The Pope, the Rosary, and the Battle of Lepanto

Catholics remember Our Lady of the Rosary on October 7.

The feast started under another name. In 1571, as a yearly feast in thanksgiving for Virgin Mary’s patronage in the victory of the Holy League over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto ,Pope Pius V formed “Our Lady of Victory”. After two years, in 1573, Pope Gregory XIII changed the feast day title to “Feast of the Holy Rosary.” Then, in 1716, Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the whole of the Latin Rite, including it in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints and assigning the first Sunday to it in October. Finally, In 1913, Pope Pius X changed the date to October 7 as part of his effort to restore the celebration of the liturgy on Sundays.

The Battle of Lepanto. What really hapened?

On October 7, 1571, a patchwork fleet of Catholic ships primarily from Spain, Venice, and Genoa was at a distinct disadvantage under the command of Don Juan of Austria. The much more extensive fleet of the Ottoman Empire—a force with 12,000 to 15,000 enslaved Christians 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. At the hour of triumph, the Pope—who was hundreds of miles away at the Vatican—got 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 tremendous: 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 the Holy League captured 130. 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 this battle so inspired him that he incorporated elements of it in his acclaimed novel, Don QuixoteAnd philosopher/writer and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton retold the story in his 1915 ballad, Lepanto

Below is an excerpt from that excellent 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 laboring race repines

 Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.

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