Thursday, 5 December 2013


The Spirit of Lepanto

The history of the Battle of Lepanto is a parable of Marian Chivalry.  It is all about the idealism of the cross, devotion to Our Lady, and the manly translation of prayer into action for the glory of God and the salvation of men.

In the late sixteenth century Christendom faced the onslaught of the Ottoman Empire.  The Muslim armies threatened to overrun Christian Europe and establish Islam as the prevailing religion. It was a time for heroism, but there were few heroes. It was time to rally under the banner of Christ the King and His Holy Mother, but only a remnant of Christian soldiers were prepared to fight.  The two principal protagonists of the Battle of Lepanto were the Vicar of Christ, Pope St. Pius V and Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Charles V.  Both were men of prayer and action.  The one, a priest, gave witness first of all to the power of prayer.  The other, a layman, epitomized the translation of prayer into action.
The Holy League

St. Pius V, man of vision that he was, knew the peril of Christendom, and personally selected the young nobleman, Don John of Austria for his pure way of life, his unflinching courage, and his clear-sighted conviction.  The saintly pope told the young man charged with the command of the Christian forces: “Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness.”

Pius V also enlisted the help of Spain and Venice, to which he added the Knights of Malta and troops from the Papal States. This became the Holy League led by Don John. However, much the rest of Christian Europe stood by and risked the complete loss of Christendom to the Islamic invasion.  The Protestant heresy, indifferentism and politics kept France, Germany and England from participating.  Most of all there was a decadence of mind and conviction, what Chesterton called the “tangled things and texts and aching eyes,” of a spiritless Europe falling headlong into relativist philosophy, the slogan of “scripture alone,” and the rejection of the Woman whom God made worthy to be the Mother of His Son.

Only an unwavering conviction in the truth, and the unflinching willingness to die for it could match the foe that now threatened to silence the voice of the Church. The lips of Don John’s men would be sanctified and emboldened to sound the battle cry. Thus Don John ordered that blasphemy or any doubt of the faith expressed publicly by his men to be punished as sedition.  A milieu of flabby faith had not raised boys to be men, but the firm faith of a boy had made him a leader of men.

A Turn of the Wind

Mediated through the maternal Heart of Mary, providence brought the natural forces of gallant knights under the influence of supernatural direction and power. Pope St. Pius V sent Don Juan of Austria and the Holy League with rosaries into battle, and he asked all of Christendom to pray along with them and for them. He said: “I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers of priests of pure life.” An image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was even sent by Philip II of Spain to Admiral Giovanni Adrea Doria, which he mounted in the cabin of his flagship and took with him into battle.

On the morning of October 7, 1571 the ships of the Holy League sailed into the Gulf of Lepanto, against the wind toward a fleet that was vastly larger.  Don John of Austria was a true knight, a man of both prayer and action. During the battle with crucifix in hand, Don John went from ship to ship calling out repeatedly to his men: “My children, we are here to conquer or die. In death or victory you will win immortality.” But the good captain of the Holy League was prepared not only with prayer, but also with a plan.  His galleys were state of the art with greater firepower and defensive protection, and the enemy was not prepared to deal with them.  Still Don John was badly outnumbered.

In the end, it was God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who indeed gave the Don John the
Mary's Intercession at the  Battle of Lepanto, 1571
victory. When the fleet entered the Bay of Lepanto they had the wind in their faces. The galley slaves struggled to power the fleet into battle, while the much larger Muslim fleet rested and waited with the wind in its favor. But as Don John and his officers knelt in prayer beneath the blue banner of the Holy League, the wind suddenly changed, the Christian sails filled and Our Lady’s host was now suddenly bearing down upon the Turks.  What had looked like a certain loss for Christendom suddenly turned into a rout of the Turks.  Fewer than fifty of the more than three hundred Turkish ships managed to escape and most of these were so damaged that they had to be burned.  This was not the end of conflict of Christendom with the Ottoman Empire, but it was the turning point and the end of imminent threat to the independence of Christian Europe.

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