Not many countries have their own names in Turkish. We usually use an adaptation of the French word, like Ingiltere for England, or Almanya for Germany. But the Polish had been a pebble in the shoe of the Ottoman Empire for so long that they earned their own word. Leh for the Pole, and Lehistan for Poland.
If there is a country in the world who knows the potential threat from Islam, or from Muslim countries, it is Poland. The history textbooks of my secular education in Turkey can attest to what kinds of menace it had become to expansion of Islam. It had its own subtitle in each chapter about the Empire that brought Islam out of Asia and Africa.
These Lehs are now praying the Rosary on the anniversary of a naval war that is unfamiliar to many Americans, Catholic or otherwise. October 7 is the day the Ottoman navy was defeated in Battle of Lepanto, thus saving Europe from further conquest by the formidable Muslim empire. It was a turning point in the flow of history, and Our Lady had no small role in this victory.
All the world was a chess board, the students from elementary school to college are taught in Turkey. On the one side stood the Christians, with their corrupted religion and altered holy book. On the other side stood the Ottomans, with Muhammad’s caliph as their sultan and the perfect religion as their guide.
For centuries, victories were many, as the Turkish Empire expanded from Asia to Africa, then to Europe. Even the New Rome, Constantinople, fell into the hands of Mehmed II. The Aegean Sea, which St. Paul crossed to preach, and where the Battle of Troy was fought, became a Turkish sea. What was stopping the soldiers of the caliph to make the Mediterranean Turkish as well?
From Istanbul, all things seem possible. The little island of Cyprus provided the perfect excuse for the Ottomans to deploy their mighty navy to Lepanto. Kaptan-i Derya, the Ottoman admiral, argued that the Crusaders were getting ready to conquer Cyprus. Once Muslim always Muslim. Even the suggestion of such re-conquest was unacceptable.
The textbooks emphasized how the wise admiral was right to predict the Christian treachery. Deployment of the navy in response was merely an attempt to defend the sultan’s hard-earned lands. The Ottoman navy was eventually defeated in Lepanto by the Holy League. Hundreds of Turkish galleys were destroyed, thousands of soldiers and officers were killed. The setback was significant.
After Lepanto, the Ottoman encroachment into Italy was halted. Eventually, this loss was the beginning of the end of Ottoman territorial expansion into Europe. This might be an obscure victory to the ears of those who were raised with Protestant history, but Lepanto was where Our Lady told the Muslims that they can come this far, but no more.
The fact that there was a Holy League despite the constant financial and political rivalries among Catholic states is no small miracle in itself. But the admiral of the Holy League, Don John, made sure that his troops would not only rely on their cannons and swords, but would use all the available spiritual weapons as well. His fleet fasted for three days in preparation. Franciscan, Capuchin, Dominican, Theatine, and Jesuit priests offered Mass and heard confessions in the Holy League galleys. Pope Pius V granted a plenary indulgence to soldiers.
Then came in Our Lady, because it was her mantle of protection that would lead them to the victory. Before the battle, Don John gave every man a rosary. The entire fleet and all the faithful in Rome and Italy petitioned Our Lady on their knees. She listened. She inspired Don John to try unheard-of strategies. She changed the direction of the wind. One of the bloodiest of battles ended in favor of Europe, which would be spared from Muslim invasion.
Our Lady showed Pope Pius a vision of victory, long before news reached Rome. In thanksgiving for this great favor, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is celebrated on October 7.
For our times, the Battle of Lepanto provides a singular cautionary tale and example. Maybe there are no more Ottoman galleys or Janissary armies at the doors of Europe—or America—but a more formidable enemy has gained an entrance. Islam, in its rawest form, has found its long-coveted place in European society and the American mind.
The fight is different now. As Christian virtue retreats from the Western heart and mind, Islamic ideology finds an empty room, ready to be inhabited with a belief system that promises a false purpose, an imaginary sense of community, and a distorted view of masculinity.
For all these and other corruptions Islam brings forth, our strongest weapon is Our Lady, who found her way even into the Quran and became one of the most revered women among Muslims: “[T]he angels said, ‘O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds’” (Quran 3:42).
In Turkey, we called her Meryem Ana, Mother Mary, and it was one of the most common baby girl names. Her shrines are revered by Muslims as well as Christians. In a religion where women are considered inferior and inherently flawed, she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran and is considered an example.
The Polish, like Don John, know that the onslaught of Islam, be it physical or spiritual, can only be curbed under the protection of Mary’s motherly mantle. Let us take heed from the Lehs, who for centuries fought the battle against the advancing Muslim armies.
More so than in the galleys of a 16th-century battle, we should fall to our knees and pray for Our Lady’s intercession, for she is only one that can build a true bridge to the hearts of the Muslims.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on October 7, 2017.)
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