Islam, the Rosary, and the Battle of Lepanto

    In Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know, Diane Moczar traces the rise of Islamic terrorism and writes about the Battle of Lepanto, a decisive victory won by the power of the Rosary. Islamic terrorism began in the seventh century when Arabs began attacking Christian Europe. One of the most famous battles was the Battle of Tours in 732 AD when Charles “the Hammer” Martel took a stand and defeated the Islamic forces.

    In the East, the Byzantine Empire was also under siege. Pope Urban II urged the Western kingdoms to organize Crusades which were military expeditions to help Constantinople in the fight against Arab and Seljuk Turks and to reclaim the Holy Land.

    Then came the Ottoman Turks with their powerful military and their goal of Islamic imperialism. While Europe was distracted by domestic problems as well as plagues, schisms, and multiple claimants to the papal throne, the Muslims were building an army. They developed “fanatically devoted soldiers” called Janissaires by kidnapping young boys from the lands they occupied and turning them into “little Muslims.” Through education, rigorous physical training, circumcision, and demanding loyalty to their captors, these boys were turned into an elite fighting group and the Sultan’s bodyguards.

    In 1453, Sultan Mehmed best expressed militant Islam’s imperative: “The empire of the world must be one, one faith and one kingdom.”

    With that goal, they moved on to Eastern Europe. Western Europe was too pre-occupied with its own problems to be much help when the Turks entered an inadequately armed Hungary. If they could conquer Belgrade, then “all of southeastern Europe would be open to the Muslim armies.”

    John Hunyadi, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian army fought them bravely. The siege lasted for three weeks in July 1456. The Hungarian army was “pitifully small and untrained.” Dangerously close to losing the fight, it was St. John of Capistrano who reassured the troops. He told them of a vision he had seen where the Lord said, “Fear not, John. Go down quickly. In the power of my name and of the Holy Cross, thou wilt conquer the Turks.” He gathered volunteers and rallied the Hungarian army. “During the fighting, the tireless Capistrano would stand on a high point of the shore, within sight of both Turks and Christians, waving a banner of the cross and calling out the name of Jesus.” His battle cry was: “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” By 22 July 1456, the battle was over and the Turks were defeated. Shortly after the battle, John Hunyadi died of illness and St. John of Capistrano died soon after.

    With Hunyadi dead, Pope Callixtus needed a new warrior for Christendom. He chose Gjergj Scanderbeg, an Albanian, as the new commander-in-chief. Known as the “Champion of Christ,” he held off the Islamic armies until his death in 1468. The Muslim Turkish army finally conquered Albania thereby positioning themselves closer to the West.

    In the next century, Suleiman the Magnificent became the Ottoman ruler and the Ottoman Empire expanded. “The Turks controlled the Persian Gulf and all the trade routes to the East. North Africa from Egypt to Algeria belonged to them, while the Moors, defeated at Granada in Spain in 1492, were eager to ally with the Ottomans and reinvade the Iberian Peninsula.” Onward they moved, conquering Hungary in 1526.

    The time had come to conquer Vienna, “the gateway from Eastern to Western Europe.” Thankfully, Suleiman’s attempt was unsuccessful.

    When Suleiman died, his drunkard son Selim succeeded him. During his reign the Ottomans continued their imperative of converting the world to Islam.

    Pope St. Pius V recognized the Islamic threat but the rest of western Europe paid no attention to him. Only Philip II of Spain gave a weak attempt at defending western Europe by sending his half-brother Don Juan of Austria and a few dozen ships to engage the oncoming Turks. Don Juan managed to garner a small fleet of volunteers and 208 ships. This army, which was much smaller than the Islamic fleet, was known as the Holy League. Pope St. Pius asked all of Europe to pray the Rosary to ensure victory and when the fleet set sail from Messina on 16 September 1571, “all of the men had rosaries, too.”

    In the early morning of 7 October 1571, the Battle of Lepanto began. The battle was horrific. G. K. Chesterton described it thus:

    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.

    Later on that fateful day, Pope Pius suddenly halted a meeting with his treasurer. He stood up, walked to the window and announced: “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” He had seen a vision of the Holy League’s victory. Pope Pius V pronounced 7 October as the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. Later, it was changed to the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

    In time the Turks would rebuild but by 1922 they were known as “the sick man of Europe” and were no longer considered a threat. In the years after World War I, the Europeans divided up their conquests in the Middle East.

    But the Islamic threat didn’t die. In her book, Diane Moczar ends the chapter on this note:

    One might have thought at that time that any further threat to the West from Islam was a pipe dream. Instead, it turned out to be a nightmare, one that has now come true. The British agents who taught the Arab subjects of the Ottomans to revolt against them found that—surprise—they later did the same to their Western “saviours.” When those saviours then placed a Jewish state in the midst of the volatile nations they had arbitrarily created, they raised Arab consciousness still further. The rest we know. We might yet have need of another Hunyadi, Scanderbeg, or Don John of Austria in our time.

    Today, the Rosary remains our most powerful weapon against Islamic terrorism. Pray the Rosary daily. Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.

    Source: Moczar, D. Ten Dates Every Catholic should Know. New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2005.

    Image source: The Battle of Lepanto by Juan Luna (1887). under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License.