The rest of the story…
Now that his Holy League crusade was in motion, the Pope called for a second crusade: one of prayer, particularly the Rosary. He entrusted this naval crusade to the care of the Blessed Virgin, and insisted that the men of the Holy League and all faithful Catholics unite in this powerful prayer.
“In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war.”
Each ship carried a priest, every soldier was given a Rosary, and one of the commanding officers carried in his cabin a fascinating portrait: a copy of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which had been touched to the original tilma, at that time barely 40 years old.
The entire Holy League had placed itself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin.
In spite of the vast differences between the thousands of men he was given to command, John somehow managed to maintain his authority. Arguments over tactics began to shift into a firmness of purpose when the Holy League stopped briefly at the port of Corfu, and found it recently ravaged by the Ottomans. The atrocities they witnessed in the wake of Islamic destruction helped solidify their alliance, which increased as reports of other atrocities in nearby Cyprus and Famagusta made their way to the Christian ships.
The Holy League drew closer to the Ottoman fleet, and on the morning of October 7, they began to draw themselves into position for the great confrontation, in the gulf of Lepanto.
Something that’s important to remember at this point are the ships: galleys, massive vessels powered either by sails when there was a favorable wind, or men with oars when there was not. And the Ottoman ships were rowed by Christian slaves.
“Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is that with naval battles at that time, the ships didn’t simply sit and shoot their cannons at one another. They came side-by-side, boarded one another, and then engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat.
So, the morning of October 7th, there was a lot of wind. And all of it was in favor of the Ottoman ships. Which meant the Christian ships were rowing, and they didn’t have any extra slaves to do it. John of Austria was being taken back and forth along the line of ships in a little rowboat, shouting encouragement and making epic Aragorn-like speeches to the men.
The Christians, standing silent as their priests were giving blessings and general absolution, could hear the Ottoman fleet screaming across the gulf, the wind carrying every blood-thirsty shriek straight to their ears. And they were coming closer all the time.
Then, the wind died. Completely.
For a few moments there was utter stillness.
Then the wind returned, but it had completely reversed its course. The wind now came directly at the back of the Christian fleet. Flags bearing the names of Jesus and Mary spread in the breeze, men who had been rowing sprang up and were armed, and the Ottoman ships scrambled to drop their sails as the Christian slaves below their decks were forced to begin rowing.
When the two fleets crashed into one another head on, the Christian slaves began an uprising, a riot from the very center of the Ottoman forces, and between these freed slaves and the Holy League men, by late afternoon everything was over.
“Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,
Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds,
Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.”
Holy League casualties: 8,000 dead, about 16,000 wounded, 12 ships sunk.
Ottoman casualties: about 8,000 dead, several thousand captured, 50 ships sunk, 117 ships captured.
Miles and miles and days of travel away, in Rome, Pius V was in the middle of a financial meeting the afternoon of October 7. Suddenly he stood up, strode over to the window, and stared out of it for a long time. Turning after a while, he announced, “This is not a moment for business; make haste to thank God, because our fleet this moment has won a victory over the Turks.” Pius V had seen the victory in a vision, and afterwards declared October 7 the feast of Our Lady of Victory, giving credit where it was due.
So…why is this so exciting to me?
Well, uh, if you’re not the tiniest bit inspired by all of that, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Lepanto is, to me, a lesson for every Christian in every time. The beauty of it pierces the heart with the truth that is captured in 2 Chronicles 7:14:
“If then My people, upon whom My name has been pronounced,
humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their evil ways,
I will hear them from heaven and pardon their sins and heal their land.”
Is there anything we need more than this, right now? Humility, prayer, seeking God’s face, turning from evil ways, pardon for our sins and healing for our land?
Lepanto proves God keeps His end of this promise when we respond to the call.
Lepanto proves that even the nameless, the outcast, the weak, and the broken can become a glorious vessel for God’s grand designs.
Lepanto even shows the way to make all of this a reality: trust in the care and intercession of the Blessed Virgin, whose task is always to bring us closer to Her Son, and deeper into the mysteries of God’s mercy.