Saint Mary of Victory – The Historical Role of Our Lady in the Armed Defense of the Faith

In 1982, Argentina, a nation that loved Our Lady enough to have her by law as Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces, was beaten by Great Britain in a short but costly war fought in and around islands the Argentines know as the Malvinas and that the Brits, who have claimed them as a colony since the 19th century, call the Falklands. This was after an Argentine military government, calculating that its action would have no repercussions beyond the diplomatic, had sent troops to occupy the islands, regarded by it, as by every government Argentina has ever had, as part of the national territory.

The islands, which are thousands of miles from Britain, lie off the coast of Argentina within the Western Hemisphere. When the Brits surprised Argentina and the rest of the world by choosing to back their claim to the Malvinas militarily, it took weeks for their expeditionary force to arrive on the scene. The United States, deciding the Monroe Doctrine did not apply to this particular foreign invasion of the Hemisphere, greatly assisted them with satellite intelligence and by other means. The assistance was sufficiently valuable that the Secretary of Defense of the day, Caspar Weinberger, was subsequently rewarded by Queen Elizabeth with an honorary knighthood.

The U.S. assistance was valuable, but the truth was that the Argentine army, which had not fought seriously anywhere for a long time, was ill prepared to resist the forces of a nation whose record for bellicosity is unequaled by any other in modern times. The conscripts who had to face the invaders in the Malvinas acquitted themselves admirably, but the level of Argentine generalship was appalling. So was the logistical support given to the young fighting men. For instance, the Brits were able to make good use of night-vision goggles with which they were equipped. The Argentines lacked such materiel — in the field. It turned out after the war that there had been a warehouse full of the goggles back in Buenos Aires. They simply had not been issued to the men at the front!

Not long after the war, a priest friend from Argentina visited this writer, staying for several days with me and my wife at our apartment in Washington, D.C. I took him one afternoon to lunch with a few men who all worked on Capitol Hill. When the wine was poured, one of the men, a top aide to a leading conservative senator, raised his glass and proposed a toast “to the victory of Our Lady in the Malvinas the next time.”

The priest from Buenos Aires let out a groan. It was the kind of sound a man makes when he means to say, “Spare us this.”

The aide, obviously bent on being more Argentine than our Argentine visitor, lowered his glass in surprise. “Don’t you believe, Father,” he asked challengingly, “that Our Lady wants your army to win?”

“Of course she does,” answered the priest. “But what she wants, first, is for the army to go train in Patagonia for six months before trying to take on the English.”

The priest, I ought to add, was not a native-born Argentine. He was born and grew up in France. As a young man he had fought with the L.V.F. (Legion des Volontaires Francais; Legion of French Volunteers) against the Red Army on the Eastern Front during World War II. He knew something about what it takes to go up against a strong opponent in difficult circumstances .

What he was saying that afternoon in 1982 was that if you hope to win in a fight, it takes more than pious sentiments.

Those Who Help Themselves

It has seemed desirable to tell this little story by way of preface to the present article because the article has to do with the role the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Our Lady of Victory and under other titles, has played in the military defense of the Faith against two of its greatest historical enemies, Mohammedanism and Protestantism. As we shall see, that role has sometimes been direct and even visible. It was the case at Czestochowa in Poland in 1655. More often, the thought of Our Lady has served to inspire men in much the way the memory of loved ones at home would do. On every occasion her intercession was sought through prayer. Think, in this regard, of the countless rosaries famously recited prior to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Prayers of petition are answered, of course, and a Catholic is bound to believe that those offered before Lepanto were heard, and that Our Lady — specifically, she as Our Lady of Victory — responded. That is, she was petitioned, and she in turn petitioned her Son, Who denies her nothing. We all know the outcome: a Christian triumph. (Knowing the outcome does not mean the story of Lepanto, or Czestochowa, is not worth retelling. Stories that stir an appreciation of heroism are always worth being retold. That is why both Lepanto and Czestochowa figure in the article that follows. Besides, there is always someone who has not heard the stories before.)

The question is whether it was the action of Our Lady, by itself, that secured the outcome. Was Christian victory foregone, almost as if there was no point to the warriors at Lepanto actually fighting the battle, as soon as all the prayers for it wafted Heavenward? Given the way the story of Lepanto is sometimes told, anyone inclined toward sentimentalism could be excused for reaching that conclusion. Doubtless the conclusion is reinforced when it is known Pope St. Pius V instituted a Feast of Our Lady of Victory in commemoration of the battle.

We may be allowed to believe that if Pope St. Pius were alive today, he would be the first to teach that such a conclusion is dangerous as well as sentimental.

It is dangerous because it is apt to make the doubtful more so. This is to speak of wavering souls who may tentatively accept that Our Lady of Victory secured the triumph at Lepanto, but will then wonder why God, if He really exists, allowed a storm to sink the Armada of Philip II on its way to England in 1588. As far as that goes, what about the defeat in the Malvinas of an army that had Our Lady as Commander-in-Chief? Even if the generals were incompetent, could she not prevail? Or did the Spanish and Argentines somehow forget to pray to her on these occasions? And what about the knights of yore who repeatedly set out to liberate lands of the formerly Christian East from the rule of their Mohammedan conquerors? Only the First Crusade ended in success.

As for the sentimentalism that is involved, there is not much difference between concluding that at Lepanto practically nothing was owed to the fighting spirit and skill at arms of the warriors, but nearly everything to the power of the rosaries recited in Rome and elsewhere, and the notion that at the moment of death it does not much matter what a man believes or what manner of life he has led. He will shoot straight to Heaven anyway as long as he was “sincere” or maybe simply if his friends and loved ones wish for it.

