Today, Sunday, October 7th is the 430th anniversary of the victory of Christian forces at the naval battle of Lepanto on the western coast of Greece. For many years, Moslem naval forces had ruled the Mediterranean Sea, plundering ships, and killing or capturing Christians on land and at sea. Many were reduced to slavery, and often forced to abandon the Catholic Faith. The demands for ransom were so frequent that the Church established at least two separate religious orders whose main purpose was the redeeming of captives. By late in the sixteenth century, Islamic forces held key territories along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts, representing a serious threat of invasion to the Christian countries of Western Europe.
Western Europe, however, was divided not only by kingdom, but also by religion. In attempting to form a league against the invaders, Pope Saint Pius V was unable to secure the help of any European country except Spain, and a few of the Italian city-states. Don Juan of Austria (brother of the Spanish King, Philip II) was appointed by the Pope to lead the fleet. Great emphasis was placed on the holiness of the soldiers and sailors, with all being urged to frequent Confession and Communion, and being given a plenary indulgence by the Pope. Public prayers were ordered in Rome; chiefly the recitation of the Rosary. Roughly a month after beginning the campaign on our Lady's birthday, the Christian fleet engaged the Moslems on this Sunday in 1571. In spite of the great distance from Rome, Pope Saint Pius became miraculously aware of the victory that very evening. To commemorate the victory, the first of several needed to secure the Mediterranean and its peoples against the Moslems, Pope Saint Pius instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which was renamed by his successor, Gregory XIII, as Our Lady of the Rosary.
Many of you have heard me tell this story of our Lady's aid to Christendom before, as we have celebrated our patronal feast each year. It is one among several stories of our Lady's protection of her faithful children in Europe against the infidels. But I would imagine -- and certainly I hope -- that this year, the story has become so much more meaningful for all of us in a personal way. Christendom has been sleeping for many of these 430 years. Indeed, if there is a Christendom left at all to wake, that awakening began -- I hope --not with a victory, but with a loss -- not in the Gulf of Lepanto, but in the harbor of New York. The old enemy is alive in the Old World, and has followed us to the New.
The problem with this awakening, though, is that it is easy to be confused, and to mistake it for just another political crisis; another war to be fought before going back to the everyday business of life in the world. Certainly, there is a political dimension. The government must see to it that the Islamic attacks are not repeated, and if possible the guilty must be identified, caught, and punished. There is a political dimension, too, in the work of restoration and seeing to the needs of the victims -- although, hopefully, much of this will be done through private economic and charitable initiatives.
But the essential dimension of the awakening of Christendom must be religious. We have slept through the much of the 1300 year long war with Islam -- at least for a few hundred years that ended this September 11th. We might then ask ourselves, "what precisely is it that we should do?" Perhaps the answer can be had from the events of 430 years ago -- what did Christendom do to support the fine troops of Don Juan of Austria?
The first part of the answer is, of course, personal holiness. We can expect little help from God or His Holy Mother if we have no time for them; if we are not faithful in our prayers, in frequent attendance at Mass, and in the reception of the Sacraments. The soldiers that accompanied Don Juan fasted, made their Confessions, and received Holy Communion. We must do the same, and do it regularly.
We must pray for the conversion of the infidels -- not just the Moslems, but of all who do not know Christ. Christendom has gotten out of that habit lately, as though praying for their conversion would seem to be intolerant or unnecessary. On the contrary, it is a most necessary act of charity. Indeed nothing could be more intolerant than to refuse to pray for them -- to have the means of saving their immmortal souls and to fail to make use of that means. And, frankly, the kind of war we see being waged can probably not be won through superior firepower, and will require taking over the other side with God's saving grace.
One of the characteristics of Islam -- and other non-Christian religions -- is a denial of the Trinity -- a failure to understand the personal nature of God, and the refusal to believe that He entered into human history by becoming one of us, in order to show us more tangibly His love for us. That disbelief that God became a man may well be the source of Moslem disregard for human life. In any event, I would like to propose that whenever we recite the Creed -- at the beginning of the Rosary, or after the Gospel at Mass -- whenever we say "I believe in GGod the Father Almighty . . . and in Jesus Christ His Son . . . conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary -- that we make that our prayer for the conversion of non-believers to the Catholic Faith. Let us make it our prayer for those who reject the Trinity and the Incarnation.
Finally, and not just because it is the feast day, it is necessary that we all resolve to pray the Rosary daily. Apart from the Mass Itself, there is no prayer that testifies better to the truths of the Trinity, and the Incarnation, and the fact that God loves all men and women so much that He literally died for our redemption. It is a great testimony to the infinite mercy of God, who is willing to forgive everyone who comes to Him either to be re-born in the waters of Baptism, or in the healing Sacrament of Confession.
So please take up the practice of saying our Lady's Rosary every day. Pray the Rosary, not only because your eternity depends upon it, but also because your world depends upon it. Pray for the conversion of sinners and infidels, so that they may come to know the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Pray the Rosary, every day!