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A saint and a sea battle: How the rosary saved Christian Europe

null / Credit: Günther Simmermacher/pixabay

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Oct 7, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

As nearly 300 Ottoman ships closed in on Europe, intent on conquest and toppling the cross above St. Peter’s Basilica to replace it with their own banner, Pope Pius V called for another crusade. But this crusade, called in 1571, was not to be one of weapons but one of prayer — most especially the rosary.

Pius V, a Dominican (and now a saint), decreed that every church in Rome be kept perpetually open and available for prayer and called on all Christians across Europe to join him in fervently praying the rosary.

Hundreds of miles away, Constantinople, the last vestige of the once mighty Roman Empire, had already fallen to the rising power of the Ottomans.

It seemed that the Ottoman invasion was inevitable as its empire had spread to Egypt, North Africa, and the Balkans. One by one, Christian islands had begun to fall as the Ottomans moved to envelop the entire Mediterranean world.

Now Rome itself was poised to topple before the new seemingly irresistible world force.

Rather than waiting for the enemy to come knocking at Rome’s gate, the pope had helped to organize the “Holy League,” a fleet of various Catholic states including Roman, Venetian, and Spanish ships under the command of Prince Juan of Austria.

With just over 200 ships, the Holy League had set out to meet the Ottomans in what would end up being a turning point in the history of Europe and the world.

Just off the coasts of Greece, in the Ionian Sea, the Holy League met the Ottomans at the shores of Lepanto (modern Návpaktos).

It is said that crew members throughout the Holy League fleet spiritually joined Christians across Europe by praying the rosary as the battle drew near. 

On Oct. 7, 1571, the two fleets finally met. Though outnumbered, the Christian force was more disciplined.

What ensued has been called the last great galley battle in which hundreds of ships fired upon, rammed, and boarded each other. At one point, Prince Juan’s ship was rammed by the Ottoman leader Ali Pasha, and the two men engaged in heated hand-to-hand combat.

Ali Pasha was killed and after hours more of fighting, his fleet dissipated with some ships escaping to the open sea while hundreds of others were captured by the Christians.

Lepanto was a complete victory for the Christians.

Some accounts say that Pope Pius V was granted a miraculous vision of the Holy League’s stunning victory. He was moved to institute Oct. 7 as the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which we now know as Our Lady of the Rosary.

Though the Ottoman threat was by no means eliminated by their defeat at Lepanto, the Holy League’s victory renewed the confidence, optimism, and perhaps most importantly Marian devotion in Christian Europe.

Rather than the ships and guns of the Christian fleet, Pius V knew that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary and devotion to her through the rosary that had given new hope to Christendom.

Today, the rosary continues to be the “weapon of choice” for Catholics fighting for God’s kingdom throughout the world. From outside abortion clinics to inside family living rooms, the rosary is faithfully prayed across the world.

By praying the rosary, Christians place their hopes and fears faithfully in the hands of Mary to take to the throne of her Son.

Pius V put it eloquently in his 1569 papal bull on the rosary, Consueverunt Romani Pontifices:

“In circumstances similar to those in which we now find ourselves, when parts of France and of Italy were unhappily troubled by the heresy of the Albegenses, which blinded so many of the worldly that they were raging most savagely against the priests of the Lord and the clergy, [St. Dominic] raised his eyes up unto heaven, unto that mountain of the Glorious Virgin Mary, loving Mother of God.

“For she by her seed has crushed the head of the twisted serpent, and has alone destroyed all heresies, and by the blessed fruit of her womb has saved a world condemned by the fall of our first parent … 

“Following the example of our predecessors, seeing that the Church militant, which God has placed in our hands, in these our times is tossed this way and that by so many heresies, and is grievously troubled and afflicted by so many wars, and by the depraved morals of men, we also raise our eyes, weeping but full of hope, unto that same mountain, whence every aid comes forth.”

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