Deathbed conversions do occur and victories are snatched from the jaws of defeat, and no Catholic will doubt that Our Lady may have a role in either event. But unless we are going to be sentimental about these things, it seems more certain that when a man goes into battle or faces death some other way, she expects him to be prepared.

Beads and Bullets

Lest it be concluded this writer is without piety, let me tell another story, one that is appropriate to our subject and also has to do with the Malvinas war. I heard it directly from the lips of a young priest who was a chaplain with the Argentine army during the fighting.

To appreciate the story, the reader needs to know that if the Argentine fighting men at the front were not equipped with night-vision goggles, all of them did have rosaries. As would be expected of an army with Our Lady as Commander-in-Chief, they were issued to every recruit along with the rest of his gear after induction. Since they were meant for use in rugged conditions, the beads were made of metal. At least one of the soldiers, as we shall see, wore his around his neck.

I no longer remember in which engagement of the war this incident took place, but in one of the battles a particular Argentine position was finally overwhelmed by superior firepower, but only after virtually every defending soldier was wounded or killed. One of the wounded was also unconscious for a time. As he returned to consciousness, he heard sporadic small-armsfire nearby. He raised his head to see what was happening, and was instantly horrified. What he saw was a company of Gurkhas, the tough little Nepalese who have been doing dirty work for the British army for generations, walking among the fallen Argentines and shooting any who still moved. For the soldier who saw this, there was nothing to do except stick his face back in the mud, play dead and pray like crazy, hoping that he had not been spotted.

He hoped in vain. Within moments one of the Gurkhas was standing over him. In another moment the Gurkha fired. The bullet was meant for the base of the soldier’s skull — exactly where the metal beads of his rosary had ridden up the back of his neck and lay under the hood of his cold-weather parka. I am not a physicist, and neither was the priest who told me about this, so I cannot offer a scientific explanation of what happened, but somehow those metal beads deflected the bullet. It did not penetrate. The soldier was knocked unconscious again, and had a very sore neck afterwards, but he was not even wounded by this bullet, much less killed.

I am glad I am not a physicist. As a mere Catholic I can believe this story as it was related to me and as I have told it without feeling obliged to understand the “scientific” reason why the bullet was deflected. The point of my passing on the story here is twofold. First, we can extrapolate from it. That is, if we can see in small scale the possibility of Our Lady’s intercession as explaining the event, whatever the physics involved, it becomes easier to believe that action by her can help account for something far larger in scale, like the outcome of an entire battle or even a war. Yet — this is the second point — let it be observed that if a miracle took place on that Malvinas battlefield, the young soldier also acted in several ways to open up, so to speak, the possibility of it occurring. He prayed; he had elected to wear the rosary around his neck instead of sticking it in a backpack or someplace else where it would be out of mind as well as out of sight; and, not least of all, he had in him what it took to lie there with his face in the mud instead of trying to run or crawl away or, worst of all, get to his knees and beg for his life. (Prisoners were not being taken. Had he begged, no doubt he simply would have been shot between the eyes.)

Prodigal Europe

Insofar as we are speaking of the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the military defense of the Faith against two of its greatest historical enemies, Mohammedanism and Protestantism, we are bound to talk about wars and battles that have taken place where these enemies most often posed a threat: in and around the heartland of the Faith, Europe. Today there is hardly a corner of the world where the Faith is not practiced, if only by a few and even if it is underground. It may very well be, as sometimes is claimed, that some of today’s most fervent Catholics live in places where they have never been numerous and “religious freedom” as it is known in America and Europe does not exist; that the lukewarm and backslid are found mostly where it does. Certainly it is easy for the casual traveler in today’s Europe to conclude that life there has become “post-Catholic”. The poor attendance even at Sunday Mass celebrated almost anywhere in Europe outside a Traditional chapel is one evidence. That a weekday Mass is unlikely to be found outside big cities in a country like Spain is another. Then there is the disastrously low birth-rate everywhere in the Catholic parts of Europe, and the not-so-gradual replacement of native populations by Mohammedans and other non-Catholics. Does such evidence suggest that whatever was the outcome of the past battles we shall talk about, a larger “war” is being lost; that however many graces Our Lady formerly obtained for her sons in the Faith’s heartland, she has ceased to be active on their behalf? The question demands to be considered before we proceed. After all, if the larger “war” is being lost, what do the past successes matter?

An answer lies where the casual visitor or tourist will not see it. His tour bus will stop at Notre Dame in Paris where, yes, he will see no one but other tourists, but it will not take him, even in Paris, to the Miraculous Medal Chapel in the rue du Bac, much less to Lourdes or Fatima or to any other of Europe’s great Marian shrines built in places personally visited by Our Lady. If it did, he would see the places packed. He would see unending crowds flocking to them, today as ever.

What is the point? Perhaps the crowds can be likened to a man who has been on his own for some years (as Europe has been Catholic for centuries), a man who feels he has outgrown all the prayers and devotions he once learned from his mother and no longer practices, but who has to admit to himself that on his rare visits to the family home he is strangely affected and even comforted by the little bowl of holy water beside the door and the statuette of Our Lady that all members of the household must pass when they go upstairs to bed. This man is accustomed to using language that once upon a time would have been heard in few places outside a barracks, but at dinner, with his mother at one end of the table, he keeps his tongue under control. What is most curious is that in this man’s mind there is a connection he cannot define between the lady at the end of the table and the one depicted by the statuette on the stairs.

Give this man time and maybe some trouble in life — and in whose life is it lacking? — he may well join a crowd thronging a shrine where a larger statue commemorates a visit to the premises by the one depicted. The man, being “grown-up,” may be too embarrassed to let friends know he was ever at the shrine, but he will not be able to deny to himself that he feels much the same way there as when visiting his mother’s house: at home.

