Saturday, October 9, 2010


In the 16th century, the little island of Malta guarded the Mediterranean passage to the Christian West from the Islamic East. The conquest of Rome, in particular, was the greatest prize sought by the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Soleiman the Magnificent. At the heart of the Catholic Church, he wanted to transform Michelangelo's St. Peter’s Basilica into a mosque, just as his predecessors of the brutal Islamic Turks had turned Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia into one, more than a century before.

The Turks’ aspirations led to the battle of Lepanto, the most important naval contest in human history on October 7, 1571 -- between the outnumbered fleet of about 200 galleys from the Holy League raised by Pope Pius V and a far more superior Islamic armada of over 300 ships, including 230 galleys.
The man chosen by Pius V to serve as Captain General of the Holy League was 24-year-old Don John of Austria. The young captain reminded his fleet the battle they would soon engage in was as much spiritual as physical and gave every man a weapon more powerful than anything the Turks could muster: a Rosary.

The stunning victory eventually by the Christians is the background to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary we celebrate today.

At dawn on October 7, 1571, the Holy League rowed down the west coast of Greece and turned east into the Gulf of Patras. When the morning mist cleared, the Christians, rowing directly against the wind, saw the squadrons of the larger Ottoman fleet arrayed like a crescent from shore to shore, bearing down on them under full sail.

As the fleets grew closer, the Christians could hear the gongs and cymbals, drums and cries of the Turks. The men of the Holy League quietly pulled at their oars, the soldiers stood on the decks in silent prayer. Priests holding large crucifixes marched up and down the decks exhorting the men to be brave and hearing final confessions.

Then the Blessed Virgin intervened.

The wind shifted 180 degrees. The sails of the Holy League were filled with the Divine breath, driving them into battle. Now heading directly into the wind, the Turks were forced to strike their sails. The tens of thousands of Christian galley slaves who rowed the Turkish vessels felt the sharp sting of the lash summoning them up from under their benches and demanding they take hold of their oars and pull against the wind.

Don John knelt on the prow of Real and said a final prayer. Then he stood and gave the order for the Holy League’s battle standard, a gift from Pius V, to be unfurled. Christians up and down the battle line cheered as they saw the giant blue banner bearing an image of our crucified Lord.
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