Today is October 7th, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Today the Church pays homage to the Blessed Mother and the most Holy Rosary, and it also marks the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto. This marked the first significant victory for the Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet, and a turning point in the history of Christianity. This particular story remains so significant because it illustrates the power of the Rosary, God’s infinite grace, and Our Lady’s intercession.
The clash of the civilizations are as old as history. So many religious wars, many of them lasting for centuries. This is the story of the Battle of Lepanto. I invite all to partake in this history lesson. It’s one worth hearing.
When Pope St. Pius V ascended the seat of St. Peter in 1566, Christendom was facing utter chaos all over the place. The Huguenots were waging war in France since 1562; the Spanish Netherlands erupted in a revolt; England, after going through schism to heresy, was openly supporting every anti-Catholic effort; but most of all the greatest threat derived from the constricting forces of Muslim aggression throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.
The powerful Ottoman fleet would raid Christian territories, massacre and savagely torture the inhabitants, taking some as prisoners and destroy anything Christian-related. Many people were martyred for refusing to renounce their Christian faith, including children and priests; if they called upon the help of Jesus and Mary, their tongues would be cut out and afterwards be executed. Christian youths would be taken from their families as means of taxation, trained as soldiers, and converted to Islam. Often times they’d capture women and children to be sold as slaves as well.
The Ottomans attacked Cyprus, the jewel of the Venice, and completely seized its capitol, Nicosia. The city of Famagusta managed to hold out for another year due to the leadership of its governor, Marc Antonio Bragadino. But with no hope in sight, and starvation and disease taking its toll on his people, Bragadino agreed to what seemed to be honorable terms and surrendered. However, in an act of inconceivable treachery, the Turkish general, three days later, killed the Venetian officers and captured Bragadino. The Turks horribly mutilated, and tortured him before flaying him alive.
Pope Pius V understood the immense peril to Christendom this was, and knew that the only way the Ottoman power could be broken was means of a Crusade. Other countries like Spain and Venice recognized the threat Turks posed to their material or financial welfare, but Pope Pius V saw the threat they were to the order that God Himself placed on this earth. And for that, the Pope employed the weapons of spiritual warfare. The Pope called for more prayers from Catholics, especially those with religious vocations. And if he asked for more sacrifices or prayers from others, he doubled his own portion of such as well. One particular devotion he held dear to him was the Rosary, which is why he is called the “Pope of the Rosary.”
Pope Pius V worked to rally the nations of Europe to join a Holy League to stop the enemy which threatened the entire continent. At first, he was met with great difficulties do so. Spain, whose King Philip II was also King of Austria, responded favorably. Venice, Genoa, Lucca, and the dukes of Savory, Parma, Ferrara and Urbino also joined, as well as the Papal fleet, of course.
Then came to time to choose the supreme commander; an important choice reserved only for the Pope. Among all the courageous and experienced commanders, he chose 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria. A soldier possessing all the remarkable abilities of a leader, including judgement and courage. It is said that behind his lavish chapel dressed with gold cloths and silver was a plain, gloomy oratory where the Pope would go early in the morning to pray privately. Kneeling upon the cold stones before a crucifix, the Pope prayed to God for guidance. Afterwards, he returned to the chapel to celebrate Mass. When he reached the Gospel of St. John, he began to read, “There was a man from God whose name was John!” Turning toward the Virgin, he stopped and realized the commander of the crusade was to be Don Juan.
In September 1571, the Christian fleet set out to fight the Ottoman fleet commanded by Ali Pasha, the Sultan’s brother-in-law. Pope Pius V had granted all members of the expedition the indulgences of the crusaders. And not one of the 81,000 soldiers and sailors failed to confess and receive Holy Communion beforehand. The fleet moved eastward across the Ionian Sea, and ten days later anchored off at the Greek island of Corfu. There Don Juan and his fleet learned the Turks had completely plundered and ravaged the place about a month before, leaving behind burned-out churches, broken crucifixes, and the mangled bodies of priests, women, and children.
