Our Lady of the Rosary (7 October)

A Martyrologio:

Festum sacratissimi Rosarii beatae Mariae Virginis; itemque sanctae Mariae de Victoria commemoratio, quam sanctus Pius Quintus, Pontifex Maximus, ob insignem victoriam a Christianis bello navali, ejusdem sanctissimae Dei Genitricis auxilio, hac ipsa die de Turcis reportatam, quotannis fieri instituit.

The feast of the most sacred Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary; also called the commemoration of Saint Mary of Victory, which Pius V, Supreme Pontiff, established annually after hearing, on the same day, of the famous victory of the Christians in the naval war over the Turks, under the help of the same most holy Mother of God.

The Latin language’s declension of nouns allows it a marvelous flexibility in word order, giving Latin an incredibly terse yet expressive character. Modern European languages, including English and the Romance tongues, bound by the subject-verb-object word order, cannot replicate Latin’s diversity of syntax. I beg the reader to forgive the somewhat awkward English rendering of certain Latin texts, especially the Martyrology entries such as the one above. In my attempt to render the text using formal equivalence, I inevitably produce a choppy result; yet I believe it important for all prepositional phrases to be represented without omission (as was common with the former English liturgical texts), so that the fullness of the Latin sense might be glimpsed.

One of the many appositive clauses in the Martyrology text cited is hac ipsa die de Turcis reportatam. Taken by itself, this transliterates to “reported on the same day from the Turks”. The words de Turcis really applies to the “famous victory” over the Turks (insignem victoriam), and the sense of hac ipsa die… reportatam is that the news of the victory reached Pius Quintus (Pope St. Pius V) on the same day of the triumph.

That triumph was the resounding victory of a Catholic naval coalition, who obliterated the Ottoman fleet at the Gulf of Corinth near Lepanto on 7 October 1571. This monumental battle, took place across the Aegean, yet Pius V heard the happy news on the same day. He certainly received neither tweet nor Instagram, much less an instant message from John of Austria, commander of the Holy League fleet, son of Charles, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor; and still this holy Pontiff received the message of victory at the moment the Turks broke from battle. This occurrence was nothing short of miraculous.

Like the later 1683 Battle of Vienna, Lepanto represents a major turning point world history. Genoa, Venice, Spain, Tuscany, Savoy, Urbino, the Knights Hospitallers, and the Papal States formed a Holy League with the purpose of thwarting Ottoman ambitions to control the Mediterranean. The Turks at that time enjoyed the largest navy in the world, which threatened European shipping from the Bosporous to Gibraltar. Before Lepanto, this same fleet had sacked the stronghold of Famagusta in Cyprus, looting its riches and massacring its Christians. Szigetvar in Hungary suffered a similar fate. Malta, the humble gateway to the Western Mediterranean, valiantly repulsed a four month Turkish siege, giving the Holy League time to assemble its coalition and denying the Ottomans unfettered access to the western sea. When John of Austria heard that the Turks had taken harbor at Lepanto, he ordered his anchors raised and sailed the Christian navy to meet the fleet led by famed Turkish commander Ali Pasha.

The Ottoman fleet at Lepanto outnumbered the Holy League in number of ships (251 to 212) and manpower (81,500 to 68,500), though the Turks were heavily outgunned by the Catholics (1,815 to 741). Ali Pasha, mistaking the first Christian ships as supply vessels, charged his force toward the Holy League line. The wind, at first favorable to the Turks, quickly shifted to Christian advantage once the opposing lines came withing range of each other. This became known as the “breath of the Holy Spirit”. Artillery smoke from both armadas flew into the face of the Turks, obscuring their vision, and with fire superiority, the Holy League poured volley after deadly volley into Ottoman ships. Disciplined Spanish and Italian troops cut down enemy boarding parties and captured scores of Turkish galleys as prizes of war. Ali Pasha escaped with the banner of the Hospitallers, but little more; at the end of the day, two thirds of his fleet lay demolished, and the tattered remnant fled to open waters with only 30 ships intact. Tens of thousands of Christian prisoners, enslaved as rowers on Turkish ships, were set free by Holy League forces. The largest naval battle in history concluded a resounding victory for Christian civilization. Never more would Turkish naval power, now confined to its own waters, constitute a real threat on the high seas.

Hac ipsa die, while working with the Cardinals in Rome, Pius V abruptly ended the meeting; opening the window, he saw a vision of Mary and the rout of the Turks. With tears of joy, he exclaimed, to the surprised Cardinals, “Let us put an end to business: our task now is to give thanks to God for the victory of our fleet!” The series of processions, public recitations of the Rosary, and fasts which he ordered in Rome for Europe’s deliverance had given effect: now he ordered the bells across the City be rung in celebration, instituted the Feast of Our Lady of Victory in thanksgiving for Mary’s maternal protection, and added the title auxilium Christianorum (“Help of Christians”) to the Litany of Loreto. The feast’s connection to the Rosary was not lost on future generations, and Leo XIII renamed this day “Feast of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary”. GK Chesterton, in his inimitable way, immortalized today’s commemoration in his marvelous poem Lepanto, worth reading in its entirety, and which ends thus:

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,
(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)
The hidden room in a man’s house where God sits all the year,
The secret window whence the world looks small and very dear.
He sees as in a mirror on the monstrous twilight sea
The crescent of his cruel ships whose name is mystery;
They fling great shadows foe-wards, making Cross and Castle dark,
They veil the plumed lions on the galleys of St. Mark;
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
They are lost like slaves that swat, and in the skies of morning hung
The stairways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young.

They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on
Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon.
And many a one grows witless in his quiet room in hell
Where a yellow face looks inward through the lattice of his cell,
And he finds his God forgotten, and he seeks no more a sign –
(But Don John of Austria has burst the battle-line!)
Don John pounding from the slaughter-painted poop,
Purpling all the ocean like a bloody pirate’s sloop,
Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Vivat Hispania!
Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade…
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis.

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