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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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


Searching for Gravitas – How a Muslim Service Brought me Back to the Latin Mass

July 13, 2011

I may be a Latin enthusiast, but that really has no influence on me when I declare that the Latin Mass is one of the treasures of the Catholic Church.

I think the reason I like it so much is that it holds a profound sense of–to use a Latin word–gravitas, that is, a sense of seriousness and substance, of sublimity and otherworldliness.  Just behold the incense, the Latin prayers, the chanting, the kneeling during communion, even the very silence, and you will see that the traditional Latin Rite is imbued with a sense of something greater than ourselves and the world.  It’s something that makes us distinctly aware of Christ’s presence.  It’s an inspiration that we can carry with us even after Mass.

A few months ago, I admit that I was feeling a little disillusioned with Mass (the vernacular Mass of Vatican II), especially in college.  It certainly made me feel warm and fuzzy sometimes, with all the joyful singing and hug-it-out peace-be-with-you’s.  The feeling of being connected in a community gave me emotional highs of belonging and goodwill.  Yet these feelings were temporary.  Feelings of warmth and fuzziness don’t equal feelings of completeness or satisfaction.

It took me a visit to a Muslim service in South Bend to help me realize what was missing.  I was deeply struck by the stern imam, the deeply sincere prayer of submission, the Arabic chanting, even the respectful separation of men and women during worship.  All of it was imbued with a sense of gravitas.  Everyone knew why he or she was there and everyone demonstrated the properly respectful demeanor.  This is the gravitas to be found in the Latin Mass, and it’s something that I wanted.

It’s funny how an Arabic Muslim service helped lead me to the Catholic Latin Mass.

I think the Latin Mass is so essential today because it offers the gravitas that many Catholics yearn for, whether they realize it or not.  In our world of relativism, convenience, temporary emotional highs, and lack of commitment, the Latin Mass offers truth, substance, solidity, sacrifice.  These are the elements that I hope the Third Edition of the Roman Missal will recapture when it comes out on November 27.

No matter what, though, we should always remember the value of the Latin Mass.  Through it, the Catholic Church stands as one of the few institutions that offers gravitas in a world full of fickleness.  No big deal, though; it’s just another reason of why being Catholic matters.