On Oct. 7, Holy Mother Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
It was on this day in 1571 that Christian forces achieved an unexpected naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto.
In the years leading up to the battle, the Ottoman Turks were encroaching on Christian holdings in the Western Mediterranean. Of particular significance was the seizure of Famagusta, a port on the island of Cyprus, in August 1571.
Pope St. Pius V tried to rally together the Catholic monarchs of Europe to beat back the Ottoman threat, giving his blessing and financial backing to an alliance called the Holy League. Soldiers and ships from various lands in Europe came to be a part of this special Christian alliance.
The saintly pope exhorted the Christian faithful to pray the Rosary. Many people in Rome took part in public recitation of the Rosary the same day as the battle. The faithful gathered in countless places throughout Europe to offer prayers for the Holy League's success.
The night before the battle, the men on the Holy League's ships recited the Rosary. The morning of the battle, priests on the ships administered Holy Communion.
Heading the Christian fleet was Don Juan of Austria (alternately rendered Don John of Austria), the half-brother of King Philip II of Spain.
As the sea battle unfolded along the Greek coast near Lepanto, the Holy League's fleet managed to beat the Ottoman fleet. The Turks had a greater number of ships, but the Christian force had a larger number of cannons and better hand weapons.
Thousands of Christian slaves, forced to row on the Ottomans' ships, found freedom on that day.
It is said that Pope St. Pius V received a vision the moment the Holy League beat the Turks at sea. The story goes that the Pope stood up during a meeting, walked to a window and exclaimed, "The Christian fleet is victorious!"
It is also said the saintly pontiff wept with joy weeks later when he received a message confirming the Holy League's victory.
The Holy League's success at Lepanto brought renewed confidence to Christian powers in the Western Mediterranean, showing them that the Ottomans could be beaten.
On a natural level, the victory was attributed to the Europeans' better use of cannons. But on a supernatural level, it was attributed to Our Lady's intercession and the Holy Rosary.
Pius V established the day as an annual liturgical feast dedicated to Our Lady of Victory.
Two years later, in 1573, the title of the feast was changed to "Our Lady of the Rosary" by Pope Gregory XIII. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, this was done at the request of the Dominican Order — whose founder, St. Dominic, is said to have received the Rosary from the Mother of God.
The feast was extended to the universal Church in 1716 by Pope Clement X.
British writer and Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton penned a poem about the battle, published in 1911 with the simple title, "Lepanto." About 140 lines in length, the poem heralds Don John of Austria as an embodiment of Christian chivalry, even calling him "the last knight of Europe."
Much can be said in praise of "Lepanto" in terms of its beauty and poetic technique.
By way of example, below is a small excerpt of the poem:
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
While Holy Mother Church in the liturgy emphasizes the intervention of Heaven in the events that unfolded 448 years ago, Chesterton's poem speaks of the human agency of Don John of Austria, his response to the call to arms.
Chesterton portrays the battle as a struggle between hope and despair, between free will and fate. Indeed, one line in the poem refers to Don John as "he who knows not fate."
The Holy League's victory at Lepanto can rightly be attributed to the will of God and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But another thing to be pondered is the need for both prayer and action on the part of sinners here on earth. When the Pope tried to form a Christian fleet to confront the Ottomans, kings, soldiers and sailors answered the call. When the Pope called for prayer, many of the faithful answered the call.
With the crisis that the Church faces today, do we answer the call for action and prayer? Do we pray and fast, petitioning God through the intercession of Our Lady? Do we toil and labor for the good of the Church whenever such work is called for?