That the man’s experience is one not easily had by Americans — there is no place in our country ever known for sure to have been visited by Our Lady — is a matter to which we shall later return. Right now a point is being made.

We all know what it means when someone asks, usually when things could not be more dismal, “Are we having fun yet?” It means it is impossible to set out in a determined way to have fun and then actually to have it. Our expectation will interfere. What we actually experience will never equal it. Failure will be more complete the more determined we were. In a similar way, determined but misguided Churchmen set out a few decades ago to make the Faith more “relevant”. They merely succeeded in making it entirely irrelevant to the lives of countless men — in Europe, as elsewhere. As a result, hardly anyone not born Catholic can now see the point of being one, and many born in the Faith no longer see much reason for practicing it, or practicing it with much dedication. This does not mean, however, that Catholicism is “dead,” that graces are no longer obtained by the faithful seeking them. There would be no crowds flocking to the Marian shrines of Europe were it so. In a word, none of the past battles fought for Our Lady were fought to no lasting end. None of the blood shed for her, and with her name on the lips of a dying warrior, was shed futilely. The crowds bespeak a future that can be more glorious than any past. The state of the Church today, the institutional Church produced by the misguided Churchmen of the past forty years, should not obscure that.

Of course the cynic may observe that nearly everybody in all the crowds is seeking something for himself: a favor, a cure, relief from some suffering. The cynic has no understanding of how God works. One of the reasons He allows suffering is that some men never think to pray except when they have trouble. If their pain draws them to Him, it serves its purpose. The truth of this was once eloquently expressed by a great novelist who has never been well known in English, Leon Bloy. In a book he wrote about one place visited by Our Lady, La Salette, high in the mountains of France, he said, “The stars are never closer to us than when we look at them with tears in our eyes.”

Mary, Quite Military

To speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary as we are doing, which is to say, as having a role in the armed defense of the Faith over the centuries, may be surprising to some. If so, it is doubtless on account of how we tend to think of her these days. How is that?

A figure in the Old Testament whom the Church has seen as foreshadowing Our Lady is Esther, she who won clemency for her people from King Assuerus by her beauty, gentleness and prayers. Is that not how we tend to think of Mary mostly, or even exclusively, nowadays: beautiful Mary, gentle Mary, prayerful Mary?

Yet, the Church has also seen Our Lady prefigured in Judith, she who saved the inhabitants of Bethulia from massacre by beheading Holofernes with his own sword. We do nowadays tend to forget Judith as a figure of Mary. Even more, we forget that the Church traditionally has applied to Mary the expression from the Canticle of Canticles, “terrible as an army set in battle array.”

The expression was remembered by Bl. Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac, the heroic Archbishop of Zagreb, Croatia, imprisoned for fourteen years by the Communist government of Yugoslavia after World War II because the militancy of his Catholicism led him into such political incorrectness that almost nobody outside Croatia dares to venerate him publicly, despite the official declaration of his beatitude in 1998. Recalling the 16th-century Mohammedan invasion and subsequent occupation of the lands which constituted former Yugoslavia, he once said: “The invasion by the Turks could have been enough to wipe us completely off the map, and yet we can testify to four centuries of a resistance unparalleled in history. Who can claim we could have achieved this through our own unaided strength? Surely it was, on the contrary, thanks to the help of her of whom the Church speaks as ‘terrible as an army set in battle array’.”

Surely it was. Let it be underlined, however, that the Christians of whom the Cardinal spoke — especially the Catholic Croatians — did not pray to Our Lady for her aid and then themselves do nothing. They resisted.

As it happens, the particular Mohammedan invasion of Europe of which the Cardinal spoke — at least one thrust of it — was halted in Croatia at Fiume, a town on the Adriatic coast. More specifically, it got no further than a sanctuary consecrated to Our Lady of Trsat. This was in 1527. At and around the sanctuary is where the Croatians were finally able to hold some ground, interdicting the Mohammedan advance. The sanctuary itself was built to mark one of the stages of the Holy House of Nazareth on its miraculous way to Loreto, where it can be seen today at another shrine consecrated to Our Lady (Our Lady of Loreto).

War on Two Fronts

The Mohammedan threat to the Faith in its heartland began almost as soon as the false religion arose in the 7th century. This was with a gigantic pincers movement up the Iberian Peninsula into France in the west, and northward across the eastern Mediterranean lands of the Byzantine Empire, toward the Balkans, in the east. Early in the 8th century, however, this menacing advance was halted in both east and west — at Constantinople in the east in 718, and at Poitiers in France in 732.

In the 5th century, Byzantine Emperor Leo I built a magnificent church in Constantinople, the Holy Reliquary, to enshrine the veil of Our Lady. In effect, the entire church was a reliquary. Our Lady would be honored in this church for 1,000 years under the title strategos, Greek for commander in war. To understand why, it only needs to be known that even before the victory in 718, the Mohammedans had mounted other unsuccessful attacks on Constantinople. (One, which took place in 678, is still commemorated in the liturgy of the Eastern Church.) Whenever they were under attack, the people of the Byzantine capital would venerate Our Lady — their strategos — with a procession of her veil through the city’s streets, beseeching her in prayer to obtain Heaven’s protection.

It was after such a procession in 718 and on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, the patronal feast of the Holy Reliquary Church, that the Mohammedans raised their siege. Their losses had been devastating. In fact, so decisive was this Christian victory on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption in 718 that it would not be until 700 years later, in 1453, that Constantinople finally fell to the Turks. If the city fell then and after an icon of Our Lady was carried around the city’s ramparts, we should remember that by 1453 Constantinople was no longer in union with Rome. More than one commentator has seen its disappearance from history as a center of Christian civilization as reflective of the spiritual state into which it fell when it chose schism. However, 1453 may also be seen as a measure of God’s mercy and patience insofar as four centuries did elapse between the schism and the final Mohammedan conquest.

