Lesson From Lepanto
“White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in that face of all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood-red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
They have dared the white republics up the capes of Italy,
They have dashed the Adriatic round the Lion of the Sea,
And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross,
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass;
From evening isles fantastical rings faint the Spanish gun,
And the Lord upon the Golden Horn is laughing in the sun.”
With these foreboding verses, G.K Chesterton, in his poem Lepanto, describes the grave geopolitical situation on the eve of the great naval battle which serves as the namesake of his poem. Having risen from near obscurity upon the Anatolian step, the Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople and the last remnants of the Roman Empire in 1453. By the Autumn of 1571, they had secured a mighty empire stretching from the north Balkans to the Arabian Sea and from Algiers to the Persian Gulf. This hegemonic power now loomed over Western Christendom and threatened to invade Italy and take Rome itself. The Holy Father, Pope St. Pius V, worked desperately to rally a defense. Yet Christendom was weak and divided. The Protestant Reformation had spurned civil wars across all corners, and Europe’s princes were more concerned with politics than their more noble duties. The fire of zeal that burned in their forefather’s hearts upon the fields of Tours and Arsuf had grown cold. But a few still answered the call. And so, fate held its breath when at noon on October 7, 1571, the armadas of the Ottoman navy and the combined fleet of the Holy League (Naples, Sardinia, Venice, the Papacy, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights Hospitallers) made contact.
Against the odds and the truly dogged and determined fight of the enemy, the allied Christian forces seized the day. Why? And why does this matter to us or at all to those discerning priesthood?
Firstly, the battle was won, of course, through good strategy and great courage on the part of those knightly men and their captains, but moreover, because God had willed it! These few, these happy few, this band of brothers availed themselves not to horse or chariot (C.f. Ps 20:8), nor placed their trust in princes (C.f. Ps 146:3), but relied upon the Lord. And they did this through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before the battle all the soldiers and sailors prayed the Rosary and their commander, Don Juan of Austria, brought with him a copy of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Likewise, Pope Pius had exhorted all the faithful to pray the Rosary and himself kept a prayer vigil before and during the battle. Indeed, the Holy Father learned through prayer immediately when the victory had been won even though it took until the 22nd for the messengers to reach Rome with the news. On that day a great mass of thanksgiving was offered in Rome, and the Pope declared it the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which his successor, Pope Gregory XIII, changed to the Holy Rosary to highlight the importance of the Rosary and Mary’s intervention.
Let us then consider the Rosary and its role in Christian prayer life. Tradition says it was given by Mary to St. Dominic in 1208, to aid his order’s combat against the Albigensian heresy which taught that every material was evil only spiritual things were good. The Rosary directly combats this by meditating upon the lives of Jesus and Mary – Mary living in Jesus – and so opening up the mystery of the Incarnation and the vivid reality of grace and Christ’s redemption of the whole world. The Rosary is thus meditative and inherently Christocentric as everything Marian is.
Through the Rosary Mary teaches us how to pray contemplatively about the life of Christ, and invites us to enter into the intimate relationship of her life with her son, and
encounter his grace and mercy, indeed, encounter Christ himself. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope St. John Paul II, well known for his devotion to Mary, explains some of the functions of the Rosary. Through the Rosary we take Mary as a model for contemplation as we enter into and share in her memories. We remember Christ with Mary, we learn Christ from Mary, and so are conformed to Christ with and through Mary. We thus (more perfectly) pray to Christ with Mary and proclaim Christ with her as well. The Holy Father, who dedicated his pontificate to Mary with the motto “Totus tuus,” hailed the Rosary as “a compendium of the Gospel” and a “sweet chain linking us to God” and so exhorted all the faithful to avail themselves of the power of the Rosary.
If all Christians ought to enter into the “school of Mary,” then how much more so ought priests? Indeed a ‘non-Marian’ priest is an oxymoron: a malapropism, an absurdity, (dare I say) an anathema! Consider these words from John Paul II: “Many signs indicate that still today the Blessed Virgin desires to exercise through this same prayer that maternal concern to which the dying Redeemer entrusted, in the person of the beloved disciple, all the sons and daughters of the Church: “Woman, behold your son!” (Jn 19:26).” (RVM 7) In his final moments of his earthly life the Lord spoke from the cross and commended Mary to the care of St. John and commended John to Mary. Through this spiritual adoption the Lord achieved far more than seeing that his most beloved mother would be cared for after his death because in commending Mary to John and vice versa Christ gave one final lesson to his disciples which is to know Mary as their mother and to seek Christ through Mary.
