One of my favorite lines from the Disney animated classic, An American Tail, is when Gussie yells, “Release the secret weapon! (To imitate her; her “r”s sound like “w”s). This sets in motion a chain of events that unleashes the secret weapon’s incredible power, ultimately routing their inimitable foes. The mice, like David in the Old Testament, may be weaker and outnumbered, but they are not to be outwitted by the wily cats. They have a secret weapon to decisively defeat their enemy.
God has also given us a secret weapon, except that the only “secret” is that nobody seems to know about it, ignores it, or underestimates its cataclysmic power. Pope Pius V, however, recognized its lethal clout and employed it as part of his arsenal of weapons during the Battle of Lepanto. What is that weapon? And who is Pope Pius V?
Born into a poor yet noble family in Bosco in 1504, he entered the Dominicans at age 14, choosing the name Michael. Ordained and professed at age 24, he went on to teach theology and philosophy for sixteen years, become master of the novices, and elected prior of various Dominican houses. Throughout his life, he fervently sought to live out the monastic virtues, while spreading the spirit and life of Dominic’s rule.
He was noted for his deep spiritual life. He fasted, prayed, spending long nights in meditation, and did penance. In 1556, he became a bishop. Because of his “zeal” against heresy, he was also asked to be “inquisitor of the faith” in both Milan and Lombardy. In 1557, he was elevated to cardinal and appointed “inquisitor general for all Christendom.” In addition, he defended the celibacy of the priesthood, defeating the desire of Maximilian II, Emperor of Germany, to abolish ecclesiastical celibacy.
In 1566, he was elected Pope. His first act was one of generous compassion, giving large alms to the poor. Despite his many duties, he continued his rigorous spiritual schedule, including two meditations a day before the Blessed Sacrament and living an austere life. He built hospitals, as well as visited the sick and dying, offering them consolation as well as washed the feet of the poor and embraced lepers.
Implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent, he unified the liturgy by publishing the Roman Breviary, a new Missal, and The Catechism of the Council of Trent. To better educate the young, he formed the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. He collaborated with St. Charles Borromeo to unceasingly fight heresy, and the corruption and immorality within the clergy. In order to properly form young priests, he established new seminaries. He firmly believed in the Bull, In Coena Domini, a formal statement of ecclesiastical censures and privileges, including the supremacy of the Church over civil power.
He lived during a tumultuous time. Political and religious unrest existed in many countries throughout Europe. He formerly excommunicated Elizabeth I in England and condemned the writings of heretics. He aided those oppressed by the Reformation, sought to restore the faith to city-states, devastated by petty rivalries and wars, and constantly reached out to various heads of state to unite Europe against the ever present threat of an Ottoman Turkish invasion.
From the beginning of his pontificate, he recognized the looming danger of the barbarous Ottoman Turks. He declared a solemn jubilee, encouraging everyone to do penance and almsgiving to defeat them. He repeatedly requested the aid of the various courts of Europe; rebuffed and ignored by most, he persisted in his Crusade to unite Christendom against the Turks. He collected revenue in order to help various towns and groups, such as the Knights of Malta, fortify as well as defend themselves.
In 1570, the Ottomans brutally attacked Cyprus. Pius V intensified his efforts to create and unite a “Holy League.” Finally, the Christian fleet was organized, after much squabbling over petty matters, and set sail. Knowing that the Christian fleet was vastly outnumbered by the ruthless Ottoman forces, Pius V opened the churches of Rome to have the Forty Hours Devotion, encouraged Rosary Confraternities to hold public Rosary processions, as well as petitioned all of Europe to pray the Rosary, begging the Blessed Virgin Mary, as Mother of God, to intercede. Not only did the faithful recite the rosary, but all the soldiers and sailors prayed it before going into battle. In thanksgiving for defeating the Muslims, Pope Pius created the feast of Our Lady of Victory, which was later changed to Our Lady of the Rosary, celebrated on October 7.
Don Juan of Austria, the commander of the Christian forces, stated, “It was not generals nor battalions nor arms that brought us victory; but it was Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary.”
We celebrate the feast of St. Pope Pius V today on April 30.