By Father Joseph Faulkner, pastor of St. Ann Parish in Doniphan and Sacred Heart Parish in Kenesaw
There is much debate today about how to characterize modern Islam and its over-one-billion adherents. Regardless of what varieties later developed, the first generation of Islam that swept out of the Arabian Peninsula in the middle of the seventh century was unified, militant, and eager for expansion.
In the century following Muhammad’s Hegira, Muslim forces never lost a major campaign, but built an empire that stretched from southern France to the borders of China. Over the 800 years that followed this unparalleled initial success, the Islamic world broke into several rival factions.
As the sixteenth century dawned, the Ottoman Turks were the rising power. They had conquered the capital of Eastern Christianity, Constantinople, in 1453, while their Muslim rivals to the west, the Almohads, had lost the last remnants of Muslim Spain to King Fernando and Queen Isabel. Suleiman “The Magnificent” led the Turks to victories across Serbia, Hungary, and Austria, and asserted Ottoman dominance over other Muslims and the Mediterranean Sea. His son, Selim, then attacked Cyprus and Malta as Suleiman had previously conquered Rhodes. Northern Europe was in the throes of the Protestant Revolt and so Pope St. Pius V could assemble only 212 ships from a dozen Italian and Spanish duchies to defend the Christian Mediterranean.
Leading this motley squadron would be Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V, who had been sovereign of three of the richest realms in Europe and all of the Spanish New World. In this era, “natural sons” of powerful families often grew up spoiled, carnal, and irresponsible. Since they couldn’t inherit anything, they had little to hope for and less to encourage them to diligence and sacrifice.
But John seemed to escape this fatalist trap. He knew he could never be king, but he could give his kingdom his all. Athletic and energetic, he threw himself into being a captain of war instead of brooding over what he lacked. His men loved that he wanted to fight beside them and he found himself good at commanding men and making strategy. At the age of 24 he found himself commander of the fleet and soldiers of “The Holy League.”
Knowing that he was sending a smaller fleet to face a larger foe at the near-height of its power, Pope Pius asked all of Europe, regardless of current alliance or religious denomination, to pray the Rosary for the success of the flotilla. The Turkish admiral Ali Pasha had the wind at his back on the morning of October 7, 1571 as his fleet rushed upon six Venetian merchant ships out in front of the main Catholic force. But that outwardly-unimpressive vanguard bristled with cannon and sunk as many as 70 Ottoman galleys before the Turks started bypassing them.
Don John had removed his ships’ rams, insisting on boarding and capturing the ships, possibly because he knew most of the rowers were Christian slaves and he wanted to save as many as possible. Among the 12,000 galley slaves saved was Spaniard Miguel Cervantes, who would go on to write Don Quixote. Only 40 of the 250 Turkish ships escaped.
The Vatican Archives record that Pope Pius prayed the Rosary that morning at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and a story goes that later on that day, in the middle of business with the Cardinals, the Pope had a vision or a premonition that the battle had been fought that day and won, and that the group must cease work and turn to thanking God for saving Christendom.
The day, October 7, was devoted to Mary as “Our Lady of Victory” and added to the Church calendar. Later the name was changed to “Our Lady of the Rosary.” Catholics continue to look to Mary and Pius V for intercession, and to Don John for an example of excellence in doing one’s duty, whatever one’s lot in life.