Indeed, many of the great saints and doctors of the Church have long identified Mary as the living image of the Church itself, and St. John represents the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Thus, in a unique way Christ teaches his priests to turn to Mary as their nurturing mother, protector, and guide in discipleship. As St. John imitated Christ in sonship to Mary so too must all other priests. Has there been a saint without devotion to Mary? Fly to Mary since she will surely lead us to her son.
“The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour…
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.”
To circle back to Lepanto, remember that as Christians we are engaged in a war for souls – for our own souls and for all souls. This war is mostly fought on invisible battlefields in the hearts of men and women, but it is real all the same and indeed far deadlier than a regular war because here death is final. In these above verses, Chesterton hails Don Juan as an archetype of excellence in combat, and moreover, as a paradigm for the Christian warrior. And while these are truly praiseworthy traits in of themselves they point to the greater character trait in Don Juan which was his virtue and quest for holiness through dutiful service even despite the pressure to do otherwise. We, too, must strive with the same zeal of a crusader for virtue and holiness – to be great and to do great things. Consider these words attributed to Pope Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness” Man in his very core of being yearns for greatness and will strive through all sorts of struggles to attain it yet not all know where it can truly be satisfied. Many seek it in wealth, power, status or other useless trifles but Christ has revealed the true path to greatness and glory when he offered himself freely on the cross. “Ecce homo” – “Behold the man” was said by a fatalist Pontius Pilate. But little did Pilate understand that before him stood true man, true virtue, true greatness, and true glory! To this same glory Christ calls. It is our birthright and inheritance by virtue of our baptism in Christ.
Only on this battlefield can imperishable glory be won. Only here can man find his true identity, purpose, and resolve, and thus, come to stand in full stature and live fully and truly. This is the great crusade upon which we must embark. Yet, this is no meager feat. It is a battle, oft hard and exhausting, but it is the battle of our lives and the struggle by which glory is won. In all honesty it is not one which we could win by ourselves. Our enemy is too strong and ourselves too weak to accomplish it by ourselves. The good news is that it is not our fight alone but Christ fights for us. He is our captain in the fight. And the even better news is that he has already won the decisive victory by defeating death itself. Christ, who is King of the Universe, has already won the day and is and will always have the victory. (Our share in the victory is not assured, we cannot presume it, but rather we must actively and intentionally fight for it.)
Even so it is not easy at all to imitate Christ. Anyone who has earnestly tried will attest to this. For this reason, Christ has given us special graces to help us in the form of Mary and the saints. Especially Mary since no other creature is so perfectly united with God as the Immaculate Conception. Mary, Mother of the Church, our mother works without ceasing for the salvation of souls and will attend to her children without any hesitation and with all fervor. I can attest in my own personal experience that even in my darkest moments of spiritual desolation, when I could barely even pray at all or even lift my heart toward Christ, Mary was there to comfort me and give me succor. When all hope was lost, she remained the radiant light of dawn and carried me back to Christ. I do not know how I could be a Christian, let alone a seminarian, without her.
Mary in her holiness is the best model for Christians, perhaps could even be acclaimed, after Christ that is, as the crusader par excellence. After all, she is the one who tramples the head of the dragon. Thus, my brothers I implore you to always turn to Mary both in good times and bad times. Give her all your questions and concerns, hopes and dreams, and everything else too.
To conclude, I recommend to those discerning the priesthood this prayer which John Paul II wrote at the end of his exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (which you should also read at some point!).
Mother of Jesus Christ and Mother of priests,
accept this title which we bestow on you
to celebrate your motherhood
and to contemplate with you the priesthood
of, your Son and of your sons,
O holy Mother of God.
O Mother of Christ,
to the Messiah – priest you gave a body of flesh
through the anointing of the Holy Spirit
for the salvation of the poor and the contrite of heart;
guard priests in your heart and in the Church,
O Mother of the Savior.
O Mother of Faith,
you accompanied to the Temple the Son of Man,
the fulfillment of the promises given to the fathers;
give to the Father for his glory
the priests of your Son,
O Ark of the Covenant.
O Mother of the Church,
in the midst of the disciples in the upper room
you prayed to the Spirit
for the new people and their shepherds;
obtain for the Order of Presbyters
a full measure of gifts,
O Queen of the Apostles.
O Mother of Jesus Christ,
you were with him at the beginning
of his life and mission,
you sought the Master among the crowd,
you stood beside him when he was lifted
up from the earth
consumed as the one eternal sacrifice,
and you had John, your son, near at hand;
accept from the beginning those
who have been called,
protect their growth,
in their life ministry accompany
O Mother of Priests.