White founts falling in the courts of the sun,
And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run;
There is laughter like the fountains in the face that all men feared,
It stirs the forest darkness, the darkness of his beard,
It curls the blood red crescent, the crescent of his lips,
For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships.
By Arch bishop Chaput
These lines open one of the great poems of English literature, G.K. Chesterton’s Lepanto. On Oct. 7, 1571—exactly 438 years ago today—outnumbered Christian naval forces of the Holy League, including Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy, the Papal States and the Knights of Malta, defeated a Muslim war fleet threatening Italy and seeking to expand Turkish power into the western Mediterranean.
Fought off the coast of western Greece near the Muslim naval base of Lepanto, the battle is one of history’s decisive naval encounters. Turkish armed expansion in Europe would continue for more than a century. But Turkish naval power never recovered. Lepanto was a turning point. It helped secure the Christian roots and free societies of the modern Europe we know today.
Moreover, Lepanto can’t be reduced to a clash of commercial interests. It was clearly a contest of beliefs; of very different ideas about God, the human person and the meaning of human society. For the Ottoman Turks, conquests in Europe were an expression of Islamic jihad. Conquered peoples were pressed to convert. If they didn’t, they paid a heavy price in discrimination or outright persecution. As for the Holy League, the name speaks for itself. Modern secular, post-national thinkers may look back dismissively on the religious struggles for the identity of Western civilization, but the free ground they stand on was won with the blood of Christian believers. The history of Europe, and therefore of our own nation, could easily have been very different. It wasn’t. Lepanto is one of the reasons.
In the weeks leading up to the battle, Pope Pius V asked faithful Christians to pray a simple, popular Marian prayer for the Christian fleet’s crews and for the success of the Christian cause—the rosary. He prayed it himself in Rome on Oct. 7 as the battle commenced on the water hundreds of miles away. In the decades after Lepanto, in gratitude for Mary’s intercession, Oct. 7 came to be celebrated universally in the Catholic world as the Feast of the Holy Rosary (and also Our Lady of Victory). So it remains today, and rightly so.
More than four centuries later, we live in a different world. Europe seems intent on repudiating its Christian soul and accomplishing what armed conquest could never do: euthanizing itself spiritually and demographically. If Islam is now the rising religion in many European states, it’s not because of jihad. It’s because secular Europe has created a moral vacuum, a spiritual dead zone in its heart, that cannot sustain life or create hope in the future. That dead zone must be filled by something, because people cannot live without faith in a meaning higher than themselves.
America is not Europe. Not yet. But to borrow a thought from the sociologist Peter Berger, we are a deeply, historically, religious people led by a much less religious leadership and opinion-shaping class. The undercurrent of distaste for religious faith can now be found every day in our entertainment, our news media, our universities and even among our public officials.
America is not Europe, and 2009 is not 1571. We live in a nation of laws. We enjoy freedom of assembly, worship and speech. As Catholics we seek reconciliation with fellow Christians and cooperation, where possible, with anyone of good will. But the lessons of history are worth remembering. No piece of paper, not even the Constitution, really guarantees our right to practice our Christian faith.
That right to religious freedom has to be earned and asserted and defended—publicly and vigorously—by every new generation of Christian citizens. That means you and me. And as the record has already shown, there is no better source of strength in that work than the rosary.
G.K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto,” with explanatory notes and commentary edited by Dale Ahlquist, is available from Ignatius Press.