Our Lepanto Moment

The Battle of Lepanto. Paolo Veronese, 1571.

Latin Mass Magazine – Fall 2016

The year 1571 was a year that sent shivers down the spines of Catholics. Each one was staring down the tip of a spear. Islam’s spear. Like a salivating beast, Islam was devouring nation after nation, and now, Catholic Europe was in their sights. The political establishment was paralyzed before such a fanatical foe, and every corner of Europe looked to the only world leader with fortitude to face such a brutal enemy: the Successor of the Apostles, Saint Pope Pius V. This Dominican saint ascended the throne of Saint Peter in 1566 and immediately launched a vigorous implementation of Trent’s reforms. Those who mistook his great humility for timidity were quickly disabused as he wielded his pontifical power like a gleaming sabre. Hanging in the Renaissance air was the strong scent of pluralism. It had especially invaded the sacred precincts of the Divine Liturgy where the celebration of Mass from place to place was a disunified patch quilt, Mass having become a palette of individual and personal self-expression. Pius rooted out this excrescence of cultural decadence, mandating strict regularization of liturgy codified in the spirit of Trent. But his reforming eye did not stop at the Liturgy. When seven bishops were accused of favoring Protestantism he wasted no time in dismissing them. He took seriously Saint Paul’s injunction, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle” (1 Cor. 14:18).

No challenge tested his mettle more than the fall of Cyprus to the Ottoman Turks in 1570. Islam’s maw was opening wider and wider, threatening to swallow the Europe of the Holy Apostles. Pius rushed to assemble the Holy League, composed of the Papal States, Spain, Naples, Sicily, Venice, Genoa, Tuscany, Savoy, Parma, Urbino, and the Knights of Malta. In 1571 its fleet confronted the superior Islamic warships. Defeat seemed all but certain, until Pius summoned the most powerful weapon he knew, the Holy Rosary. He pleaded that every Catholic join together in the recitation of the Holy Rosary for the intention of soundly vanquishing the Islamic hordes. Churches swelled with Catholics fervently praying the Rosary; families collected in their homes, guildsmen in their stores, shepherds in their fields, soldiers in their barracks, professors in their universities, students in their campus halls, tradesmen in their stalls.  All lifting their hearts and voices to the Mother of God. Then, Lepanto. Then, 1571. The Holy League routed the Islamic Turks and their impressive fleets. Catholic Europe was rescued, yes, by Don Juan’s brave soldiers, but even they knew that their true captain was the Mother of God. She was the Victor. Pope Saint Pius immediately established a east for the Universal Church on October 7, honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. It should dismiss in the minds of every Catholic any doubt as to the efficacy of the Holy Rosary, especially when many Catholic voices are joined as one.

The saintly Dominican pope recognized that a certain potency attaches when Catholics unite their voices in prayers to the Queen of Heaven. Our Lady noticed that such joint acts are inspired by the intensity of the petition and listens with greater eagerness. One need only look at Cana. More than a few importuned her at once, and her maternal heart was moved. How could it not be? She is the perfect mother, always seeking to give her children whatever they require. It was her Son, after all, Who taught, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).

More than a few Catholics probably recall Catholicism’s Golden Age in America. During that time, each year the pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima would travel from parish to parish. Families would enroll in hosting the statue, inviting their friends and extended family to join them kneeling before the statue as they begged Our Lady for peace in the world. Was it not those impassions rosaries, recited by family and friends, that averted the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? Can we not name those family rosaries as the cause of the events that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991? It is no accident that the seemingly invincible Soviet Empire, with its thickly knotted tentacles enveloping the world, imploded during the reign of Saint John Paul II whose pontifical coat of arms bore the inscription Totus Tuus (All is yours, O Virgin Mary).

The 1950’s also boasted a priest second only in popularity to Bishop Fulton Sheen, Father Patrick Peyton. He made it his priestly mission to propagate, not merely the recitation of the Rosary, but the common praying of the Rosary by families. On account of Father Peyton the phrase, “the family that prays together, stays together” was on the lips of score of Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Father Peyton cast an amazingly wide net, reaching even the Hollywood glitterati, who frequently supported him with their generous donations to guarantee that as many as possible would hear the message of the Family Rosary. Only Heaven knows how many crises were averted because of fathers and mothers, sons and daughters raising their voices together to the Queen of Heaven.

Our straitened circumstances beg for a return to the Rosary prayed by Catholics in common. Just recently a group of men, young and old, decided to pray the Rosary together as they strolled through the streets and parks of a major city. They prayed sotto voce, but were not afraid to let their rosaries drape at their sides in view of all the passerby. The impact was palpable. These Catholic men saw the expressions on the faces of sophisticated and urbane city dwellers as these equally sophisticated Catholic men quietly prayed, with their rosaries swaying at their sides. Who knows how many Iron Curtains fell during that blessed walk? Iron Curtains of imbedded sin, encrusted anti-Catholic resentments, Olympian hubris, blind devotion to passion, and boastful emancipation from God. If not a complete fall, perhaps those rosaries created a hundred cracks in their Iron Curtains: cracks in their dogmatic hatred of religion, their hermetically sealed confident in materialism, their contempt of Christianity.

Walls of darkness seem to be closing in upon us. The air of common sense is being sucked from the corridors of our daily life. Enemies of Christ seem to be appearing in places that shock us. Catholics knew what to do in 1571. Catholics have no reason not to know what to do today.

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