Venice, 1571: When Merchants become Soldiers

February 14, 2012

Think about Venice, and some of the first images that come to mind are those of enterprising merchants, romantic gondoliers, and masked partiers.  (I saw a lot of masked partiers, at least, at Carnevale di Venezia last weekend!)

But did you know that the Venetians can also properly be known as saviors of Catholic Europe?

In 1571 — in the wake of the Protestant Reformation — Europe was in shatters. Protestant-Catholic infighting was tearing apart France and Austria.  Britain had established a new church revolving around the Queen, thereby effectively withdrawing from Christendom.  Spain, the last great Catholic country, was more interested in gold and silver in her colonies in the New World than in aiding her Catholic allies.

The Ottoman Turks knew this.  Christian Europe was divided, but the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa were united under Islamic rule.  Already the Ottomans were encroaching upon Austrian lands, and they had their eyes set upon ruling the Mediterranean with their superior navy.  It appeared that Europe — let alone Venice — could not possibly stand in their way.

Venice, that famed island city of capitalistic merchants, had always been more interested in money than war.  The Venetians had ignored the Pope’s calls for Crusade in previous centuries; the Muslims were customers of the Venetians, after all — “infidels” to be sure, but infidels with a pretty penny can make attractive clients.

But when the Ottomans seized Venice’s territory of Cyprus — massacring the garrison at Famagusta after it had surrendered in the process — the Venetian merchants finally shelved the abacus to strap on the armor and answered Pope Pius V’s call to form a Holy League in defense of Europe.  On October 7, 1571, 60,000 Venetian, Spanish, Maltese, Genoan, and Tuscan Catholics — rosaries in hand — clashed with 80,000 Ottoman Turks and Janissaries.  The point of conflict was a small bay in Greece called Lepanto.

Venice, the “new guys” as far as Catholic European coalitions go, still distinguished herself as a leader in battle.  It was a Venetian – Agostini Barbarigo – who commanded the Catholic left, and though he was killed by an arrow through the eye when he lifted his visor to issue orders, he had helped to ensure a smashing victory for the left wing of the Catholic navy.  It was the Venetian flags of St. Mark’s Lion that led the charge.

By late afternoon, the Christians, vastly outnumbered, lost 50 ships and 7500 men but freed about as many Christian prisoners.  The Ottomans, in a massive rout, suffered nearly 20,000 casualties and lost 210 ships.  When the Catholic navy’s ships docked at Venice — with Turkish flags trailing in the waters behind them — Europe was in celebration, and Pope Pius V would later declare October 7 the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, later to become Our Lady of the Rosary.

None of that could have happened if those Venetian merchants, gondoliers, and masked partiers had not put aside the distractions of their daily lives to answer the call to become soldiers for Christendom.

Today, we find ourselves in a spiritual battle, as Christendom ever finds itself under assault.  Christians continue to be persecuted by the Communist Party in China, while the rest of the world (outrageously) remains silent.  The media aims to discredit the Church’s authority through misguided and overblown scrutiny.  And in America, in the name of “freedom” and “justice,” the gift of marriage and the lives of the unborn continue to be ravaged by a confused generation.

Before he died, Pope John Paul II said that we were entering a new era of spiritual battle, when the forces of Satan would be stronger than ever.  This could be the last battle, or it could not be.  But as with any spiritual battle, we need fighting Catholics — Catholics willing to be soldiers for Christ in the way they live their daily lives.  The Venetians did it and succeeded.  If we pray and look to their example, so can we.

N.B.:  heavily relied on HW Crocker III’s account of the Battle of Lepanto for this blog post.  I recommend you read it, too, if you’re looking for a thrilling and inspiring read.

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Books Catholics Should Read: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire

January 16, 2012

If you’re looking for a provocative read, look no further than H.W. Crocker III’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.  Here, Crocker takes on the sacred cows of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and defends (as an American and a Catholic) the legacy of the British Empire.

Our modern world, and America in particular, seems to be extremely hostile towards the idea of empire.  America’s story begins with revolution against empire.  We love anti-imperial nationalist movies like Braveheart and Gandhi.  Our country gets caught in military quagmires when we “meddle” in international affairs (look at Afghanistan and Vietnam).  Aren’t FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and current presidential candidates like Ron Paul right  for trying to keep America isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist?

Wrong, declares Crocker.  For as he makes clear, the world would not be as humane and just today if not for the British Empire (and her if somewhat unwilling heir, the American Empire).  It was the British Empire that spearheaded the death of slavery across the world.  It was the British who promoted free markets in the New World and Hong Kong.  It was the British Empire that kept Hindus and Muslims from killing each other in India and tribes from warring with each other in Africa.  The British abolished widow-burning and child-abandonment.   The British brought infrastructure, hospitals, and schools to India while comprising less than 1% of the population. The British stood alone (at one point) against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan.  It was the British Empire that introduced ideas of democracy, limited government, and rights to America, Ireland, India, Africa, and Australia.

