“You have come to fight the battle of the Cross – to conquer or to die. But whether you die or conquer, do your duty this day, and you will secure a glorious immortality.” — Don John of Austria to his men before the Battle of Lepanto
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships!
If you read a lot of Catholic blogs this is probably not the first time today you’ve seen lines from GK Chesterton’s poem Lepanto, his greatest work, which tells the story of that historic battle fought Sunday, October 7, 1571. If, by chance, you’ve never read the entire poem, you must do so, but to get the full benefit you really need to do it out loud. The pounding meter, like the hooves of a galloping war horse, lifts you out of ‘today’, and onto the gore-drenched decks of the Christian fleet. If it’s still too early in the day for blood and smoke and cannons, then you might want to wait until later.
Though it happened almost 450 years ago, the Battle of Lepanto is still relevant today. It forever altered the course of history, changing the future of Europe, and thus the future of our own nation. Our challenges today are not that different from those of the Christians who fought so valiantly in that decisive battle.
At that time the advancing Ottoman Empire was preparing to sack Rome. Pope Pius V had been urging Europe to unite and face this threat, but received little help. Understanding that, above all, this was a spiritual battle, a “clash of creeds” with very high stakes, the Pope urged the faithful to fast and pray, stressing the importance of the Rosary, for the success of The Holy League (formed by Spain, Venice and the Papal States), whom he was sending forth to meet the Turkish fleet at sea.
Every man on board the Christian vessels had been given a Rosary; their prayers, united with those of the faithful across Europe, stormed heaven, beseeching God for victory. Against all odds, and thanks in no small part to a miraculous change of winds, the smaller Christian fleet defeated the much larger Turkish fleet in one of the greatest naval battles ever to take place. Hundreds of miles away in the Vatican, at Don John’s hour of victory, Pope Pius V was granted a vision of the Holy League’s success. He later declared a feast in honor of the victory, and in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s intercession, which we know today as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The battle we must wage today, against the culture of death, is no less important; the future of countless generations hangs on its outcome. This battle gives us an incredible opportunity to foster unity. The very real threats to religious liberty have prompted many non-Catholics to say “we are all Catholic now”, pointing out that all Christians must now stand or fall together.
Like the Holy League so many centuries ago, it may seem as though we face insurmountable odds. We have already seen the light of the west dimmed in Europe, which has fallen to secularism. Prayer is still our greatest weapon; prayer and personal holiness, and actions animated by our prayer life: these are the weapons that will win the battle. We already know Who wins the war.
If you want your own copy of Lepanto, I highly recommend the edition published by Ignatius Press, from which I have taken some of my quotes. It includes fantastic explanatory notes and commentary, plus essays on the historical background, the battle itself, its aftermath (which, believe it or not, we still feel today), essays by GKC, and more.