(The Mohammedan conquerors would completely destroy the Holy Reliquary Church so that there is no trace of it today. As for the veil, it had earlier been given by a Byzantine emperor to a king of France and is enshrined at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres.)

The victory in the west at Poitiers in 732 was more definitive than the one in Constantinople in 718 because the Mohammedans would never penetrate more deeply into Europe from that direction. Preparations for the battle included the erection of numerous altars for the celebration of Holy Mass, and the battle itself took place on a Saturday, the day of the week that belongs to Mary. Charles Martel, the victor that day, credited his triumph to her. (Of course he would. A real warrior is never boastful.)

The Saracens would advance into western Europe no further than Poitiers, but it would be a time before they were driven entirely from France. King Pepin had expelled most of them by 753, the year he founded an abbey, Notre Dame de la Paix, in thanksgiving. It would be his successor, the great Charlemagne, who eliminated the last pockets of Mohammedans from France. In 778 his campaign met the stubborn resistance of a particular Saracen prince. Rather than continue to try to defeat him militarily, Charlemagne decided to try to convert him. The mission was entrusted to the Bishop of Le Puy and was successful, thanks to Our Lady. “I am her servant,” the bishop told the Saracen prince, “be you her soldier.” As a Christian, the Saracen took the name of Lorda, which became the name of the fief, the territory, of which he was lord. From Lorda we derive the name of Lourdes, the seat now of one of the greatest of Marian shrines.

Her Reign in Spain

The Mohammedans were gone from France, but on the other side of the Pyrenees the last of them would not be expelled from Spain until 1492. To be sure, there were before then many notable Christian victories during the centuries of what is known by the Spanish as the Reconquista, the Reconquest. One of the first was at Covadonga in Asturias in 718. This victory was attributed to the help obtained for the warriors by the Madonna of Covadonga, who came to be called throughout Christian Spain Our Lady of Battles. In August, 1989, while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Pope John Paul II stopped at Covadonga. He said on that occasion: “Covadonga is one of the foundation stones of Europe. It is why, in my pilgrimage to Compostela, to the sources of Christian Europe, I confidently lay at the feet of the Madonna of Covadonga, the project of a Europe that has not rejected the Christian roots from which it grew.”

The Reconquista really began in a serious way to turn back the Mohammedan tide in the second half of the 11th century. As the tide receded, chapels dedicated to Our Lady marked the withdrawal. They were like milestones of it. King Jaime of Aragon built more than a thousand. King St. Ferdinand of Castile and Aragon would build still more. (This warrior-monarch and canonized saint, who died in 1252, never rode into a fight without a statuette of Our Lady of Battles lashed to his saddle.)

Of course when the last Moorish kingdom in Spain, Granada, was defeated in 1492, it was by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Los Reyes Catolicos, in whose name that same year Christopher Columbus would claim the New World, our part of the world, for Christ and His mother. By this act of Columbus, serving as the agent of a Power even higher than Ferdinand and Isabella, the lands of the Americas were destined to become Catholic. All did. Even our own part of North America fulfilled this destiny for a time, thanks to the exertions of the Spanish and also the French. If we were eventually diverted, may our return to the historical course first set for us be a milestone in the Reconquest of Christendom!

We must not neglect to speak here of Portugal, another Iberian country whose captains and missionaries would fight and labor to make so much of the world outside Europe, including a large portion of this Hemisphere, Catholic. The Reconquest in Portugal was begun in 1143 by King Alfonso, called the Conqueror. He vowed that if he conquered the city of Santarem he would build a monastery in honor of Our Lady, which he did. When Lisbon capitulated to him he saw to the establishment of two churches, both consecrated to Our Lady, one of them in what had been the Moors’ chief mosque in the Portuguese capital.

The Battle of Belgrade

Even as the Reconquest of Iberia was ending, the Mohammedan pressure on Europe’s eastern flank was increasing following the fall of Constantinople. For a time it was successfully resisted. For instance, the Hungarian knight John Hunyadi valiantly beat off a Turkish advance on Belgrade in 1456, for which victory Pope Callistus III ordered the daily Angelus to be recited at midday because that was the hour when the Mohammedans were vanquished. Of the Catholics who still recite the Angelus at noon, how many know why they do it at that hour? How different would be the world today had John Hunyadi’s victory been definitive? (Certainly there would not have been U.S. troops in Bosnia and Kosovo these past several years shoring up Mohammedan power in Europe.)

Alas, it was just then that the greatest ruler the Turks ever produced came on the scene. This was in 1520. The Sultan in question is called by history Suleiman the Magnificent. Belgrade fell to his troops in 1521. There followed in 1526 the awful defeat of the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs. Hungary’s King Louis II was killed in this battle and his capital, Budapest, was soon sacked by the Turks. Suleiman’s land assault on Europe would be stopped before he could reach Vienna, but it would be centuries before much of Hungary and most of the Balkans would be freed from the oppression of the Mohammedan yoke. That our government is now shoring up Mohammedan power in any part of the region should shame every Christian in the U.S.

