Today we celebrate the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title as "Lady of the Rosary." The feast was added to the calendar by Pope St. Pius V in 1571 after the great naval battle in the Gulf of Lepanto. It was first called Our Lady of Victory, but soon renamed to Our Lady of the Rosary, and extended to commemorate several of the intercessions of our Lady in the Church's efforts to protect society against heresy -- and particularly against the violent spread of heresy by force of arms.
In the readings of the Divine Office this morning, we read about three major interventions of the Blessed Virgin. The first was during the time of Saint Dominic in the thirteenth century, when the Manichean heresy was spreading throughout southern France. Manicheanism, as you may know, is a heresy that goes back before the time of Christ, and keeps popping up here and there. At that time it was called "Albigensianism," and threatened to lead an enormous number of people into believing that the universe was a struggle between two "gods" -- one good and one bad. The good "god" was to be composed of pure spirit, while his opponent, the bad "god" was said to be entirely material. The Albigensian heresy envisioned a continuous struggle between matter and spirit.
This might sound very theoretical, until one realizes that we human beings are composed of both matter and spirit -- body and soul. To the Albigensian, there was a constant war going on within each and every person; the good spiritual part in continuous conflict with the bad material part. In practice, this lead to two conflicting but both very dangerous things: The serious Albigensians, the so-called "perfect," literally tried to conquer the material part of their bodies -- extreme fasting, the refusal to have children, even suicide were attempted -- and there seems to be some indication of murder when one of the "perfect" seemed to be wavering. Obviously, society cannot function with people thus trying to destroy themselves. On the other hand, there were Albigensians who recognized the impossibility of conquering their material dimension, and who drew the conclusion that since they couldn't do anything about their material vices they may as well enjoy them in unbridled lust and gluttony. Obviously, again, society cannot run very well that way either.
The institutional reaction -- that of Church and state -- was to launch a military crusade against the heretics -- to round them up, make them recant, and maybe even burn a few at the stake if they did not return to the Faith. Saint Dominic, however, under the guidance of the Blessed Virgin, approached them both with charity and with the examples of our Lord and Lady in sacred Scripture. Using the Rosary both as a prayer and as a tool to teach the basic events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, he proceeded to demonstrate to them that both matter and spirit were good. Jesus, who as God was pure spirit, decided to take a material body for Himself, a body fashioned in the womb of a material woman with a spiritual soul. And Jesus allowed that body to be subject to the things of the world, joining with men, healing their ills and instructing their minds in the ways of the Father -- He allowed that body to be crucified for our sins, but raised it up and took it to heaven, as well as the body of His Blessed Mother. Even those who are not terribly learned -- even the illiterate -- can know these things through the Roosary. Certainly, this conversion through prayer and meditation is far superior to trying to restore someone's faith through force.
The other two interventions of our Lady, at the fervent request of those devoted to her and to her Rosary were more defensive: the naval battle at Lepanto in 1571, and the defense of Vienna in 1716. There are a number of other such interventions, including the defense of Constantinople in, believe it or not, the year 9-1-1 (!) on the 14th of this month of October, when the Blessed Virgin is said to have protected the city by lowering her veil over it, making it impregnable. In virtually all of these intercessions against military forces, we find the Blessed Mother protecting her devoted children against the militant heresy of Islam. From before the year 700 A.D. Islam was a violent threat to all of Christendom -- Christian Africa, Asia, and Europe -- a threat to the soul as well as to physical wellbeing. Most of Christian Africa and Asia fell quickly, but for centuries the southern "under-belly" of Europe was threatened by Moslem soldiers and sailors, and alternately by Moslem pirates. In the middle ages a man might find himself captive in a foreign dungeon just by walking too close to the sea shore, even if his country were not actually taken over by the infidel -- or he might find himself dead if he didn't look prosperous enough to be held for ransom. It was against this threat that Christendom prayed, while valiant men successfully did battle against the aggressors.
It would be easy to suggest that we have a similar situation in our own times. Clearly, Islam is no less aggressive today than it was in 1571 or 1716, or a thousand years earlier in 700. But, if there is any point to be made on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in the year of Our Lord, 2002, it is that the situation is all the more desperate. The weapons available on both sides are infinitely more powerful than the finest swords and canon at Lepanto or Vienna; infinitely more capable of lasting devastation. There are many very powerful factions in the modern world, each with its own agenda, rarely clear cut in their intentions toward us or toward each other. It is not always clear even just who the players are in this most dangerous game.
Worse, we are a people divided. A hundred years ago it would have been possible to speak of the nations of Europe and the Americas as "Christian countries," together making up something then called "Christendom." Today there is no such thing. Many citizens and even more residents have no family heritage of Christianity; many others who do, have no formal practice of Christianity in their lives; and a goodly number of those who practice Christianity do so more out of habit than out of informed conviction. Of those who are left, how many do you suppose pray regularly for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin? How many pray the Rosary? How many have not taken their rosary out of the drawer where they keep their jewelry or their socks for a year or more? How many never pray at all?
If the picture I am painting sounds dismal, that is okay, because we need to be realistic -- we cannot deal with the issues facing us if we ignore them and hope they will go away, or hope that the people in Congress will pass a few more laws and take care of the problem that way. The reality of it is that with this underlying loss of faith, society's days are numbered.
But, go back to the interventions of the Blessed Mother I mentioned. Certainly they were scared at Lepanto, and at Vienna, and at Constantinople, and in a thousand other places where Christendom battled the Turks during the past 1300 years. For our purposes, though, the case of Saint Dominic is the most instructive. With his charity and his prayer and the help of a few unarmed men, he set out to change the minds of his adversaries, not to defeat them in battle. Any number of times, Dominic and his Order of Preachers ventured into hostile territory, unarmed save for the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin.
In reality, we are already at war in the middle east, and have been so, on and off, for a number of decades. Good or bad, most of us will have little that we can do about that. But we can take up and effectively use St. Dominic's weapon of prayer. It is ludicrous to think that any of us are going to convert the infidels -- the Christian infidels or the Jewish infidels or the Moslem infidels -- by anything other than prayer and good example. And, as important as the international situation is today, let us not forget that no matter what happens we will always have to deal with the society more directly around us; our friends and family and neighbors -- quite likely, they need conversion, just as much as any "infidel."
We must bring Christianity back to the world and to the society in which we live. But that means that we must bring it back to ourselves. So let me ask you to join in the Crusade. Take a Rosary home with you today, blessed on this feast of our Lady's Rosary, and begin to pray it. If you are extremely busy, you can still say at least one decade every day (just ten beads!); pray more if you have the opportunity. In fact look for opportunities to convert "dead time" -- like standing at line at the grocery or sitting in traffic -- to Rosary praying time. God gave you ten fingers, just in case you forget your beads at home.
But please pray the Rosary, rather than say the Rosary. Learn the mysteries and meditate on them while you pray -- and ponder how those mysteries relate to us. Try to understand why God entered the world as He did. Try to put yourself into the "scene" with Jesus and Mary -- and even more important, bring Jesus and Mary from the mysteries of the Rosary into your life. Pray the Rosary like you mean it, and soon you will see how God can transform you. And soon you will see how God, through Jesus and Mary in us, will change the world.