On top of that, as if they didn’t have enough already on their plate, the nascent animosity between the Italians and Spaniards nearly came to head when a few argumentative Spaniards began making a fuss. Luckily things cooled down, but it had Don Juan wondering if the Christians would survive this before even catching sight of the enemy.
They soon got word that the Turks had retreated to Lepanto. A long, thin body of water, known as the Gulf of Corinth, separates central Greece from the Peloponnesus, the southern peninsula. A quarter of the way into the inlet from the west sits Lepanto, the fortified headquarters of the Turkish fleet.
The Christian fleet departed from Corfu, making its way down the northwest coast of Greece. On October 7th, the chaplains on each ship were celebrating Mass when they entered the Gulf of Corinth. Since dawn, the Turks had been moving in their direction from the east, with the advantage of the wind at their backs. While ships of the Holy League maneuvered, Don Juan stood with crucifix in hand, shouting encouragement to his men, and they responded with great applause and enthusiasm. There was no going back now.
The Christian galleys were outnumbered, 278 to 208, but had superior firepower, while the Turks relied mostly on bows and arrows. By nine o’clock they were closing in fast on the Ottoman fleet, and just before the two fleets made contact, the wind that had been favoring the Turks suddenly shifted in the opposite direction. The battle was finally met, and the Christians drew first blood. Cannons erupted, arrows rained down, guns spitting out balls of lead; ships maneuvering here and there, turning the battle into a floating melee. When the ships closed in, grappling hooks threw them together. The Christians hurled nets to repel boarders and followed up with gunfire, but the fighting closed to hand-to-hand combat aboard decks. The commander of the left wing of the Christian fleet, Agostini Barbarigo, was met with fate when an arrow pierced his eye as he was raising his visor to issue orders.
The Ottoman ships attempted to turn the left flank of the Christian line, but failed, thanks to the self-sacrificing action of Barbargio. Instead, the Christians responded, and pinned the Ottomans against Scropha Point. A blinding hail of cannon blasts, arrows, grenades, and gunfire raged on. Meanwhile in Rome, Pope Pius V, accompanied by many faithful, was praying the Rosary in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, praying from dawn to dusk.
The Turks were yelled, screamed, and banged on anything that made noise. The Christians remained in ominous silence, weapon in one hand, rosary in the other. The opposing flagships started a hard course for each other. Ali Pasha’s ship gained the advantage, ramming into Don Juan’s ship. Don Juan grappled the two ships and boarded. All at once, about a dozen Turkish ships approached Ali Pasha’s as reinforcements, and surrounded Don Juan’s ship. The Christians immediately responded, and the floating battlefield continued on. Many in the Christian fleet fought valiantly. Some who were stricken with disease even jumped out of their sickbeds to fight on deck before paying the ultimate price for their heroism.
Finally, after hours of carnage, bloodshed, and lives lost, Don Juan charged across Ali Pasha’s ship, and defeated him. From then onward, the fighting spirit and capacity of the Turks sharply declined. And every attempt at recapturing their hope and advantage was met with failure and demise. The Turkish ships were destroyed, and some fled out to the open sea. The Ottoman empire lost about 240 ships, and saw 30,000 killed. 12 of the Holy League’s ships were sunk; 7,600 men were killed, and 22,000 wounded (including Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote). 12,000 Christian slaves who had been captured by the Turks were set free.
Up to that time, the Holy League achieved an overwhelming victory in the largest sea battle in history. And the threat of the Ottoman Turks dominating the Mediterranean was finished.
Meanwhile, at the time the battle was won, Pope Pius V was reading financial sheets with papal treasurer. The Pope rose from his seat, and went to the window, his gaze setting toward the east. When turned from the window his face lit up with radiance and joy, and he exclaimed, “The Christian fleet is victorious!” The Rosary had won a great military victory, and this the Pope was wholeheartedly convinced of. As soon as news came verifying the victory, Pope Pius V declared henceforth on this day, October 7th, be the Feast of the Holy Rosary (and later Our Lady of the Rosary) since the victory was no doubt due to her intercession.