Tomorrow the Church commemorates the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a celebration that has its origin not, as it would seem, in simply a prayer, but in a battle.
On October 7th, 1571 a fleet of ships assembled by the combined forces of Naples, Sardinia, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights Hospitallers fought an intense battle with the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. The battle took place in the Gulf of Patras located in western Greece. Though outnumbered by the Ottoman forces, the so-called “Holy League” possessed of superior firepower would win the day. This victory would severely curtail attempts by the Ottoman Empire to control the Mediterranean, causing a seismic shift in international relations from East to West. In some respects, and I do not want this claim to be overstated, the world that we know came into being with this victory. This event is known to history as the “Battle of Lepanto.”
Pope Pius V, whose treasury bankrolled part of this military endeavor, ordered the churches of Rome opened for prayer day and night, encouraging the faithful to petition the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary through the recitation of the Rosary. When word reached the Pope Pius of the victory of the Holy League, he added a new feast day to the Roman Liturgical Calendar- October 7th would henceforth be the feast of Our Lady of Victory. Pope Pius’ successor, Gregory XIII would change the name of this day to the feast of the Holy Rosary.
Our contemporary sensibilities might make us stir uncomfortably at the association of the Mother of the Prince of Peace with the memory of warfare, strife and the troubled history that preceded and followed the Battle of Lepanto. But the fact of the matter is that this feast was first understood as a celebration akin to what we commemorate on the Fourth of July or D Day. Pope Pius V (later Saint Pius V) interpreted the event as the movement of Providence in favor of the Church and European civilization. He had no qualms in the assertion that the triumph properly belonged to the Mother of God and that in the midst of the rancor of battle, her intercession had moved the “Holy League” to victory. Such warlike associations with Christian Faith and culture likely cannot be sustained today. Some find all this to be offensive to genuine Christian sensibilities.
Thus, the true history of this day has receded into the obscuring mists of the past. In our present circumstances we celebrate the prayer of the Rosary, not the battle of Our Lady of Victory. We recall its efficacy as a source for meditation and contemplation and encourage its practice. If there is reference to a battle at all, it is made to the conflicts of our interior lives, particularly in our desire to pray without the burden of distractions.
And yet I find my thoughts turned towards Our Lady of Victory, of the Mother of the Messiah, who proclaimed God mighty and victorious in her Magnificat, and in these words spoke of the strength of His arm to cast down the mighty and exault the lowly. I think of all those precursors of the Mother of God- Miriam, the prophetess, who took a timbrel in hand and on the shores of the Red Sea, singing songs in praise of the God of Israel’s triumph over the army of Pharaoh; of Judith and Deborah and the fire that burned within their hearts for justice and the sword that they raised against the enemies of God’s people; of Rahab and the spies and the fall of Jericho; of Esther the Queen, who risked her own life so that her people might be saved. The Bible is a book of battles. There is properly a peace making quality to our Biblical Faith, a hope for a restoration of the concord that the Creator intended between himself and humanity. But there is also a properly oppositional quality to our Faith, the recognition that in knowing what we stand for, we also know what we stand against. We can no more excise conflict from the Bible than we can deny its reality in our own history. We have been placed in the midst of a fallen world, not merely to surrender to its failure to love, but to live in defiance to that which opposes God. Resist we must, but to do so, we attempt to imitate, not the fallen powers of this world, but Christ the Lord, who wrested power away from the powerful, not by force of arms, but in the strength of his will to love us unto death. He is triumphant, but there still are battles left for him to fight in all the Lepanto’s that rage within our own troubled souls. In the midst of these battles I know that Christ the Lord fights for us still, and that the Lady of Victory is at his side.