Sure, the British (almost arrogantly) believed in their own superiority, and they therefore sought to spread their civilization and culture to soften the harsh realities of the rest of the world.  But for an imperialist power, Britain was remarkably open-minded and lenient:  Her colonies could retain their social structures, governments, customs, and language, while gaining all the benefits of British progress and values.  It’s little wonder everyday citizens in Africa and India pined for the British to come back after they left.

The British were an inspired people.  And that, ultimately, is Crocker’s goal: to inspire his readers with the British example.  That is why at its heart, Crocker’s Guide is less of a history than a collection of mini-biographies of some of Britain’s most prominent figures.  These great men were extraordinarily diverse:  Crocker presents conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and atheists, pure-blood Brits and colonial-bred Aussies and Irish.  What ties them all together is their discipline, taste for adventure, brilliance, commitment to empire, and faith in British ideals and values that should be spread to the rest of the world.

H.W. Crocker III is quickly becoming my favorite historian for his swashbuckling, page-turning, and occasionally (and unabashedly) politically incorrect narratives of some of the world’s greatest stories.  (Check out his histories/biography of the Catholic Church, of the American military, of the Civil war, and of Confederate general Robert E Lee; you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out his comic novel The Old Limey while you’re at it).  You won’t be disappointed by his latest installment, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, either.

In short…
Content
: Survey of the history of the British Empire.
Style:  Section for each major region of the Empire (India, Africa, Middle East, Australia, Ireland), each with a short introductory chapter and three illustrious British men representing a region.  Readable yet elevated writing style.
Catholic?:  One might wonder how Crocker, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, could praise the British Empire, which persecuted famously Catholic countries like Ireland, but he meets these concerns head-on.  Moreover, he points out how English ideals are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Overall: 4/5


Where did the Rosary come from?

December 2, 2011

Last night, I did a multilingual rosary with some friends.  The question arose:  What was the original language of the rosary?  As a well-trained Classicist, I immediately answered “Latin,” but a friend responded right after that she thought the rosary originated in Ireland.  Turns out, none of us really knew from where the rosary came, so I decided to do some quick poking around online to find out.

Apparently, the origins of the rosary are pretty hazy.  Strings of beads were definitely used in pre-Christian times as aids in meditation and prayer (perhaps as early as 1700 BC, used by the cult of Shiva in India).  Early Christian hermits also seem to have used similar methods, like Paul of Thebes, who used pebbles to keep count of his prayers.  Eventually, prayer string beads gained popularity in Christian Europe through the 15th century, when they began to be called rosaria, or “rose gardens.”  (A “rosarium” designated any collection of similar material; a poetry anthology would be called a rosarium, e.g.)

St. Dominic

Tradition holds that Mary divinely revealed the rosary to St. Dominic.  But many Catholic historians dismiss that as legend, especially since St. Dominic is not usually associated with the rosary.  Most likely, the rosary as we know it developed slowly.  It was first used by religious orders to keep track of the 150 Psalms in the Bible.  Those who wanted to imitate the monks but were not literate enough to read the Psalms used the rosary for prayers they did know, such as the “Our Father,” as they reflected upon the lives of Christ and Mary.  (Our “Hail Mary” prayer originated from this; whenever the faithful began reflecting on the life of Mary, they offered the salutation that the Angel Gabriel offered Mary:  “Hail, full of grace!”)  Eventually, these elements — the psalms, the everyday simple prayers, and the reflections upon the lives of Christ and Mary — formed the rosary as we know it today.

When did the rosary explode in popularity?  In the 1500s, Eastern Europe was being ravaged by a Muslim assault, jeopardizing Europe’s control over the Mediterranean.  In 1571, Pope Pius V organized a fleet under the command of Don Juan of Austria and asked all the faithful to pray the holy rosary to implore the help of Mary, Our Lady of Victory.  Outnumbered but flying the blue flag of Christ crucified on their flagship, the Christians won a smashing victory at Lepanto on October 7, 1571, effectively crippling the Muslim Turkish threat to dominating the Mediterranean.  The next year, Pope Pius declared October 7 the Feast of the Holy Rosary, which is observed to this day.

