Our faith is based, not on abstract speculation, but on historical events. Christ does not hover around us as a philosophical idea, for he “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The Church’s feasts are acts of thanksgiving for actions of God that have affected the course of human existence. On October 7, the Church celebrates the victory of Christian naval vessels over those of the Ottoman Muslims who outnumbered the Christians by more than two to one, and whose ships were manned by upwards of fifteen thousand Christian galley slaves.
The Battle of Lepanto in 1571 was the greatest
naval engagement until the Battle of Jutland in World War I,
but it is not commemorated just as a lesson in the art of
maritime war. The core of the feast is that it saved
Christian civilization. Compared to it, July 4 and Waterloo
and Gettysburg and D-Day are ancillary struggles to preserve
what would not exist at all, had it not been for 1571. Pope
St. Pius V, by divine inspiration while praying the Rosary,
announced in the Church of Santa Sabina that a triumph of
the Cross had been won, at the very moment the battle was
won in the Gulf of Patras in western Greece, though news of
it would have taken many days to reach Rome by courier.
We revere the “Star Spangled
Banner” whose broad stripes and bright stars gallantly
streamed in 1814, but quite more remarkable was the banner
held by Gianandrea Doria, great-nephew of the Admiral Andrea
Doria, at Lepanto. It bore the image of Our Lady of
Guadalupe. The Lady had appeared in Mexico forty years
earlier, but reproductions of the image had made it to old
Europe, and King Philip of Spain had given one to the fleet.
It has been preserved in the cathedral of Genoa.
Had the battle ended differently, Sultan Selim
could have fulfilled his vow to conquer Rome, turning the
basilica of Saint Peter into a mosque, despoiling and
upending its bells so that they might be filled with oil and
burned in honor of Allah, as had been done in 997 at the
tomb of Saint James in Compostela.
Is all this the dilettantish indulgence of the
sort of people who watch the History Channel? We would not
be here – nor would our holy religion, our
universities, our science, our democracy, our enfranchised
women, our justice, our social tolerance, and our entire
moral fabric – were it not for Lepanto. The feast of
its victory was instituted by Pope St. Pius V and, after the
final defeat of the Ottomans in 1716 at Timișoara in
present-day Romania, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, Pope
Clement XI made it a universal feast of Our Lady of the
Rosary. Given the terrors of our present times, it would be
well to pray the Rosary on October