Even as Suleiman was consolidating Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the Mediterranean Sea was fast becoming a Turkish lake. Suleiman took the Island of Rhodes in 1522 and soon afterwards barely missed capturing Malta, which was all that stood between him and Italy. The Turks fell back in the direction of Cyprus and Crete, which were then colonies of the Republic of Venice. Cyprus by itself would be springboard enough for the Ottoman conquest of Europe, if it were captured. The danger was made the more acute because by now the unity of Western Christendom was broken. Following the Protestant Revolt, commonly referred to as the Reformation, there was the series of conflicts we know as the Wars of Religion. Christendom was no longer united in the face of the Mohammedan threat. Its sons were fighting among themselves. We shall presently consider the Protestant military threat to the Faith, but before that we cannot leave off discussing the Mohammedan one without speaking of the Battle of Lepanto, as we said we would.

War at Sea

The battle took place in 1571, by which time Suleiman had been succeeded by his son Selim. Hearing the previous year that Selim’s forces were attacking Cyprus, Pope St. Pius V summoned his cardinals to consider what ought to be done in the face of the threat.

It needs to be remembered at this juncture that Pope St. Pius was not simply head of the Church on earth. In the 16th century the popes still wielded temporal power. When it was decided that he would call on Philip II of Spain for help, he did so as ruler to ruler as well as pope to Catholic monarch. It was decided to call on Philip because Spanish troops based in Sicily were the Christian force that could most easily be deployed into the eastern Mediterranean. Philip agreed to the deployment.

A fleet of papal, Venetian and Spanish ships was assembled to transport the men. The Spanish ships were put under the command of an Italian, Andrea Doria. That did not please the Venetians because he hailed from the city that was their chief commercial rival, Genoa. So there was tension among the commanders from the beginning.

After the fleet set out it got no farther than Crete when it was learned that Nicosia, the principal city on Cyprus, had fallen to the Turks on September 8 and that a massacre had followed. Admiral Doria decided unilaterally to withdraw. He sailed away with his ships.

When word of the development reached the Pope, he immediately dispatched envoys to the courts of Europe seeking additional help to press a naval offensive against the Turks to prevent them from projecting their power from Cyprus, should the entire island fall to them. The kings of Spain and Portugal were agreeable, but asked that any action be postponed because so many of their resources were committed to their colonizing enterprises in the New World and Africa. The king of France was unresponsive and suffered a papal rebuke because of it. After a long delay Emperor Maximilian in Vienna agreed to attack the Turks, but only by land. Finally, Pope St. Pius prevailed on Philip II not to postpone his further assistance.

So that the division of forces that resulted from Doria’s defection during the first expedition would not repeat itself, Pope St. Pius decided to name a single commander for the new one. This was Don John of Austria, a natural son of the abdicated Emperor Charles V and therefore a half-brother of Philip. On July 11, 1571, Pope St. Pius conveyed a pontifical banner to the mustering forces. “Go forth in the name of Christ to combat His foes,” was the Pope’s accompanying message on this occasion. “You will be victorious.”

The fleet that eventually set out consisted of 208 galleys. The Turks would have 300. Aboard the Christian ships were 50,000 sailors and 31,000 soldiers. Prior to sailing, there was a fast of three days and confession and Holy Communion were made available to everyone. More than 80,000 men made confession and received Communion.

Scarcely had the fleet set sail when the Pope received the news that Famagusta, the last Christian stronghold on Cyprus, had fallen. That made victory over the Turks all the more imperative. The Pope called on confraternities of the Holy Rosary to pray and then to double their prayers. When he judged that the fleet was probably near to making contact with the Turks, he ordered convents and monasteries in Rome to keep a vigil of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. On their side, the Turkish commander, Ali Pasha, was incredulous when he heard the Christian fleet was looking for him. After the way the expedition of the previous year had fallen apart, he could not believe the Christians had found the courage to challenge Ottoman naval power.

The fleets found each other and the battle took place on Sunday, October 7, in the Gulf of Lepanto at the western end of the larger Gulf of Corinth. All over Catholic Europe rosaries were being prayed for a successful outcome. On the Christian ships chaplains led the fighting men in the same prayer until the last minute. Don John, who was flying the standard of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his flagship, now raised the pontifical banner, the one given on July 11, as his battle ensign. Thousands of male voices greeted the sight with cheering.

Naval battles in those days were still fought like land engagements, not from over the horizon as in our age of computer-guided missiles. The opposing fleets would approach each other in close formation. This was the task of the sailors: to bring the ships to where combat would take place. Then it was for the generals and soldiers to fight. On October 7, 1571, the Christian warriors fought brilliantly. Twenty-five thousand Mohammedans were killed or wounded, 5,000 were taken prisoner, 90 infidel ships were sunk and another 130 captured. On the Christian side there were 8,000 killed or wounded — less than a third of the casualties suffered by the enemy. (For a complete account of Lepanto and some of the other battles mentioned in this article, the reader cannot do better than turn to A Military History of the Western World, by Gen. J.F.C. Fuller, a work I have recommended in the pages of From the Housetops before now. This is to speak of an account of the military side of the battles. In terms of the specific Catholic dimension, much of what is read here is drawn from a talk delivered some years ago by Pierre Berger, a retired admiral of the French navy, a text of which appeared in Approches, the wonderful publication that was edited by the late Hamish Fraser. That text is not now at hand, but the inspiration provided by Admiral Berger is indelible.)

At the very time the Cross triumphed that Sunday afternoon in the Gulf of Lepanto, Pope St. Pius was conferring with his treasurer. So the world has been told. It is said His Holiness suddenly cut off the conversation, went to a window, seemed to be listening, and then cried: “Run and give thanks to God in His church. Our army has won the victory!” Of course, it is always emphasized, the army did not win unaided. That is why Pope St. Pius intended that the Battle of Lepanto would be commemorated every year with a Feast of St. Mary of Victory. However, his successor, Gregory XIII, named the feast Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and authorized its celebration only for churches that would dedicate a special altar for it.

