“I love October.”
I keep hearing that around lately, and usually people are saying it in reference to the (slightly) changing weather we Texans supposedly experience about this time.
Well, I actually do love October, for a straight-up-Catholic-NERD reason: ya’ll, there are some pretty epic feast days.
St. Therese, the Guardian Angels, St. Francis of Assisi…and, my personal favorite, October 7th.
I say the date instead of the name, because the date is pretty essential to understanding why, exactly, I happen to totally geek out about this feast. The name of the feast has actually changed before, and the current title is a tad long-winded: The Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary.
Formerly known as Our Lady of Victory.
So-called because of the Battle of Lepanto.
(I am now making my EXCITED NERD face, but you can’t see it, so I thought I would just let you know.)
All right, all right – some of you are now wondering “What the heck IS Lepanto, anyway?”
I’ma try and un-complicate that explanation. It’s kinda long but totally worth it, read it in sittings if you have to. In fact, I’m even doing this in two parts again, to break it up a little. You should know about this. To keep you interested in the history lesson, there are little italicized snippets of Chesterton’s Lepanto, which is EPIC, and which you should read if you ever get the chance.
The year was 1571. Which meant there were basically two world powers: Christendom, and the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire was the name used to refer to the forces of Islam, and they were not interested in peace. They were in for total domination, and they were on a roll. The crescent flag had been edging its way toward Europe at a seemingly unstoppable pace, and the method used thus far had been simple: convert to Islam, or die. They had desecrated countless sanctuaries, murdered ruthlessly, and enslaved thousands of Christians: women and boys were sent to the harems, men to the ships as galley-slaves.
Christendom was falling apart, because it was no longer the alliance of Catholic monarchies it had been. Lutheranism had been raging across the continent for nearly 60 years, and Elizabeth was developing what would be known as Anglicanism in Britain. The throne of France was occupied by a Catholic-in-name only Charles IX, while the country was actually ruled by his mother, a woman described as “Macchiavellian.” Spain was ruled by Philip II, who was Catholic, but very much preoccupied with maintaining the empire his father had left him, including the Spanish claims in the New World. Venice was also a great power at the time, especially on the sea, but they were very protective of their individuality and independence.
The man sitting on the Chair of Peter in Rome, Pius V, saw all of this with alarming clarity. He knew the only response, and he made it: a call for a new crusade. But this crusade would not be to the Holy Land, this crusade would go to meet the forces of Islam in a place many had begun to consider them unbeatable: at sea. Pope Pius V called all of Christendom’s rulers to send men and ships to join a Holy League and stop the Ottomans before they could set foot on the soil of Europe.
“And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.”
The response was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic.
Everyone else had their own problems, and most of them felt they still had plenty of distance from the problem. But a series of Islamic atrocities galvanized Europe into action, and the task of choosing a commander for the patchwork Holy League fleet fell to the Pope.
One shudders to imagine the politics involved.
But with a brilliance inspired by the Holy Spirit, Pius V selected a man without a nationality, a great name, or even a real family: John of Austria.
“Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall.”
John of Austria was the illegitimate half-brother of the King of Spain. They shared a father, but John’s mother was Austrian and he had partly been raised in that country before being transplanted to the Spanish royal court, where his royal half-family could keep a close eye on him. Illegitimate half-bloods were not allowed a lot of leeway.
But John, in spite of the level of distrust with which he tended to be treated, turned out to be handsome, charming, popular, a fairly devout Catholic, and very loyal to his half-brother King.
Age at the time he was tapped by the Pope to command the Holy League: 24.
And THEN things got interesting.
The rest of the Lepanto-geek-out-history-lesson will be continued tomorrow. If you’re still reading…