The history of the Battle of Lepanto is a parable of Marian Chivalry. It is all about the idealism of the cross, devotion to Our Lady, and the manly translation of prayer into action for the glory of God and the salvation of men.
In the late sixteenth century Christendom faced the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire. The Muslim armies threatened to overrun Christian Europe and establish Islam as the prevailing religion. It was a time for heroism, but there were few heroes. It was time to rally under the banner of Christ the King and His Holy Mother, but only a remnant of Christian soldiers were prepared to fight. The two principal protagonists of the Battle of Lepanto were the Vicar of Christ, Pope St. Pius V and Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Charles V. Both were men of prayer and action. The one, a priest, gave witness first of all to the power of prayer. The other, a layman, epitomized the translation of prayer into action.
The Holy League
St. Pius V, man of vision that he was, knew the peril of Christendom, and personally selected the young nobleman, Don John of Austria for his pure way of life, his unflinching courage, and his clear-sighted conviction. The saintly pope told the young man charged with the command of the Christian forces: “Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness.”
Pius V also enlisted the help of Spain and Venice, to which he added the Knights of Malta and troops from the Papal States. This became the Holy League led by Don John. However, much the rest of Christian Europe stood by and risked the complete loss of Christendom to the Islamic invasion. The Protestant heresy, indifferentism and politics kept France, Germany and England from participating. Most of all there was a decadence of mind and conviction, what Chesterton called the “tangled things and texts and aching eyes,” of a spiritless Europe falling headlong into relativist philosophy, the slogan of “scripture alone,” and the rejection of the Woman whom God made worthy to be the Mother of His Son.
Only an unwavering conviction in the truth, and the unflinching willingness to die for it could match the foe that now threatened to silence the voice of the Church. The lips of Don John’s men would be sanctified and emboldened to sound the battle cry. Thus Don John ordered that blasphemy or any doubt of the faith expressed publicly by his men to be punished as sedition. A milieu of flabby faith had not raised boys to be men, but the firm faith of a boy had made him a leader of men.
A Turn of the Wind
Mediated through the maternal Heart of Mary, providence brought the natural forces of gallant knights under the influence of supernatural direction and power. Pope St. Pius V sent Don Juan of Austria and the Holy League with rosaries into battle, and he asked all of Christendom to pray along with them and for them. He said: “I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers of priests of pure life.” An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was even sent by Philip II of Spain to Admiral Giovanni Adrea Doria, which he mounted in the cabin of his flagship and took with him into battle.
On the morning of October 7, 1571 the ships of the Holy League sailed into the Gulf of Lepanto, against the wind toward a fleet that was vastly larger. Don John of Austria was a true knight, a man of both prayer and action. During the battle with crucifix in hand, Don John went from ship to ship calling out repeatedly to his men: “My children, we are here to conquer or die. In death or victory you will win immortality.” But the good captain of the Holy League was prepared not only with prayer, but also with a plan. His galleys were state of the art with greater firepower and defensive protection, and the enemy was not prepared to deal with them. Still Don John was badly outnumbered.
In the end, it was God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who indeed gave the Don John the victory. When the fleet entered the Bay of Lepanto they had the wind in their faces. The galley slaves struggled to power the fleet into battle, while the much larger Muslim fleet rested and waited with the wind in its favor. But as Don John and his officers knelt in prayer beneath the blue banner of the Holy League, the wind suddenly changed, the Christian sails filled and Our Lady’s host was now suddenly bearing down upon the Turks. What had looked like a certain loss for Christendom suddenly turned into a rout of the Turks. Fewer than fifty of the more than three hundred Turkish ships managed to escape and most of these were so damaged that they had to be burned. This was not the end of conflict of Christendom with the Ottoman Empire, but it was the turning point and the end of imminent threat to the independence of Christian Europe.
Just as it was in the sixteenth century, today there is more at work than militant Islam. Again the “tangled things and texts and aching eyes” have twisted the Christian mind into an unrecognizable form. The Protestantization of the Catholic mind, and worse, the utter secularization and agnosticism of the “faithful” have paralyzed an effective Catholic Action. In the face of this danger Catholics are told to seek peace, not the peace that only the Lord can give, but the peace of compliance. As the attacks against the very name of God and against the natural law mount, we are reminded to be pluralistic and to keep our personal convictions to ourselves.
Benedict XVI, the indefatigable enemy of the “dictatorship of relativism,” has the new compromise well spotted. In his now famous lecture to the representatives of science at the University of Regensburg, the Holy Father created quite a stir. Effigies of the pope were burned in Islamic countries because he had pointed out the compromise of Islam with reason. However, what went largely unnoticed by many was his suggestion that the West’s abandonment of faith is not so different from Islamic unreason. The jihadist’s faith is contrary to reason, and this leads to fanaticism. The secularist’s reason, excludes any transcendent authority, and that leads to the abandonment of the natural law. In Iran today sexual sins are punished by public stoning and lynching. And in the West we talk about dignifying sodomy with rights and of marriage. Neither approach is godly or reasonable.
On the day of the Battle of Lepanto back in Rome St. Pius V saw a vision out his window of the victory of the Christian fleet. At that moment he was inspired to give thanks the Blessed Virgin who had interceded through the power of the Rosary. So he instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory to be celebrated every year on the anniversary of the victory, October 7. Eventually the feast was renamed “Our Lady of the Rosary” and October became the month the Holy Rosary.
The Holy Rosary is not just a prayer that is pleasing to God in a generic way. The Rosary is a prayer of the mind and heart that changes lives. It is the school of Mary where we remember Her memories and invoke Her presence. We see through Her eyes and are allowed to pray think and act with, in and through Her, so that we might know the truth and love it with all our hearts. Through the Rosary we learn in Mary to live and serve Christ no matter what the cost. By means of Our Lady of the Rosary we will be victorious because through our prayer in union with Her we will learn to act decisively in an authentic spirit of zeal.
The Spirit of Lepanto
Our Lady of Victory Herself is the spirit of Lepanto. She is the spirit of the men who fight nobly for the honor of God and the salvation of souls. Such warriors are men of prayer and action, who live an interior life of union with Christ through Mary and who act vigorously on the inspirations given to them.
Our Lady of Victories is the Queen of Courtesy. She conquers by means of love and mercy. From Our Lady we will learn both courtesy and courage, both prayer and action. To honor Our Lady as the icon, personification and presence of all that is true, good, and beautiful is necessary to the restoration of a Christian culture, masculine identity and common sense. What is not worth fighting and dying for is not worth living for. On the other hand, only that which is beautiful and worthy can be a true motive for honorable behavior.
The clear pure atmosphere of the Immaculate Virgin’s heart, full of love and sacrifice, is the Spirit of Lepanto. This spirit has intervened in history time and again to save us from the mystery of iniquity. May it enliven the Church militant once again.