Many Catholics today believe the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary is a direct result of the victory at Lepanto. However, although Turkey would never be the same powerful menace at sea that she was before Lepanto, the Mohammedan threat to Europe did not end on October 7, 1571. In fact, not until Austria’s Prince Eugene defeated the Turks at Peterwardein in 1716 was the Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary extended to the Universal Church by Pope Clement XI in thanksgiving for that victory. Before then, however, still another Marian feast would come to be universally celebrated on account of a Christian victory over the Mohammedans.

Coffee and the Crescent

That was in Vienna in 1683. Fortuitously, the pope of the day, Innocent XI, had just brokered an alliance between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Poland, which was also menaced by the Mohammedans. When it became known that no fewer than 300,000 Turks were advancing on the imperial capital, Pope Innocent ordered that rosaries be recited in the religious houses and churches of Rome. The same prayers of supplication were offered throughout the Empire. Still, the situation was so dangerous that the imperial court left Vienna for Passau and took refuge there. Meantime, there were special devotions at the Capuchin Church in Vienna to Our Lady Help of Christians, whose famous picture hangs there. It would become the symbol of the victory over the Turks by Poland’s King John Sobieski when he arrived on the scene after a series of forced marches from Czestochowa.

The Polish army hit the numerically superior Turkish force with their surprise attack so hard, the Turks panicked. They did not simply withdraw from the walls of Vienna, they fled. (It is an aside, but of some cultural significance, that such was the Turkish flight, they left behind virtually all their stores and baggage. This is when the Viennese, Europe’s most famous coffee-drinkers, discovered the stuff. The Turks left quantities of it in their stores when they ran.) More to the point, in thanksgiving for the help given by the Mother of God for the victory at Vienna, which was won on her feast day, the 30th day after the Assumption, Pope Innocent extended the feast in honor of the Holy Name of Mary to the Universal Church.

The universal Feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary may not be linked directly to Lepanto as many believe, but something else was. When Friday abstinence from meat was the obligatory rule for Catholics, subjects of Spain, including in her overseas dominions, were exempted as a reward for the Spanish contribution to the defeat of the Mohammedans at Lepanto.

The Counter-Reformation

We want to give consideration now to the role of Our Lady in the armed fight against the second great historical threat to the Faith that has existed after Mohammedanism: Protestantism. In our ecumaniacal days it is not customary to speak of Protestantism in such terms — as a threat or enemy — but before these days, as recently as 1955, in a letter from Pope Pius XII to the Bishop of Augsburg, Germany, His Holinesss did not hesitate to describe the Protestant Revolt as “the most baleful event which could ever have happened to Western Christendom and its civilization.”

Since it is of the Blessed Virgin Mary that we speak in this article, we ought to note the unenviable uniqueness of Protestantism in her regard. Earlier heresies did not attack her in the same way the Protestants did. Scholars and theologians might attack one another furiously, but among those claiming the Christian name — even among Nestorian heretics — popular devotion (though not “true devotion”) to the Blessed Virgin Mary still existed. That changed only in the 16th century with the Protestant Revolt. Almost as if in reaction, Mary became involved in the defense of Catholic Europe to a greater extent than ever.

(An illuminating little story used to be told by the late Rev. Aldo Petrini, for many years the pastor of the Church of St. Mary Mother of God, the church in downtown Washington, D.C., where the “indult Mass” has been celebrated since Advent, 1988. When it was decided the Archdiocese of Washington would become part of a local, so-called interfaith group following Vatican II, the Archbishop of the day, Patrick O’Boyle, named Fr. Petrini to the body. The first meeting of the group attended by Father was also the occasion of his first visit to a Protestant church. He observed immediately that there were no statues or pictures of Our Lady in the place. Then he saw that her Son was also absent. He was not even present — there was no corpus — on the one cross visible in the church. “I wasn’t surprised,” Father would say. “He wasn’t going to stay anyplace where they had thrown out His mother.”)

It is interesting: If we consult an historical atlas and look at a map of Europe of the kind that shows the Catholic and Protestant parts of the Continent when the wars of religion were finally over, we see that the Catholic parts are those where devotion to Mary is known to have been the most intense. The parts that went Protestant were places — like Prussia — where such devotion was never notably strong or had been deteriorating for a century before the “Reformation”. (It is also interesting — this is a point Hilaire Belloc often made — that most of Protestant Europe consists of places — like Prussia — that lay outside the borders of the old Roman Empire. That is with the exception of England, the only former province of the Empire that apostatized. Had she not, our part of North America would probably never have been diverted from its original Catholic destiny.)

Protestantism was the greatest threat to Europe in German-speaking lands of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire. Fortunately, St. Peter Canisius was on the scene. Under his inspiration, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary became the heart of the Catholic counter-offensive against Protestantism. One of its bastions was the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Hermits at Einsiedeln south of Zurich. In the Middle Ages this Marian shrine rivaled Compostela in the number of pilgrims it attracted. Another bastion of devotion to Mary in the Empire was the shrine of Our Lady of Mariazell in Austria. She is the Virgin of the Danubian lands. It was to Mariazell that Emperor Ferdinand II went to renew an earlier vow made to Our Lady of Loreto to restore the Catholic Faith throughout his empire. The Emperor was not alone. The prayers of hordes of pilgrims helped save the Faith in the Empire at this time.

(“Helped” once again is the operative word. Battles still needed to be fought, and were. And the Faith was never “restored” in the sense that Protestantism would disappear, that there would be only the One True Church in the Empire as formerly, but it would be saved. That to the degree that when, after 1,200 years, the Empire’s final dissolution was demanded by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as a condition for peace at the end of World War I, there was no mistaking that what was being dissolved was Catholic; that it was in fact, among the family of nations, the last Catholic world power.)

