Published October 13, 2005
Archbishop Gregory writes his column this week from Rome, where he is attending the Synod of Bishops.
The Roman universities don’t start classes until the second week of October (of course, they don’t recess until the last part of June; thus the students pay for at the end of the year what they enjoy at the beginning). Consequently, most of the seminary students at the Pontifical North American College were enjoying the last residue of summer vacation this past week. A couple of them, not including our two Atlanta seminarians, decided to go to Greece last Friday to see the place where the Battle of Lepanto actually took place. Unless you happen to be one of our high school students enrolled in a Western civilization class, you right now might be asking yourself “what was so important about the Battle of Lepanto and why would students trudge off to find out where it took place?” The Battle of Lepanto was the site of where Don Juan leading the naval forces of the Holy Roman Empire defeated the fleet of the Ottoman Empire that posed a threat to Christian Europe at the time, and this naval battle kept the religion of Islam from overwhelming Western Europe.
In honor of the outcome of the Battle of Lepanto, Pope St. Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary for the whole Church in thanksgiving for the defeat of the rival forces in 1571. The entire month of October is often associated with and dedicated to this well-known and popular Marian prayer. October is the month of the rosary in commemoration of this otherwise little known battle.
I don’t suppose that the seminary students found a very well marked and prominent memorial to this pivotal battle of 1571 when they got to that location in Greece. Unlike the beaches at Normandy or some of our own famous American battlegrounds, the naval battle of Lepanto probably has few memorials along the shore that would recall the events that took place there, except for this liturgical feast day. We give thanks to Mary, the Mother of God, for giving victory to the ships and sailors from Spain, France, and Italy that defeated the navy of the Ottoman Empire.
In spite of this, Mary’s intercessory work in this regard is not yet completed. Christianity in the West is still even more threatened today than it was in 1571—not so much by other religions from without as by a rampant and hostile secularism that has overwhelmed many of the Christian societies that were once well established throughout most of Europe and America. While some might have us fear the religion of Islam, we need to have even greater worry over the atheistic and agnostic attitudes that have all but silenced Christian teachings and values throughout much of Western civilization. Once again, we should learn the important lesson that the greatest threats often come from within. Mary still has much work to do to protect the Catholic Faith from forces that are far more powerful than were the ships that sailed into the Bay of Lepanto more than 430 years ago. The Feast of the Holy Rosary is the liturgical memento of that great naval victory. May Our Lady of the Rosary help all of us to rediscover and to value the roots and the principles of our Catholic Faith as well as to aid us in living in true peace and harmony with our Muslim brothers and sisters who are now our neighbors and friends as well as also being people of Faith—and whose religious heritage today is as much threatened by rampant secularism as is our own Catholic Faith.