Christian sailors joined Pope Pius V (a Dominican) in praying the Most Holy Rosary, and defeated a much larger Turkish force at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The battle was a turning point in repelling the Turkish invasions of Europe. To remember the battle and Our Lady's intercession, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (originally Our Lady of Victory) was established on October 7th.
Over the centuries, profits from trade made Venice a center of art and culture. But with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christians no longer dominated the valuable Mediterranean trade routes to the east. Four generations of Venetian merchants tried to maintain neutral relations with both Christian and Moslem forces, but they grew frightened when the strategic port of Rhodes fell to the Turks in 1522.
Fifty years later (in 1570), when the Turks demanded the surrender of Cyprus, the Venetians appealed to Pope Pius V, who assembled a multinational naval expedition that engaged the Turks at Lepanto, near the Bay of Corinth, on October 7, 1571.
Christians were greatly outnumbered in this encounter. They commanded only 214 boats and 80,000 troops. The Turkish force totaled 120,000 troops, about 225 galleys, and an additional 50 smaller boats. The battle occurred at a time of transition in naval warfare, and Lepanto stands as the last great naval engagement in ships powered by oars. Every schoolchild knows how the battle ended. The weather, which favored the Turks at dawn, changed, and Christian forces were able to overwhelm their enemy. 9,000 Christians died in the battle, but 12,000 were released from slavery in Turkish galleys. Turkish losses were far greater. Even by modern standards, these are amazing statistics for a single battle, fought within a single day.
Pius V, a Dominican friar, prayed the rosary throughout the battle and attributed the victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Hence the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (which was first called the feast of Our Lady of Victory) on October 7. Naturally, the feast is dear to Dominicans and their friends. But the Pontiff’s were not the only prayers addressed that day to the Mother of God. The Christian troops are said to have prayed the rosary throughout the night before the battle, and some sources say that the rhythmic repetition of the prayer thoroughly frightened and demoralized the Turkish host.
Modern sensibility may question the propriety of finding God’s hand in such a bloody undertaking - and for no better reason than to protect commercial interests - but those who fought at Lepanto had no doubt that God accomplished remarkable results from these less than promising beginnings. The Church does the same thing, taking the anniversary of a bloody victory and transforming it - not by concentrating on the battle, but by focusing on the prayers that won the battle.
These prayers continue to take the fallen stuff of our lives and transform it into something noble and fine. In the Rosary we have the opportunity to contemplate all the human events we are familiar with - birth, death, friendship, deceit, joy, sorrow, defeat, victory, and triumph - and to sanctify them by identifying our experience of these events with the experience of the same events in the lives of our Savior and his Mother.
-Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.
Fr. Reginald is the former Director of the Rosary Center and Confraternity
Visit the rosarycenter.org to learn more about the Rosary Center and Confraternity, a spiritual association formed in the late 15th century and entrusted to the Dominican Order.