The time of which we are speaking is the early years of the Thirty Years’ War. During this period, in 1620, there was a tremendously important victory when Catholic forces crushed the Protestant army of Frederick V, Elector Palitine and King of Bohemia, at White Mountain west of Prague. The battle cry of the Catholics at White Mountain, as it often was in the armed contests of this time, was “Sancta Maria!” Further, it was her image emblazoned on their banners.

Another shrine dedicated to Our Lady, one on the German-Dutch border, became another bastion against the Calvinists. This was Our Lady of Kavelaer. The German provinces south of there, provinces of the lower Rhine, doubtless remained faithful due to help from her. Today it is the most visited Marian shrine in Germany.

La Rochelle

Outside the Empire, the Protestant threat to Catholic Europe was most dangerous in France. She is the Church’s eldest daughter, after all. The loss of France would have been disastrous, and lost she nearly was. At one point the Protestants actually controlled physical territory — a Protestant state within the state. Their stronghold and de facto capital was La Rochelle on France’s Atlantic coast.

Because it was on the coast, the Protestant English were able to provide much logistical support to the French Protestants by sea. This made besieging La Rochelle tactically difficult, but in May, 1627, King Louis XIII put his army under the protection of Our Lady, distributed 15,000 rosaries to his troops, and undertook a campaign to bring the rebellious city back under Catholic governance. In Paris a special rosary was led by the archbishop. Present and joining in the prayers were the Queen, two cardinals and much of the rest of the French hierarchy. In October the King promised to build a chapel to Our Lady of Deliverance if she would help him by securing an end to England’s support for the Protestant stronghold.

When victorious loyal and Catholic troops were finally able to enter La Rochelle, they sang a hymn to Our Lady and at the head of their triumphal procession was a banner bearing the words, “Rejoice, Mary, you alone have destroyed every heresy.” In December, 1629, King Louis laid the cornerstone in Paris of the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires, Our Lady of Victories, in thanksgiving for La Rochelle’s deliverance. Even before then, and in view of the support the Protestants received from their English co-religionists, the faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, had proclaimed the victory to be “a miracle owed to the Rosary”.

(It may well have been that, but as with the wounded Argentine soldier in the Malvinas, we have seen various acts of King Louis that “opened up” the possibility of it. Most of all, he never lifted the siege of the city. He kept pressing it. In a word, he acted as if victory depend ed on nothing but his generalship and the fighting skill and valor of his men. Research for this article did not disclose why Louis named the church in Paris Our Lady of Victories (plural) when it was built in thanksgiving for the outcome of a particular battle. Perhaps the King wished to hail Our Lady’s role in the outcome of other battles as well as La Rochelle, like Lepanto, even as he supposed Christians might have recourse to her in future ones — unfailing recourse. In the 19th century, following the apparitions of Our Lady in the rue du Bac, the Church of Our Lady of Victories became for a time the world center for promoting devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.)

Queen of Poland

Because French and German-speaking lands are the heart of Catholicism’s heartland, Europe, it is easy to imagine the Faith might have endured nowhere if the Protestants had prevailed in them as they did in some of the German ones. Still, we must not neglect to speak of Poland, and to speak in tribute. Catholics everywhere recognize that the defense of their Faith and defense of their country have always been one and the same for the Poles, and that in fighting against the threats of Mohammedanism, Protestantism and schismatic Orthodoxy, they have been a bulwark for all Christendom. Where did they find the strength to fight again and again and again? The late Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, another heroic Catholic prelate who suffered at the hands of Communists after World War II, provided the answer when he once said, “The strength of Poland lies in her Mother and Queen, Our Lady of Czestochowa on the Mountain of Light, Jasna Gora.” Nothing more clearly demonstrates the truth spoken by the Cardinal than what happened in December, 1655.

Laying claim to Poland’s throne because he was related by blood to Poland’s kings, Sweden’s King Charles Gustavus had invaded the country. He was aiming at nothing less than the imposition of a Protestant regime on a Catholic nation. In December, 1655, one of his armies, a force of 3,000 men under the command of a general named Mueller, arrived at Czestochowa. Speaking of the monastery with its famous image of the Virgin and Child, the Protestant General Mueller declared, “We shall flatten this henhouse in three days.”

It was not an unreasonable thing for him to say because the monastery was poorly fortified and nobody was defending it except 70 elderly monks and 170 peasant soldiers. However, after six weeks of besieging the “henhouse,” Mueller gave up and marched away. What had happened? Some years later he was shown a reproduction of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa and said, “She is not in the least like the one who appeared to me. Her face had in it something divine, suffused in light, and it terrified me.” Evidently he had seen Our Lady fighting beside the monastery’s defenders — Our Lady “terrible as an army set in battle array.”

Four months after the victory at Jasna Gora, King Jan Casimir consecrated Poland to the Blessed Virgin Mary. If we consider how the country would later disappear from the map of Europe, reemerge for a time after World War I, only to be submerged again by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, would then have to suffer for a half century under totalitarian Communism and Soviet military occupation, but now once again is independent, her own mistress, we probably have to agree that Mary’s patronage has not failed, that she has been Poland’s strength, exactly as Cardinal Wyszynski said.

We have to agree, and yet we also have to observe that at Czestochowa in 1655, motley as were the monastery’s defenders, there were defenders for Our Lady to fight alongside; and in the centuries that followed, there were Poles who never stopped defending, not against the Russians or Germans or Nazis or Soviets or anyone else who thought the entire nation, compared to their power, amounted to no more than a “henhouse”. Our Lady, like God Himself, does tend to help those who help themselves.

