History is a testament to the fact that our Lady in general and the rosary, in particular, has had profound and unparalleled power. When the Albigensian heresy was stealing many away from the faith, Our Lady helped St. Dominic to battle the heresy through the rosary. As a result, many were rescued from falling away into error and brought back to the fold. The rosary not only has power in spiritual battles but has also shaped history and the world in which we live. In our own time, on 13th May 1981, Pope John Paul II was protected from certain death at the hands of Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish gunman, when a bullet fired went straight into his abdomen but miraculously missed his vital organs. He attributed this to our Lady of Fatima and later made a pilgrimage to that town in Portugal placing the bullet in the crown of the statue of our Lady. The feast of Our Lady of Victory was instituted some 4 centuries earlier after the great naval battle in history, the Battle of Lepanto.
On 7th October 1571, in the Gulf of Patras, the 206 galleys and 6 galleasses of an alliance of Christian powers, the Holy League, took on the larger Muslim navy of the Ottoman fleet of 222 war galleys, 56 galliots and some smaller vessels. In over 3 decades before this event, the Turks had won every battle since the battle of Prevaza in 1538. Earlier in 1571, a massive Turkish fleet of 360 ships and 50,000 men had attacked and taken Cyprus. Famagusta, the last standing fortress held out for months but flew the white flag for a peaceful surrender. But the Turks violated military code and killed or captured the defenders and cut off the ears and nose of Antonio Bragadino who was in charge of the defence and skinned him alive.i Pope Pius V had been sending envoys for many months to Venice and Spain, trying to unite the Christian forces but this incident suddenly convinced them to unite under the banner of the Holy League. The Christian banner, blessed by the Pope, was hoisted atop the flagship of Don Juan, the commander of the Christian fleet. The ship of the Genoese commander, Andrea Doria flew a copy of the miraculous image of our Lady of Guadalupe, sent by the bishop of Mexico. This apparition of our Lady to a peasant Juan Diego took place in 1531 in the then Aztec kingdom (present-day Mexico) and had resulted in bringing millions of native Aztecs to the Catholic faith. Thus, placing faith in Christ and our Lady, both leaders and soldiers prepared spiritually by making confessions and going down on their knees in prayer and intercession.
On the day of battle, the wind was initially in favour of the Turks and back in Christian Europe, churches had been open day and night and people had been praying the rosary interceding to our Lady for a Christian victory. Just as the battle was about to start, the wind changed direction and turned in favour of the Christian fleet, enabling them to steer beside Turkish vessels. This was crucial to the Christian strategy of boarding the Turkish ships and fighting on deck. The fighting was fierce and the Christian flagship took on the Muslim flagship and was successful in capturing it. As time passed, the Christian fleet gained the upper hand and as they overcame the Turkish ships, one by one from the dark under-decks of the Turkish vessels, Christian slaves captured in previous battles came out rejoicing to see daylight.
Back in Rome, Pope Pius V in the middle of a meeting rose and went over to a window, where he stood gazing towards the east. Looking at the sky, he exclaimed, “A truce to business, our great task at present is to thank God for the victory which He has just given the Christian army”. In an age when news from a battlefield hundreds of kilometres away would take days to reach, the Pope supernaturally knew of the victory instantaneously. The Pope thus instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving and commemoration of her intercession. Later it was renamed as the feast of our Lady of the rosary.
The Ottoman fleet lost 170 galleys in the battle of Lepanto and even after it was partially rebuilt; it could only attack one of two places in North Africa but never again posed such a danger to Christian Europe. Thus, the power of the rosary helped shape the Christian world by ushering in an era of peace and progress.
Knowing about this battle helped me realise the attacks on Christianity over the years and the efforts and sacrifices which have helped preserve our faith. More than human effort, it reveals the power of the rosary and the mediation of our Lady to obtain victory despite great odds and challenges. While referring to the Protestant reformation which broke the Body of Christ and the clergy sex abuse crisis, a friend once remarked that these attacks are a sign that the Catholic church is the one true faith and that’s why the devil continuously tries to attack her externally and internally. Today, we are faced with numerous attacks on the institution of marriage and family which is perhaps more dangerous than physical battles of the past because it erodes the very fabric of human morals and society. Now more than ever before, we are in need of the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother. Yet the rosary, which has proven a most effective weapon, has the same power now as it had throughout history. Let us, therefore, open our hearts and minds to the power of this prayer. Let us dedicate ourselves to learn more about our Lady and try to imitate her life and virtues and aspire to be saints and instruments of God’s work and mission to a broken world desperately in need of peace, healing, renewal and restoration. Ave Maria!
History Channel Documentary on the Battle of Lepanto