her destruction. A gigantic anti-Christian conspiracy–its name is Freemasonry–has been formed in the very bosom of the baptized nations. In most of the European countries it has complete control of things, and employs all manner of means to carry out its diabolical ends, sophisms, lies, corruption and violence. Its chief object is to cripple and humiliate the teaching Church, and to eradicate faith and virtue from the souls and hearts of the young. It labors with all its might to have complete control of the schools, so that infidelity and atheism may possess the minds and corrupt the hearts of the rising generation. In countries where Freemasonry has not supreme control, its secret and nefarious influence paralyzes the good will and efforts of those who are in power.
With this view of the present condition of affairs before his mind, the Sentinel of the Vatican utters a cry of alarm to the Virgin of the Rosary. As Pius V., three hundred years ago, looked for help to Mary through her Rosary and obtained it, so to-day Leo XIII. expects from the same source of mercy remedies for the evils of our times, efficacious helps to save the Church and with it the world. It is for us to second by our prayers, zeal and virtues the efforts of the Father of the great Catholic family, and to do violence to Heaven by our fervent and frequent supplications to Mary, and thus deliver our Father at the Vatican, the Church and society from the galling yoke of the most malevolent and implacable enemies.
Here we may be permitted to ask: Is history repeating, or is it about to repeat itself? Leo XIII., the Pope of the Rosary, has gone even further than his saintly predecessor, Pius V., in making the Rosary the common and ordinary prayer of the faithful. He has called upon all the Rosary Confraternities of the world to unite with him in gaining Mary over to his side: he has urged the Dominicans to imitate their glorious Father Dominic in banding the faithful into Confraternities of the Rosary. Through his efforts the October devotions have become universal, and he has commanded them to be observed by all until a change for the better has taken place for the Church and her visible Head. He has expressed a wish that the Rosary be daily recited in all Cathedral churches, and on every Sunday and Holy-day in parochial churches. He has most earnestly entreated the faithful to recite daily one part of the Rosary. He has ordained that the invocation “Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, pray for us,” which previously to his decree was employed only by the Dominican Order and Rosary Confraternities, should be for the future recited in the Litany of Loretto by all the faithful, and he has proclaimed to the world his own hope of victory for the Church over her present powerful enemies in this sublime panegyric of Mary’s favorite prayer: “It is well known that this form of prayer is most pleasing to the Blessed Virgin, most efficacious to obtain for each and for all the succors of Heaven, and most powerful to defend the Church and society (Encyclica : Supremi Apostolatus die I. Sept., 1883).”
Again the Pope of the Rosary makes known to the faithful his love of the devotion and his unbounded confidence in it when he says: “Now that the month of October, which we have already commanded to be observed in honor of our Lady of the Rosary is approaching, we earnestly exhort the faithful to attend to the exercises of the month with all possible devotion, piety, and assiduity. We know that a refuge is at hand in the maternal tenderness of the Virgin, and we are certain that we do not place in vain our trust in her. If she has on hundreds of occasions, during the trying periods of the Church’s history, manifested her power in behalf of Christendom, why should we doubt that she will not renew these examples of her power and affection, if humble and constant prayers are addressed to her from all portions of the Church? Indeed, we believe that her intervention will be the more wonderful the longer she permits us to be engaged in seeking it (Last Encyclica).” “The Blessed Virgin alone can save us,” says Leo XIII., and she will renew the wonders of Lepanto (Said to Father De Baecque, O.P., in an audience with the Pope, 11 Jan., 1889).”
With what affection and devotion does not the present Pope place Jesus and Mary together in the exercises of October? He does this for the purpose of pointing out the most intimate personal relationship still existing between the Mother and the Son, and the importance of invoking both together. The Holy Father commands that Mary’s Rosary and Litany be recited either during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or at the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (Encyclica: Supcriore Anno die 30 Aug., 1884).” The Pope points out the propriety of this arrangement. “The necessity of divine assistance is not less today than when St. Dominic introduced Mary’s prayer into the world for the purpose of curing society of the deep wounds with which it was then afflicted. That great Saint well understood, being illumined from on high, that no remedy could be more efficacious against the evils of his time than that which would bring men back to Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life, through the frequent remembrance of the mysteries of our Salvation operated by Him, and which would induce them to take for their Advocate with God the Virgin to whom it has been given to crush out all heresies (Encyclica: Supremi Apostolatus, I Sept., 1883).” We may then rest assured that as in the 16th century, during the pontificate of Pius V., the Church was comforted and delivered from her enemies by Mary, so too, it will be in this, the 19th century, by the same all-powerful Advocate. Let us all then be as one with the Father of the faithful in prayer: let us specially sanctify Rosary Sunday and Rosary month. But how? By doing what the Angels of the Rosary and the Noble Sentinel of the Vatican entreat us to do. By reciting often and fervently our Rosary; by playing on the harp that pleases and moves Heaven.