The Western Front

Earlier in this article, a letter written in 1955 by Pope Pius XII to the Bishop of Augsburg was quoted. The occasion of the letter was the millennial anniversary of the Battle of Lechfeld in which Emperor Otto I beat off an attack on Christendom by the Magyars, who had not yet been converted. Here is another passage of the letter:

“Today, when Western civilization lies under a serious threat, the memory of the Battle of Lechfeld is as appropriate and as significant for these days when we proclaim our faith in Western culture as is the memory of the battle and victory won by Charles Martel in 732 at Poitiers or the brilliant triumph in 1683 under the walls of Vienna. We cannot refrain from repeating in respect of the West what we explained three years ago about European civilization, namely, that it will be authentically Christian and Catholic or it will be devoured in the giant conflagration of that other materialist civilization that has no other values than those of mass and sheer physical power.”

Two things must be remarked about this passage of a letter written less than fifty years ago. First, Pius begins it by speaking of Western civilization as lying under a “serious threat,” then goes on to pronounce himself as “proclaiming our faith in Western culture,” which is the same as “European civilization”. A half century later there is nobody, or nobody who matters — not the Pope in Rome or any political leader in any major capital — still proclaiming his faith in Western culture or civilization. Indeed, a mere decade after Pius’s letter, the Church herself seemed to say there was not much evidence it still existed, not as it was, when she abandoned the language of the West, Latin.

The second thing to remark is Pius’s reference to “that other materialist civilization.” Clearly, this “other materialist civilization” was the “very serious threat” under which Western (i.e. “authentically Christian and Catholic”) civilization lay in 1955. The threat of which he spoke was Communism. Of two materialist civilizations, it was the most dangerous at the time. But if it was simply one materialist civilization — the “other” one — which civilization posed an additional threat? It was the one that finally proved triumphant, the civilization of the West itself, the civilization of the West as it was then becoming and had been for nearly two centuries, to the extent it was no longer “authentically Christian and Catholic” but simply materialist.

Who would seriously contend today that there is anything “authentically Christian” about our civilization? No one who is reasonable. Yet, it is the mission of Christians, if they are mindful of Our Lord’s last commandment to His followers to baptize all nations, to work toward but one end after the salvation of their own souls. That is to make every civilization Christian, which is to speak of a civilization in which the Faith is lived. That means a civilization in which men live according to the will of God instead of their own.

We cannot hope at this point in history to baptize all nations, to make all civilization Christian, but we can do something about own own corner of it, and we can hope to have Our Lady’s assistance.

On what grounds? We have looked in this article at some history. We have seen some record, briefly traced, of Mary, in battle after battle, involved in her sons’ fight against two of the Faith’s greatest enemies. But they were her sons, they were warriors of a Christian civilization that already existed. The enemy today is a civilization that used to be Christian but is no longer. How can we hope Our Lady would assist us as she did John Hunyadi and John Sobieski and Don John of Austria?

Empress of the Americas

It was observed in this article that we Americans cannot have the experience of visiting a place where Mary has been because she has been no place in our country. All the places here talked about that she has graced with her presence were in lands which are Catholic, or were at the time, and America today is not. The nearest place we can go which has been visited by her is Mexico City.

Let it be observed now that when Our Lady of Guadalupe made her visitation, Mexico was no more Catholic than is the United States today. It was not still entirely in the grip of demons, but it was not yet Catholic. At the same time let us remember that by virtue of a decree of Pope Pius XII, Our Lady of Guadalupe was made as much our Celestial Monarch as she is the Mexicans’. That is, he declared her Empress of All the Americas. That was especially fitting since, for a long time, we were as Catholic as Mexico. Indeed, for a long time — all during the time Mexico was still Spanish and even afterward — much of today’s U.S. was part of Mexico.

A Battle Plan

With that in mind, there are some specific things for us to set about doing by way of making our civilization Christian, or Christian again. First, in our daily lives, in our work, in our relations with others, in all our behavior and all our acts — we must strive to uphold the standards of Christian civilization. This is in part a task of preservation, which by itself is noble. After all, if the standards are not upheld by men like ourselves, they will be by no one. If they are not, they will be lost forever. We must not allow that. Accordingly, we must realize we do not uphold them merely for ourselves. Upholding them also means that we insist, to the degree possible, that others in their dealings with us meet the standards. “Judaeo-Christian values”are not sufficient. Properly speaking, they do not even exist.

Besides being a task of preservation, by upholding the standards of Christian civilization we separate ourselves from civilization as it exists. In effect, we begin building another. In this way we become like our first ancestors in the Faith, the Christians of ancient Rome who could never have converted the world if they had let themselves be like it.

Second, opportunities for positively advancing the cause of Christian civilization, of moving our standards forward, are rare, but every one of them must be seized, every opening in our enemies’ lines must be exploited. Most will appear suddenly, unexpectedly. This means we have to be ready. We have to do what the Argentine army did not in 1982: train.

Third, we have to go on the offensive when the time is right, but only when it is. To try to do so when it is not, or when we are not ready — to go off half-cocked like the Argentine army — will make us as deserving of rebuke from our Supreme Commander as was St. Peter when he drew his sword impetuously.

Fourth and last, if all we can do for the time being is make like the Argentine soldier — lie still with our face stuck in the mud — we can emulate him another way by praying like mad.

It should not be merely for Our Lady to deliver us that we pray. Far more important, we should pray that she obtain for us the graces necessary to live according to the will of God, for if we so live we shall become subjects worthy of her Empresship as Our Lady of Guadalupe. If we become so, it is certain, whatever our present state as citizens of a land which is not now Catholic within a civilization which is no longer Christian, that as warriors we can call with the utmost confidence on her assistance as Our Lady of Victory.