I remember the last time we sailed through the Bay of Patras in Greece on our St. Paul Cruise. I gathered the people on deck and gave a short description of what happened there 450 years ago. I told them to imagine the bay full of wooden ships, cannon balls whizzing overhead, and the water red with blood.

The Muslims had every intention of taking Christian Greece and turning it into an Islamic Caliphate and then moving north to capture the rest of Europe. Had they done that, I told my group on the deck of our ship, you would all be speaking Arabic today and bowing to Mecca to worship Allah. At the behest of the Pope, all of Christian Europe prayed the Rosary and against all odds, the disadvantaged Christian fleet defeated the onslaught.

As a result, we have today the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary. Here is an excellent and brief synopsis of the battle and the implications written by -Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

The Battle Of Lepanto And The Holy Rosary

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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


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jim

    A few things here and one major one. First of all the Holy League’s Fleet wasn’t assembled to defend Greece from invasion, it was to prevent the Turkish Armada from entering the Western Mediterranean Sea and running over Italy, Southern France, and Spain. The reason the Holy League’s forces were inferior to the Turks was because the Holy League hadn’t agreed on how to address the protential invasion. Don Juan’s assignment was to conduct a “hit and run” operation to slow down the Armada while the allies of the Holy League could actually develop a plan of attack. The battle was forced on Don Juan because they were caught in a bay, with no room to escape, and no possibility of negotiating terms, the Turks had already shown the year before in Cypress, that there was to be no negotiation. It was fight n pray you died, because capture would have meant unbelievable torture.

    The major thing:, on the evening after the victory Pope Pius V had a vision of a massive victory. He ordered the Thanksgiving Mass to be held on the 8th, the next day, documented.. It would have been impossible to have known the Battle had even occurred, nor their success, because the assignment had been simply “hit and run”. Yet, as stated and is documented, on the 8th the Pope held a Thanksgiving Mass for the victory.

    STEVE RAY HERE: Thanks Jim. Agreed. The Christians came to defend Europe, not Greece in particular, but Greece also would have fallen and would have been a delectible conquest for the Muslims. Agree completely and thanks for the added details.

  2. Donald Link

    Lepanto was indeed a great victory. The Christian world had other victories also. Tours, Acre, Valencia, Grenada, Vienna and finally Allenby at Jerusalem in 1918. The singular characteristic of all was a lack of follow up by the Christian world. At the conclusion of each victory, the separate Christian kingdoms went their own way until the next crisis. This gave Islam time to recover and regroup. It would seem from recent events that the lessons of the past have yet to be learned.

    STEVE RAY HERE: Agreed completely! Thanks!

  3. Peter+K

    “Every schoolchild knows how the battle ended.”?
    Where does this happen, Father?
    I estimate that in my country Australia, less than 2% of Catholics and less than 1% of non Catholics have even heard of Lepanto. I certainly never heard it mentioned in 13 years of Catholic schooling, nor in any of thousands of Catholic homilies and sermons from priests. As far as I can see not one bishop or one parish in the world has said or done anything to commemorate the 450th anniversary. If not for my father and a few online apologists like you, I would never have heard of it either.

    STEVE RAY HETE: It is ad but I think you are very close to the truth Peter 😢

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