“A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern,” declared Pope Francis in 2013. This participation “in the common life of a people,” he said, is true for the government “especially” with prayer. Though many frustrated and discouraged Catholics will “hold their noses” as they vote for the “lesser of two evils” this 2020 election, Pope Francis reminds us that even more important than our vote is our prayer. This too is the lesson of the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, which we celebrate today in honor of the Holy League’s defeat of the Ottomon navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
The threat posed by the Ottomon Empire to the survival of sixteenth-century Christendom was real and immediate. A century earlier, the Ottomans had captured the greatest Christian city (and fortress) on earth, Constantinople, thus destroying the final remnants of the once mighty Byzantine Empire. Ottomon armies moved deep into Europe, conquering the entire Balkans and most of Hungary, and were within striking distance of Vienna. Combined with their control of the Levant and most of North Africa, they were the dominant naval power of the Mediterranean.
This wasn’t simply a matter of trading one political regime for another. Though Christians in Ottomona lands were permitted to practice their faith, they were of a lower social status, called dhimmis, who were forced to pay the jizya tax. The Ottomans also levied a tax of male children on their Christian subjects — called devşirme — to populate the army and government bureaucracy. Thousands of boys were forcibly converted to Islam. Even more pernicious, Ottoman slave traders in North Africa captured and enslaved thousands of Christians from seaside towns in Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and even Iceland, according to historian Robert Davis, author of Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800. Even Miguel Cervantes was for a time enslaved!
The Ottoman Sultan Selim II, who declared himself the new Roman Emperor because of his capture of Constantinople (the Second Rome), was eager to capture the original Rome. Pope Pius V, fearing the Ottoman’s naval dominance, called for a Holy League of Catholic states to curb Muslim aggression. This was already a time of great political and religious chaos in Europe, as the Reformation had torn apart Christendom — England, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian states in the decades leading up to Lepanto had all severed themselves from Catholic authority and embraced Protestantism.
“The cold queen of England,” notes Chesterton in his poem Lepanto, was standing afar off, “looking in the glass.” Pius V was only able to gather forces from the Papal States, Venice, Spain, and some smaller Italian states and military orders.
This is where the power of prayer comes in. The Holy League was considerably outnumbered, both in ships and in men. To make up for this disadvantage, Pius V called on all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. The pontiff himself led a rosary procession in Rome. Fasts, Masses and prayers were also offered on board the Holy League’s ships, commanded by the Habsburg John of Austria, as battle approached on October 7, 1571. “The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke, (Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke),” Chesterton writes.
The prayers paid off. The Holy League smashed the Ottomans at Lepanto. Ottoman casualties were 40,000 dead, wounded, or captured. The Holy League captured 137 ships and sank or destroyed another 50. John of Austria’s fleet lost less than 10,000 men and 13 galleys. About 12,000 Christian slaves who worked the Turkish ships were freed. Says Chesterton:
White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!
Though the Ottomans continued to threaten Europe — a valiant Polish army defeated the Turks a century later at the gates of Vienna — their dominance of the Mediterranean was checked. Pius V declared the day the Feast of Our Lady of Victory in honor of Mary’s intercession.
Prayers affect politics. In 2 Kings 18-19, we read that Judah’s King Hezekiah begged the LORD in sackcloth and ashes to save Jerusalem from a massive invading Assyrian army: “So now, O Lord our God, save us, I beseech thee, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O Lord, art God alone.” God heard Hezekeiah’s prayer: “And that night the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies” (2 Kngs 19:35). Prayers offered by Moses, Joshua, and Esther also saved God’s people.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, when thousands of Allied forces crossed the English Channel to penetrate Hitler’s “Fortress Europa,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked his fellow Americans to prayer for the success of the Allies and beseech God “to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.” During the Battle of the Bulge, when a December 1944 German counter-assault threatened Allied gains in France and Belgium, Commanding General of the U.S. Third Army George S. Patton asked his troops to join him in prayer to “restrain these immoderate rains” and grant “fair weather for battle,” that the Allies might “establish Thy justice among men and nations.”
American politics in 2020 might not be as dire as what Christendom faced in 1571, or what the Allies encountered in World War II. But nor are things particularly good. Abortion, which has resulted in the murder of more than 60 million American children, remains legal. The day you read this, more than 2,000 children will be aborted in the United States. Quarantines and restrictions imposed upon Americans because of the coronavirus have hurt our parishes and Catholic schools. Social strife, depression, anxiety, and addictions ravage our nation.
This is all the more reason to direct our prayers to Christ and our Blessed Mother to protect, preserve, and heal our land. Whoever wins the presidency, and whichever party wins the Senate and/or the House, none of them are capable on their own of defeating the myriad evils of our day. Only God can bring the justice and healing America so desperately needs.
Regardless of our political opinions, we need to pray for our nation, our leaders, and our government, at every level. For politicians, judges, and bureaucrats who are pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-Catholic, we must pray for their success and protection. For those who are not, we should pray that God would convert their hearts and direct them, as much as possible, to pursue policies that honor the truths of natural law and divine revelation. St. Paul himself urges us to do the same when he writes:
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:1-4)
Yes, of course, we are also called to other forms of public civic action: voting, canvassing for elected leaders, debating our fellow citizens in the public square, writing letters to our local newspapers. Yet all of that may be for loss if we forget that our supplications must saturate all of this. Indeed, it’s not for “want of a nail” that the kingdom will be lost, but for want of prayer.
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