I grew up praying the rosary with my family, and I love praying it with dear friends.  It’s a devotion to which all Catholics should commit themselves more.  The Holy Rosary and the divine intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary bring tremendous graces, and, as the Battle of Lepanto has shown, they can work incredible wonders.

further reading: History of the Rosary by Fr. William Saunders, The Holy Rosary: Origins from Holy Spirit Interactive, and Beads and Prayers: The Rosary in History and Devotion by John Desmond Miller.

also check out the thrilling account of Lepanto, 1571: The Battle that Saved Europe by H.W. Crocker III


5 Non-Religious Books to Make You a Better Catholic

September 9, 2011

St. Justin Martyr proclaimed that aspects of Truth can be found in the philosophies of even the pagans.  Indeed, in my own experience, my greatest understanding of Church teachings and values have come from non-Catholic — even non-religious — sources.

Below is a list of 5 books that, I think, have really made me into a better and prouder Catholic.  I also write this post to encourage you, too, to seek Truth even where Truth is not obviously manifested; St. Ignatius of Loyola urged us to find God in all things.  As we know, God can make Himself be known in the most unexpected of ways.

 

1)  Virgil’s Aeneid
The Ancient Roman nationalistic epic that immortalizes the Trojan Aeneas’ journey to fulfill his destinyPutting aside personal desire and doubts, Aeneas trusts in Fate and in pietas (duty to family, country, and the gods) and founds a new nation in Italy, a nation whose fame will be limited by the stars: Rome.

Everyone has an ideal, a comfort, a belief that drives them through life.  For me, it is my trust in God’s Providence.  The Aeneid really propagates the idea that there is a divine plan for us.  Even when we suffer, even when we are confused, we should have the humility to let go of our own ambitions and hesitations and allow Providence to take us where we’re meant to be.

The Catholic Church teaches that God puts us in certain situations for a reason.  He gives us certain talents, surrounds us with certain people, gives us certain duties because He wants us to do something with them.  This is the idea of Providence, and if we only use our free will to submit to God’s will, we can truly find who we are.

2) Keiichi Sigsawa’s Kino no Tabi
Novel series turned anime—follows Kino and her motorcycle Hermes as they travel from city to city.  Through her travels Kino sees how man destroys himself.  But she also finds beauty in the world, and she learns.  That’s why she keeps traveling.

This novel taught me to really reflect on my experiences and to learn from them.  As Catholics we are called to live in the world and do good works, but we are also called to withdraw into quiet contemplation and prayer every once in a while.  Kino no Tabi really gave me a joy in doing this.  Whenever I meet someone, whenever I experience something, I always take some time to ponder why.

3)  Beaumarchais’ The Figaro Trilogy
Three plays that celebrate the virtue and wit of the common man and woman against the foolishness and follies of the aristocracy.  Beaumarchais was a liberal, and The Figaro Trilogy became a precursor to the French Revolution.

What makes the Figaro Trilogy ironic is that though it helped fuel the French Revolution, which is oft-characterized by its venomous anti-Catholicism,  it yet promotes one of the hallmark virtues of the Catholic Church:  Forgiveness.  Two plays in the Trilogy — “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Guilty Mother”–explore the truth that the ones we love most are the ones who hurt us the most.  Yet we are always called to forgive, because ultimately forgiving and being together is more worth it than being vengefully bitter.

As Catholics we too are called to forgive each other.  And while the Church always holds us to high moral standards, She is also extremely generous in Her forgiveness. As the deathbed convert Oscar Wilde aptly stated:  The Catholic Church “is for saints and sinners alone.”

4)  Plato’s Republic
The Good, and how to find it in your soul and in society.

Written in the 4th century BC, this book obviously predates any sort of Christian institution.  Yet throughout its history, the Catholic Church has looked to Plato as a model for finding God.  For me, the Republic has served as a sort of guide.  I need to find God with my whole being, but only after I subjugate my passions and will to my conscience.  The Republic has also taught me that if one has truly ordered his/her soul well, the Good will show in his/her works and actions.

5)  HW Crocker III’s The Old Limey
The Old Limey follows the adventures of an old British general as he seeks his kidnapped goddaughter in the streets of LA.  He is hopelessly lost in the heroic idealism and glories of Britain’s past, which, set against the backdrop of the modernistic, materialistic, and pragmatic Southern California, looks ridiculously yet entertainingly absurd.

The Old Limey is actually written by a solid Catholic, H.W. Crocker III, yet it has no explicit Catholic message.  The Old Limey is brilliant because it is essentially a modern Don Quixote.  Don Quixote and Nigel Haversham both live and fight for ideals that their modern worlds have discounted.  As Catholics it is easy to feel like them:  The world is always telling the Church to modernize and progress, yet the Church continues to stay true to her teaching and values.  The Old Limey inspired me to really hold true to and fight for Catholic ideals, with the singular devotion of an old Spanish knight or British general.