Pokrov—Holy Protection of Constantinople from the Moslems by the Blessed Virgin in 911 AD
Today is the first Sunday of October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary—important to us because it is our parish’s patronal feast—but important in itself because of the centrality of the Holy Rosary to the practice of our Catholic Faith. In the Divine Office this morning, at the early hour of Matins, the Church had us read a number of lessons, so that we might better understand the significance of the feast day and of the Rosary itself. I will tell you a little bit about them. They are all placed in the past history of the Church, but I would ask you to recognize that they all have meaning for the Catholics of today.
The first lesson was from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiasticus, one of the books which are called the “wisdom books” of the Bible. The Church often makes use of these books in the Masses of the Blessed Virgin, for in them wisdom is personified, and with only a little bit of imagination we can picture the Immaculate Virgin—conceived in the mind of God before all eternity, and consorting with Him as He fashions all the things of creation. You just heard a similar reading from the Book of Proverbs. The reading in the Office would be familiar to you—you have heard it before in other Masses of the Blessed Virgin: “I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope.... he who obeys me will not be put to shame; he who serves me will never fail; he who makes me known will have life everlasting.” In this first reading we have, if you will, an eternal promise of the care of the Blessed Virgin Mary for all who are devoted to her. I say this is an eternal promise, for it was made in the unchanging mind of God, at the very time of creation.
The second lesson in the Office this morning spoke of a considerably more recent period in time—recent, it least, in the thinking of the ageless Church—the early thirteenth century. During that time, in the southern part of France, a very old heresy raised its head once again. It was called “Albigensianism” in this time and place, but it was a repetition of the very old error which portrays a universe created by two gods—a good god who created all spiritual things, and an evil god who created all of the material things in existence.
This theological error was extremely serious, and destructive of Christian society—both the Church and the civil society. Men and women are, of course, made up of both matter and spirit—an intolerable state of affairs from the Albigensian point of view, for, in its warped conception of things, the good spiritual soul would always be at war with evil material body. In theory at least, the only hope for the Albigensian was in death; self neglect, suicide, and murder took on a bizarre sort of sacrament-like character, freeing the soul from the prison of the body. Marriage and childbirth were held to be evil, for they would trap additional souls in the prison of the flesh. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how such an idea could take a flourishing society and quickly reduce it to ruin.
In actual practice, very few people could bring themselves to such self mistreatment—and, so, considering themselves damned anyway, they gave up all restraint and gave themselves over to every form of immoral behavior.
The mission given to Saint Dominic by Pope Innocent III, was to go into the territory of the Albigensians with the hope of preaching the true Faith to them, and making them see that there is only one God, the creator of both spiritual and material things, and making them know that it was possible for men and women with body and soul to live a life that was not impossible, and still pleasing to God. Dominic and the people with him—Trappist monks at first, and later members of his newly founded Order of Preachers—relied on two strategies. The first was the living of a holy and austere life themselves, demonstrating that Christian self discipline was indeed possible. The second strategy was the preaching of our Lady’s Rosary as a method of prayer for all the people. The fifteen simple meditations were well suited to common people as well as to well educated religious—but most importantly, they all referred to events in the life of Jesus and Mary in which material things were united with spiritual things to serve a holy purpose. With the help of His Blessed Mother, the Son of God took human flesh, was born into the material world, and lived in it. When He was put to death, He took back His human life in the Resurrection, and went on, shortly thereafter, to take that human body to heaven with Him in the Ascension. And then He summoned the Blessed Virgin to be assumed into heaven with Him, body and soul.
As we say, “law of prayer is the law of belief.” Of course, not everyone returned to the Catholic Faith. Some people are set in their ways, particularly if they are reluctant to give up licentious ways—but many did return. And the Rosary worked as a sort of preventive medicine—children who grew up with its meditations on the lives of Jesus and Mary were far less likely to fall into the error of believing that material things were evil, and to be avoided by immoral means. The Rosary restored hope to those who had given up the possibility of eternal salvation without self destruction and the ruin of society.
The Office this morning also spoke about events that took place on this day, the first Sunday of October in 1571. In the years before, Christendom had nearly been over run by Moslem invaders. The took all of Christian north Africa, and crossed Gibraltar to occupy most of Spain, and threaten France. They took virtually all of the lands of the Bible, and went east to northern India and Mongolia. Mediterranean trade became impossible, people were kidnapped along its shores—even Rome had to be defended against their invasion—people were pressed into slavery and into conversion to the false religion of the “Prophet.” To make matters worse, much of northern Christendom had gone over to Protestantism earlier in the century. Things looked bleak indeed for the Catholics of Mediterranean Europe. But under Pope Saint Pius V, a Holy League was formed, and a sea-going army put together under the able command of Don Juan of Austria. Armies had tried and failed before—but this time, with the Pope and many many Christians praying the Rosary for victory, a decisive naval battle (the first of many) was fought at Lepanto, off the western coast of Greece.
The victory, of course, was attributed to fine warfare, but also to the power of prayer—particularly prayer to the Blessed Virgin, and particularly the Rosary. Lepanto was not the first victory attributed to the Blessed Mother, nor would it be the last. We have an icon here, displayed under her statue, which depicts her protection of Constantinople on this very same Sunday, October 1st in 911(!)—the artist depicts her veil covering the whole city and keeping it from invasion. In Byzantine churches they celebrate “Pokrov—the Holy Protection of Mary.”
The Breviary also speaks of later battles won in Austria, Hungary, and on the Greek island of Corfu—all through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin.
I mention these things to you today, not so much to boast about the past—not to recall glorious battles—not even the great exploits of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the past. We must be concerned with the present.
The forces which drove people to take their own lives in despair, to despise the having of children, and to live in the licentiousness of utter hopelessness in the thirteenth century are still with us today. As powerful as ever before—perhaps even more so—for mankind has once again lost touch with the realities upon which we meditate in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Man without Faith will always deteriorate to such a condition.
The forces of Islam are still with us today. Worse because the “politically correct” will not even admit the reality of foe with whom we deal. Worse because our powers of destruction are far greater than anything that could have been imagined by Don Juan of Austria or Pope Saint Pius V. Worse because Christendom itself never recovered from the spiritual malaise of that century, which has grown even worse, and affects the Church at all levels, from the highest to the lowest.
It should be comforting then and all together relevant to the present day, to recall those words, accommodated to our Lady: “I am the mother ... of holy hope.... he obeys me will not be put to shame; he who serves me will never fail; he who makes me known will have life everlasting.”
In the prayer and meditation we know as the Rosary, we have the means to invoke the intercession of the most powerful Blessed Virgin Mary: “Before all ages He created [her], and through all ages [she] shall not cease to be.” She shall ever be our Holy Queen and Protectoress.
Pray the Rosary