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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Our Lady of the Rosary

The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary has a history that reads like a tale from the Lord of the Rings. Originally known as the feast of Our Lady of Victory, this feast commemorates the intercession of Our Lady in what is known as the battle of Lepanto in 1571. This great naval battle turned the tide of the war between Cristian Europe and the Ottoman Empire allowing Christian forces to control the Mediterranean Sea and push back the invading forces.

our lady of the rosary

To understand this battle, it should be understood that naval battles of the time were fought with galley ships that could be powered either by wind with sails or by oars. If the winds were favorable, the sails would open and carry the ship. If the winds died or if they were blowing the wrong direction, the sailors and soldiers on the ship would go below to row the ship with oars. If the ship was being rowed though, this limited the men up top who were able to fight. Battle were fought by ramming your ship into the enemy to sink it or lashing ships side by side so that soldiers could fight hand to hand or with arrows or early guns.

The Ottoman empire had seen the recent Protestant Reformation in Europe as an opportunity to attack a now divided continent. Italy had long been one of their goals and after finally achieving the conquest of Constantinople in the late 1400’s, they began to attack key locations in the Mediterranean and placed Budapest under siege. It seemed that Rome itself was in danger of attack.

There arose among the Christians a man by the name of Don Juan of Austria. The illegitimate younger half-brother of King Phillip of Spain, he gathered a navy to repel the Ottoman attack. At 22 years old Don Juan was already a brilliant military mind, having trained his 200 ships well and preparing for the eventual battle.

For months in preparation for this battle, Pope Pius V, had asked people across Europe to pray the rosary for victory in what he knew would be a critical battle. The night before the battle, the fighting men spent their time in prayer and each man was given a rosary to carry with them into battle. Don Juan also carried with him one additional secret unknown to the Ottomans. King Phillip has sent a gift. Our Lady had recently appeared to Juan Diego at Tepeyac Hill in Mexico and gifted him with the image of Our Lady of Guadelupe. King Phillip had made copies of this image and had them touched to the original. One of these copies was sent to Don Juan to inspire his troops for the coming conflict.

Don Juan knew he was going up against a much larger Muslim fleet. The Ottoman commander, Ali Pasha, also had an army of Christian slaves rowing his ships. Don Juan’s men might be sinking ships full of their own friends and relatives. There was a lot weighing on this battle. But the Venetian ships he was sailing and the new armor and guns developed for the Christian fleet, along with 6 new ships armed with canons, would benefit the Christian fleet greatly.

At the beginning of the battle, it seemed the smaller Christian fleet would be outmatched. Ali Pasha had the wind and his full contingent of archers and soldiers could remain above to fight the Christian ships. But at a key moment in the battle, for no apparent reason, the wind reversed. The Christian sails unfurled, and the Islamic forces were forced below decks to help row their ships, while emboldened galley slaves fought back against their captors. Don Juan’s ship clashed with that of Pasha, and with Don Juan leading the boarding party himself, felled Pasha with a bullet to the eye, leaving the remaining Ottoman fleet in disarray. In the end, more than 400,000 men died in what is known to this day as the deadliest naval battle of history, but the invaders were repelled and forced to retreat to North Africa where they became simple pirates and raiders and could no longer threaten the major cities of Europe.

Pope Pius V declared October 7, the Feast of Mary, Queen of Victory. Later the name was changed to honor the devotion and prayer that is said to have led to the victory. Through this, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe spread and the Rosary became a sign of our mother's love and protection for all of the Christian world.

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